It’s an issue of heaven and hell, but don’t expect the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to do anything about it.
The Catholic bishops of the United States routinely meet as a national conference to decide things as brothers. The purpose of these meetings, officially, is to help them advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to help sinners find love and redemption in the boundless mercy of God. Literally to help souls get to heaven. What they actually do is produce endless documents, usually about politics. Most of the documents are at pains to present the bishops collectively as nonpartisan. Oh, you may think of us as antediluvian right-wingers on abortion, but have you seen our latest circulars on immigration, foreign aid, or the death penalty? These documents have the quality that almost all documents produced by tiny subcommittees have: They are unreadable, verging on meaningless.
But this year they voted to come up with a document that might, maybe just sort of, address the awkward problem that the president of the United States, Joe Biden, who is a tireless and public proponent of looser abortion laws, is a frequent Catholic communicant. This caused outrage among non-Catholics and progressive Catholics. Why? Because it implied something that no other document produced by this congress of clerics does: action. It implied just the faintest whiff of a possibility that the successors to the Apostles might acknowledge for the first time in living memory that they have authority granted to them by Christ to discipline a member of the Church.
Not that they’d ever use it, mind you.
No, the Church has made itself incapable of using its own authority in any way whatsoever. And part of the problem is the dubious existence of a national conference of bishops in the first place.
Let’s back up for a moment — someday it might be worth taking on the arguments made by progressive Catholics against this. Their arguments clearly betray their belief that the bishops’ authority is worth deploying in politics. Just that abortion isn’t really so evil, but the death penalty and immigration restriction really are. That’s a separate reality.
First, it’s worth just describing the problem that the bishops face. It’s the problem of heaven and hell. In the first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul outlines the stakes:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
So, there are rules about receiving Communion. And violating them may result in a sin of sacrilege. Priests are charged by God to not let people fall into this sin — which is why they should be making confession widely available, and why they counsel those who, say, live in an adulterous relationship, to not present themselves for Communion. Biden’s position as a man of authority who uses his authority actively to promote abortion puts him at odds with the Church in a public and incontrovertible way. It’s so public that it puts priests and pastors and their bishops in an awkward position. They should also not want to participate in the sin of sacrilege.
Abortion is a little different from other issues such as immigration enforcement because there’s just no room in Catholic teaching for members to come to different prudential judgments on the justice of it. An unjust war is an evil thing, but bishops may defer to political leaders who have access to more information about the conditions of geopolitics than do bishops. A bishop’s judgment about the justice of a particular war may be right or wrong; his judgment against the murder of innocent unborn children won’t be.