24 May 2004

One Bread

I heard about half of an interesting discussion on NPR this morning about the role of bishops proscribing the reception of holy communion by politicians who hold certain beliefs antithetical to the Catholic canon. Recently a few bishops have publicly declared that politicians who support positions (e.g. pro-life) contrary to Church teaching should choose not to receive communion, with some going so far as to say they will refuse to present such persons with the Eucharist should they approach the altar with the intent of taking it.

A huge proportion of Catholics receiving communion on a weekly basis (myself included) are not in the state of grace technically required by the Church to receive the Body & Blood. I've not been to confession in a couple of years and I tend to doubt I'm living fully within the guidelines set out by Mother Church. Furthermore, this is probably the case with the majority of my fellow communicants. I suspect the magisterium is treading on dangerous ground by starting this discussion since it could further divide the laity.

Setting aside the fact that politicians are not alone in sinfulness, is it wise for bishops to weigh in on political issues, using the Eucharist as a lever? I think it demeans the sacrament and the Church. The traditional approach to this issue is that each communicant examine his own conscience when preparing to take communion. Putting the decision about whether someone is in a state to receive communion in the hands of the clergy brings up a whole slew of uncomfortable situations. If the pastor knows person X is cheating on his wife does he just refuse to offer him communion?

Finally, is it really the right time for the bishops to be publicly castigating people for bending to weak morality when some of them have displayed such poor mental and spiritual strength themselves? One caller to the radio station brought this up in a very inarticulate way, kind of yelling about all the crazy pedophile priests and so on. The guests on the show (including the editor of America, the national Catholic weekly magazine) sort of brushed the topic aside saying that accusing the entire priesthood of such behavior based on the actions of a very tiny fraction is bigoted. I agree with that statement, but it isn't the relevant point.

Here's how I see it. A few bishops (at least) abused their power, in stark contrast with the teachings of the Church, to hide and disperse abusive priests. Did they wrestle with their consciences about it? Did they weep to their confessors about it? Did they abstain from saying Mass until they had settled their score with God? I don't know, but all of these things would've happened in private, much as the beliefs and struggles of Catholic politicians must remain separate and private from their duties as sworn upholders of the U.S. Constitution. Using a sacrament as a tool to bludgeon them into line is a disgrace.

The Church sets a very high standard for her members for very good reason— we are all challenged by personal weakness and we need to strive for something better.

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