The Bishops on Holy Communion

Fr. Edward Beck, CP is a Passionist priest of the St. Paul of the Cross province and an analyst on religion for CNN. I had never heard of him prior to his opinion piece that was published earlier this week on the CNN website that showed up in the news feed on my lap top, so I’m not familiar with his take on other matters. This one caught my eye, though, and I read it. I have to say, it was one of the most disheartening things I have ever read from the pen of a Catholic priest, filled with misinformation and obviously written with the intent to either mislead his confreres in the faith, or from a serious lack of knowledge about the history and theology of the Eucharist.

Fr. Beck is upset, very upset it seems, that the U. S. Catholic bishops have voted to draft a document on the Eucharist, which all are presuming will include considerations for the worthy reception of Holy Communion, and which the secular press is interpreting as a possible public rebuke of President Joe Biden, the self-identified “devout Catholic” who nevertheless supports policies on abortion, same-sex marriage, gender ideology, and religious liberty that are contrary to Catholic teaching. Fr. Beck believes that the document will cause division among the faithful, just as he believes the debate over the document and the vote in favor of drafting it itself has caused division among the bishops. He writes, “The contentious debate of this week’s American Catholic bishops’ meeting threatens to have this sacrament become a symbol of division and a political and religious weapon. I wonder what the Jesus who prayed, ‘Father, may they all be one,’ would think.”

First of all, the Eucharist can never be a symbol of division. The Eucharist is and always can be only a symbol of unity among the faithful. What is a symbol of division, and even more than a symbol, but an action that brings about division, is the demand that those who have publicly rejected central articles of Catholic faith and morals and are publicly committed to lives that counter the gospel be allowed to receive Holy Communion on their terms. What also causes division are those bishops, priests, and deacons who stand silent in the face of such sacrilege, refusing to enforce the tradition and law of the Church.

As for the Eucharist being politicized and weaponized, I addressed that in my post some months ago on “The Bishops and Biden”:

I have heard it said that to deny Biden, or any Catholic politician, Holy Communion would be to politicize the Eucharist. This is an absurd argument. First, while abortion is a political issue, it is not only a political issue. Much like other great moral matters that were once dominant in political debate, such as slavery or women’s suffrage, abortion transcends politics. It is a moral matter that touches deeply on the common good. It is a spiritual matter that touches deeply on the state of one’s soul. It is, literally, a matter of life and death that touches deeply on the intrinsic dignity of the human person and our obligation to respect such dignity. It is grave matter in all respects, and not just politically. Second, if denying a politician Holy Communion politicizes the Eucharist, then the historic practice and pastoral duty of the Church to rebuke the sinner and protect the sanctity of the sacraments would apply to all Catholics except politicians. Politicians merit an exemption from or remain outside the grasp of the Church’s pastoral responsibility simply because they are politicians? That makes no sense. If anything, Catholics who have dedicated themselves to the difficult work of public service, a service that often requires wrestling with moral dilemmas, ought to more avail themselves of the Church’s pastoral guidance and ministry, and Church ministers ought to make themselves available to them. Certainly that pastoral guidance cannot be reduced to, “Well, Joe, you’re a politician, so all I can offer is – do what you think is right!”

I think those, like Fr. Beck, who claim that to deny Holy Communion to those who support abortion is politicizing and weaponizing the sacrament have, to some extent, forgotten what legal abortion is: the legal willful destruction of innocent human life. Forgetting this, it’s easy to reduce it to a political football only. But, abortion is more than politics. It is life and death. It is death to the body for those who suffer it, and death to the soul for those mothers who obtain it freely and with full knowledge of the consequences, as it is to the souls of those who support it. What could be a more grave moral matter than the willful destruction of innocent human life? Let’s be clear, if Catholics who support and work for the legalization of abortion may not be denied Holy Communion, than no one may be denied Holy Communion based on one’s public actions of grave moral wrong. You can be the owner and director of an abortion clinic. You can be the Grand Dragon of your local Ku Klux Klan chapter. You can be in charge of the ovens at Auschwitz. If working for the legalization of killing innocent people is not grounds for denying a “devout Catholic” Holy Communion, none of these are grounds for denying Holy Communion. One can only consider giving Holy Communion to such Catholics justified if one forgets or denies what abortion is.

Yes, Jesus prayed that all may be one. Why? Because He knew there would be those who would like to tear the Church apart, or form the Church in their image rather than in His. But He also said to His disciples, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three” (Lk 12:51-52). Serving Christ and remaining faithful to Him and His teachings takes priority over unity, as He told the disciples at the end of the Gospel According to Matthew to teach those they baptize, “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20a).

St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, affirms this, telling those he has brought to Christ, “I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10). St. Paul is insisting that those in the Church agree on teaching and action for the purpose of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. But, St. Paul is not a pollyanna. He knows too well that there will be divisions, and in the same letter even says there must be divisions. “First of all, I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you, and to a degree I believe it; there have to be factions among you in order that also those who are approved among you may become known” (1 Cor 11:18-19). The footnote in The Didache Bible associated with this verse is interesting. It reads: “Paul situates their divisions within the context of the eschatological separation of the authentic from the inauthentic and the final revelation of the difference. The notion of authenticity-testing recurs in the injunction to self-examination in view of the present and future judgment (1 Cor 11:28-32).”

That “injunction to self-examination” of which the footnote refers is in the context of reception of the Eucharist. “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29). The unity of the Eucharist, then, is not based on nothing, much less on a false sense of communion, what some today might call a “cultural Catholicism.” Rather, it is based on all understanding the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice and being united in that meaning, which implies a unity in His teaching, in “all that I have commanded you.” St. Paul speaks to this unity based on the teaching of Jesus in his Letter to the Romans: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who create dissension and obstacles, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by flair and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the innocent” (Rm 16:17-18). Again, the footnote in The Didache Bible associated with this verse makes it clear: “The people who were creating ‘dissension and difficulties’ were false teachers, who showed more interest in gratifying the flesh through gluttonous behavior than sacrificing themselves for the Kingdom of God.” Whether it is the “gluttonous behavior” of the first century Church members or the desire for political power among today’s pro-abortion Catholics, the bottom line is: our unity is based on our adherence to the teachings of Jesus, not on our claims of personal devotion.

Fr. Beck insults the bishops, on either side of the debate, by referring to those who voted against drafting a document on the Eucharist as “pro-Francis” bishops, implying that those who voted in favor of drafting a document are “anti-Francis.” This is ridiculous and sophomoric. It is reducing the bishops and their legitimate concerns, as he does elsewhere, to parties or factions based on his presumption on whether they stand with or against the pope. Does Fr. Beck really believe that the bishops who desire to teach on the meaning and holiness of the Eucharist are “anti-Francis”? These labels are a disservice to his readers.

Fr. Beck says that the faithful wonder, “Where … was the ire of some of these ‘pro-document’ bishops with the flagrantly objectionable behavior of the former President, who openly opposed teachings of the Catholic Church on issues such as immigration, capital punishment, poverty, racism and climate change, and who was cruel toward the weak, the poor, people of color and people with disabilities?” Not affirming or denying Fr. Beck’s assertion that Trump was “cruel toward the weak, the poor, people of color and people with disabilities,” the point is, the bishops often criticized President Trump’s policy positions when they countered Church teaching, as is confirmed by Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ in his article in “America” magazine (not exactly a bastion of pro-Trump politics!), “Analysis: Catholic bishops reprimand Trump as often as they praise him.” In point of fact, however, Trump has nothing to do with the conversation on whether pro-abortion Catholic politicians ought to be receiving Holy Communion. It’s a red herring, which is a logical fallacy. Fr. Beck ought to know better.

Fr. Beck quotes Pope Francis from his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, where the Holy Father writes, “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” This is true! Yet, this quote doesn’t apply to Biden’s situation, or other Catholics who publicly support the legalization of abortion. Biden is not “weak,” as is the sinner who desires to be faithful to the gospel but too often falls. Rather, he is in public dissent. Has Biden said or done anything to give anyone the idea that he believes his support for abortion, his support for same-sex marriage and gender ideology, or his attacks on religious liberty are sinful or immoral, weaknesses for which he approaches the Eucharist to seek healing? If he feels this way, he needs to say so publicly, and his public actions and adopted policies ought to be consistent with such. Why? Because his policy positions that counter the Catholic faith and morals he claims are public policies that have the potential to cause scandal among the faithful.

Fr. Beck gives his opinion that, “the issue of his reception of Communion is a private matter between him and his confessor. Can anyone else truly know the heart and intent of someone? One’s reception of Communion is in accord with personal deliberation based on one’s informed moral conscience. The person makes the decision, not the bishops or even the Pope.” Fr. Beck is twice incorrect here. First, knowing “the heart and intent” of one who presents for Holy Communion is not the point, and not the basis on which the Church may deny Communion to anyone. Neither is it a matter of one’s “personal deliberation based on one’s informed conscience.” Certainly the decision to present oneself for the reception of Holy Communion is a matter of “personal deliberation based on one’s informed conscience.” But, a decision to deny one who presents him or herself for Holy Communion has nothing to do with the person’s heart, intent, or personal deliberation. It has to do with his or her public actions that constitute objective and grave moral wrong. Second, the reception of Holy Communion is not a private matter between the Catholic and his or her confessor. The Church has always claimed responsibility for protecting the believer’s soul against the horror of sacrilege and guarding the integrity of the sacraments, including the Eucharist, and has set parameters for the worthy reception of Holy Communion from the earliest centuries. In his First Apology c. 150, St. Justin Martyr wrote, “We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined (emphasis added). The expectation that worthy reception of the Eucharist meant “living as Christ has enjoined” has been the expectation of the Church from her earliest decades. The Code of Canon Law, revised in 1983, says, “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” (emphasis added). Finally, it is the prerogative of the bishop of a diocese to inform, usually after personal communication and counsel, that a Catholic may not present him or herself for Holy Communion in his diocese, and the reason for such. So, no, it is not simply that “the person makes the decision.” The bishop has the authority to inform an individual Catholic who is excommunicated, under interdict, or “obstinately persists in manifest grave sin” that he or she may not receive Holy Communion in his diocese.

Despite the near sole consideration of the secular press on the question of whether the bishops will deny President Biden Holy Communion, what can we likely expect from the bishops’ document on the Eucharist, a (likely first) draft of which will be considered at their November meeting? Will the bishops include a statement that Catholics, and in particular Catholic politicians, and even more particularly Joe Biden, who support and work for the legalization of abortion may not receive Holy Communion? Certainly not. This was never going to happen. Why? Because a bishop of one diocese does not have the authority to say what a bishop of another diocese may or may not allow. So, the Bishop of Des Moines can insist that a Catholic who obstinately persists in manifest grave sin may not receive Holy Communion in his diocese. But, he cannot tell the Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee that said Catholic may not receive Holy Communion in Pensacola-Tallahassee. Any document of the bishops, then, is going to respect the fact that each bishop retains such authority for his diocese. So, no declared, authoritative national policy is possible, much less likely. This fact, however, will not stop the press and pro-abortion Catholics from declaring victory when the document does not include such a national ban. This is a danger of the entire controversy. The press has been reporting, and Biden and others have been creating the narrative, that “the bishops” are considering banning Biden and other pro-abortion politicians from Holy Communion. When that doesn’t happen, and it won’t and was never going to, they will claim that the bishops succumbed to pressure from the press and the politicians, or the liberal wing of the Catholic Church in the United States, or to the Vatican. None of this will be true, but when has that ever stopped them?

The document will certainly include a reiteration of the Canon Law as noted above, that a Catholic who is excommunicated, under interdict, or who “obstinately persists in manifest grave sin” is not to be admitted to Holy Communion. As such, the status quo will prevail. It will remain, as it always has been, the prerogative of each bishop to determine the policy in his diocese. Why is this important? Because it makes clear that the roots of the controversy are not so much in the politicians or other public figures who support and work for legal abortion. The roots of the controversy, rather, are in the bishops who have refused over the decades to enforce the centuries-old tradition and practice of the Church, and the law of the Church even as it currently stands. Think of it: if the bishops of forty or fifty years ago had made it clear that those who publicly support and use their political or social power to effect and maintain the legalization of abortion were not permitted to receive Holy Communion, we would be living in a very different Church today. Would it be a bigger Church? Perhaps not. But, it would likely be a more faithful Church and, to Fr. Beck’s point, a more united Church. United in faith and morals and practice. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy. That moment is lost. But, that is not to say that the present moment need be. Let’s pray that the bishops today have the where-with-all and courage to proclaim the faith and morals and practice of the Church boldly and consistently, in a united voice. The world will hate us, but it already does. “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33).

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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