Catholic coherence, Catholic integrity

George Weigel

In 2007, the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean completed their fifth general conference with a final report, known from the Brazilian city where they met as the “Aparecida Document.”  Its principal authors included Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, then the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Thanks to the efforts of the future pope and others, the Aparecida Document remains an exemplary description of what it means to be the Church of the New Evangelization – and not only in Latin America. Paragraph 436 of the Aparecida Document is of particular interest in the United States today:  

We hope that legislators, heads of government, and health professionals, conscious of the dignity of human life and of the rootedness of the family in our peoples, will defend and protect it from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia; that is their responsibility…. We must adhere to “eucharistic coherence,” that is, be conscious that they [ i.e., legislators, heads of government, and health professionals] cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and the family are encouraged. 

This unambiguous teaching by the bishops of Latin America was not – and should not be – a surprise. Three years earlier, in 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent a letter to the bishops of the United States, quoting and reaffirming a 2002 declaration by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts that addressed the issue of eucharistic coherence with specific reference to Catholic public officials: 

Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his persistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

When “the precautionary measures have not had their effect or in [circumstances in] which they were not possible,” and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still present himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it”…This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.    

In 2002 as well, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life” (signed by Cardinal Ratzinger and published by order of Pope John Paul II), which complemented the Church’s ancient and settled understanding of “eucharistic coherence” with a plea for Catholic public officials to be “morally coherent:”

It would be a mistake to confuse the proper autonomy exercised by Catholics in political life with the claim of a principle that prescinds from the moral and social teaching of the Church….It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible. [As the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Lay Apostolate taught], “There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life,’ with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular life,’ that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture.”

As the Aparecida Document and the CDF Doctrinal Note demonstrate, concern for the Church’s eucharistic coherence in situations in which Catholic public officials facilitate grave evils yet insist on receiving Holy Communion is not the personal crotchet of certain American bishops; it is the universal Church’s concern, because it involves the integrity of the sacramental sources of the Church’s life. Aparecida and CDF underscore that bishops who maintain the Church’s eucharistic integrity and coherence are not acting politically or punitively; those bishops are calling the entire Church to deeper conversion while expressing appropriate, indeed necessary, concern for the spiritual well-being and moral coherence of those under their pastoral care. Both Aparecida and CDF stress that the moral gravity of the life issues is distinctive, such that appeals to Catholic officials’ positions on other contested matters of public policy (e.g., climate change, immigration policy) are unwarranted. 

Serious Catholics – public officials and ordinary citizens – will understand these things and conduct themselves accordingly in the challenging months ahead. 

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.