U.S. Bishops play politics, and not very well
The national media has had most of a week now to analyze a much-anticipated political spasm by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and while the headlines have magnetized a wide audience, the narrative itself remains incomprehensible.
Presented as an effort to deny Holy Communion to President Joe Biden for his pro-choice stand on abortion, the vote last week by the bishops was 168-55 in favor, but in favor of what?
The bishops had apparently voted to "move forward" with a "draft" of "a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church," which "could" include "guidelines," that "might call into question" the eligibility of politicians to receive Communion.
Catholics who immediately looked to Rome for an interpretation found only the bemused countenance of Pope Francis wagging his head in the international gesture that means literally, "How dumb can these guys be?"
It was in May the Vatican warned against any such initiative on the basis that it risks further fracturing a divided church, but Francis is leaving it to the faithful to flesh out arguments that the very notion of targeting politicians with the sacraments is as preposterous as it is religiously flawed.
The bishops "are in a crisis much of which they brought on themselves," said a friend of mine with a devout lifetime of experience serving the church and its many missions. "People are leaving the Church in droves, and (the bishops') only hope is now to require that we give the Eucharist only to the 'deserving?' What of those who come to be fed at the table of the Lord? Jesus did not ask for perfection; he asked that we try hard to do our best. Joseph Biden Jr. fits that bill."
This would seem a curious time for Catholic bishops to start harassing the U.S. president. Biden is only the second Catholic in the White House, and the first, John F. Kennedy, helped the church gain wider cultural acceptance.
"Prejudice against Catholics declined and millions were exposed to church rituals," tweeted Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist. "Church leaders welcomed the 'JFK effect.' Now at last there is a 2nd Catholic @POTUS, and what do some in the hierarchy do? Ruin it."
The hierarchy, of course, isn't what it used to be. Part of the reason Pope Francis remains mute in the wake of last week's vote is that his own attempts and more widespread Vatican efforts to moderate the deeply conservative U.S. bishops has been met with an intransigence worthy of the congressional nutbag caucus.
The arguments run along political parallels.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, who leads the bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, was quoted by NPR this week as saying he's disturbed by Catholic officials who "flaunt their Catholicity" while publicly taking positions on abortion that conflict with those of the church.
Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago apparently disagreed, warning that "Bishops now want to talk about excluding people at a time when the real challenge before them is welcoming people back to the regular practice of the faith, and rebuilding their communities."
While all this is going on, Pope Francis goes humbly about the business of exemplifying a church that serves the people rather than the other way around. He eschews the palatial trappings of the Vatican; sneaking out at night to minister to the homeless, converting a luxury hotel in St. Peter's Square to a homeless shelter, an endless quotidian process of egalitarianism much of the hierarchy secretly resents him for.
The Pope's feelings on last week's vote need no amplification. In his writings he's explained that "the Eucharist ... is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak ... The Church is not a tollhouse, it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems."
The U.S. bishops have to know that adherence to church policy is a difficult topic when it's being taught by the same entity that's been moving hundreds of pedophile priests around some psycho-sexual chess board for the past six or seven decades.
The bishops' best option right now, in lieu of penalizing a devout president, might be to find the humility to ask how they might restore any moral authority they once had. That should hold 'em for a couple hundred years.
Gene Collier is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.