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Bishops, public officials, and holy communion: once again

Eucharistic revitalization will be seriously impeded if the bishops do not forthrightly address the reception of holy communion by those who are not in full communion with the Church.

A priest prepares to distribute Communion during Mass in Washington in this 2011 photo. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops prepares to meet in Baltimore, misconceptions about a proposed conference statement on the Eucharistic vitality and integrity of the Church in America abound. The confusions originating from online Catholic sources and social media have been exacerbated by a mainstream press that has consistently misrepresented what the bishops are doing. I hope the following clarifications are useful.

The proposed statement is not primarily about politicians. The Catholic Church is a eucharistic Church; as St. John Paul II wrote in his last encyclical, “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist.” When Catholic faith in the mystery of the Eucharist — Christ’s real presence among us — flags, the Church withers. When eucharistic practice declines, the Church suffers from a wasting disease.

Eroding eucharistic faith and lax eucharistic practice have been features of U.S. Catholic life for decades. The bishops were determined to address this “eucharistic deficit” before COVID-19 accelerated a decline in Mass attendance, before Mr. Biden was a declared presidential candidate, and before Mrs. Pelosi redefined the killing of the unborn as “reproductive health care.”

Anything the bishops say about the ecclesiastical and personal circumstances of Catholic public officials whose actions deny essential, definitively-taught truths of Catholic faith will be said in the larger context of the bishops’ eagerness to reignite eucharistic vitality and reverence throughout the Church. Revitalizing a eucharistic Church, however, requires a new clarity among the people of the Church about the nature of the eucharistic community — and what actions estrange Catholics from it.

The bishops never intended to issue a statement “denying” holy communion to President Biden. The media mantra that “some conservative bishops” want to “deny” holy communion to President Biden has been repeated so frequently that it may seem true. It is not, and it never has been. The blunt fact of the matter is that Canon 1405 of the Code of Canon Law reserves the right to impose ecclesiastical penalties on heads of state to the pope. But that does not end the matter: not at all.

The issue of worthiness to receive holy communion is not confined to the question of whether or not someone is in a state of mortal sin. It is hardly news that the notion of grave sin is seriously attenuated in 21st-century Catholicism. And it is certainly true that, if one is conscious of being in a state of grave sin, one should seek reconciliation with God and the Church through the sacrament of Penance before receiving holy communion; this is bedrock Catholicism, rooted in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29: “Whoever…eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord….[and] eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”

But ignorance or incapacities in intellectual and moral judgment can make it difficult for such impaired people to commit mortal sin. So the question of worthiness to receive holy communion ought not be framed solely in terms of mortal sin.

Moreover, that is not the issue with Catholic public officials whose actions willfully advance the culture of death. No one knows whether these men and women are in a state of mortal sin. What we do know, and what we cannot avoid knowing, is that these men and women have declared, by their public actions, that they are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. That is why, for the sake of their own integrity, they should not present themselves to receive holy communion.

If they stubbornly persist in doing so, even after appropriate instruction and counsel, then the Church’s pastors should instruct them not to act at Mass as if they were in full communion with the Church.

Recent events in Rome change nothing. Irrespective of what Pope Francis did or did not say on October 29 to President Biden — who has been known to get things, er, wrong before — the fundamental issue before the bishops remains the eucharistic vitality of the Church in the United States. Reanimating a eucharistically vibrant Catholicism will take years of effective catechesis and preaching, and those efforts cannot start soon enough.

Eucharistic revitalization will be seriously impeded, however, if the bishops do not forthrightly address the reception of holy communion by those who are not in full communion with the Church — and call these estranged Catholics to repentance and a deeper conversion to the Lord, which will permit them to receive holy communion in integrity as reconciled members of the Body of Christ.


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About George Weigel 365 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

23 Comments

  1. Thank you, Mr. Weigel, for reminding us of the context of the Eucharistic scandal some of our bishops have embroiled us in.

    Faithful bishops — and, yes, lest we forget, there are some of those — have not politicized this issue. In fact, the question before us isn’t actually an “issue” at all, nor is it “political”; it’s the most fundamental question possible about the nature and reality of the sacrament itself.

    If, as most Democrats seem to want, we permit the Eucharistic Christ to be purposefully exposed to desecration in the hope of sparing certain people the embarrassment of sitting in their pews at Communion time, then we have lost faith in the the Eucharist altogether. Which is the equivalent of saying we have lost faith.

    Whichever way this “controversy” is resolved — or even in the event it is not resolved — God help the American Catholic Church. What a pusillanimous bunch we are — weak willed and weaker faithed — to even let this be a question.

  2. Also Eucharistic revitalization will be seriously impeded if the bishops do not forthrightly address… denying access to the sacraments at the whim of governments who together with the church instructed the people that the Catholic church is a non essential service and nothing more.

  3. We read: “The CONFUSIONS originating from online Catholic sources and social media have been exacerbated by a mainstream press that has consistently misrepresented what the bishops are doing.”

    “Eucharistic coherence” is affirmed at the same time that “synodality” is initiated. Within a broader confusion, ever since the Second Vatican Council, we might recall the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops—the pulse check of the Eucharistic and missionary Church at the 20th anniversary of the Council.

    Some extracts from the Final Report (and addresses):

    –The aim, “at the level of the universal Church and the particular churches,” was/is partly “to avoid confusion” and “divergent interpretations.”
    –“We cannot replace a false unilateral vision of the Church as purely hierarchical with a new sociological conception which is also unilateral.”
    –“…because of a partial reading of the Council, a unilateral presentation of the Church as a purely institutional structure devoid of her mystery has been made.”
    –“…deeper knowledge and reception of the Council […] through a new diffusion of the documents themselves [!]”
    –“When pluriformity [in the Church] is true richness and carries with it fullness, this is true catholicity. The pluralism [!] of fundamentally opposed positions [divergent local synods?] instead leads to dissolution, destruction and the loss of identity.”
    –[of ‘fundamental human rights, peace, freedom from oppression, poverty and justice’] “integral salvation is obtained only if these human realities are purified and further elevated through grace and familiarity with God, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit.” [the Christ of the gospels, as clearer than the synodal/vanedecum “gospel of Jesus”?]
    –“…prepare a compendium or catechism of all Catholic doctrine” (1992/1994).
    –“At the end of the second millennium after Christ, the Church earnestly desires only one thing: to be the same Church [what is a synodal “different Church”?] that was born of the Holy Spirit, when the Apostles devoted themselves to prayer, together with Mary in the Upper Room in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 1:14).”

    In 2021-2023, what of the balanced synthesis from both the Council and the Extraordinary Synod of 1985?

    • Seriously? The USCCB document on Eucharistic Coherence contains the excerpts of gobbledygook you’ve quoted? No wonder the Church is troubled.

      Reading Aquinas, Journet, or Vonier on the Eucharist and the Mass is easier and offers more inspiring light than these stumbling stones the USCCB hopes to put in our path. Poor souls. Do they dwell in purgatory or some worse place where the life and light of Christ rarely reach?

  4. We’ve been going around and around on this issue for decades, and I for one would expect Mr. Weigel to know better than to act as if that’s not the case.

    We have reached the point where it is entirely probable that the ‘catholic’ President of the United States just flat-out lied about what he claims the Pope told him in a private conversation about receiving Holy Communion.

    We have reached the point at which a ‘catholic’ U.S. Congressman – Lieu – has said in a tweet that he supports (taxpayer-funded) abortion and then he DARES – ANYONE to refuse him Holy Communion.

    We have reached the point at which the ‘catholic’ president of the United States supports the taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood, according to CWR today November 10.

    Mr. Weigel ends his piece thusly – “Eucharistic revitalization will be seriously impeded, however, if the bishops do not forthrightly address the reception of holy communion by those who are not in full communion with the Church …..”

    A good point, well said, leaving us with this question – we’ve been waiting about 4 decades for SOMETHING to be done, yet ALL we hear is talk about ‘dialogue’, yada yada yada, along with pleas not to ‘politicize’ the issue, when it HAS been ‘politicized’ for about the last 20 years at least.

    How long must we wait?

  5. Recent events in Rome change nothing.
    You’re right, Mr. Weigel. With every passing day that Biden’s account is unchallenged by the pope himself, the truth becomes clear. Cupich, Gregory, Tobin, McElroy will use it to full effect. Nothing will change. It is doubtful that anything in the statement will approach what is needed, and in that, you are correct. To be clear, this is, indeed, about politicians who have publicly demonstrated defiance. A public correction is required. That will never happen. Nothing will change.

    • ‘Cupich, Gregory, Tobin. McElroy will use it to full effect. NOTHING (em) will change ….”

      I must disagree – What will change? More and more people will simply lose hope and just leave the faith, knowing that no one will stand up for it. Meanwhile the fab 4 and their many compatriots will profess wonder at what is happening.

  6. Whether Biden got things wrong Pope Francis remains obliged to correct a highly damaging, misleading [for the faithful at large] falsehood. Otherwise George Weigel presents a basically solid argument for bishops to do what they’re ordained to do, insure correct interpretation of the faith specifically on the Eucharist. Insofar as inviolability of conscience considerations our conscience, depending on conditions is not always inviolable. We are responsible for what we should know, mostly what’s revealed within the natural law common to all.
    Abortion is killing the innocent whatever our rationalizations. And the binding doctrine of the Church requires we know what we must know. Aquinas and Pius IX [Singulari Quidem A 7] teach invincible ignorance refers to what’s beyond our capacity. Few of us are so cognitively deficient. As previously mentioned the Vatican leans toward observance of canon 916 leaving the responsibility entirely with the communicant whether to present themselves for communion, whereas 915 also places obligation on the priest to withhold communion [in the instance of public scandal given by politicians and following counsel].
    Weigel holds strong to observing 915 as well deserving a standing ovation [consideration how many presumed faithful commentators and prelates obfuscate the obligation].

  7. Your last paragraph was all that was needed. ‘ years of effective catechesis and preaching… ‘ Wasn’t a priest who was doing that silenced!. Cultural catholics will only pay attention and maybe give more thought to what the Church teaches when politicians like Pelosi and Biden are reprimanded from the altar and from the Bishops.

  8. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois has complained that his bishop has denied him Holy Communion for his promotion of abortion. A Catholic who publicly endorses abortion is not just engaging in a mortal sin. He he rejects the Moral Law by his act. “He who rejects part of the Moral Law rejects the whole law,” according to the Bible. Rejecting the whole edifice of the Catholic Church, its moral tradition and authority is a big deal. How can a man like Durbin not be excommunicated? What is the point of his Catholicism? Is a bishop supposed to just stand by and say nothing about a prominent politician who uses the Church as a political prop in his political theater?

  9. Eroding eucharistic faith and lax eucharistic practice have been features of U.S. Catholic life for decades.

    Many cannot believe Church teaching on the Real Presence when those known by all to be flaming advocates of “legal” baby murder, and those who brazenly facilitate this mass murder, are allowed to receive the Eucharist. One can be forgiven for doubting that the bishops believe in the Real Presence themselves.

    Those who have experienced Christ’s Eucharistic Presence can never doubt it, even if the bishops behave as though they don’t believe in it themselves.

    The Eucharist is not a spiritual vitamin pill that everybody deserves. The idea that one must be worthy of receiving God in His humanity and in His divinity is as old as Christianity itself.

    We can’t know the state of the souls of those who openly advocate “legal” child killing or brazenly facilitate it, but their actions render them unworthy to receive the Eucharist regardless of the state of their souls. Allowing them to receive the Eucharist not only undermines belief in the Real Presence among Catholics, it also legitimizes child killing and publicly signals to Caesar that the bishops are willing to render unto him authority over innocent human life that belongs only to God. That is idolatry.

    The state has no authority whatsoever to legalize the murder of innocent humanity. Have you ever heard a U.S. bishop say so?

  10. ‘ Moses allowed it ( divorce ) because of the hardness of your hearts ‘ – thus , our Lord revealing how the effects of the rebellion of a culture can have its impact upwards as well . If Moses had chosen to get tougn with the people , would same have led to worse effects all through ..
    The persons who are the focus of the issue – they are not ignorant at one level and these discussion also likely doing good to help others to also know more about same .
    ‘Why do you call Me good ‘ – our Lord asked the young man , who would have only sensed a little , the Perfect Goodness in The Divine Will in The Lord ..

    Likely that the Holy Father too could have asked a similar question or rather
    ‘are you in good standing ..’ with the blessing that The Spirit would reveal its answer to all the intended ..and blessing the whole Church again to call on The Spirit , to melt away the hardness –

    https://spiritdailyblog.com/prayer-protection/prayer-pope-recommends

    The devotion to The Mother of Compassion is advocated by The Church , for our healing , including in the reputed ministry of Rev.Fr.Ripperger –

    https://osmm.org/node/63
    Human hearts , with a spirit that carry the image of God , thus having ocean sized needs for empathy and compassion – unlikely to be met by other persons , who too often can carry their share of same unhealed wounds ..

    The words of our Lord about those who bring scandal to the ‘little ones’ , for those who can be ‘little ‘ in their spiritual maturity and wisdom – how they are to be thrown into the depths of the ocean with a mill stone around the neck –
    ? a miracle of God’s mercy as trust in Him that persons still keep coming to church in spite of hearing such words 🙂

    The Holy Father too very likley desiring for The Spirit to do what He can , through The Mother , for the needed trust in many to say – ‘not my will , but Your will be done ‘ – by offering to The MOther , her own sorrows in exchange for the graces to do The Divine Will – and what an offer , that is unparalled in any other faith , to thus bring us the healing balm of empathy and compassion in the needed measure .
    ( day 28 meditation , below )

    http://www.preghiereagesuemaria.it/DV-inglese/THE%20BLESSED%20VIRGIN%20MARY%20IN%20THE%20KINGDOM%20OF%20THE%20DIVINE%20WILL%20%20FINAL%20EDITION%202014.pdf

    The ‘ love of money as root of all evils ‘ that can afflict families as well , from having fallen into the related realms through sins aganist family and marriage ;
    the ( inner ) tears of the Holy Family , that were allowed in their prophetic hearts , for such evils , such as the ones in the temple as well as in the future Judas and so on..and we are called to offer up those tears , to heal similar wounds that can be at the root of many issues of our times – identity confusions , in looking for empathy in wrong places and relationships , addictions from the despair that the need for empathy is not going to be met , even the rebellion in children in families , who could feel abandoned by mothers who run to work leaving little ones behind ..and the tears of the Holy Family who see the trials of a culture in rebellion and greed ..who could be walking to a nearby church as a family every morning , for the highest good of offering praise and adoration to The Father , to come home for a family meal and start studies and such .. The families to have the consolation of offering up the love and tears of the Holy Family , as solace for their sorrows on our behalf , to thus find the consolation that the families need, in order to persevere in trust in the goodness of God ..

    The Eucharistic Miracle of Argentina – likley a source of similar consolation for the Holy Father , for the many betrayals that he as well as our Lord face daily , even from those close at hand .. offering up the tears , for all its oceans like levels of goodness – esp. for those who need to be lifted up from its bottoms !
    Glory be !

  11. It is certainly a true statement to say that the current eucharistic document is not about politicians. But, that was not true initially. The USCCB established a committee in November of 2020 right after Biden was elected. Sixty bishops voted against a document on the Eucharist exactly because they thought it would be addressed to politicians, not because they were opposed to some generalized document on worthiness to receive communion.
    We seem to have eliminated phases like “sacrilege, scandal, putting yourself in danger of going to hell”, and substituted “not being in full communion with the Catholic Church.” Kind of weak.
    As to Canon 1405, it seems to have to do with trials and tribunals. Unless we believe that Canon Law contradicts itself, that would not abrogate Canon 915, the obligation of the clergy to refuse communion to certain individuals.
    The bishops could have saved themselves a lot of time by referring catholics to the Catechism (CCC) which has extensive information on the Eucharist, or reprinting it, not that I believe any more people will read a bishops’ document than read the Catechism.
    As I have mentioned in a previous post, we are a church of signs and symbols. As long as we continue to walk up for communion, frequently dressed for an outdoor barbecue, stand and receive in the hand, and pop it in our mouth like a Necco wafer, no documents will make much difference.
    As I read in another article today, once again the hawks have been defeated by the chickens.

  12. It is not simply ‘full’ Communion, but HOLY Communion with the Living God and Living members of the Household of the Living God…the emphasis or word is not full but absence of Holy Communio and thereore must not commit a false mortal sin worship of a Holy Communion/o that is absent, not simply ‘not full’…blessings of the Triune Eucharistic-Lamb

  13. “Irrespective of what Pope Francis did or did not say on October 29 to President Biden — who has been known to get things, er, wrong before — the fundamental issue before the bishops remains the eucharistic vitality of the Church in the United States.” Yes, the “fundamental” issue before the bishops remains the eucharistic vitality of the Church in the United States. Well said. But the more immediate (and perhaps equally fundamental in the current condition of Catholicism in America) issue is that the current occupant of the Chair of Saint Peter and the majority of American bishops seem perfectly content to allow politicians who endorse and facilitate the right to kill God’s littlest children to continue to receive God in Holy Communion. Yes, we are all sinners, but Holy Communion with God requires that sinners admit and confess their sins, promise to amend, and accept absolution.

  14. I read everything George Weigel writes. I always learn something. That said, the members of the Catholic Church are no different than society at large. There are many pro-abortion, socialist Catholics. There is no leadership in the Church to address this, so a wide variety of anti-Catholic beliefs will continue to grow. We have one person to turn to. We know what Jesus believes in and everyone else is just a false prophet.

  15. Thank you, George, for another excellent piece.

    Re the question of Biden and the Pope, while Biden’s history of lying may lead us to question the veracity of whether the Pope actually called him a good Catholic, I actually suspect it’s true given the Pope’s record of effusive public praise for other political leaders who are ardent abortion supporters. I am thus reminded of Monica’s Migliorino Miller’s observation that if Biden is a good Catholic, to be Catholic ultimately means nothing. Likewise, if the Pope’s interaction with Biden is an example of the Pope’s concept of shepherding, then that term also ultimately means nothing.

  16. Hog wash ! It is very simple – no person can receive ANY sacrament while in the state of serious sin except Baptism. People like Biden and Pelosi have already excommunicated themselves from the Catholic Church by Canon Law.

  17. 1. There is no moral voice of authority in the U.S Catholic Church. There are only competing voices, doctrinally 180° apart, like Gregory, Cupich, McElroy, et al, vs all others. A theological ping-pong tournament in which arguments for the worthy reception of the Eucharist are bounced back and forth, pitting Catholics against each other.

    2. The Pope, pastorally a Socialist and overwhelmingly influenced by secular culture, probably lacks the theological background and intellectual heft necessary to impartially evaluate a situation and lead the Church.

    3. Biden and Pelosi have won the propaganda war and are the defacto voices of the Catholic Church in America. ‘I don’t need no stinking Bishop to deny me the Eucharist.’

    4. Given these ongoing events and the synod on synodality, the Catholic Church is in a schismatic free fall where half the people in the pews hold beliefs counter to Catholic teaching and probably don’t even know it. They are Protestants who make the Sign of the Cross.

    5. The phrase “unconditional love” can be found nowhere in the Bible, yet I’ve heard more meaningless homilies about it and not one homily on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    6. Our RCIA programs are uneven and by and large a miserable failure.

    7. The Catholic Church can’t be everything to everybody. We should stop trying.

    8. Maybe the future of the Catholic Church will mirror the advertising motto of the U.S. Marine Corps, “The few, the proud.”

  18. Let us never forget this historical statement of the Duke of Wentworth to King Henry VIII in 1537. Wentworth was tasked by Henry to Protestantize the Catholic Church in Ireland as he had done in Scotland! In his report to Henry on the situation in Ireland, Wentworth said:” It is the Mass that makes all the difference between Protestant Scotland and Catholic Ireland!” The Mass in Ireland was forbidden at the risk of death. Any priest found celebrating Mass in Ireland was beheaded! The sacrificial nature of the Mass, not just it’s form, needs to be greatly re-emphasized today!

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