President Biden often speaks about fighting for the soul of America. For him, our soul’s core has compassion for immigrants and other vulnerable people and respect for other nations. Similarly, American bishops fight for the soul of Catholicism. For them, like for most Catholics, at the core are issues of life that protect the most vulnerable among us, starting with pre-natal babies. Though it is expected that a president would put the interests of his nation above all else, church leaders should never put church interests ahead of God.
As our American bishops prepare to assemble for their summer meeting, Bishop Johnston of our Kansas City-Saint Joseph Diocese penned a pastoral note informing us of the importance of their upcoming discussion. Admired by many of us priests because of his willingness to dialogue and his openness to hearing various viewpoints, he offers the same amenable attitude toward his brother bishops. He applauds Archbishop Gomez, chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), for initiating discussion on reception of communion by those who do not publicly denounce our country’s abortion laws or other grave moral evils. Though Cardinal Gomez’s intention on inauguration day—when he sent a USCCB statement chastising President Biden—may not have been to encourage good and honest dialogue, the response of fellow bishops assures us that there will be robust debate, and, more importantly, prayerful discernment.
There is no debate that abortion is a grave moral evil, just as there is no debate over the church’s gravely moral evil acts of recent years (pedophilia scandals, cover-ups, financial mismanagement, and other abuses of power). The debate is about how we treat public figures elected to uphold societal law and who sustain laws that contain moral evil. The debate is about whether bishops who dialogue, discuss, and determine who among us is worthy or unworthy to receive holy communion will bring the deliberation beyond their hierarchical group meeting to include all God’s people. The debate ultimately centers on being true to Christ and His way.
The Second Vatican Council focused on two major ideas: “aggiornamento,” an Italian word that means update or modernize, and “ressourcement,” a French word that means return to the sources. Many of the Council documents emphasize the importance of returning to biblical, patristic, liturgical, and other sources to revitalize church teachings and practices in our modern times. The ultimate source, of course, is Jesus. Numerous bishops are quick to point out that, for many ages, the church has withheld sacraments from persons engaged in gravely evil activity who approach the altar for communion (such as the current president). They should point out that for many ages, also, worthy reception of communion was not determined by alignment with church teaching but alignment with a desire to be one with Christ. As history reminds us, the church and church leaders have often strayed from alignment with Jesus. In the fight for our soul, this occurs when we consult ourselves rather than consulting Him. Though never intentional, it happens more than we like to admit.
Pope Francis warns us that a church that is self-referential and arrogant (instead of referencing Christ with humility) will not be true to the Source nor itself. We should dialogue and discourse; we should debate and discuss; and we should make decisions by discerning God’s will. This is a wonderful and exciting time to be part of the church if we do so.