I would not have made the decision that the American Catholic bishops just made. They voted by a three-to-one majority to authorize the drafting of a statement on “on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.”
It has been reported as having a single, simple political motivation, to bar pro-choice politicians from Communion. Motives are complicated things, but that’s simply not true. It is important to put this event into context. This is the next step in a long, painful conversation in the Catholic Church.
It’s Church and Eucharist
There are two very important elements of Catholic tradition to keep in mind in analyzing the bishop’s decision, one formal, one material.
The formal issue at play is ecclesiology, the understanding of the Church. The Catholic Church has a much more complex account of authority and individual conscience than most folks imagine. It has at least as complex an account of how Catholics can and should be involved in the processes of the political bodies of which they are part.
In the midst of these issues, though, there is a particular question that has to be answered: if someone identified as a Catholic in good standing has publicly disavowed a settled teaching of the Church, what should the bishops do? What action do those charged with preserving the tradition and the unity of the Church take?
Answers Not Obvious
The answers are not obvious. Does withholding Communion depend on how important the teaching is in the Church? Or on how vigorously the politicians disavow it? On how publicly they disavow it? Does it matter whether the person is currently a Catholic who is very connected to the Church or walked away from the Church years ago?
There are precedents in the Church on all of these questions, but you can see that there’s a lot to consider. And part of the worry here involves the knock-on effects. If the bishops don’t say or do anything, will they create confusion or weaken the teaching? (It’s possible, after all, to have a teaching “on the books” that has now been called into question.)
The Catholic Church holds that while Catholic politicians are under no obligation to hold others to every point of Church teaching, the Catholics who do become politicians remain obligated to avoid “cooperating” with evil. The goal of discipline is not punishment. The goal is to get the person to change.
All Christians have to take some stance on these questions, the questions generally referred to under the category of “Church discipline.” The precedent for this goes back to the Gospels themselves. Matthew 18, for example, offers the following multi-step strategy for engaging someone who is in the wrong.
First, go to the person privately. If the offending person repents, no more action is required. Second, if the person won’t listen, go back with two or three witnesses to have the conversation again. Third, if the person still refuses to listen and repent, bring the person before the full church body and make the case against them. Fourth and finally, in the case of long-term and committed refusal to be corrected, the church is to excommunicate the sinner.
Two brief points in this matter of Church discipline: All this applies only to members of the Church. It’s not the Church’s job to police the world. This has only to do with the family of the Church. And the Catholic Church holds that while Catholics who become politicians are under no obligation to hold others to every point of Church teaching, the Catholics who do become politicians remain obligated to avoid “cooperating” with evil. The same goes for politicians who become Catholic. Even more important, the goal here is not punishment. The goal is to get the person to change.
The Material Issue
The material issue in this case is the Eucharist. Again, the Catholic Church has a complicated account of what the Eucharist is. It’s described as a “mystery,” which technically means it is not something that human beings can ever fully grasp or explain.
Critics of the bishops’ decision have noted two understandings of the Eucharist. First, the Eucharist is a shared meal. This way of thinking about the Eucharist tends to emphasize hospitality. Second, the Eucharist is a source of healing, nourishment, and renewal for those who receive it. As Pope Francis has said, “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
But there is more to say about both of these models. Other models are, traditionally, much more central, at least in pre-modern Christianity and in modern Catholic teaching (as well as in Orthodox teaching and in some Protestant traditions).
Traditionally, the hospitality of the Eucharist is above all a hospitality extended from God to human beings and shared by them, not hospitality originating from human beings. (Christians certainly are called to exercise hospitality, but primarily in other ways.) The Eucharist as medicine helpfully reminds us that one need not be perfect to receive. But that does mean that it doesn’t matter how one receives.
Other analogies may get at the understanding of the Eucharist relevant to politicians and communion. The Eucharist is the most sacred and most intimate act in which Christians engage. You could think of the way we treat other things that we imagine as “sacred” or “intimate.” We don’t show up for funerals wearing swim trunks. We don’t have sex with our spouse on the front lawn.
And again, very ancient precedents in the Christian tradition suggest that how we receive Eucharist really, really matters. In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes this: “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”
More to Say
There is much more to say about all this, and there are many other important questions to be asked. Isn’t it the case that Catholic politicians have to make decisions as politicians and not as Catholics? (The Catholic answer is no.) Isn’t all of this really between the individual person and God? (The Catholic answer is no.) Isn’t it at least up to the individual person to decide whether they’re ready to receive? (The Catholic answer is Well … yes and no.)
In the end, it is a complex matter. It is certainly not helpfully addressed by sound bytes or memes.
For other explanations of the matter, see Peter Wolfgang’s The Anti-Catholic Catholic Politicians. It’s Not Just About Communion Anymore and Ken Craycraft’s If the Eucharist isn’t Political, to Hell with It.
Holly Taylor Coolman is assistant professor of theology at Providence College. She specializes in christology, ecclesiology, and Jewish-Christian relations. Her previous article for the Catholic Herald was Donald Trump Was Bad for the Catholic Church.
Photo credit: Joe Biden and his wife Jill at the funeral Mass for his mother (Susan Walsh/AFP via Getty Images); men receiving Communion standing (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images); family receiving Communion kneeling (Three Lions/Getty Images).
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