Bishop Stowe ‘not in favor’ of Eucharistic document, but predicts it will pass

Bishop John Stowe Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky. says he will vote against a document on the Eucharist being considered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their fall assembly in Baltimore Nov. 15-18, 2021. | Screen grab of Diocese of Lexington YouTube video

An outspoken critic of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ draft document on the Eucharist predicts it will be adopted at their fall assembly next week, though he intends to vote against it.

“I’m afraid it is,” Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv., of Lexington, Ky., said during a media briefing Nov. 11 when asked if he thought the document,“The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” is going to be adopted.

“I think it will [pass] because it's blander than what was proposed at first, and it's got something that I think was trying to appease everybody,” Stowe predicted, “and I think a lot of bishops would have a hard time voting against it because there's not something so objectionable contained in it.”

Stowe’s comments came Nov. 11 during a livestreamed forum about the fall assembly sponsored by Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture in partnership with the National Catholic Reporter. The assembly begins Monday with a closed-door meeting at which the bishops are expected to have a private preliminary discussion about the Eucharistic document, prior to discussing and voting on it in public later in the week.

A central topic at the bishops’ last meeting in June, the proposed document sparked a heated debate about whether it ought explicitly to address if Catholic politicians who support abortion, such as President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, should be denied Communion. While some bishops consider it a source of scandal to allow those not in communion with Church teaching to receive the Eucharist, others argue that taking a hard line would “weaponize” or politicize the sacrament.

Stowe falls in the latter camp. As it exists now, however, the document makes no mention of Biden or any other politician. Nor does it outline criteria for a priest or bishop to deny Communion to a Catholic who publicly promotes abortion or other grave sins.

Instead, the 26-page document focuses on the importance of teaching the Real Presence of the Eucharist, and on the Eucharist as a tool for evangelization.

“When we receive Holy Communion, Christ is giving himself to us. He comes to us all in humility, as he came to us in the Incarnation, so that we may receive him and be one with him,” the draft document states. “Christ gives himself to us so that we may continue the pilgrim path toward life with him in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.”

While Stowe credited the work done to revise the document since the June meeting, he said he remains opposed to it, adding that he doesn’t see why it is necessary right now. Stowe and other featured speakers at the media briefing cast doubt on the validity of a 2019 Pew survey that found just one-third of U.S. Catholics say they believe that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.”

Responding to Stowe's comments, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, a supporter of the draft document, told CNA that it is vital that the bishops speak clearly on the Eucharist.

“To forge a new unity in Christ, and a new Eucharistic revival, we bishops will have to work hard, remain open to each other and to the Holy Spirit and hold fast to the Teachings of Christ including this one: The Eucharist is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord. Take Communion only if you are in communion with Him. Confession opens the gate to heaven,” Cordileone said. 

“We need to speak truth to each other, and to speak God's truth to those in power,” he said.

Increasing division?

During the briefing Thursday, Heidi Schlumpf, executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter, expressed concern that if the bishops approve the document “it will further highlight the split” between the U.S. bishops and Pope Francis.

“And my guess is if U.S. Catholics are forced to choose, they're going to choose Pope Francis, hands down,” she said. 

“I couldn't agree more,” Stowe responded. “I'm afraid that is exactly what's at stake here. And I think some of the bishops that are promoting a hard line on Communion realize that, as well.

“They think that the magisterium of Pope Francis is an aberration [in] the history of the Church and that they can wait it out and the next Pope will set things back the way it was,” he said. 

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“And I think, in general, you can see in the U.S. bishops conference, there’s been no real enthusiasm for any of the documents, the encyclicals, or other teachings that have come forth from Pope Francis,” Stowe said.

“We live in very polarized and divided times, and we're talking about a sacrament of unity and adding to the polarization, rather than trying to find the ways that the Church assembles everybody together or opens the tent flaps of the field hospital to bring people in,” Stowe argued. “I just wish we would demonstrate that we hear Pope Francis and would follow [his approach.]”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila says Mass for the Transitional Deacon Ordination in 2020. Archdiocese of Denver, photography: A&D Creative LLC
Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila says Mass for the Transitional Deacon Ordination in 2020. Archdiocese of Denver, photography: A&D Creative LLC

In response to Stowe’s comments, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver told CNA that the document on the Eucharist is in accordance with Pope Francis’ teaching.

“Bishop Stowe presents the discussion surrounding Eucharistic coherence as being motivated by a desire to return to a pre-Vatican II Church and to ignore Pope Francis’ teachings,” Aquila said.

“On the contrary, I believe that directly addressing the issue of worthily receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is completely in line with what the Holy Father has called for and is directly linked with encouraging a deeper belief in and reverence for our Lord in the Eucharist,” he said.

“Some bishops seem insistent on portraying this effort to teach clearly on worthy reception of Jesus in the Eucharist as divisive. By framing the discussion this way, they are in fact increasing division by failing to address the scandal given to the faithful by those public figures who insist on saying they are devout Catholics in communion with the Body of Christ, when they are blatantly advancing laws that allow the taking of innocent life and the serious distortion of human sexuality,” Aquila said.

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Rupturing communion

While the proposed document on the Eucharist doesn't provide criteria for denying someone Communion, it does explain the differences between venial and mortal sin, and says that a Catholic in a state of mortal sin should not receive the Eucharist until they have gone to Confession and received absolution. 

“While all our failures to do what is right damage our communion with God and each other, they fall into different categories, reflecting different degrees of severity,” the document states.

“There are some sins, however, that do rupture the communion we share with God and the Church,” the document states.

“As the Church has consistently taught, a person who receives Holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin not only does not receive the grace of the sacrament, he or she commits the sin of sacrilege by failing to show the reverence due to the Body and Blood of Christ,” the document explains.

The document states, “the reception of Holy Communion entails one’s communion with the Church in this visible dimension.” The document also restates the text of a 2006 document from the bishops concerning Catholics in public life. 

“If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church,” the new document states, repeating the bishops’ 2006 guidance.

“Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation," the guidance states, "would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.”

During the media briefing, journalist David Gibson, the moderator, asked Stowe if there were “any circumstances” where a Catholic should be denied Communion.

Stowe pointed to the document's reference of St. Paul's words in his first letter to the Corinthians about receiving the Real Presence worthily.

In 1 Cor. 11:27-30, Paul states: “Whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.”

Paul’s admonition needs to be placed in proper context, however, by "looking at the social construct of Corinth and the Corinthian community at that time," Stowe said.

“And what Paul was chastising was in the context of a communal meal. Some people are eating more than their share and getting drunk before the other people even arrived there. How could you say this is a sacrament of unity?” he said. 

“So I guess the short answer is there should be some discernment on the part of the individual about receiving the sacrament and preparing oneself for it. But I think Pope Francis gives us the right direction. It's not a prize for the perfect, but medicine for those who are on the way, who really want it,” Stowe said.

During the media briefing Stowe disclosed that he has denied Communion to someone on at least one occasion.

“I can't say, like Pope Francis, that I’ve never denied Communion to somebody, because I was in a conversation with somebody who outright told me they did not have any beliefs in anything that the church teaches, and then the next day presents himself at Communion. Well, it was almost like a personal test to me, what I was going to do. And I did not think there was any grounds on which I could give that person Communion,” he said.

“But that's such a rare … occurrence, for me, but not based on somebody's public stance,” Stowe said.

“Plus, you know, if it were well-known that Joe Biden encouraged someone that he impregnated to abort a child, that would be one thing,” Stowe continued. “That's a very different reality, publicizing this personal involvement in that sin, as opposed to saying that it's the law of the land, and I will abide by that law of the land. There's … several layers of separation there.”

Archbishop Aquila, however, noted that there are other questions to consider.

“Pope Francis has been clear that ‘abortion is murder.’ I would like to ask my brother bishops: Have you had conversations with Catholics in public life who take positions contrary to the dignity of the human person, whether it be abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty or other life issues? How do you suggest we respond to those Catholics who lose faith in the Church because of those public figures providing a counter-witness and receiving the Eucharist? How do you see them following the teaching of Vatican II to be a leaven in society?” Aquila said.

“These are questions that need to be answered if we are going to fulfill our role as shepherds who protect our flock and the faith,” he said. “As bishops, we are responsible for both the public figures and the faithful who are led into sin or lose their faith when the integrity of the faith is publicly undermined on so many levels.

“One day we will be judged,” Aquila said, “and the Lord has warned us in Ezekiel 33 to be his sentinels and with truth and charity to warn those who turn from the way of the Lord.”

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