At their recent June meeting, the Catholic Bishops of the United States voted to move ahead with the drafting of a teaching document focusing on the Eucharist in the life of the Church. The timing of this is opportune for a host of reasons. One would be that even before Covid, the Church in America (and in Europe) had been experiencing consistent declines in Mass attendance and also in catechetical understanding of the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ. Add to that what Covid did to Mass attendance, forcing what was already low to far, far lower levels, and one can easily see the need for a renewed teaching push about why the Eucharist matters.
Additionally, as we move through Year B of the Sunday lectionary cycle, we are about to begin a multiweek-long walk through the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of John which is a critically important Scriptural text about the Eucharist. Following this upcoming batch of Gospel readings, the Church should be well-primed to embark upon a fuller Eucharistic revitalization later this year.
Also, and most contentiously, the election of Joe Biden as President, who offers frequent public references to his Catholic practices, has brought to the surface a series of explosive issues that have been simmering in the American Catholic stew for quite awhile, all of which ultimately converge on the proper understanding of the Eucharist. This does make sense in light of our doctrinal description of the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of our faith. If there are any fault lines in lived Catholic teaching and practice, they will inevitably intersect in the Eucharist itself. The question of whether or not President Biden should be presenting himself for Communion is one facet of a much broader set of issues, and the proposed document will seek to address all of this as wholistically as possible.
Nothing written here should pre-empt the document that the American Bishops have now voted to begin drafting, so there will be no commentary in this short article about the right answers regarding President Biden’s sacramental practices. However, at this point in the national conversation it is helpful to state that all the questions on the table right now about who and what the Eucharist is, and what it means to encounter it authentically, are supremely important. It is a disservice to reduce the Bishops’ discussion and initiatives to the level of the merely political, as though a group of them are simply out to get the President just in time for the next American election cycle.
At only one other time in American history has a man who identifies himself as Catholic occupied the White House. A Catholic as a president puts the whole spectrum of American Catholic life in full view of the nation for commentary, assessment, and evaluation. Issues that might normally be “of the family,” as in our own family arguments behind closed doors, have now become a public spectacle for all to see. The American presidency is a role of such tremendous prominence that it is unavoidable that the manner in which President Biden chooses to practice and profess Catholicism is going to be viewed by many, in and out of the Church, as an example to either be imitated or to be rejected. In the interests of accurately articulating and transmitting the Catholic Faith, it is imperative that the American bishops offer commentary on his situation.
Doing so of course automatically becomes a commentary on everything else that intersects in the particulars of President Biden’s practices and positions. Which forces a necessary revisiting by the bishops of the fundamentals of Eucharistic doctrine and participation that bind everyone, not only the President. Which in turn forces the American Church to do what it must never cease doing anyway: examine itself for signs of health and vitality as well as signs of atrophy in need of renewal. Authentic self-examination is never an easy thing as the heated debates surrounding this issue are already revealing.
All of this has been a long time coming. In so many respects this is not about President Biden at all. It is about the constant question of the compatibility of Catholicism with American life. Which is to say that we need the bishops to debate and to speak, and we also need to understand that we are never going to be beyond these questions in our American Catholic experience. Like the Eucharist itself, the questions that swirl around its authentic reception will be with us until the end of the age. To not take up these questions is to fail to take the gift, mystery, and demands of the Eucharist with the seriousness that it deserves as the source and summit of our faith.