Mixed Messages: Recapping the USCCB Conference

The 2021 Fall General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) concluded last week in Baltimore. By all objective accounts, the assembly, though not an abject failure, hardly qualified as a success. Instead it was something far more concerning for those who care about the future of the church: tepid, lukewarm, lacking that divine enthusiasm which comes from the Greek enthousiazein—“to be possessed by God.”

Earlier this month, the president of the USCCB, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, made headlines when he belittled Catholic movements for social justice as “anti-Christian pseudo-religions.” Rehashing tired tropes about “wokeness,” “political correctness,” and “the Marxist cultural vision,” the archbishop told his audience of the Congress of Catholics and Public Life in Madrid, Spain, that “In your society and mine, the ‘space’ that the Church and believing Christians are permitted to occupy is shrinking. Church institutions and Christian-owned businesses are increasingly challenged and harassed.”

Curiously, this sense of victimhood was mirrored in what the archbishop referred to as “the ‘woke’ story,” which he contrasted with “the Christian story”: “We are . . . painfully aware that our group is suffering and alienated, through no fault of our own. The cause of our unhappiness is that we are victims of oppression by other groups in society.” Later in his remarks, the archbishop lauded the church for being “‘antiracist’ from the beginning,” though the use of scare quotes in the printed text has the effect of ironizing the term; they place the speaker—and, by extension, the church he represents—at some remove the implications of antiracism, which goes beyond merely counseling against personal prejudice to address the structural origins of oppression.

If it seems like overreach to dwell on such typographic subtleties, remember that the USCCB is a group that places a supreme value on documents—and that its 1979 statement on racism, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” contains its own “ecclesiastical Freudian slip” with a seemingly innocuous word choice. As Daniel P. Horan has pointed out, “Its title reveals the perception of people of color by many in the Catholic Church in the United States, especially by its predominantly white leadership” who are “presumably the ‘us’ of the title.”

Documents were again in the news in the months leading up to the conference, when the bishops openly discussed denying certain politicians communion as part of their proposed statement on “eucharistic coherence.” Multiple Vatican representatives cautioned against this ill-advised move, and Pope Francis himself commented indirectly when he told reporters in September that he had “never denied the Eucharist to anyone; to anyone!” In the first press conference during the assembly, Archbishop Gomez and other participants stated that the document was never intended to have political overtones, but the historical revisionism rang hollow for many observers.

The conference ultimately produced a toned-down document that does not mention any politicians by name. Nor is there any overt reference to abortion—the key flashpoint in the controversy over who might be denied communion—outside of a brief quotation from Gaudium et Spes. The text does contain several compelling observations on “the personal and moral transformation that is sustained by the Eucharist” (§35) from Saint John Chrysostom, Mother Teresa, and others; one particularly powerful testament comes from Servant of God Dorothy Day:

We go eat of this fruit of the tree of life because Jesus told us to. . . . He took upon himself our humanity that we might share in his divinity. We are nourished by his flesh that we may grow to be other Christs. I believe this literally, just as I believe the child is nourished by the milk from his mother’s breast (§5).

Kudos, too, to the conference for quoting the work of 14th-century Orthodox theologian Nicholas Cabasilas—albeit via a reference from an encyclical of Pope John Paul II—thereby infusing what could be an overly legalistic approach to the sacrament with the light of the East and its teaching of theosis, or divinization:

[U]nlike any other sacrament, the mystery [of the Eucharist] is so perfect that it brings us to the heights of every good thing: here is the ultimate goal of every human desire, because here we attain God and God joins himself to us in the most perfect union (§24).

Yet even with these pearls of prayer, these jewels of lifelong spiritual meditation, one wonders who, exactly, this document is for, and why the bishops chose this particular moment to dispatch teachings on this particular theme. It is always worth reminding the faithful of the “efficacious and salvific” properties of the Eucharist and the way it draws us into Christ’s “perfect offering of love” (§14), but the document’s somewhat arcane theology, its reliance on technical terms such as epiclesis, transubstantiation, and the Real Presence of Christ, pitch it more toward those who are already believers rather than reaching those unaffiliated or lapsed Catholics the bishops claim they want to attract (§55).

Further, when we hear that the next phase building on the statement will be a three-year, $28 million “eucharistic revival” featuring “processions and other events of adoration and prayer around the country,” we have to wonder about the bishops’ priorities. There is nothing wrong with prayer and adoration, of course, but these things are free; they do not require multimillion-dollar PR campaigns but the internal transformation of a church that meets peoples’ needs and speaks to the most pressing issues of our time, from ecological devastation to racial injustice to poverty and global pandemics. People are not leaving the church because of inadequate teaching on the technicalities of the Eucharist; they are leaving because they do not see modeled that claim of the pagans when they encountered the earliest Christians: “See how they love one another!” By initially threatening to politicize the Eucharist, the bishops cast a pall over the conference and amplified the divisions already rending the nation.

It took an outside voice—that of Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States—to help recenter the assembly on the importance of listening rather than pronouncing, of experience rather than abstract theory, of unity over stoking the culture wars. Addressing the bishops on November 16, the nuncio invoked Synod 2023 and spoke of synodality as “an answer to the challenges of our time and to the confrontation, which is threatening to divide this country, and which also has its echoes in the church.” He continued:

It seems that many are unaware they are engaged in this confrontation, staking out positions, rooted in certain truths but which are isolated in the world of ideas and not applied to the reality of the lived faith experience of the people of God in their concrete situations.

Cardinal Mario Grech built on these remarks in a video address delivered two days later. After defining key aspects of synodality, the cardinal urged the bishops “not [to] be afraid to tell us frankly what you have gathered from listening to your people about what the Spirit is saying to the Church”. For the church to begin to exemplify that “coherence” of which the bishops speak, they will need to take the cardinal’s counsel to heart: “to encourage listening at all levels of the life of the Church and to . . . engage in this process of listening in order to discover the voice of the Living God.”

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic

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