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The Morning Dispatch: Catholic Bishops Vote to Clarify Church Teaching
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The Morning Dispatch: Catholic Bishops Vote to Clarify Church Teaching

Plus: Ebrahim Raisi wins the Iranian presidential election.

Happy Monday! What a great weekend of playoff basketball. Congratulations to readers (and Dispatch interns) who root for the Milwaukee Bucks or Atlanta Hawks.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi won the presidency over the weekend in an election featuring uncharacteristically low turnout after several candidates dropped out or were otherwise disqualified. He was sanctioned by the United States in 2019 for his role in Iranian executions dating back decades.

  • Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Saturday that the VA plans to reverse its 2013 ban on offering gender-reassignment surgery for veterans through its health care coverage.

  • Jon Rahm, 26,  won the U.S. Open on Sunday, marking his first major victory on the PGA Tour.

  • The United States confirmed 3,894 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 0.84 percent of the 464,191 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 85 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 601,826. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 12,879 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Meanwhile, 848,611 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, with 177,088,290 Americans having now received at least one dose.

Catholic Bishops Vote to Clarify Church Teaching

The United States’ Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) held its annual Spring General Assembly last week, coming together (virtually) to discuss and vote on nine “action items,” including “the development of a new formal statement and comprehensive vision for Native American/Alaska Native Ministry” and “the approval of three translations by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) for use in the dioceses of the United States.”

If that agenda didn’t already give it away, this meeting is usually fairly pedestrian—and not particularly newsworthy. But one USCCB action item—passed Friday in a 168-55 vote—is generating headlines and stirring up a schism between the American Catholic Church and the Vatican: “The approval of the drafting of a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.”

The Eucharist—or Holy Communion—dates back to the Last Supper, and is a hugely important sacrament in the Catholic tradition. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Catholics believe, bread and wine are consecrated by a priest during Mass and literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ in a process referred to as “transubstantiation.”

Part of the rationale for last week’s action item is public polling indicating fewer and fewer Catholics in the United States imbue the Eucharist with the significance that American clergy maintain it deserves: Only half the U.S. Catholics who responded to a 2019 Pew Research survey knew the church’s teaching on transubstantiation, and nearly 7 in 10—including more than 40 percent of those who were aware of the church’s teaching—view the bread and wine they consume at Mass as mere symbols of Jesus’ body and blood.

The text of the statement that was approved last week is not yet public—and likely won’t be until the fall—but the Jesuit America Magazine reported on a proposal that was circulated among bishops last month. “In light of recent surveys,” the proposal reads, “it is clear that there is a lack of understanding among many Catholics about the nature and meaning of the Eucharist.”

As interesting as that intra-Catholic debate is, it’s not why last week’s Spring General Assembly led to stories in the Washington Post and New York Times. In addition to clarifying transubstantiation, there are reports that the statement to be voted on this fall (necessitating a two-thirds majority to pass) will also weigh in on who is supposed to receive the Eucharist in the first place—and who is supposed to abstain.

Current U.S. Catholic guidance indicates that, in order to receive Communion, one “should not be conscious of grave sin.” If one is conscious of grave sin, that individual is expected to confess his or her sins through the sacrament of reconciliation before partaking in the Eucharist. This fall’s statement is expected to spell out whether philosophical disagreement with Catholic teaching constitutes grave sin, in addition to the act of the sin itself.

“The statement will be addressed to all Catholics,” the proposal reported on by America Magazine reads. But the statement will also “include the theological foundation for the Church’s discipline concerning the reception of Holy Communion and a special call for those Catholics who are cultural, political, or parochial leaders to witness the faith.”

Enter Joe Biden, the second Catholic in history to win the U.S. presidency, and perhaps the staunchest advocate for abortion rights to ever occupy the Oval Office. 

He wasn’t always that way. As a senator in the 1970s, Biden deemed Roe v. Wade to have gone “too far,” adding that he “[didn’t] think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” In 1982, he voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed states to overturn the decision. But as the Democratic Party lurched leftward on abortion so, too, did Biden. His administration’s 2022 budget request last month omitted the Hyde Amendment, which for decades has prevented explicit federal funding for abortions.

The USCCB vote is indicative of a broader split within the Catholic Church—both in the United States and around the world. Two of the the faith’s most well-known adherents—Pope Francis and Biden—are fairly liberal by Catholicism’s standards, opting to prioritize the church’s teachings on social justice issues like poverty, racism, and climate change over abortion and sexuality. Another 2019 Pew Research survey found 56 percent of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 42 percent who believe it should be illegal in all or most cases. Among all U.S. adults, those figures were 61 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

“Biden is a totemic representative of a class of Catholics for whom ritual practice and cultural aesthetic are the most important aspects of religion, rather than belief in the Church’s theological and moral teachings,” Ed Condon wrote in The Pillar, a Catholic media organization.

Asked by a reporter on Friday if he was concerned that the bishops would prevent him from receiving Communion, Biden seemed unfazed. “That’s a private matter,” he responded. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen.” 

In a literal sense, he’s right. Whatever the USCCB decides in a few months, it ultimately falls upon either the pope or a local bishop to actually enforce a Eucharist ban. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., has made clear he wouldn’t take such a step, and the Vatican issued a warning last week against “us[ing] access to the Eucharist as a political weapon.”

Raisi Wins the Presidency

As expected, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and current head of Iran’s judiciary, won the presidency Friday after concentrated efforts by the regime to eliminate his opponents through mass disqualifications and pressured drop-outs. But with reported voter turnout falling to just shy of 49 percent—a record low and a figure likely inflated by Tehran’s interior ministry—the election revealed the strength of opposition campaigns to boycott an election widely considered fraudulent. 

In many ways, Raisi’s victory and behind-the-scenes support from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei came in response to a growing chorus of Iranian voices within and outside the country calling for regime change. With about 40 years of experience prosecuting Iran’s political opposition, Raisi is the perfect candidate to intimidate dissenters and squash domestic unrest.

Charlotte detailed his bloodstained rap sheet, and spoke to a survivor of his political persecution, in a story on Friday.

During his two years at the helm of Iran’s judiciary, Raisi has expanded the scope of the death penalty, wielding the sentence as a tool of repression against dissenting political voices and ethnic and religious minorities.

But Raisi staked his claim to notoriety long before he became involved in national politics. As prosecutor of Hamedan, he led his province in the torture and execution of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s. Between July and December 1988, the state carried out the systematic killings of dissidents, activists, militants, mothers, and children imprisoned across Iran. Hussein-Ali Montazeri, deputy supreme leader-turned-dissident, named Raisi as one of the four officials intimately involved.

Estimates vary, but reports indicate that more than 30,000 prisoners were extrajudicially killed over the course of only five months, the majority of whom belonged or had ties to the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (often abbreviated as ‘MEK,’ borrowing from the Farsi transliteration).”

As American and Iranian envoys stall in their indirect negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, Raisi’s orchestrated elevation to office threatens to derail their efforts. Raisi was sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2019 for his role in the 1988 massacre and suppression of 2009 protests; his ascension to the presidency will complicate the Biden administration’s effort to portray the regime as engaging in good-faith diplomacy.

But from the Iranian side, motives to return to an agreement with the U.S. remain. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign—implemented following the American withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018—delivered a blow to the regime’s legitimacy, both domestically and internationally. As Iran’s economy begins to recover from COVID-19, sanctions relief couldn’t come at a better time.

“The fundamental policy of the Islamic Republic on the nuclear file will not change. It just won’t. Raisi himself has expressed support for the JCPOA, saying that it was a national commitment,” Jason Brodsky, senior Middle East analyst and editor at Iran International, told The Dispatch. “It’s the supreme leader who drives the decision-making here.”

While the U.S. perception of Iranian leadership may shift with the arrival of a new president, power lies where it always has—with Khamenei. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said as much on ABC’s This Week Sunday, when asked about the election’s impact on the Vienna talks. 

“What I would say is that the ultimate decision for whether or not to go back into the deal lies with Iran’s supreme leader. And he was the same person before this election as he is after the election,” Sullivan said. “So, ultimately, it lies with him and his decision as to whether he wants to go down the path of diplomacy here or face mounting pressure not just from the United States, but the rest of the international community.”

This assertion breaks from a major rationale cited by the Obama/Biden team for curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions through diplomacy, which is that it would purportedly empower moderates within the Iranian government.

“It’s long past time U.S. policymakers recognize security policy is entirely the purview of the supreme leader and unelected defense establishment,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “If anything, we are in a good cop/bad cop situation in which the Biden team looks at Rouhani as a moderate in comparison to Raisi and so tries to rush a deal. In effect, the two have a difference of style not substance and neither will be the deciding voice on a matter as important as nuclear policy.”

With a little more than a month before President Hassan Rouhani leaves office, Biden is running out of time to reach a compromise with Rouhani’s administration. Among the key questions: Will the Biden administration provide additional concessions to secure a deal quickly?  When asked if the U.S. would lift personal sanctions on Raisi as a condition of the talks, for example, Sullivan declined to answer.

“The whole question of which sanctions will be lifted is currently being negotiated in Vienna, and I’m not going to conduct those negotiations in public,” Sullivan said. “What I will say is that the United States retains the right even under the JCPOA, even under the Iran nuclear deal, to impose sanctions for reasons other than the nuclear file, for terrorism, for human rights, for missile development.”

Worth Your Time

  • Although none of President Biden’s own children or grandchildren have been appointed to positions within the White House, at least five children of his top aides—White House counselor, deputy chief of staff, director of presidential personnel—have thus far secured jobs in the fledgling administration, Sean Sullivan and Michael Scherer report in the Washington Post. Good-government advocates are speaking up. “While it may not be as bad as appointing your son or daughter to a top government post as Trump did with Jared and Ivanka, it is still bad,” Walter Shaub—former director of the Office of Government Ethics— said. “‘Not as bad as Trump’ cannot be the new standard.”

  • In a deeply reported piece for Politico, Zack Stanton looks at the GOP’s decade-long collapse in suburban Oakland County, Michigan, and what it says about the party’s ability to build toward the future. “These key suburban populations are mostly white but increasingly diverse, highly educated and relatively affluent,” Stanton writes. “They aren’t scared by immigration; they support it in their own communities—especially with highly skilled immigrants, attracted to work at businesses lured to these suburbs, in many cases, by business-minded Republican politicians. They are repelled by white-grievance politics and culture-war clashes, and concerned about the rise of violent right-wing anti-government plots, like the Jan. 6 insurrection and the thwarted plan to kidnap and execute Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. They used to think of themselves as Republicans, but nowadays the GOP seems disconnected from the things they care about; it talks less about affordable child care or student debt than banning transgender student athletes or making it harder to vote.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • The era of exit polls has obscured the differences between Evangelical and fundamentalist strains of Christianity—but those differences are key to understanding last week’s Southern Baptist Convention meeting, David argues in his Sunday French Press. “Fundamentalists often express a deep discomfort with pluralism and experience a constant sense of emergency,” he writes. “Someone is always pulling on a thread of the faith somewhere, and pull hard enough on any thread, and you risk unraveling the entire fabric. Political disputes assume outsize importance. Political differences become intolerable.”

  • When Juneteenth became a federal holiday last week, a vocal minority on the right lambasted it as—in Charlie Kirk’s words—“an affront to the unity of July 4th.” Jonah doesn’t buy it. In Friday’s G-File, he explores why Americans should welcome the opportunity to celebrate emancipation. “It’s a common argument among conservatives to point out that the remarkable thing about slavery in America is not that we had it, but that we got rid of it,” he writes.

  • On Friday’s Dispatch Podcast, Mo Elleithee—a longtime Democratic operative and executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service—joined Sarah and Chris Stirewalt to break down the results of the latest GU Battleground Poll. They talk about the implications of voters’ concerns about division, the nuanced differences between attitudinal and issue polling, and how the parties’ messaging on issues they respectively “own” are shaping political dynamics heading into the midterms.

  • In his latest Vital Interests newsletter (🔒), Thomas Joscelyn breaks down what he sees as the biggest takeaways from last week’s Biden/Putin summit. “What did the summit accomplish?” he asks. “Not much. But that wasn’t its purpose. The Biden administration saw this as an opportunity to open up what it calls a ‘strategic stability dialogue.’ The first purpose of this dialogue is to prevent a war—nuclear or otherwise —from accidentally erupting between the two nations. The diplomatic and military channels are also intended to lay the groundwork for ‘future arms control’ talks, as well as other ‘risk reduction measures.’”

  • Guy Denton caught up with George Will recently, resulting in a lovely piece about the longtime conservative columnist’s political evolutions. “Some conservatives will be delighted by the direction Will’s philosophical journey has taken in recent years,” Denton writes. “Others will resent it, preferring instead to savor his more Burkean writings of days past. Progressives, meanwhile, may only read any of his work for the sake of acquainting themselves with ideas antipodal to their own. Perhaps this is what makes Will’s career so endearing: Anyone, regardless of persuasion, can derive inspiration from it.”

  • On the site today, Chris Stirewalt pens a tribute to West Virginia to mark the 158th anniversary of its creation. As with Juneteenth, which was celebrated as a federal holiday for the first time, the occasion is a symbol of the triumph over slavery that the Civil War represented. 

  • Since the Biden administration appears set on reentering the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, John Hannah looks at ways Biden’s national security team could assuage critics of the deal here at home and abroad.

Let Us Know

We’re going to crib a Let Us Know question from last month—with one small tweak.

In honor of Father’s Day this past weekend, let us know one of your favorite memories you have of you and your dad. If you could only tell one story to explain him, what would it be?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), Tripp Grebe (@tripper_grebe), Emma Rogers (@emw_96), Price St. Clair (@PriceStClair1), Jonathan Chew (@JonathanChew19), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).