Some version of that story will happen again because, as things stand, the policy and the practice of the Church on this issue diverge from each other, dramatically.
That leaves priests who put the policy into practice standing often by themselves. It leaves some Catholics confused about how seriously the Church takes its own teaching and its own sacramental discipline. Other Catholics, those who have watched that cycle play out a few times, are less confused than demoralized, and cynical.
But if election pollsters have it right, this issue isn’t going away. Biden, who would be the second Catholic president, has a big lead over Trump. Unless something changes, he’s likely to be the first Catholic president since Roe vs. Wade, and the first to publicly support abortion.
The U.S. bishops decided on a patchwork, diocese by diocese, approach to canon 915 in 2004. In some senses, from an ecclesiological perspective, that localized approach might make sense.
But the country may soon find itself with an aggressively pro-abortion president who likes going to Mass, and a piecemeal approach to an important question of sacramental discipline. Practically, that situation is likely to foment further division in the Church, as bishops promulgate dueling policies under a national spotlight.
Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that any bishop will take up the project of making a nationwide change on this issue, and there are only a few positioned well to do so.
The Archbishop of Washington and the Bishop of Wilmington, both of whom have platforms as Biden’s shepherds, are among those who could.
If either of those bishops took the initiative to say that in his diocese the Church’s canonical discipline on the Eucharist would be applied fairly and consistently to politicians of all parties who break from the Church on grave and clear matters, a precedent would be set, and easily followed across the country.
Failing that possibility, if Cardinal Dolan had a change of heart, and announced that in the Archdiocese of New York the Church’s sacramental discipline would be applied in accord with the Church’s instructions, other bishops would likely follow suit. Church watchers would likely see that as a recovery of Dolan’s once praised legacy on pro-life issues, which was tarnished amid the controversy over Cuomo.
Bishops don’t like to go first, generally, but many are willing to follow the right leader. If a nationally leading Churchman set a change in motion, many would follow suit. Eventually, only a dozen or so bishops staunchly opposed to “politicizing” the Eucharist might be left.
Both Washington and Wilmington are led by bishops rarely characterized as conservative. Washington’s Archbishop Gregory is struggling to gain trust as a reformer, the job for which he was sent to Washington. Insistence on applying the Church’s law, as written, would likely bolster Gregory’s credibility on that front. But the archbishop led the U.S. bishops' conference in 2004, when he and McCarrick were seen to push for a permissive interpretation of Ratzinger's letter, and there is no evidence to suggest he has changed his thinking on the subject.
Bishop Malooly, who is almost 77, is even less likely to change his long-standing policy than Gregory is. But his successor, who could be appointed as early as September, might be of a different mind. And he would have to his advantage the unique window of time in which a new bishop can make a major change before getting bogged down in the myriad reasons he hears not to make any changes.
If he is appointed before the election, it would be all the easier to make his position clear.
There is one other bishop who might be expected to lead a charge on this issue: Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Gomez, who is both pro-life and a strong advocate for the Church’s moral teaching on immigration, has the credibility among a broad swath of bishops to call for a unified approach to a vexing problem. But the conference has not passed major, sweeping policies in recent years, and is still recovering from the shockwaves of McCarrick and 2018. Gomez would have little luck unifying the conference on anything so controversial.
But the L.A. archbishop has personal influence: If he decided to announce a policy for Los Angeles, after lobbying other prominent U.S. bishops to announce the same, a cadre of bishops would probably follow them.
For any of those bishops, the media blowback of such a move would be intense, and difficult to get past. But the support among many practicing Catholics, and among priests, who are looking to the Church for leadership, would also be significant. Such a move would not soon be forgotten.
By many estimates, the result of those bishops taking the lead, however unlikely, is that the integrity of the Church’s moral witness might be strengthened. Catholics might grow in respect for their embattled bishops. And, just maybe, a few Catholic politicians who defy the Gospel, from either party, might be moved to conversion.
Whether any bishop will actually decide to break the cycle, or whether Catholics will watch the ‘Communion Wars’ play on for the next several years, is up to the handful of bishops who could meaningfully change the narrative. It seems unlikely they’ll do so. But as America contemplates a change, the Church’s leaders have the chance to make one too.