Salvadore Cordileone, archbishop of San Francisco and a prominent leader in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), declared after the recent bishops’ meeting that they wouldn’t be taken seriously in America if they didn’t deal with what is widely described as the Biden communion issue. 

“Our credibility is on the line before the whole country,” he said. 

The Catholic bishops met in mid-June to provide leadership on various matters for American Catholics. This time they focused on the Eucharist, the most sacred church ritual. They approved the plans of a liturgical committee headed by Kevin Rhoades, bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, to examine how they can improve understanding and reverence for Communion, the central part of the Catholic Mass.

Nothing remarkable about that, except that the prelates want this group to deal with the conundrum of senior Catholic political leaders, including especially President Biden, supporting abortion laws that are anathema to church teaching. 

A few weeks prior to the meeting, Cardinal Ladaria, Pope Francis’s top doctrinal advisor in the Vatican, sent an official letter to the bishops, strongly advising that they take this item off their agenda because even discussing it would inevitably lead to discord and disunity. 

Nobody doubted that Ladaria was speaking for the pope, but the organizers disregarded his advice. The vote in the virtual assembly to proceed was carried by 168 to 55.

This pope’s relationship with the American hierarchy has always been testy. Most of the members of the USCCB are conservatives, preferring to stick with what they identify as traditional truths and pastoral approaches that worked in the past. They have focused especially on abortion, the use of contraceptives, and same-sex relationships – all of which are deemed sinful.

Emotions run high when abortion is on the table for discussion. Bishop Pfeifer from San Angelo, Texas, talked about the urgency of combating an allegedly new initiative by the president which includes approval of infanticide – a false assertion, but this kind of hyperbole fits well with the culture wars in America.

Kevin Rhoades, pointing his finger at Biden, talked about “people who obstinately persist in manifestly grave sin.” And Cordileone called on people to remember “the Eucharistic martyrs who died to protect the Most Blessed Sacrament from profanation.”

While not deviating from traditional teaching on this subject, Francis insists on taking a wider perspective by including in his pro-life agenda strong condemnation of widespread poverty and inequality as well as pleading for environmental and racial justice.

He is dismissive of leaders of the church and state who oppose or have little to say in support of anti-poverty programs while asserting ad nauseam their pro-life credentials.

60% of white Catholics voted to re-elect Donald Trump, up from 40% who supported the Republican candidate in 2016. The majority of the bishops also expressed admiration for the former president’s agenda, especially his preference for conservative judges, including his appointment of two Catholics to the Supreme Court. They seem to believe that criminalizing abortion would go a long way to eliminating it.

Repeated surveys by Pew Research and other polling organizations reveal that 56 percent of Catholics do not want the Roe decision overturned – no different from the wider population. However, around two-thirds of church members who attend Mass regularly affirm the hierarchy’s hostility to the 1973 decision. 

They join hands with the powerful Christian evangelicals who have similar beliefs and together they form a strong voting bloc that largely accounts for the successes of the Republican Party nationwide, and the pro-life community shows up at the polls in huge numbers. 

About 900,000 American Catholics leave the church of their birth every year, cumulatively accounting for about 14 percent of the total population of the country. Surely, this massive leakage of members must be a major concern for the men assigned leadership roles in every diocese.

What parts of the gospel message as presented by the church have turned so many away from the catechism they learned as children? Has Christ’s enticing message of love and compassion been conveyed so poorly that young Catholics leave in droves as they reach adulthood?

Is the pope responsible for this disastrous exodus? Or the pastors? Or the sisters and brothers who run many of the schools? Or perhaps the parents must take the blame? 

Maybe the powerful USCCB should be on the dock about this crisis. Right now, nobody is held accountable for the busy exit door.

Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, churchgoing, devout Catholics, claim that they accept their church’s teaching on the abortion issue but their oath of office binds them to follow the law. The bishops don’t accept this complex reasoning and condemn lawmakers for evading their responsibility on a procedure that they call “essentially evil.”

This language defining some sins – nearly all related to sex – as inherently depraved goes back to the scholastic dictionary of good and evil. This thinking has fallen somewhat into abeyance as many moralists like to engage with all the circumstances of a situation before making a judgment, often much more nuanced than the bald division between good and bad.

The belief that Biden and his Democratic colleagues should be shunned by the priest distributing Communion may get a majority vote from the USCCB, but this shaming tactic faces major obstacles.

To begin with, they must confront a strong minority of bishops who vehemently oppose their thinking. These dissenting prelates argue very coherently that using the Eucharist to punish someone for his moral choices is a complete misuse of the sacrament, which is the church’s pre-eminent outreach to sinners. Pope Francis has left no doubt that he affirms the thinking of this Episcopal minority.

While Pew Research reveals that a majority of Republicans – 55 percent – are in favor of the bishops taking a hard line on the communion issue with this president, the overwhelming majority – 87 percent – of Catholic Democrats oppose this approach. 

These statistics confirm that the United States population is deeply divided at present. Intruding the Eucharist into the middle of that cultural cleavage would disrespect a sacrament that has always represented Christian unity.

The Rhoades committee will continue on its imprudent course and report to the next bishops’ conference in November. It is likely that they will disregard Francis’s advice and recommend punitive action against the president and other Catholic legislators for their abortion stance. 

Even if this garners the required two-thirds support within the USCCB, it is subject to a papal veto and local bishops will make the final determination on exclusions from the altar rails.

*This column first appeared in the June 30 edition of the Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.