President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the bipartisan infrastructure deal at the White House, June 24, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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.
There are hundreds of ways to avoid the direct confrontation, and the Church should use them. It’s obliged to use them. If Biden lives at the White House and worships in D.C., Cardinal Archbishop Wilton Gregory could counsel him privately over a period of time, try to discern the source of Biden’s position on abortion — whether it is due to ignorance, or the like. If Biden persists, the archbishop could merely beg privately, without any threat of embarrassment, that the president spare Catholic priests the painful conflict of conscience, and spare himself further guilt, and simply worship at Mass without receiving Communion. Biden’s compliance with such a request from the bishop would, presumably be itself an occasion for moral actual graces to be infused in his soul, preparing him for a better day. The archbishop could choose to exercise public discipline when it is manifestly clear that Biden’s position on abortion is a stubborn and willful resistance to the moral authority of Jesus Christ as Lord.
I’m sure that sounds rather high and mighty, but it’s the plain truth of what the Church teaches about its authority, and the authority of bishops. And it only sounds high and mighty because the bishops have made themselves low, and bureaucratic.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, like all bureaucratic bodies, sought outside advice on the matter. This time from the Vatican itself. The Vatican punted it back to them but told them to work for “unity” in whatever they decide. That’s bureaucratic speak for “a single dissenter has a veto on any collective action,” so probably don’t take any action at all. The call for unity is a way of ratifying what national conferences of bishops are — they are restraints that cause all the bishops of a nation to act as faithfully as the least faithful among them. You’ve heard of the Peter Principle before. A national conference of bishops is more like the Judas Principle in action.
A bishop has authority as a successor to the Apostles. But there is no scriptural, traditional, or theological warrant for the existence of national conferences of bishops. Even in canon law, their authority is over trivialities — like whether priests are allowed to wear white clerical garments or must stick to black.
And at this point, we should wonder whether in fact there is something wicked at work in the very idea of a national conference of bishops. The very idea harkens back to the revolt of the English Church. Once bishops obtained a national consciousness in England, they chose the sovereign of England as the head of their Church.
And that is what all national conferences of Catholic bishops seem to do — meet with each other and slowly debate whether to go Anglican. It’s almost as if there is some spiritual principle at work in this. The German bishops gather together, and they stop representing the authority of the Church to Germany and instead seek to convert the Church to whatever it is they think might fit and appease the German public. The same is true in America. My own view is that long before the pope takes up the case of President Joe Biden, he should ask all national conferences of bishops to simply disband.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is, by its own understanding of the Church’s theology, powerless. It has no duties or powers, except those that the bishops deem to exercise individually through their individual offices. That almost seems to be the point.
While he lives and worships in D.C., President Joe Biden is Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s responsibility. God will judge Archbishop Wilton Gregory on this, and many other things. The letters from the Vatican and the foot-dragging of bishops from Spokane or Portland, Maine, will be of no help in that court. If some other bishop — say Jose Horacio Gomez of Los Angeles — thinks Gregory is wrong, he can send a letter to the White House warning the president not to present himself in a church in the diocese of Los Angeles. If he’s really hot and on fire over this, he can call his brother in D.C. on the carpet publicly. That is how the Church worked in history. It seems better than how the Church is doing presently.
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