The last time I received Communion was in El Salvador, shortly before the pandemic. As a Catholic, I love to explore how Mass is experienced and enriched by different cultures. But I had a more urgent reason to seek this ritual abroad. This provided my only chance to take the Eucharist, as I quietly decided 10 years ago that I could not do so in good conscience under the auspices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
While the Catholic Church is far from infallible abroad, I frequently testify that Catholic leaders remind me of why my faith called me to a career of promoting peace and justice. But at home, the persistent efforts of conservative bishops to arbitrate who among the faithful receives Communion, while not practicing the confession and penance they demand of others, reinforces the reason why American bishops are so often alone.
When the bishops met on Friday, they could have expressed support for today’s economic and racial justice movements. They could have supported the efforts of Congress to ensure the dignity of children, parents, the elderly and the workers who care for them. Instead, these men, who have a lifetime guarantee of housing, health care and income, voted to support a measure that could be a first step towards limiting communion for President Biden – a man of compassion, empathy and lived but quiet faith.
This is not the first time the bishops have challenged a practicing Catholic who supports the right to abortion. Former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry has been targeted by Tory Bishops, some of whom have even criticized the Archbishop of Boston for presiding over the funeral mass for former Senator Ted Kennedy.
I have worked on issues of peace and justice at home and abroad, and have always been struck by the myopic vision of American bishops. But my experiences with them during my brief stay in Congress shocked me. As a representative, I have seen them choose theology to promote partisan ends, favoring a future Supreme Court rather than their congregations struggling to afford care.
At a time when the Church could model moral responsibility for its decades of criminality and corruption, it opts instead for the partisan agenda of its largest donors and the inherent misogyny of its structure. They chose to model the so-called “cafeteria Catholicism”, of which they accuse the reformers. Their statements lack the moral clarity of their Salvadoran brethren to denounce, say, authoritarianism, or the role of Big Techs in spreading hatred and lies, or elected officials who hamper efforts to humanize our economy.
Growing up around Charlottesville, Virginia, I spent every Sunday hearing priests lecture about the horrific atrocities committed against innocent civilians – even nuns – in Central America and the complicity of our own government. We heard about extreme poverty, with a clear message that not dedicating your life to fighting these injustices could lead to eternal damnation.
I have a joke about my career in peace and justice: that I came for the guilt and that I stayed for the joy. This call would eventually take me to Honduras, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, as well as struggling communities back home. It was only with time that I enjoyed the blessing of growing up in Bishop Walter Sullivan’s Diocese of Richmond, along with a group of other Reform priests who sought to protect themselves from the conservatives dominating Catholic leadership. Based in the former capital of Confederacy, Bishop Sullivan was an unwavering force for racial justice and healing, an antagonist of anti-Semitism, and an ally in ending the dirty wars in Central America.
The lay Catholic leaders and the clergy who inspire me are often those who live the Gospel on a daily basis rather than reading it from the pulpit on Sunday. When I visit the border or the opioid ravaged areas of the Appalachian Mountains, I witness Sister Beth Davies or Sister Norma Pimentel live the Gospel with every breath. And yes, I saw Archbishop Wilton Gregory walking with those of us demanding that Black Lives Matter, and Bishop Seitz preaching for a human border. As the United States’ special envoy to the African Great Lakes region, I stood alongside courageous Congolese bishops who risked everything to defend human rights and convinced the Vatican to sponsor peace talks which forged the framework for the country’s first democratic and peaceful transfer of power.
Catholic bishops of El Salvador, the country where Saint scar Romero was murdered for standing alongside the poor and vulnerable, also recently met. They chose to take a courageous position against President Nayib Bukele’s decision to consolidate power and create impunity for corruption. They also sent the Biden administration a clear message that “hard talk” at the border only helps coyotes and gangs extort a higher price from those most at risk.
These are the true Catholic leaders, and those who I hope will be the best angels in President Biden’s ears.
I look forward to resuming Communion when traveling resumes and to be inspired each day by the Catholic clergy and their lay colleagues whose faith inspires them to serve. I continue to lack faith and feel guilty like any Catholic would. I pray this week that American bishops will reflect on Pope Francis’ message that communion “is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.” Instead of asking if they think President Biden is worthy of Communion from them, I pray that they ask what they need to do to rebuild the moral authority that would allow them to offer Communion to everyone. of us.