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The Morning Dispatch: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Backs Down
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The Morning Dispatch: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Backs Down

Plus: Can anything be done about the dangers of space debris?

Happy Thursday! Like the Staples Center in Los Angeles, we are also willing to change our name in exchange for $700 million. The Crypto.com Dispatch has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Provisional data released by the Centers for Disease Control on Wednesday show a record 100,306 Americans were estimated to have died from a drug overdose between April 2020 and April 2021, up from 78,056 over the same 12-month period a year earlier. Opioids—particularly fentanyl—accounted for about 75 percent of the deaths.  

  • White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday the Biden administration will invest billions of dollars to expand vaccine manufacturing capacity in the hopes of producing at least 1 billion doses per year. “This is about assuring expanded capacity against COVID variants and also preparing for the next pandemic,” said Dr. David Kessler, the chief science officer of the COVID-19 response team. “The goal, in the case of a future pandemic, a future virus, is to have vaccine capability within six to nine months of identification of that pandemic pathogen, and to have enough vaccines for all Americans.” 

  • The number of migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border fell on Wednesday, with Belarusian officials saying they were shuttling hundreds of the people seeking asylum in the European Union to temporary refuge in unoccupied warehouses. Tensions between Belarus and the EU remain high, but observers saw Wednesday’s developments as a sign Belarus could be backing down.

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said yesterday it had “suspended activities related to the implementation and enforcement” of its vaccine-or-testing mandate for large employers while the emergency temporary standard’s legality is determined by the judicial system. The consolidated case against the Biden administration’s mandate was randomly assigned to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this week.

  • The State Department confirmed this week that China and the United States have agreed to reduce the restrictions placed on one another’s journalists during the Trump administration. The deal will reportedly allow certain journalists from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times to return to China.

  • Security forces killed at least 15 anti-coup protesters in Sudan on Wednesday, according to the Sudanese Central Doctors Committee. Meanwhile, 70 protesters were reportedly injured, making it the most violent day of protest since the Sudanese military took control of the African country on October 25.

  • The House of Representatives voted 223-210 on Wednesday to censure Rep. Paul Gosar and remove him from the House Oversight and Natural Resources Committees after the Arizona Republican—who has repeatedly associated himself with white nationalists—shared a doctored anime video on Twitter that depicted him attacking a cartoon Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with a sword. All but two Republicans voted against the measure, with many warning a GOP majority would take similar action against fringe Democrats after the midterms.

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Issues Document on the Eucharist

(Photo by Vatican Media via Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

Over the past several months, President Joe Biden has been living through what one Catholic Morning Dispatcher imagines to be a living nightmare: Prolonged, intense scrutiny of his personal faith and religious practice.

Biden invited it, of course, by both running for president and placing his Catholicism squarely at the center of his public persona. But his election last November—as both a practicing Catholic and an unwavering advocate for abortion rights—has brought to a head longstanding divisions both within the American church and between the American church and the Vatican.

“When politicians who profess the Catholic faith support [abortion rights], there are additional problems,” Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles—president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)—said just days after Biden’s victory was secured. “Among other things, it creates confusion among the faithful about what the Catholic Church actually teaches on these questions.”

Gomez noted that Biden’s policies—at least as professed—generally align with Catholic teaching when it comes to immigration and refugee admission, caring for the poor, anti-racism, and the death penalty. But he also announced the formation of a working group to evaluate how the church should handle the president’s abortion stance, which has evolved considerably since Biden said in 1974 that Roe v. Wade went “too far” and that he “[doesn’t] think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”

Back in June, bishops gathered virtually at the USCCB’s Spring General Assembly and voted 168-55 to move forward with the drafting of a “formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.” As we wrote at the time:

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.

[But] 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.

In the months since, there’s been a tremendous amount of speculation in Catholic circles over whether the bishops’ statement would formally mention Biden—or other pro-choice Catholic politicians like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—by name, or otherwise imply that public figures who advocate for abortion rights should be barred from receiving the Eucharist. It did not.

In a 222-8 vote, the USCCB approved a document following just 30 minutes of debate that the National Catholic Reporter described as “tepid” and that America, another Catholic publication, labeled “muted.” A few amendments were adopted, but the bulk of the 30-page document focuses on the importance of Mass attendance—and the Eucharist itself—while addressing Communion only in the obliquest of terms.

“Lay people who exercise some form of public authority have a special responsibility to embody Church teaching,” it reads. And when they don’t? “It is the special responsibility of the diocesan bishop to work to remedy situations that involve public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law,” the document continues. “Indeed, he must guard the integrity of the sacrament, the visible communion of the Church, and the salvation of souls.”

Archbishop Christophe Pierre—the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States—had addressed the USCCB’s Fall General Assembly one day earlier, lightly engaging with the Eucharist debate before making the case for introspection and unity. “There is the temptation to treat the Eucharist as something to be offered to the privileged few rather than to seek to walk with those whose theology or discipleship is falling short, assisting them to understand and appreciate the gift of the Eucharist and helping them to overcome their difficulties,” he said. “As we listen to God and to one another, we learn. The church needs this attentive listening now more than ever if she is to overcome the polarization afflicting this country.”

Pierre’s message tracked closely with Pope Francis’ growing concern in recent months about politicization of the Catholic faith. “Let us not reduce the cross to an object of devotion, much less to a political symbol, to a sign of religious and social status,” he said on a recent trip to Eastern Europe, noting he had “never refused” the Eucharist to anyone. Biden met with the pope for 90-minutes in Europe a few weeks ago, and told reporters afterwards that Francis said that “he was happy I was a good Catholic and keep receiving Communion.”

Even if the document had been more explicit, anything put out yesterday would have been nonbinding: A Eucharist ban’s enforcement ultimately falls upon either the pope or a local bishop, and Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., has made clear he wouldn’t take such a step.

Anti-Satellite Tests and Space Debris

Earlier this week, the Biden administration confirmed that Russia had conducted an anti-satellite missile test against one of its own satellites, creating tons of space debris that resulted in a temporary panic aboard the International Space Station. “Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of our outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

What, exactly, is space debris? And how does it “jeopardize the long-term sustainability” of outer space? Luckily for The Dispatch, Haley just finished taking a class on the subject, and breaks it all down in a piece for the site this morning.

Like garbage patches in the ocean, space debris has built up over the past six decades as old satellites and other spacecraft become defunct or collide. But because of gravitational forces, this wreckage—broken into millions of pieces at this point—orbits the planet at incredible speeds. And with a wave of new satellites being launched in recent years, many of them small and difficult to track, the odds of satellite collisions are increasing. 

Debris in low Earth orbit circles the planet at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour. Impacts at such exorbitant speeds can be devastating. Each piece of debris also has the potential to strike other objects in orbit and create more debris.

With each new debris-creating incident, such as Russia’s anti-satellite test, the orbital environment draws closer to what NASA scientists have warned about for decades: a catastrophic chain reaction that makes the destruction of satellites exponentially more likely and space activity vastly more hazardous. 

The State Department has said Russia’s destruction of an old satellite has thus far generated 1,500 new pieces of trackable debris, in addition to hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces. The debris cloud almost immediately threatened space activities, intersecting with the International Space Station’s orbit and forcing the seven crew members—including Russian cosmonauts—to shelter.

The Russian test led to renewed calls for a moratorium on anti-satellite missile launches, as clean orbital environment advocates warn of a potentially debilitating domino effect. 

In 1978, NASA scientists Donald Kessler and Burton Cour-Palais wrote a paper that changed the agency’s thinking on objects in orbit for good. Kessler and Cour-Palais showed in their research that with more and more objects in orbit, there was an increasing risk of collisions, and that the fast-moving shrapnel from the crashes would damage other satellites in the future.

“Satellite collisions would produce orbiting fragments, each of which would increase the probability of further collisions, leading to the growth of a belt of debris around the Earth,” the two scientists wrote.

As we launch more and more satellites into orbit, the likelihood of collisions continues to increase.

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network currently tracks more than 27,000 objects, some being functional spacecraft, but most of which are debris. NASA estimates there are about 23,000 objects larger than a softball in orbit, and approximately 500,000 particles 0.4 inches in diameter or larger. The smaller objects are too difficult to track consistently.

Collisions and near-misses have happened in recent years. In February 2009, a nonfunctioning Russian satellite, called the Cosmos 2251, crashed into an operational commercial satellite owned by Iridium Satellite—the first collision between two satellites in orbit. 

The crash created nearly 2,000 pieces of debris larger than four inches in diameter, as well as thousands of smaller pieces of debris, according to research by Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation.

In January 2020, a narrowly avoided collision raised alarms about orbital debris again. Two nonoperational satellites—one launched in 1983, and another, launched in 1967—were predicted to pass within 40 feet of each other. The satellites were traveling in essentially opposite orbits, meaning a collision would have been head-on. Their paths ultimately didn’t intersect, but for many experts, the fly-by was too close for comfort.

Worth Your Time

  • In a deeply reported piece for Politico, Natasha Korecki and Nahal Toosi detail the psychological and emotional trauma the Biden administration’s Afghanistan withdrawal inflicted on frontline State Department employees. “As they feverishly attempted to assist Afghans and Americans stranded in the war-torn country and fielded a crush of calls and emails—the inbox where the State Department directed Afghans to send Special Immigrant Visa applications crashed at least once—officials say they were unclear of their own authorities and what policies they were allowed to employ to help evacuate people,” Korecki and Toosi write. “‘This experience broke a lot of people, including me,’ a second State Department official said. ‘We were all getting inundated by personal requests to help specific people from everyone we’ve ever known or worked with. And we were powerless to do anything, really.’”

  • If you’re at all interested in the ongoing debate over ivermectin’s efficacy as a COVID-19 therapeutic, there isn’t a better piece to read than this incredibly in-depth one from Scott Alexander. “Ivermectin optimism isn’t exactly like vaccine denialism—it’s a less open-and-shut question, you can still make a plausible argument for it,” he writes. “But it’s some of the same people and follows the same dynamics. If we want to make people more willing to get vaccines, or less willing to take ivermectin, we have to make the scientific establishment feel less like an enclave of hostile aliens to half the population. Do that, and people will mostly take COVID-related advice, for the same reason they mostly take advice around avoiding asbestos or using sunscreen—both things we’ve successfully convinced people to do even without having a perfect encapsulation of the scientific method or the ideal balance between evidence and authority.”

  • In the New York Times, Margaret Renkl pens a love letter to small retail shops and local bookstores. “The supply-chain snarls may be giving us the nudge we need to putter about in our favorite shops again, looking for something that would make a loved one’s eyes light up,” she writes in anticipation of the holiday season. “If you’re hoping to find something unexpected and delightful, you’ll need to go to the little local shops that have survived in the age of online shopping by being quirky and brave, and by knowing their customers well enough to say, ‘I think you would love this.’ I’m thinking of the garden center with the pretty ceramic planters made by a local potter. The zero-waste store with the shampoo bars and the reusable mesh produce bags and the dryer balls made from organic wool. The gift shops at local landmarks and museums, the family-owned toy stores with dusty shelves packed to the very rafters. Most of all I’m thinking of local bookstores, where you can say, ‘My son is into hiking’ or ‘My husband loves John le Carré,’ and a bookseller will start holding up options.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On yesterday’s Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Jonah, Chris, and Declan break down the political blame game on inflation. Will President Biden’s agenda make the situation better or worse? Have rising prices already doomed Democrats’ midterm chances? 

  • For more on inflation—and what lessons we can learn from it—check out Scott Lincicome’s latest Capitolism (🔒). “Regardless of whether you think inflation is temporary or longer-lasting, there’s little doubt that U.S. policymakers have repeatedly been too sanguine about how hot prices would get, how broad these price pressures would be, and how long they would stay that way,” he writes. 

  • In Wednesday’s G-File (🔒), Jonah responds to a Christopher DeMuth op-ed from last week making a “Flight 93”-style case for national conservatism. “Things are complicated,” he writes. “But what is obvious to me is that the threat to the country is not lessened when conservatives think the answer to that threat is to emulate progressive tactics and categories of thought.”

  • On the site today, Paul Miller laments the decline in the rigor of college education, noting that “grade inflation, the disappearance of a meaningful core curriculum, and the rise of vocational training means that a bachelor’s degree does not mean what it used to mean.” 

Let Us Know

Are supply-chain backups affecting your holiday shopping plans at all? If you can’t get the latest console or television, what are your alternatives? And if you have any suggestions for Steve to deal with a potential Spanish wine shortage, drop a note below!

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).