On June 17, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to draft a teaching document on the Eucharist. The next day, a group of sixty Catholic Democratic members of the House of Representatives responded to this decision with a “Statement of Principles.” In this statement, they argued against the “denial of the Holy Eucharist to certain elected officials” who support “legal access to abortion.” This statement—along with a tweet from one of the sixty signatories that challenged core Catholic teachings—demonstrates the pressing need for a teaching document on the Eucharist and reveals issues that the bishops need to address. I served for sixteen years in the House. I was defeated in the 2020 Democratic primary election largely because I was an outspoken pro-life voice and voted for the unborn. The Democratic party was once the political home of most American Catholics, but over the past 40 years the party has become increasingly less tolerant of Americans who are pro-life, causing many Catholics to leave the party. Despite this exodus, polls indicate that between one-quarter and one-third of Democratic voters still describe themselves as pro-life. I ran for Congress as a Democrat because the party was traditionally the champion of hardworking middle-class Americans. I also believed it was (and is) important to have pro-life voices in the party.
But the nature of partisanship in America has changed in recent years. The parties have become fundamentalist religions. The Democratic party hierarchy has made extreme abortion policy a primary doctrine and has demonstrated that a price will be paid for apostasy. For Democratic politicians, the penalty is a full-on effort to end one’s political career. It is enforced by abortion groups that provide plenty of campaign workers and form super PACs with huge amounts of money. These groups spent over $6 million to campaign against me in the 2018 and 2020 Democratic primaries. The party hierarchy enforces the doctrine both publicly and surreptitiously. In the 2020 primary, five presidential candidates endorsed my main primary opponent to signal to activists that they rejected pro-life Democrats. Behind the scenes, local party officials worked against me and Democratic campaign vendors refused to work for me.
I assume that most Catholic politicians sincerely desire eternal life and that if they had to choose between heaven and political power, they would choose the former. But politicians, like most people, don’t like to have to make tradeoffs. We try to have it all, which leads us to look for loopholes and muddy the truth. When I was in office, I saw clearly the conflict between the party’s extreme abortion doctrine and the Church’s doctrine on life. I knew that I had to make a stark choice that would endanger my political career. But many people want to confuse Catholic politicians about abortion and Catholic doctrine in general (including individuals and institutions within the Catholic Church herself). Unfortunately, this is often easy to do, because most Catholics have been poorly catechized. The “Statement of Principles” demonstrates the reigning confusion.
In light of this, there are several things that the bishops need to teach unambiguously.
- When the Church declares “respect for life and the dignity of every human person,” she always, and quite properly, is speaking primarily about direct attacks on human life such as abortion and euthanasia, not simply about helping the poor, disadvantaged, and distressed, as important as that work is.
- When the Catechism proclaims that abortion is a “moral evil” and a “crime against human life,” this is a matter of binding truth—not just “guidance and assistance” for Catholic elected officials.
- There is no equivalence between the intimate, intentional violence of abortion and failing to provide a specific level of funding for programs for the hungry or denying asylum to a particular individual. All of these issues are important, but they are different in kind, not merely degree. They have different weight. In order to eat or seek asylum, a person must first be alive. When I was in Congress, I continually heard the obfuscating claim that Catholic social teaching covers a variety of issues and that they are all equally important. It is very true that it is evil to ignore the plight of the poor, hungry, and endangered, and we will be judged by what we have done for the least of us. But unlike legal abortion, which is the killing of innocent human life, these issues require prudential judgments about exactly what and how much the government should do. These issues are not the same as abortion; Pope Francis stated it plainly when he compared abortion to “hiring a hitman” to take care of a problem. Ends do not justify means.
- The Church teaches “primacy of conscience,” but the conscience must be well informed. The Catechism states, “the education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.”
- The statement rightfully says, “we recognize that no political party is perfectly in accord with all aspects of Church doctrine.” But when a political party is not in accord with Catholic belief, the responsibility of the faithful is to work to change the doctrine of the party and not the constant teaching of the Church. This is one of the greatest dangers for American Catholics today. Catholic Democrats should be working to change the party doctrine on abortion and not fall prey to the temptation to mold their own beliefs to the party.
The statement reminds us that Pope Francis said that “the Eucharist…is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” But what many Catholics are missing is a clear understanding of what is required to “be in communion with God and with the Church” in order to receive the Eucharist. The USCCB’s 2006 document “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper” discusses when we should refrain from Holy Communion and how reception by those who should refrain can give public scandal and lead others to sin. The bishops would do well to start their new document by going back to this one, which all Catholics should read.
Partisans will certainly take anything that the Church says and try to use it to their advantage. Unfortunately, this includes people within the Church herself, even some bishops and cardinals. But this does not excuse the bishops from teaching the truth in love, out of concern for souls and for the lives of the least among us threatened by legal abortion. All of this attention has created a much needed teaching opportunity for the bishops to remind all of us to grow in our appreciation and reverence for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. In the battle for souls and for just public policy, God’s truth—taught clearly—is our strength.
Daniel Lipinski served eight terms as the U.S. Representative for the 3rd congressional district of Illinois from 2005 to 2021.
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