Until this week, there was a widespread expectation that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their forthcoming June meeting might make some sort of pronouncement regarding our second Catholic President's right receive Holy Communion. Any such pronouncement would potentially have been problematic on several counts - not least because, according to Pope Saint John Paul II's 1998 Motu Propio "On the Theological and Juridical Authority of Episcopal Conferences" (Apostolos Suos, 24), a Bishops' Conference may not normally interfere in any individual Bishop's authority in his own diocese. And, however much support any such statement might have garnered within the USCCB, it would most certainly never have not been unanimous, which it would have had to be to be issued by the Conference with the kind of doctrinal authority, to which "the faithful are obliged to adhere with a sense of religious respect to that authentic magisterium of their own Bishops" (Apostolos Suos, 22).
One would think that those limitations would have been sufficient to discourage what must seem to many to be a strange, manifestly partisan, dangerously divisive, and pointlessly quixotic effort, which would accomplish nothing in terms of eliminating the evil of abortion, while reinforcing the perception that this whole issue has increasingly become less about life and more about partisan political advocacy.
Now, however, a direct intervention from the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has seemingly signaled a further bright red light, signaling "Stop." The "red light" came in the form of a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the CDF, to Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, current President of the USCCB. The text of the letter does not seem to be accessible as yet, but several sources (Crux, America, NCR) have reported on it.
As reported by the above sources, Ladaria's letter reiterates earlier guidance requiring two stages of dialogue - first, among the bishops themselves, then, between bishops and Catholic politicians in their jurisdictions - and warns that the "possible contentious nature" of a national policy might "become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United states." The letter also advises the U.S. Bishops "to dialogue with other episcopal conferences as this policy is formulated in order to learn from one another and to preserve unity in the universal church." Given that no other national episcopal conference is comparably preoccupied with this issue, it may seem fairly obvious what lessons might likely be learned from dialogue with others outside the U.S.
Ladaria's letter also advised that any statement on this subject "would best be framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful, rather than only one category of Catholics [politicians], regarding their obligation to conform their lives to the entire Gospel fo Jesus Christ as they prepare to receive the sacrament." And it pointedly states "it would be misleading if such a statement were to give the impression that abortion and euthanasia alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest accountability on the part of Catholics."
Obviously, the debate is not about the Church's definitive teaching about abortion and euthanasia, about which there can be no legitimate dissent. Rather, the debate is about what practical political and legal approaches ("prudential judgments" in Church speak) may be most appropriate and effective in this particular pluralistic, non-confessional, secular society, in regard to which an authentic dialogue between religious and political leaders as recommended by the CDF letter would be most desirable. Indeed, a return to real dialogue about these moral, political, and legal issues among citizens in our society would be most desirable, in place of the current "culture war," tribal shouting match.
Meanwhile, within the Church, it remains the laity who are primarily responsible for political life and whatever degree of relative justice political life may at its best aspire to achieve. President Biden is not another Saint Louis IX. Nor, as president of a modern secular state, does he enjoy Louis IX's less saintly successors' authority within the Church. One of the features of the last century and more of Church history has been the progressive exclusion of lay public officials from roles of leadership and authority within the Church, thereby diminishing an entire dimension of lay representation and practical wisdom, which had been until relatively recently a taken-for-granted aspect of Catholic life. That said, Biden is certainly the most publicly prominent Catholic in this country - and (after the Pope) perhaps the most publicly prominent Catholic in the entire world. That prominence poses challenges, but it remains more an opportunity to be valued than a problem to be dismissed.
The first comparably prominent layman to exercise leadership and authority in the Church was, of course, Constantine. According to one wonderful legend, Constantine challenged the Novatian Acesius, asking why he separated himself from communion with the rest of the Church. Acesius said he objected to the Church's leniency in allowing certain Christians whom he considered sinners to participate in the sacraments. Constantine responded: Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone to heaven.
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