by Tom Perriello
The last time I took communion was in El Salvador, not long before the pandemic. As a Roman Catholic, I enjoy exploring how Mass is experienced and enriched by different cultures. But I had a more urgent reason for searching out this ritual abroad. It provided my only chance to take the Eucharist, because I quietly decided 10 years ago that I could not in good conscience do so under the auspices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
While the Catholic Church is far from infallible overseas, I frequently bear witness to Catholic leaders reminding me why my faith called me to a career promoting peace and justice. But back home, the persistent efforts by conservative bishops to arbitrate who among the faithful receives communion, while failing to practice the confession and penance they demand of others, reinforces why the American bishops so often stand alone.
When the bishops met on Friday, they could have voiced their support for today’s economic and racial justice movements. They could have backed congressional efforts to guarantee dignity for children, parents, the aging and the workers who care for them. Instead, these men who benefit from a lifetime guarantee of housing, health care and income voted to back a measure that could be an early step toward limiting communion for President Biden —a man of compassion, empathy and lived but quiet faith.
This is not the first time the bishops have challenged a practicing Catholic who supports abortion rights. Former Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was targeted by conservative bishops, some of whom even criticized Boston’s archbishop for presiding over former Senator Ted Kennedy’s funeral Mass.
I have worked on peace and justice issues at home and abroad, and I was always struck by the U.S. bishops’ myopic focus. But my experiences with them during my brief time in Congress shocked me. As a representative, I saw them cherry-pick theology to promote partisan ends, favoring a future Supreme Court over their congregations struggling to afford care.
At a time when the church could model moral accountability for its decades of criminality and corruption, it opts instead for the partisan agenda of its largest donors and the misogyny inherent in its structure. It has chosen to model the so-called cafeteria Catholicism, of which it accuses reformers. Its statements lack the moral clarity of its Salvadoran brethren in calling out, say, authoritarianism, or Big Tech’s role in spreading hate and lies, or elected officials who obstruct efforts to humanize our economy.
Growing up around Charlottesville, Va., I spent every Sunday hearing priests sermonize about the horrible atrocities committed against innocent civilians —even nuns —in Central America and about our own government’s complicity. We heard about extreme poverty, with a clear message that a failure to devote your life to addressing these injustices might lead to eternal damnation.
I have a joke about my career in peace and justice: that I came for the guilt and stayed for the joy. This calling would eventually bring me to Honduras, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, as well as struggling communities back home. Only with time did I appreciate the blessing of growing up in the Richmond Diocese of Bishop Walter Sullivan, with its cadre of other reform-minded priests who sought it out for protection from the conservatives dominating Catholic leadership. Based in the former capital of the Confederacy, Bishop Sullivan was an unwavering force for racial justice and healing, an antagonist of anti-Semitism and an ally for ending the dirty wars in Central America.
The Catholic lay leaders and clergymen who inspire me are often the ones living the Gospel every day rather than reading it from the pulpit on Sunday. When I visit the border or opioid-ravaged parts of Appalachia, I witness Sister Beth Davies or Sister Norma Pimentel living the Gospel with her every breath. And yes, I saw Archbishop Wilton Gregory out marching with those of us demanding that Black lives matter and Bishop Mark Seitz preaching for a humane border. As the U.S. special envoy to the African Great Lakes region, I stood with courageous Congolese bishops who risked everything to defend human rights and persuaded the Vatican to sponsor peace talks that forged the framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first peaceful democratic transfer of power.
Catholic bishops in El Salvador, the country where Saint scar Romero was assassinated for standing with the poor and vulnerable, also met recently. They chose to take a courageous position against President Nayib Bukele’s move to consolidate power and create impunity for corruption. They also sent the Biden administration a clear message that “tough talk” on the border only helps the coyotes and gangs extort a higher price from those most at risk.
These are the true Catholic leaders, and the ones I hope serve as the better angels in President Biden’s ear.
I look forward to taking communion again when travel resumes and to being inspired every day by Catholic clergymen and their lay colleagues whose faith inspires them to serve. I continue to fall short in my faith and feel guilty, as any Catholic would. I pray this week that the American bishops reflect on Pope Francis’ message that communion “is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.” Instead of asking whether they think President Biden is worthy of communion from them, I pray that they ask what they must do to rebuild the moral authority that would have them offering communion to any of us.
Tom Perriello (@tomperriello) is an expert in transitional justice and a former diplomat and member of Congress. He is a co-founder of FaithfulAmerica.org and currently the Open Society Foundations’ U.S. executive director. The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor.