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Is Theology or Politics Behind Catholics Bishops Move?

by Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on June 27, 2021.

If headlines are to be believed, Catholic bishops are on a mission to keep President Joe Biden from taking Holy Communion. In reality, nothing has happened… yet. What lies on the horizon, though, could mark a turning point for American Catholicism.

The bishops actually approved a resolution to draft guidelines on the meaning of Communion which would be voted on later. This is an effort to launch a “Eucharistic revival” among U.S. Catholics in response to the fact that only one-third of Catholics believe in transubstantiation, which is a central tenet of Church doctrine. What sparked the media frenzy, however, is that these national guidelines could also establish rules denying Communion to people who publicly support legalized abortion.

A majority of self-identified Catholics say abortion should be legal in most cases, according to the Pew Research Center. However, that finding masks a stark divide based on church attendance. Two-thirds of regular mass-goers oppose abortion access while two-thirds of more nominal Catholics support it. Draconian guidelines on Eucharistic eligibility are likely to drive away many, particularly younger, Catholics rather than fill parish pews.

In New Jersey – which has the second highest concentration of Catholic residents in the United States at – this could lead to a significant shift in religious affiliation. About 4 in 10 state residents call themselves Catholic, but far fewer regularly go to church. Based on national figures, mass attendance ranges from half of those over 60 years old to one-quarter of those under 30. That is a far cry from the 1950s, when 3 in 4 Catholics – regardless of age – regularly attended mass.

Some conservatives may actually welcome a shrinking, but more ideologically pure, body of the faithful. One question, though, is whether theological concerns are the sole driver of this move, or whether partisan politics are playing a much more central role.

Pew’s study on abortion beliefs points out that Catholic Republicans are much more likely than Catholic Democrats to oppose legalized access to abortion. Some may say this is simply because devout Catholics are siding with a political party more in line with their religious beliefs. That may be true on this particular issue, but other evidence suggests that party affiliation may in fact be determining what is acceptable for the Church rather than the other way around.

For example, when Pope Francis was about to make his first visit to the U.S. in 2015, a Monmouth University Poll found that large majorities of Republican and non-Republican Catholics alike said he should feel free to speak out on issues like abortion and human rights. Things started to get a little trickier, though, when asked whether Francis should express his views on issues such as economic inequality and climate change. On these topics, most Republican Catholics said the pope should keep his mouth shut.

Keep in mind, the question asked was not whether Catholics agree with Francis on these issues. It was simply whether the pope should be able to speak about topics that have secular as well as spiritual implications. Rather than being open to the Holy Father challenging their views on certain issues, many Republican Catholics felt entitled to tell the supreme pontiff when he should or should not open his mouth. That does not sound like a group of devout followers adhering to their catechism, particularly the part about the pope having “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church.” Those poll results are a stark example of the dissonance between claims of piety and the primacy of partisanship.

This takes us back to the problem with the bishops’ statement. This crusade seems set on establishing a moral purity standard for public officials. Moreover, it links a Eucharistic proscription to only one public issue – among many secular issues that are also supposed to be central to church teaching. It is also difficult to accept as mere coincidence that the timing of this push comes when a practicing Catholic who supports legal abortion occupies the Oval Office.

Back in the 1980s, Republicans appealed to working class Catholics on issues around the economy and public safety more than morality. This is not to say abortion does not raise important spiritual questions. It is just that this new move appears to be another sign of religion becoming weaponized in the tribal partisan war that currently plagues our country.

The existing statement on the reception of Communion, adopted by the U.S. bishops 25 years ago, expressed hope that a deeper understanding of the Eucharist would “begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us.”  It appears that the current effort to revise that statement is designed to accomplish exactly the opposite.