Monday, June 21, 2021

Stop making Protestant arguments against Catholic bishops!

There is a tempest in a teapot among many of my ministerial colleagues about what the American bishops of the Roman Catholic Church have just done regarding President Biden and other Catholic elected officials. National Public Radio reports:

After a contentious debate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has voted to move forward with a process that could call into question the eligibility of politicians like President Joe Biden to receive Communion.

The bishops voted 168-55 in favor of drafting "a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church," officials announced on Friday afternoon, the final day of their three-day virtual meeting. Six bishops abstained.

Biden's election as only the nation's second Roman Catholic president has prompted renewed debate over denying Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, a position at odds with church teachings.

During their online meeting, bishops held a spirited discussion Thursday before voting on the proposal to direct the bishops' Committee on Doctrine to draft the statement. Such a document, once completed, could include guidelines for denying Communion to public officials.

I say that the reax by my colleagues is a tempest in a teapot not because the issue is not serious but that across the vast spectrum of Americans the bishops' decision has been met with a gigantic yawn, including by the vast majority of non-Catholic clergy. 

However, many are not happy about it at all. Here is a typical response:


In this post, I am arguing neither for nor against denial of Communion as a practice in the RCC. I am making no judgment whether denying it to President Biden, et. al., should be done or not. My two main points are: 
  1. The RCC's theology of this matter has no real cognate in Protestant churches, so arguing against denial from a Protestant basis is like stepping into a boxing ring by yourself, shadow boxing against an opponent who is not there, then claiming victory in a fight you never actually fought. 
     
  2. It is pretty obvious that tweets like this are not really directed at the RCC bishops, for this is not an attempt to persuade the bishops to reverse. This and other, similar tweets and posts are directed toward the posters own in-group to signal that they are defending not a superior theology of Communion, but political figures whose abortion advocacy must be protected. These are not religious or theological tweets or posts, they are political declarations hiding behind religious language. 
That said, I do not personally take issue with RevDaniel's implied theology of Communion here. The problem is that he is using a very Protestant argument against Catholic bishops, who if they ever read this will know immediately that RevDaniel knows almost nothing about the Catholic theology of the Eucharist (Communion). 

First, RCCs very emphatically believe that no one is worthy of receiving the Eucharist; their catechism says so very precisely. Communicants, those who receive the sacrament, are not worthy of the sacrament but are made eligible by obeying the commandments of Scripture regarding the sacrament. The formal Catholic teaching, or catechism, of the Eucharist includes:

1384 The Lord addresses an invitation to us, urging us to receive him in the sacrament of the Eucharist: "Truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."

1385 To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself."218 Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.

1386 Before so great a sacrament, the faithful can only echo humbly and with ardent faith the words of the Centurion: "Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea" ("Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul will be healed.").

The key sentence for this post is, "Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion." What the bishops are insisting is that abortion on demand is a grave sin, and its political advocates and enablers would be partaking of the Eucharist in an unworthy manner unless they complete the steps of Reconciliation. Those steps are Confession, receiving Absolution from a priest, and doing the Penance assigned. 

We Protestants need to understand that the sacraments of the RCC are a system and are closely interrelated. This is not much true in my denomination, the United Methodist Church. Our two sacraments of baptism and Communion are related, but not much interrelated. 

Besides, even we UMC ministers formally (though not in practice) "fence" the Communion table in the first paragraph of the litany by saying, 

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.

And then we require confession! (Though the confession is a scripted prayer said by the whole congregation, not privately to a pastor.) But read that sentence carefully: We formally (again, not in practice) invite to Communion only those who love God, who repent of sin (which is what the RCC bishops are demanding in the present controversy, only they really mean it) and who want to live peacefully with one another. 

Barring persons from the Communion table has never been part of the UMC's theology, doctrine, or practice, so our verbal fence around the table is mostly symbolic and also a call for each person to examine themselves. However, before we get our Protestant backs up, we should consider that formally, we are not much different from the RCC in qualifying who may receive the sacrament. It's just that the RCC is far more likely to mean it. 

These are not religious or theological tweets or posts, they are political declarations hiding behind religious language. 

Update: An email from a practicing Catholic, Joseph S., points out that the denial of Communion (to one who has sinned and is unrepentant) is intended to protect that person from compounding his or her sin by receiving the sacrament in an unrepentant state. So, yes, denial of Communion is aimed at correction but also at protection. In this way denial of Communion is an act of pastoral care and Christian love. 

Update: Have done some more reading on this general topic, not about the Biden-Communion controversy. There have been for a long time, decades if not centuries, debates within Catholicism about the Eucharist being served to persons still in grave sin, such as divorced Catholics whose marriage was never annulled by the Church and who have since remarried. Catholic doctrine (and some Protestant denominations) consider that to be adultery, which is a state of grave sin. These have been serious debates of varying intensity over the years/decades, and were not tied to politics. A strict interpretation has held that Catholics still in grave sin (politically tinged or not!) should not receive the Eucharist. Some also say that such persons should not be allowed to serve in public ministry such as being a lector, who are lay persons reading Scripture of litanies during worship. So, even within the RCC, eligibility to receive the Eucharist has long been a very complicated issue on matters other than abortion for at least several decades. However, this present controversy could have far-reaching outcomes on Communion and matters other than abortion. As lawyers say, the bishops' lopsided vote on the abortion-Biden matter could set a precedent for other issues unrelated to abortion but still related to the sacrament. We should all pray for the Holy Spirit to be heard and heeded!

Also, the whole concept of denying Communion to a church member is widely misunderstood among non-Catholics to be a form of priestly punishment upon a sinful church member. That is not so. In fact, the emphasis of denial is that the person concerned should be encouraged and assisted to repent and reconcile by their own volition to enable them to approach the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ. Grudging repentance is not repentance at all. It is submission to power, not an acceptance of divine love and its return to God by the communicant. But the Church's goal is to help bring its members to, or back to, a state of loving God and neighbor with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to receive Eucharist in that state, not in mere submission to priestly authority.

The responsibility is on the communicant, God and the Church being his/her helper. I am far from certain that the publicity of the recent vote regarding the president and other Catholic politicians is very helpful, and I have to imagine that among Catholic clerics there is no little discussion of that. 

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