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Opinion | A message for President Biden about Catholic bishops and communion in the United States


The last time I took communion was in El Salvador, not long before the pandemic. As a Catholic, I like to explore how mass is experienced and enriched by different cultures. But I had a more urgent reason to seek this ritual abroad. It was my only chance to take the Eucharist because 10 years ago I had tacitly decided that I could not do so in good conscience under the auspices of the United States Catholic Bishops Conference.

While the Catholic Church abroad is far from infallible, I often bear testimony from Catholic leaders who remind me why my faith has called me to a career that promotes peace and justice. But at home, the persistent efforts of conservative bishops to decide who among the faithful receives communion without practicing the confession and penance they demand reinforce why American bishops so often stand alone.

When the bishops met on Friday, they could have expressed their support for today’s movements for economic and racial justice. You could have supported the efforts of Congress to ensure the dignity of children, parents, elders, and workers who care for them. Instead, these men, who benefit from a lifetime guarantee of housing, health care, and income, voted for what could be an early step in community containment for President Biden – a man of compassion, empathy, and lived but calm faith.

This is not the first time the bishops have challenged a practicing Catholic who supports abortion law. Former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry has been targeted by Conservative bishops, some of whom even criticized the Archbishop of Boston for presiding over former Senator Ted Kennedy’s funeral mass.

I have worked on peace and justice issues domestically and abroad and have always been impressed by the shortsighted concentration of US bishops. But my experience with them during my short time in Congress shocked me. As a representative, I have seen them choose theology to advance partisan goals and favor a future Supreme Court over their communities struggling to afford welfare.

At a time when the church has exemplified moral responsibility for its decades of crime and corruption, they instead opt for the partisan agenda of its largest donors and the misogyny inherent in its structure. They have opted for what is known as “cafeteria Catholicism”, which they accuse reformers of. Their statements lack the moral clarity of their Salvadoran brothers when they challenge, for example, authoritarianism or the role of big tech in spreading hatred and lies or elected officials hindering efforts to humanize our economy.

Growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, I spent every Sunday hearing priests preach about the terrible atrocities committed against innocent civilians – even nuns – in Central America and the complicity of our own government. We have heard of extreme poverty with a clear message that failure to devote one’s life to combating these injustices can lead to eternal damnation.

I have a joke about my career in peace and justice: that I came because of the guilt and stayed because of the joy. This calling eventually led me to Honduras, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan, as well as to the struggling communities at home. It was only in time that I saw the blessing of growing up in the Diocese of Richmond under Bishop Walter Sullivan with a cadre of other reformist priests seeking protection from the conservatives who dominated the Catholic leadership. Bishop Sullivan, based in the former Confederation capital, was an unwavering force for racial justice and healing, an opponent of anti-Semitism, and an ally in ending the dirty wars in Central America.

The lay Catholic leaders and ministers who inspire me are often the ones who live the gospel every day instead of reading it from the pulpit on Sundays. When I visit the border or the opiate-ravaged parts of the Appalachian Mountains, I watch Sister Beth Davies or Sister Norma Pimentel live the gospel with every breath. And yes, I saw Archbishop Wilton Gregory march with those of us who were calling for Black Lives Matter and Bishop Seitz preaching for a humane boundary. As the U.S. special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa, I stood by courageous Congolese bishops who risked everything to defend human rights and persuaded the Vatican to promote peace talks that set the framework for the first peaceful democratic transfer of power of the country.

Recently, Catholic bishops also met in El Salvador, the country where Saint Óscar Romero was murdered because he stood up for the poor and the weak. You have chosen to take a bold stand against President Nayib Bukele’s efforts to consolidate power and impunity for corruption. They also sent a clear message to the Biden government that “tough talks” at the border will only help the coyotes and gangs extort a higher price from the most vulnerable.

These are the true Catholic leaders, and those who I hope will be the better angels in President Biden’s ears.

I look forward to again taking sacrament when the journey resumes, and to be inspired each day by Catholic ministers and their lay colleagues whose beliefs inspire them to serve. I keep losing my faith and feeling guilty like any Catholic would. I pray this week that the American bishops will reflect on Pope Francis’ message that communion “is not the wages of the saints, but the bread of sinners”. Instead of asking if you think President Biden is worthy of the fellowship of you, I pray that you ask what you need to do to rebuild the moral authority that would lead you to fellowship each of us to offer.

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