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Catholic bishops endorse communion guidelines for public figures


The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to approve a position paper on the meaning of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. The document stopped short of telling bishops to deny communion to Catholics who believe in abortion rights, including President Biden and other politicians, but it urged them to refrain from taking it if they contradicted church teachings. With us to discuss is Kathleen Sprows Cummings. She's the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. Kathleen, welcome to the program. First off, what does this document spell out?

KATHLEEN SPROWS CUMMINGS: Thank you. It's great to be here. The document is rather straightforward. It spells out church teaching on the meaning and mystery of the Eucharist. It explains what a gift it is to the life of the church and how the laity, the faithful, should respond in receiving it. It's a fairly straightforward review of Catholic theology on the Eucharist, and it does not contain what some segments of the Catholic population hoped it would and that others feared it would, and that is a direct rebuke of President Biden and spelling out explicitly that he should be denied communion.

MARTÍNEZ: What kinds of debates, Kathleen, have bishops been having in the lead-up to this vote? Because the vote was 222-8 with three abstentions.

CUMMINGS: Correct. It was overwhelmingly positive in support of the document. And I think that's because the document was fairly bland. It didn't contain anything that was really controversial, and it was explained as a document that had more to do with an alarming trend among Catholics, that there's not really an understanding of what the Eucharist means, specifically that Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus Christ and that the bread and wine is transformed into that. Recent surveys have showed that only about one-third of Catholics know about or believe in that belief. So that's what the document was focused on, and that's something that, yes, most bishops can agree on. So that's why it passed so overwhelmingly.

MARTÍNEZ: That's hard to believe because they say it every single time.


MARTÍNEZ: This is the body and blood of Christ. OK, but fine. Maybe people don't pay attention. So I'm wondering, Kathleen, I mean, were politics at play in this decision?

CUMMINGS: Politics are always at play in decisions. I think in this case, what has been a year of explosive debate and very polarizing debate on this issue ended with rather a whimper. And I think part of that has to do with a recognition on the part of the bishops who were reminded by the Vatican that the Eucharist, communion, is fundamentally about unity. It's about unity with Christ and with each other. And instead, the Eucharist has become a sacrament of division. So I think in the end, they decided that they would present this very much as a teaching document, a document that goes back to basics with the Eucharist. And it's supposed to lead a Eucharistic revival, a focus on the importance of the Eucharist in the faith of the church and in the faith of individual Catholics. And so that is the plan going forward. And again, it's a plan that I think most bishops can get behind and, from what recent data shows, something that Catholics need to learn themselves or relearn.

MARTÍNEZ: So if this vote does not preclude bishops from offering communion to Catholics who believe in abortion rights, what does the paper do in practice?

CUMMINGS: The paper reminds Catholics of what the Eucharist is, why it is such a gift and also how the faithful should respond to that gift. So it does talk about gratitude for the Eucharist. It affirms how important it is, particularly at a time when many Catholics have not been receiving the Eucharist because they've been attending mass online or not attending mass at all. It also does affirm the importance of conversion in the reception of the Eucharist. So in this sense, it does not reference directly Biden or Catholic politicians who support - any Catholic politician who supports abortion rights. But what it does do is reference in a footnote, Canon 915, which is a stipulation in Canon Law that communion should be denied to those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin. And it does talk about Catholics in public life who have a special responsibility to be morally consistent in their private belief in public action. So there is an oblique reference to that, and that is something that will continue likely to generate discussion.

MARTÍNEZ: Kathleen, one thing really quick - does the Vatican need to sign off on this document?

CUMMINGS: That's not clear yet. It was not clear yesterday whether the bishops were going to seek a Vatican approval on this particular document. It's hard to see how the Vatican would not approve this document. It doesn't contain anything that's not already in Canon Law. So it's interesting to see going forward.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Kathleen Sprows Cummings is the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. Thanks a lot.

CUMMINGS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.