Father Edward L. Beck, C.P., is a Roman Catholic priest and a religion commentator for CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)Every time I place Communion in someone’s hand or tongue, it is an act of faith — on my part and on that of the communicant. I say the words, “the body of Christ,” to which the response is “Amen,” meaning “it is true” or “let it be so” — not always said with certainty but, often, with hope.
This revered sacrament of Communion is meant to signify what the word means: with oneness, with unity. The contentious debate of this week’s American Catholic bishops’ meeting threatens to have this sacrament become a symbol of division and a political and religious weapon. I wonder what the Jesus who prayed, “Father, may they all be one,” would think.
The division among the American bishops became readily apparent soon after the election of President Joe Biden, when the bishops’ conference formed a working group to deal with Biden’s public stance favoring abortion rights, which collides with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
On Inauguration Day, the US Bishops’ Conference president, Archbishop Jose Gomez, of Los Angeles, issued a statement that warned: “Our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils.” Some of his fellow bishops decried the statement as a “weaponization of the Eucharist” for political purposes.
The virtual bishops’ meeting this week brought the issue front and center as they debated whether to draft a document regarding the Eucharist. Some bishops maintain that such a document should confront what to do about Communion and Catholic politicians. The result of the meeting — a lopsided vote of 24% opposed and 73% in favor of pressing ahead with the document — was as evident a display of disunity among the episcopacy as we have seen, with some openly questioning their fellow bishops’ motives.
Pope Francis has been quoted as saying, “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” A letter from the Vatican had appealed for “extensive and serene dialogue” and suggested that the bishops consult with other episcopal conferences before making any decision on drafting a document on the Eucharist.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, summarized the feelings of bishops who opposed drafting the document: “The proposal before us presents us with a stark and historic choice. Voting in the affirmative will produce a document, not unity. Voting against it will allow us to work together in dialogue to forge a broad agreement on the serious questions embedded in the issue of Eucharistic worthiness.”
The sentiment of the “pro-Francis” bishops like Tobin was not heeded. That 75% of the bishops voted to draft the document, solidifying a veritable schism among American bishops that will continue to play out until their next meeting in November, when they will gather in person for the first time in two years to debate and vote on the still-to-be-drafted document.
The almost hostile display of disunity among the bishops has been disheartening for many of the faithful. Where, they wonder, was the ire of some of these “pro-document” bishops with the flagrantly objectionable behavior of the former President, who openly opposed teachings of the Catholic Church on issues such as immigration, capital punishment, poverty, racism and climate change, and who was cruel toward the weak, the poor, people of color and people with disabilities? Where was their outrage when Trump attacked Pope Francis as being “disgraceful” and a “political pawn?”
Yes, Donald Trump is not Roman Catholic and was not receiving Communion, but is that the only litmus test we have by which to call politicians to act as moral agents? If they are not one of us, are we saying, who cares?
Joe Biden is a practicing Catholic who goes to Mass even when he is traveling in foreign countries, as we saw last week when he attended Mass in Cornwall during the G7 summit. In his 2007 book, “Promises to Keep,” he wrote that while he is “personally opposed to abortion,” he didn’t feel he had the “right to impose (his) view on the rest of society,'” the same argument made by former New York governor, Mario Cuomo, in his famous Notre Dame University speech. (He risked excommunication for his views on abortion rights but was not barred from Communion.)
While I think that Biden’s abortion stance is a politically expedient one that is inconsistent with other pro-life issues that he has championed, I think the issue of his reception of Communion is a private matter between him and his confessor. Can anyone else truly know the heart and intent of someone? One’s reception of Communion is in accord with personal deliberation based on one’s informed moral conscience. The person makes the decision, not the bishops or even the Pope.
In the Gospels, Jesus chooses to eat more with sinners than with saints. His actions demonstrated that inclusion was one of the most efficacious vehicles of conversion and unity. The Body of Christ. Amen. It is true. Let it be so.