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Remarks on the ‘Catholic Standard’ editorial on the lesbian/Communion controvery

March 3, 2012

An unsigned editorial at the Archdiocese of Washington website discusses “Honoring the Communion line” (1 mar 2012). Setting aside its clumsy title, I offer some reactions to it.

Recently there has been discussion about receiving Holy Communion, what it means, when a person should not receive Communion or even not be given Communion. To start we have to recognize what the Catholic Church means by the Eucharist and, therefore, the reception of Holy Communion. In his last encyclical letter, ‘Ecclesia de Eucharistia’, Blessed John Paul II reminds us, “When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the memorial of her Lord’s death and resurrection, the central mystery of salvation becomes really present and the work of our redemption is carried out” (11). The celebration of the Eucharist culminates in the reception of Holy Communion. The Church teaches us that “at the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood … The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ” (CCC 1333). All of this seems sound to me.

When a person presents himself or herself for Communion, such an action is on the part of the recipient of Communion a public declaration, among other things, of the following: (1) The person is a baptized member of the Catholic Church; (2) the person accepts and tries to live the teaching of the Church in matters of faith and morals, and (3) the person has received sacramental absolution in confession if conscious of a serious failure in living out the teaching of the Church. As the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ teaches, “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion” (CCC 1385). All of this seems sound to me, though using the word “failure” as the equivalent of “sin” always strikes me as blinking in the face of hard truth.

Thus an enormous responsibility falls on the shoulders of the person coming forward to receive Communion. The Church is being asked to take this person at his or her word that all of the above conditions are, in fact, realized. It would be disingenuous, not to say dishonest, for persons to claim to be Catholic and to wish to receive Holy Communion if in fact they did not accept or follow the Church’s teaching or, if having failed in the teaching, they did not receive absolution in confession. All of this seems sound to me.

For example, a person who violated the Fifth Commandment and had participated in an abortion, or had violated the Sixth Commandment and had sexual activity outside of marriage or was unfaithful to a spouse, or who violated the Seventh Commandment by continuing to embezzle from the company for which he or she worked, or the Eighth Commandment by simply bearing public false witness against a neighbor, could not in good conscience get into the Communion line. Presence in the Communion line under such circumstances would simply be dishonest. Assuming the sins listed here were grave in specific fact (as they likely would be), these examples seem sound to me.

Getting in line to receive Holy Communion carries with it a grave responsibility before God. There are objective moral norms by which one’s conscience must be formed. To conscientiously receive Communion, one must try to live those norms. Saint Paul tells us, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27). Using the word “conscientiously” here is odd, but the assertions seem generally sound to me.

On the part of the one distributing Holy Communion there should be the presumption of the integrity of the persons presenting themselves to receive the body and blood of the Lord. The strength of the presumption in favor of reception could be underscored, and would include Canons 18, 213, 843, and 912.

That trust can be presumed until it is proven to be misplaced. Too many terms in this short sentence are ambiguous; it might be sound or it might be liable to being misunderstood.

However, there are instances when the one distributing Communion is to refuse Communion. True, and this crucial point needs to be hammered home until people understand that approaching for holy Communion, and be given holy Communion, are related but distinct actions governed by related but distinct norms.

The two most notable examples are if a person is excommunicated, that is publicly declared not to be a member of the Church, or if a person publicly attempts to use Communion for purposes other than its intended spiritual benefit – that is if one were to use it publicly for political purposes. This paragraph is a shambles. Excommunication is not a declaration that one is not a member of the Church; more to the point, there are three, not two, categories of persons to be excluded from reception of Communion, and while excommunicates are one of those groups (along with those under interdict), the third category of those to be denied holy Communion are those “obstinately preserving in manifest grave sin“, a category that might include those who use the Eucharist for political purposes, but in far more cases has nothing whatsoever to do with such schemes.

Thus, if a person had been publicly excommunicated as, for example, was the Louisiana politician Leander Perez years ago for publicly attempting through his political office to physically impede the Church in the exercise of its ministry when the Archdiocese of New Orleans began the desegregation of its schools, that person should not be given Communion. It’s not necessary to go back 50 years to find examples of excommunication, but that aside, naturally, Perez was prohibited from taking holy Communion while he was excommunicated.

Excommunication is meant for a grave crime and is rarely declared by the Church. True, as a statement of fact at any rate.

This penalty is not intended as a punishment, but as a remedy for serious sin. All penalties are meant at least in part as “punishment”, but the main purpose of excommunication is to bring about reform in the offender. I think that was probably meant here, but the language is not sufficiently clear.

Public excommunication is imposed and removed only by those in the Church authorized to do so. True.

Another example [nb: not of excommunication, of course, but of one whose public actions make him/her ineligible to be given holy Communion] would be for a person wearing a sign or symbol indicating rejection of Catholic teaching on some aspect of faith and morals to insist on receiving Communion as an act of religious defiance. This is sound, and is a welcome reiteration that sacramental consequences can follow from one’s turning Mass and the sacraments into occasions to bully the Church.

Here Communion is being misused. To say the least.

The reception of the Body and Blood of our Lord in Communion is an integral part of the celebration of the Eucharist and, as such, the communicant participates in the greatest of all of the actions of the Catholic Church – her Eucharist. It is out of her faith in the Lord and her love for him and the desire to celebrate the mystery of our redemption that the Church calls everyone to sincerity of heart as they approach the altar. At Mass we are reminded that what we are doing we do “in spirit and in truth.” Everyone involved in distributing and receiving Communion is called to recognize the power of the Spirit present, a Spirit of love, and our obligation to walk in the truth – the revelation proclaimed by the Church. This seems sound to me.

The Communion line is that moment when we approach to have Christ join himself with us, “mingling his body and blood with ours, sharing his soul and divinity with our poor humanity” (His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl, “The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition”). It is a time to be prepared. So if we are not prepared, we must wait and return when we can receive him most [I would not have said “most”, as it occasions scrupulosity in some] worthily. In the Communion line, the only statements to be made are Jesus’ saving action for us and our “Amen.” This seems sound to me.

My other remarks:

I’m not sure what the point of this editorial was.

If it was to provide basic catechesis on holy Communion, then, with the glaring exception of the paragraph beginning “The two most notable examples”, it serves well enough. But if, as I suspect from the opening sentence of the editorial and its timing, it was meant to explain the norms (chiefly c. 915) for withholding holy Communion from a would-be recipient—norms that are distinct from those informing the would-be recipient’s decision to approach the Sacrament in the first place (per c. 916)—then the editorial fails to set out those norms correctly or to defend them vigorously.

Accuracy of content and clarity of presentation are always in season, of course, but these vexatious times seem to cry for both to be especially honored in setting forth the Church’s teaching and discipline on such crucial matters as administration of holy Communion. The Washington lesbian Communion case has been marked, in my opinion, by very poor explanations of too-poorly understood laws.

So, let me summarize the matter one more time.

There is not, and never has been, the slightest doubt but that a Catholic woman living a lesbian lifestyle should not approach for holy Communion, per Canon 916. One so approaching risks receiving the Eucharist to her own condemnation. 1 Corinthians XI: 27. But, once any Catholic approaches for the public reception of holy Communion, a different norm controls the situation, namely, Canon 915. The only question in this case is, and has always been, whether the centuries-old criteria for withholding holy Communion from a member of the faithful were satisfied at the time this woman approached this minister. Unless all of those criteria were satisfied at that time, then, no matter what moral offense the woman might have committed by approaching for the Sacrament in her state (for which action she would be accountable before God), the minister of holy Communion acted illicitly. Period. End of paragraph.

Now, if the minister of the Church acted illicitly in this case (and the information available to me indicates that he did), he needs to be corrected (not punished, corrected). That said, his evident love for Our Lord in the Eucharist, and the conditions under which this decision seem to have been suddenly thrust upon him, suggest that there is no deep disrespect for certain members of the faithful at work in him, and the demands for him to be severely disciplined seem aimed more at exploiting the incident than at resolving it.

Almost every aspect of this case underscores, in my opinion, the crucial need for more rigorous training of ministers in questions of sacramental discipline. Perhaps never have the members of the Church been in greater need of sacramental ministration; perhaps never have they brought with them less understanding of the sacraments; and, for sure, never have they possessed more power to broadcast their misunderstandings of the sacraments to others, this, to their detriment, of course, but also to the Church’s.   + + +

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