A certain daydream comes upon me whenever some ranking churchman makes a sally in the culture war that leaves me stranded behind enemy lines. I am lying in a hospice, days or hours from death. A priest comes to my bedside and offers to anoint, absolve and feed me the Blessed Sacrament. Without rancor, and even with a touch of humor, I inform him that I am no longer in communion with the Church, and suggest he save his sacraments for somebody who can use them. As I dismiss him with a wave, I watch his face, noting how his look of surprise gives way to one of admiration, since it’s rare that anyone in extremis will make such a principled stand.
I had occasion to re-visit this vignette yesterday, as I was collecting information on Archbishop Chaput for next week’s Patheos column. For better or worse, one definitve moment in Chaput’s career, both as bishop and as Church opinion-maker, came last April at the University of Notre Dame. During a Q & A session following his lecture, he begged his audience for help in convincing other U.S. bishops “to say that if you’re Catholic and you’re pro-choice, you can’t receive holy Communion.”
The idea that presenting myself for Communion should require me to complete a checklist of my political positions is a very new one. For all his reputation as a hard-liner, my own bishop, the Most Reverend Thomas J. Olmsted, hasn’t insisted on it. But even if NCR’s Michael Sean Winters is right that it represents a “lousy” interpretation of Canon 915, there is an unquestionable clarity in it.
Clarity is good. At fall rush at Arizona State University, I showed up in sweaty gym clothes, carrying my lacrosse equipment over my shoulder. (The team held practice on the bandfield right across the street from Fraternity Row. I figured I‘d double up, and in any case, lacrosse struck me as a frat-boy sport.) Nobody among the Dekes or Sigma Chis told me explicitly to get lost; rather, they urged me to seek out an environment “where you’ll fit in” or “where you’ll feel comfortable.” Not wanting to believe I was being blown off, I lingered at their tables, long after members of the rush committee started shouting over the top of my head to the preppies behind me.
Over the years, I’ve re-lived the experience in other contexts. Women have gone from warm to cold with no explanation. HR interviewers have fixed me with queasy smiles and filled up my allotted fifteen minutes quizzing me about the items on my resume least relevant to the job I was after. After my mortgage pipeline cracked and crumbled, the owner of the brokerage moved me from an office in the very center of the floor to one on the far end, which doubled as a storage room. (No, fans of Office Space, he didn’t ask me to kill roaches, but only because roaches are rare in Arizona. If a scorpion had turned up, doing him in would have been my responsibility.)
The point is, in every case, a swift and brutal break would have been preferable. If the denial of Communion represents such a break, then I’m way ahead of Church authorities, since I’ve often imposed it on myself. Sometimes I do it for odd reasons. Shortly after my parish changed hands, the new pastor slipped what I interpreted as a plug for SB 1070 into one of his homilies. Though worthy that week, I declined to receive. It was a politer form of protest than several I could think of. I made the same decision when visiting another parish, whose pastor converted his entire homily into a demand for tithes. Oh, so there’s a cover charge? I thought. Fine; cancel my order.
Since October, I’ve received Communion maybe three or four times. Abortion hasn’t been the issue. In fact, no single issue has been the issue. But as more calls for Catholic identity come from the pulpit and appear in the press, I sometimes wonder whether I’ve joined the Church I thought I was joining. Bluntly, I cannot be sure I identify strongly enough as Catholic to satisfy the people who judge such things. Is my piety Marian enough? Am I angry enough at the New York Times? Do I feel strongly enough that I belong to an unjustly persecuted minority? Doubtful that I could answer these questions correctly, I feel imperfectly in Communion, and I let that sense guide me during the Liturgy.
“Empowerment” is a corny word, let’s face it. But the act of refusing Communion, especially in those instances receiving would tend to deny some basic philosophical disconnect, at least gives me the right to claim some integrity. Whatever else I’m doing, I’m not sneaking around or crossing my fingers. It also kicks the last lever out from under me. If there were any danger that fear of being turned away from the table could drive me to disavow some hard-won opinion, embracing the most dangerous outcome squashes the fear.
For a writer, that freedom is vital, and sometimes works to the Church’s benefit. Reading up on Chaput, I find myself most drawn to his gifts — his energy, his extroversion, and his genius for speaking Church-speak with real passion. That last one does not grow on trees, believe me. Chaput wrote for the Denver Catholic Register: “Same-sex unions, whatever legal form they take, cannot create new life. They cannot duplicate the love of a man and woman. But they do copy marriage and family, and in the process, they compete with and diminish the uniquely important status of both.” Coming from Chaput, this sounds less like the Natural Law of Thomas Aquinas than the Natural Law of James Cagney.
Note that these high ratings are unclouded by fear. Edmund Burke wrote: “The wise determine from the gravity of the case the irritable, from sensibility to oppression the high minded, from disdain and indignation at abusive power in unworthy hands.” Now, I’m sure many of Chaput’s critics qualify as high-minded or wise, but I know I don’t. What makes me irritable is the thought that some EM — believing that something I’d written had caused scandal — might yank the Blessed Sacrament out of my grasp while wagging an admonitory finger. By rationing my own consumption carefully, I can spare myself any such humiliation. I’ll be safely in my pew, tapping my foot and taking notes.