by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
I do not usually write columns during the summer months. However, since there has been much controversy in both the religious and secular press regarding the June assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I wanted to share with you directly my perspective on the meeting.
First of all, the U.S. bishops did not vote to deny President Biden holy Communion. After receiving an outline from the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, the bishops did vote to authorize the committee to proceed with drafting a document on the Eucharist. The principal reason for this document is to provide a theological foundation for a multi-year pastoral initiative devoted to fostering eucharistic revival. Our hope and desire is to renew within Catholics what St. John Paul termed “eucharistic amazement” — great awe and appreciation for this incredible gift that Jesus has given to the church.
The doctrine committee’s outline included a section addressing what they termed “eucharistic consistency.” The document will attempt to help all Catholics appreciate the meaning and the beauty of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, as well as what is required from us to properly prepare and dispose ourselves to receive the Lord in this Blessed Sacrament.
Included in this section will be an instruction on the additional responsibilities for Catholics who serve in public life. Receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist requires all of us to strive to live in a manner that is consistent with our dignity of carrying the living Christ within us. Catholics in public life have the opportunity to be witnesses to a large number of people regarding what it means to be Catholic. When their public actions conflict with fundamental Catholic moral teaching, they inevitably confuse and mislead many people both within and outside the church.
Every time that we receive Our Lord in the Eucharist, we are making a profession of faith — not only that Jesus is truly present, but also our belief in the church empowered by the Lord to make himself present in the Blessed Sacrament.
When a non-Catholic baptized Christian seeks admission into the Catholic Church and thus to be one with us at the eucharistic table, they make the following public profession: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.” In essence, each and every time we receive Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, we reaffirm that profession.
Pope Francis, just a few weeks ago, in his Angelus message for the solemnity of Corpus Christi, reminded us that we should always receive holy Communion with great humility. None of us can ever be truly worthy of receiving the great gift of the Eucharist. The Holy Father instructed the faithful that the Eucharist is the “bread of sinners not the reward of saints.”
We echo this reality in the acclamation before receiving the Eucharist: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
It is erroneous to construe the message of Pope Francis to be a reversal of the clear teaching of the church articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in a state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance” (1415).
The catechism in another place quotes St. Justin on this same matter who taught: “We call this food Eucharist, and no one may take part in it unless he believes what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ taught” (1353).
It is true that none of us can ever be worthy of receiving God in the Eucharist. All of us are sinners in need of God’s mercy. Fortunately for all of us, Our Lord does not demand perfection before approaching him in the Blessed Sacrament.
Yet, this does not mean we can receive holy Communion while we persistently contradict fundamental Catholic moral teaching and violate the most basic of human rights. St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians counsels that to receive the Eucharist unworthily in this manner brings judgment upon ourselves (11:29).
Abortion is a grave moral evil because it involves the killing of an innocent and vulnerable human life. Project Rachel is a special ministry of the church to bring healing to those previously involved with abortion but who now deeply regret it.
I have been privileged since 1984 to participate in the Project Rachel ministry, accompanying many faith-filled women and men who were sincerely contrite for their sin, but who also with God’s grace were able to accept Our Lord’s incredible mercy and unconditional love.
The tragic stories of so many post-abortive women include the tremendous pressure to abort their child from the father, family members, friends and the larger society.
Public policies that permit and, in many cases, promote abortion are part of the culture of death that results not only in killing an innocent child but the emotional and spiritual scarring of post-abortive mothers and fathers.
Those in the executive, judicial and legislative branches of our government, who have helped to create and shape public policies that permit and promote abortion, share a level of responsibility for the innocent lives destroyed and the psychological wounds inflicted upon their mothers. Unlike post-abortive women, who made regrettable choices under enormous pressure, policy- makers with cold calculation have created a culture of death that champions abortion as a right.
We are at a new moment in the battle to protect innocent children from abortion. Advocates for abortion rarely speak of “choice” anymore. They now assert what even the Supreme Court in 1973 never dared to claim, that abortion is preventive health care. Abortion advocates today are no longer content with a public policy that permits abortion. They trumpet a right to abortion in which medical professionals must participate and taxpayers must fund.
Frankly, it is not credible to proclaim that one is personally opposed to abortion, while doing everything within one’s power to support the abortion industry, while failing to protect both the life of the child and the well-being of the mother.
Catholics in public life magnify the scandal of their actions when they proudly claim to be devout in their faith and assert a right to receive the Eucharist. They confuse and mislead others, especially the young, by encouraging them to think it is possible to be a sincere Catholic while violating the most fundamental of human rights: the right to life.
Appeals that the separation of church and state prevent Catholics in public life from opposing abortion are neither logical nor true. Pope Francis in his January 2020 meeting with the bishops from Region IX (Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa) reminded us that our advocacy for the protection of the unborn is not first and foremost a religious matter, but rather it is the defense of the most fundamental human right.
Pope Francis shared with the Region IX bishops that in his own conversations with supporters of legalized abortion he poses two questions: 1) Is it ever right to solve a problem by killing a child? 2) Is it ever right to solve a problem by hiring someone to kill a child? The pope has framed abortion properly as a human rights issue that involves the destruction of the most vulnerable and innocent lives.
It remains to be seen what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will ultimately approve. During the summer, the bishops will be given opportunities to discuss this matter in regional and provincial meetings. We will all have the chance to review a draft of the document and propose modifications to the doctrine committee. In November, we will have the opportunity to discuss, debate and amend the document. Passage of the document will require approval by two-thirds of the bishops.
The media loves to describe this debate as the bishops seeking to deny communion to Catholics in public life who promote and support abortion. In reality, it is the church requesting Catholics in public life to act with integrity. If they choose to act contrary to fundamental moral teachings of our faith, they should have the personal integrity to acknowledge they have separated themselves from the church on a basic issue of human rights and thus not present themselves to receive holy Communion.
I encourage Catholics in public life who support abortion to continue to pray the rosary, to continue to attend Mass, to ponder the word of God, and to spend time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
Authentic prayer is a conversation with God, where we both speak to God and open our hearts to listen for God’s voice. I invite Catholic politicians in their prayer to ask God the question of Pope Francis: Is it ever right to kill a child to solve a problem? May they be open to God’s answer!