Truth at the fifty-yard line?

In a series of talks and interviews surrounding the announcement of his retirement as archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick frequently told his favorite John Paul II story: the story of the Pope walking up the center aisle of Newark cathedral in October 1995, touching people on both sides. This, Cardinal McCarrick suggested, was how priests and bishops ought to act — sticking to the “middle,” in order to be in touch with everyone. Or, as he told National Public Radio, “the job of a priest always forces you to the middle…We’ve got to be in the middle so that we don’t let those on the left or the right get lost.”

I have other memories of events in Newark’s magnificent Sacred Heart Cathedral that evening, of what led up to them, and of what followed.

The Clinton White House had rather brashly informed the Holy See that the President would meet the Pope at the door and escort John Paul up the aisle of the cathedral. The Holy See politely replied that the Pope would enter the cathedral the way he entered every other church in the world — without the guidance of politicians. The Holy See prevailed, and John Paul did indeed touch some of the many people reaching out to him as he walked to the sanctuary to preside over Evening Prayer. At the end of the service, two people walked down the aisle of Sacred Heart Cathedral, craftily shaking hands on all sides: President and Mrs. Clinton. John Paul II departed by a side aisle in order to pray at the Blessed Sacrament chapel. New Jersey public television juxtaposed these simultaneous events on a split screen: the politicians doing their thing, the priest and bishop being a priest and bishop. It was a striking, and telling, difference.

It’s not easy to know what Cardinal McCarrick means by his oft-repeated admonition to moderation. He certainly wasn’t moderate — he wasn’t ready to split the differences at the fifty-yard line, so to speak — when things he believed in were at stake. To take one example: students from impoverished families in Washington, D.C., can use tax-funded vouchers to attend Catholic schools because Cardinal McCarrick was thoroughly immoderate, indeed relentless, in lobbying Congress on their behalf.

Then there are questions of doctrine. Shortly before the Holy See announced that Pope Benedict had accepted Cardinal McCarrick’s retirement, R. Scott Appleby wrote in the Washington Post about three Catholics, representatives of a “people’s Church,” which Dr. Appleby described as “Catholicism’s great hope” in the 21st century: “a Jakarta nun who describes herself as both a devout Catholic and a devout Muslim; a Sri Lankan Jesuit whose Asian-inflected theology of Christ and the Church has little room for the ancient dogmatic formulas preserved by Rome; the president of a Benedictine college in Manila who has no qualms about celebrating Mass without a priest.”

Is this the fifty-yard line? Or, to vary the sporting metaphor, is this somewhere out in the parking lot, way beyond the left-field bleachers?

Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ of God or he isn’t; Mohammed is the final Prophet or he isn’t; you can’t split the difference at the fifty-yard line. Is the “ancient dogmatic formula” which attests to “Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord” true? Or is it false? To stand in the center of the aisle and claim to be in communion of mind and heart with people who both affirm and deny that formula is to confess to severe intellectual confusion. Is a validly ordained priest necessary for the valid consecration of the Eucharist, or isn’t he? It’s hard to believe that Cardinal McCarrick would have wanted his archdiocesan vocation director to stand in the center of the aisle on that one.

That priests and bishops must be able to minister to people across the spectrum of reasonable theological and political opinion goes, or should go, without saying. That priests and bishops can be true ministers of the Gospel by thinking and acting as if every question were a football field on which truth lies at the fifty-yard line is another matter entirely; see Revelation 3:16.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash