My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
When I was named a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 2003, my family gave me a framed picture depicting Jesus standing in a boat calming the storm. It is based on the Gospel passage that relates this story (cf. Matthew 8:23–27, Mark 4:35–41, and Luke 8:22–25). The picture hangs in my office at the Catholic Pastoral Center here in Springfield and serves to remind me that Jesus is with us in the ship that is the Church, and we should turn to Him when the boat is battered by various storms.
We live indeed in stormy times. Good news this month brought some relief to the storms that have afflicted the Church recently. The first was the unanimous decision of the United States Supreme Court in favor of Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which had been prevented by the City of Philadelphia from providing foster care services because they would not place children in homes of same-sex couples. This case was decided on narrow grounds specific to the facts in Philadelphia, so it remains to be seen what effect this will have in other places, such as here in Illinois where our Catholic Charities were forced out of foster care and adoption services 10 years ago because we would not agree to the State’s demands that we act contrary to our religious beliefs.
The other hopeful sign earlier this month was the affirmative vote of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) authorizing the drafting of a document on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church. This measure was approved by a majority of 73 percent of the bishops who voted. Unfortunately, the minority of bishops who are opposed to drafting this document were very vocal in their opposition, so the path ahead to final approval of a clear statement of the Church’s teaching and discipline in this important matter will not be easy. Please pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us through these storms.
There are some false narratives and misleading arguments that are being promoted with regard to the proposed USCCB document. Several media outlets, for example, reported that the Vatican had warned the Catholic Bishops of the United States not to pass this proposal. That is simply false. In fact, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, SJ, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had written to the president of the USCCB calling for “dialogue . . . first among the bishops themselves, and then between bishops and Catholic pro-choice politicians within their jurisdictions.” In fact, bishops and politicians have been dialoguing about this issue for many years.
Approving the drafting of a document is precisely how the dialogue will continue to move forward. The plan is for bishops to discuss this in regional meetings across the country during the summer before it is presented to the full body of bishops at our in-person meeting in November, which will be subject to the usual process of proposing amendments and debate before a final vote is taken. The draft document is precisely what is needed to focus and continue the dialogue.
One of the misleading arguments voiced by some bishops and cardinals opposed to drafting this document was that doing so would be divisive and would harm the unity of the bishops’ conference. Yes, we should strive for unity, but our unity should be based on the truths of our faith as found in Sacred Scripture and the constant Tradition of the Church. No one should want to be united on the path to perdition. There should be no unity with iniquity. If there is division among the bishops, which it appears sadly that there is, unity will not by achieved by everyone keeping silent about the issues that divide us. The only way to heal division is to confront it and dialogue about it until there is consensus about the truth of the matter. One bishop summed it up well when he said we should be united on “Eucharistic consistency” the same way the bishops of Latin America, including Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), were united around what they called “Eucharistic coherence.”
In this regard, the outline for the proposed USCCB document includes a section on “Eucharistic consistency” to address the obstacles to eucharistic communion posed by “the problem of serious sin” of any kind, not just abortion and euthanasia. It has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church for the past two thousand years that those persons conscious of grave sin must first repent, confess their sins to a priest, and receive sacramental absolution before receiving holy Communion. This teaching is reflected in the Church’s canon law and sacramental discipline.
Before a bishop is ordained, he takes the following oath of office with his hand upon the Book of the Gospels: “In fulfilling the charge entrusted to me in the name of the Church, I shall hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety; I shall faithfully hand it on and explain it, and I shall avoid any teachings contrary to it. I shall follow and foster the common discipline of the entire Church and I shall maintain the observance of all ecclesiastical laws, especially those contained in the Code of Canon Law.”
St. Thomas More is quoted as saying to his daughter Margaret, “What is an oath then but words we say to God? . . . When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then — he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
We must pray for all bishops to have the courage to fulfill their solemn oath.
May God give us this grace. Amen.