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Biden and Communion debate dominates 2021 in U.S. Church

Biden and Communion debate dominates 2021 in U.S. Church

NEW YORK – President Joe Biden, immigration, COVID-19 and ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. All four topics were crucial to the story of the American Catholic Church a year ago, and with a trove of new developments, were mainstays once again in 2021.

With 2021 almost in the review, here’s a recap of what happened.

President Joe Biden takes Office; the Communion debate continues

On Jan. 20, 2021, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles issued a statement that his prayers are with newly inaugurated President Joe Biden and his family while simultaneously highlighting his policy pledges in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender “would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity.”

In response to the statement, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago spoke out against the statement on social media, calling it “ill-considered.” He also said there was “seemingly no precedent for doing so,” and that it “came as a surprise to many bishops.”

The public disagreement was a precursor for the division that would ensue between both clerics and lay Catholics over how to approach the nation’s second Catholic president. Mainly, his worthiness to receive communion with his pro-abortion stance.

For the next 11 months, the topic was debated.

The debate centered around a document on the Eucharist being drafted by the U.S. Bishops’ Conference doctrinal committee – part of the conference’s 2021-2024 strategic plan centered on the Eucharist. Once Biden got elected there was a push by many bishops to turn the document into a rebuttal of the pro-abortion stance of the president and other pro-choice Catholic politicians.

Other bishops argued such a move was political and divisive for the church.

When it came time to discuss the formal drafting of the Eucharist document at the U.S. Bishops virtual spring assembly in June the opposing views came to a head. More than 40 bishops weighed offered opinions on a proposal in a spirited debate.

In the end the vote to draft the Eucharist document was overwhelmingly approved. 168 bishops voted in favor of the proposal, 55 voted against it, and there were six abstentions.

The next five months were much quieter on the Biden-Eucharist front than the first part of the year. Ahead of a vote on the drafted Eucharist document at the fall assembly in November, bishops met in their state conferences and came up with recommendations to send to the doctrine committee, which quietly worked on putting the document together.

The result was a 30-page long document titled “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” that was unveiled at the in-person fall assembly. It makes no reference to Biden or any Catholic pro-abortion politicians receiving communion. The tamed-down document is instead meant as a teaching document for all Catholics part of the Eucharistic Revival initiative.

There was little discussion on the document at the fall assembly. It was overwhelmingly approved with 222 bishops voting in favor of it, eight against, and three abstentions.

“The goal of the (doctrinal committee) has been to produce a catechetical resource for Catholics in the United States, rooted scripture and tradition that emphasizes the fundamental doctrines concerning the Eucharist and its centrality in the life of the church,” Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort-Wayne South Bend, then the USCCB doctrine committee chair.

“The document is addressed to all Catholics in the United States, and endeavors to explain the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the church,” he continued, making it clear the document wasn’t ever met as a referendum on Biden.

A humanitarian crisis at the southern border

When Biden took office immigration advocates were hopeful his administration would deliver immigration reform as it promised on the campaign trail. Instead, the year will end with deterrent policies at the U.S.-Mexico border he vowed to eradicate still intact, and little to no headway on the comprehensive immigration reform that advocates have called for with a divided Congress.

Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville of Washington, the USCCB migration committee chair, said in a Dec. 21 statement that after another year without meaningful immigration reform one thing remains clear: “The status quo cannot stand.”

“In the year ahead we will continue to pray for and work toward a solution that provides immediate relief to the undocumented members of society,” Dorsonville said in the statement. “We maintain our longstanding call for Congress to work on a bipartisan basis to promote the full integration of undocumented persons and to create a more sustainable immigration system, consistent with the common good.”

The focal point of the Biden administration’s work at the border is Title 42 and the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – two policies immigration advocates decry as inhumane. Title 42 is a Trump-era policy that allows U.S. authorities to expel migrants on the grounds of public health related to the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting their legal right to asylum.

MPP, meanwhile, forces migrants to wait on the Mexico side of the border for the duration of their immigration proceedings. The policy has long been criticized for the inhumane conditions it forces migrants to endure, the time it takes for a ruling on asylum claims, and the potential danger the migrants face in vulnerable circumstances across the border.

The Biden administration attempted to wind down the program before the courts ultimately ruled it must continue. The program was reinstated the week of Dec. 6 after the Biden administration reached an agreement with Mexico that outlined a more humanitarian system. Early on in the reimplementation, however, it doesn’t appear much has changed.

Supporters of the policies argue they’re needed with the record number of migrants crossing the border through 2021. The rebuttal to that has been the record number of border crossings this year happened with the policies in place. U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered over 1.7 million migrants at the southwest border in Fiscal Year 2021, with record monthly encounters from March-September 2021.

“The inability of political leaders to come together and reach consensus on positive, forward-looking immigration legislation has grave consequences for human lives and the wellbeing of this country,” Dorsonville said.

Year Two of the COVID-19 pandemic

When Crux wrote the 2020 year in review this time last year COVID-19 had taken over 330,000 American lives. A year later, and that number is now over 800,000. Although, as the nation has learned to live with the virus through vaccinations, testing and other measures a sense of normalcy set in through much of the year (until the recent outbreak of the new Omicron variant).

Churches nationwide for the most part have full Mass schedules and are open to capacity. Mask protocols vary between mandated, recommended and optional based on diocese. Most dioceses nationwide have lifted the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass that existed in 2020.

The source of controversy related to the pandemic for the American Catholic Church in 2021 has been the same as the secular world – COVID-19 vaccine mandates and religious exemptions.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso was one of the first to impose a mandate on diocesan employees.

“People are welcome to choose not to get the vaccine for the reason that they feel they need to make a heroic stand to call attention to the fact that some means that we do not consider moral were used in the testing of the vaccines, and in the case of the Johnson and Johnson in the development,” Seitz said in the August announcement. “But when a person takes a heroic stand there are also consequences to that stand based on the situation.”

Many other dioceses nationwide have made a similar decision for similar reasons. A common defense to the religious exemption question has been the fact that Pope Francis has stated that he believes Catholics have a moral obligation to receive the vaccine.

The Vatican also updated its own rules on Dec. 23 to mandate that all employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or show proof of having recovered from it.

Questions around the ethics of getting a COVID-19 vaccine has to do with their connection to abortion-derived cell lines. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used the abortion-derived cell lines in testing, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed, produced and tested with the abortion-derived cell lines.

Some dioceses have spoken out against vaccine mandates and in favor of religious exemptions. In August, the four prelates of Colorado – Archbishop Samuel Aquila and Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodríguez of Denver, Bishop James Golka of Colorado Springs and Bishop Stephen Berg of Pueblo – published a statement against vaccine mandates embedded with a religious exemption letter for parishioners to use.

“Being the Catholic Church, we have to respect the right of conscience and in the possibility, some coercion or force might be used we wanted to reassure individual Catholics that there was a vehicle by which they could request a right, which was given to them by the state,” Berg explained to Crux at the time.

With the outbreak of the Omicron variant COVID-19 vaccine booster shots have been mandated by some employers nationwide. Catholic universities – including the University of Notre Dame, Boston College, St. Joseph’s College in Maine, St. Michael’s College in Vermont and Georgetown University – have already required students to get the booster jab.

The move hasn’t been made by a diocese yet, nor has the USCCB weighed in on vaccine mandates in general.

Ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick

Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick returned to headlines in July after he was criminally charged in Massachusetts with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy during a wedding reception at Wellesley College in 1974.

McCarrick, 91, was charged with three counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14. It’s the first time that a former of current U.S. cardinal has been criminally charged with a sexual crime against a minor.

McCarrick was arraigned on Sept. 3 at Dedham District Court in Massachusetts. It was his first public appearance since 2018. He didn’t speak throughout the arraignment. He was released on the conditions he pay $5,000 cash bail, have no contact with the alleged victim or anyone under 18, not leave the United States, and surrender his passport.

His appearance was also waived for the subsequent pretrial hearings on Oct. 28 and Dec. 21. Each time the case was continued to a later date. The next pretrial hearing is March 3, 2022.

Even though the charges against McCarrick are from nearly 50 years ago, a specific aspect of the statute of limitations on criminal charges in Massachusetts allowed McCarrick’s accuser to pursue charges for the alleged sexual assault. The statute of limitations for criminal cases in Massachusetts is set up to “toll,” or pause, when the offender is out of the state. McCarrick has never resided in Massachusetts, therefore, the statute of limitations for this case doesn’t apply.

The alleged victim remains unnamed. Their lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian, told reporters at the arraignment that his client has been “waiting decades for this day.”

“Justice will prevail. The truth will be heard, and children will be kept safe,” Garabedian said.

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