Playing politics with the sacraments?

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Gene Robinson, retired Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, says the Catholic church is playing politics with the Eucharist.

The comments stem from recent pronouncements that Catholics who oppose the church’s moral teaching should refrain from taking the Eucharist. Neither should they be surprised if denied the sacrament.

“For a Catholic to receive holy Communion and still deny the revelation Christ entrusted to the church is to try to say two contradictory things at once: ‘I believe the church offers the saving truth of Jesus, and I reject what the church teaches,’” said Allen Vigneron, Catholic archbishop of Detroit.

But to bar abortion or same-sex marriage advocates from the cup is “a manipulative tool” that “surely profanes the sacrament,” according to Robinson.

On what grounds? “Reception of the body and blood of Christ at Communion is God’s gift to God’s people, not a reward for right behavior,” he says. “We receive Communion not because we are worthy of it, but because God’s offers us the body and blood of Christ despite our unworthiness.”

But that’s not entirely correct.

First, Vigneron is right. It’s absurd to trust the church for the grace of the sacrament and not the grace of its doctrine. The sacrament is a gift of God to his people, yes, and so is the church’s teaching. It’s not about being worthy or unworthy but being in communion with the church. No one is shocked if a Catholic priest denies the cup to a Protestant. Why should we be shocked if he denies it to someone who similarly dissents from church authority and teaching?

Second, as Robinson said, it is a gift. Conversely, it is not an entitlement. There’s no right to the Eucharist. It has always been the food of the faithful, and there has never been an open invitation. In the ancient church the unbaptized were not even allowed to witness it. To hear of people demanding the sacrament violates the very spirit of it. It’s something received with thanksgiving, not seized like a union benefit.

Third, the church has always barred people from the sacrament who live counter to the church’s moral teachings. That’s what Paul’s rant in 1 Corinthians 5 is all about. The man sleeping with his father’s wife was barred from fellowship and later restored to fellowship, as we discover in 2 Corinthians 2.

The sacrament is always administered pastorally, not robotically. If there are pastoral reasons to deny the cup, then denial is reasonable. That’s always been the case. As with the offender in Corinth, the point of such pastoral oversight and discipline is the ultimate restoration of the one barred. Repentance opens the way for the parched.

Robinson points to the Catholic sex abuse scandal and cries foul. Are these priests being barred from the cup? I have no idea, but certainly the unrepentant among them should be. Further, certain canons decree periods of abstinence from the table for various offenses to ensure that contrition has done its job in the penitent’s heart. I’m no canon lawyer, but that would seem reasonable here.

The bottom line is that the Eucharist is a gift. No one has a right to a gift. It is accepted with gratitude on the terms offered. A sacrament demanded or expropriated is no sacrament at all and will sour, not save, the soul.

Side note: Justin Martyr on the Eucharist

I mentioned above that the church’s teaching and sacraments go together. You can’t pick one and leave the other. Supporting that thought, note this from chapter 66 of Justin Martyr’s First Apology: “And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ enjoined.”

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  • Good post! You make an excellent point about the Eucharist being a gift for God’s faithful. It is important to note that Catholics who have some doubts about some teaching of the church are not “barred” from the Eucharist. People who are struggling with issues are encouraged to partake of the sacrament that is a means of grace as a help in their struggle. However, when the doubt turns into rejection and public opposition, the line has been crossed. I don’t think the Church is playing politics – it seems more like it is serving as a shepherd of souls.

    • Joel J. Miller

      That’s a good clarification. Shepherding souls is what I’m getting at when I say that the sacrament is administered pastorally. It’s not robotic; there’s a certain level of discernment and discretion exercised by every priest.

    • Robert M.Hope

      My opinion is that the Eucharist is ultimately a meeting with our Lord. I don’t feel comfortable with any creature blocking access to our Lord.
      All ought to be advised however that causing additional suffering to our Crucified Christ carries a cost.

      • Joel J. Miller

        You may not feel comfortable, but Paul did (1 Cor 5). Let’s not be holier than the Bible.

  • When the priest instructs on the Eucharist from the pulpit and makes it clear who should and should not receive Holy Communion – and further cites Scripture to hammer it home, then there is no doubt, no question and certainly no hard feelings by anyone who hears this simple Truth. The person in a state of mortal sin ought not to present his/herself in the first place – do they not know “they bring condemnation upon themselves?” If not, it MUST come from the priest. To be quite honest, the priest or EM should never be put in a position to have to enforce Canon 915 in the first place – but if they are, then so be it. It is our duty to protect the Body and Blood of Our Lord from desecration.

  • JoAnne Braley

    Entitlement! That’s the ticket! Wonder if it will work at heaven’s gate…let me in…I’m ENTITLED!

    • Joel J. Miller

      Lord, help us.

    • Steve Brown

      Entitlement is the name of the internal war that is currently raging in the Catholic Church. There are those that believe as does Gene Robinson, that they are entitled to the gifts without having to believe anything more that their malformed conscience.

      • Joel J. Miller

        Sad but true.

  • debby

    Thank you, Joel, for this post. I am very encouraged to hear you and the others here defend this Bishop’s clear teaching in such a candid manner.
    As for “entitlement”, “worthy/unworthy” and other “cliches” regarding receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, the Mass itself prepares those who are not merely reciting words but praying Scripture: “Oh Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the Word and my soul shall be healed.”
    The Roman Centurion, leader among men though he was, clearly saw and declared publicly the truth about himself before Jesus. To pray, “I am not worthy” does not lower my self-worth (as if I am a piece of garbage), but speaks the truth of how far I am from a Holy God. He, however, longs to come and dwell with me, to “pitch His tent among us”. And here in a state of humble gratitude, it is my great honor and privilege to receive Him as He comes under “my roof”, speaks His Living Word of His Love, and heals my soul, bringing me into union with Him.
    It is not a “political” position – it is a matter of Love and Union. Those who would lower this to politics and accusations along those lines are the offensive ones.
    Why would anyone who hates the Church’s reiteration of His Teaching even Want to receive? It is to those souls that I believe Jesus spoke of when He said, “Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom.”
    Thank you, again.

    • Joel J. Miller

      “Why would anyone who hates the Church’s reiteration of His Teaching even Want to receive?” The only answer I know is that we want the benefits of the church on our own terms and somehow think that’s possible. No one in our day and age can stand the thought that something is on offer and that they might be excluded from it.

  • James Stagg

    Well done, Joel!

  • Eduardo

    How is it possible that anyone cares what Gene Robinson thinks about anything? Let alone what he thinks about Catholicism? As a Catholic I don’t know or care (or care to comment on) what Episcopalians do, say or believe. So why should Robinson run his mouth off about the Catholic Church?

    • Joel J. Miller

      Defensiveness comes to mind.

      • Steve Brown

        Another reason would seem to be his promotion of homosexuality. In an interview I read, Robinson stated that it was the “religious people” that were the problem. In other words, the catechized, true believers of Christianity that were blocking others from the church. Cardinal Dolan has a current article which states that “We are part of a Church where, yes, all are welcome, but, no, not a Church of anything goes.”

        • Joel J. Miller

          That’s precisely what drives his defensiveness.

  • DougH

    I’m not Catholic, but I agree that the general principle is sound – people that are not only guilty of a particular major sin but disagree on whether it is in fact a sin and/or refuse to acknowledge their guilt and repent shouldn’t be surprised if the church refuses to accept them into full communion. But there needs to be a process by which the church makes that decision, not just leave it to the priest handing out the Eucharist – especially when he’s handing it out. In the absence of that process, the decision should be left to individual conscience.

  • Andy

    How about denying Eucharist to those who depart from the Church’s teaching on economic issues? I assume you would advocate denying communion to Paul Ryan and John Boehner?

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’m not aware of any dogma or council that forbids free markets and low taxes. You might want to refer the question to Fr. Robert Sirico.

      • Andy

        It’s impossible to read Rerum Novarum (Leo 13) or Centesiumus Annus (JP2)and conclude the Church favorsunfettered free markets, capitalism, and lack of regulatory oversight like the modern GOP does. Non-Catholic conservatives are free to advocate for “free markets and low taxes,” but Catholics are called to something better — dare I say, something more “nuanced?” Those encyclicals are also pro-labor and pro-labor union. The USCCB criticized Ryan’s budget that it failed to comport with major tenets of Catholic social teaching. I break with the Democratic Party on abortion, gay marriage, etc. Where do you break with the GOP?

        • Joel J. Miller

          That’s a strawman, Andy. The GOP does not favor unfettered markets. Just listen to libertarian critiques of the party. The “free” in free markets is relative, like all freedoms.

          • Andy

            Your argument that GOP economic policy could actually be worse, vis Catholic social teaching, may be true, but hardly an argument that GOP economic policy is consistent with Church teaching. Thd GOP on economics is bad news, as bad as the Democratic Party on abortion. Don’t defend the indefensible!

  • Mike Petrik

    There is a difference between committing sin and favoring sin. The Church’s moral teachings are difficult to live and impeccability is not a requirement for Communion. But disagreement with those teachings is another matter altogether. All too often people confuse sinning with favoring sin. Depending on the circumstances a remorseful adulter may well be able to receive Communion. But a person who believes that adultery is morally acceptable, surely not.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Exactly. The penitent are not refused. The proud and rebellious are.

      • Steve Brown

        Excellent, Joel! The proud and rebellious are a long way from your quote and teaching of Justin Martyr.

  • Mike Petrik

    Andy, perhaps you can enlighten us as to how exactly Paul Ryan’s position of economic isses depart from Church teachings. Surely you know that nothing in Church teaching mandates a welfare state or even a particular form of economic policy.

    • Joel J. Miller

      To further the point, there is a tremendous amount of diversity in the church on political and economic questions. No one is insisting on ideological uniformity. But there are clear teachings on things like sexual immorality that must be observed.

    • Andy

      From “As Congress began working on the FY 2013 budget and spending bills this week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wrote several letters that repeated and reinforced the bishops’ ongoing call to create a “circle of protection” around poor and vulnerable people and programs that meet their basic needs and protect their lives and dignity . . . In April 16 and April 17 letters to the House Agriculture Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee addressing cuts required by the budget resolution, Bishop Blaire sai,d “The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.”
      It’s impossible to read Rerum Novarum (Leo 13) or Centesiumus Annus (JP2)and conclude the Church favors unfettered free markets, unregulated capitalism, and lack of regulatory oversight like the modern GOP does. Those encyclicals are also pro-labor and pro-labor union. I don’t know if you’re Catholic, but if you are, then you are called to something bigger and better than the GOP’s economic platform.

  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

    This article, if a little confused, is correct. That a homosexual Episcopal bishop holds that the Catholic church plays politics with the Eucharist is not worth an electron, much less the lead sentence. But the point that it has been dragged into politics, though not due to the church, is undeniable.
    The hyperlink clearly points this out, “(Nancy) “Pelosi suffers from one of the most malformed consciences in the annals of American Catholic politics or … she is simply hell-bent on using her Catholic identity to attack Catholic values at pretty much every opportunity.” In this age of instant communication, the secular media loves to play one authority, RC bishop, off against another, in their differing disciplines of heretics: Please do not receive, we do not play politics at the communion rail, fold your hands when you come up if you are not in good standing, or silence. In a simpler age, the multibillionaire, influential, national political leader would, based on objective facts and canon law, be excommunicated, based on her unstoppable drive to legalize the murder of babies. It has been this way since King Henry VIII created Robinson’s church, politicians, of every religion, war against God’s church.
    It is truth that no human being is worthy to receive the Host, not once in the history of the planet. It is a pure gift, and follows His command, “Do this in memory of Me.” However, like Judas, traitors must leave the supper. In our era, some authority must make the rules, otherwise monsters would desecrate the holy sacrament. The uneven treatment of heretical politicians does confuse some.
    I am quick to note that no living human being is ever denied access to God, even due to their most evil sins. He never shuts anyone out. He meets all, where they are in life, if they do to lie to Him. Both tenets are basic Catholic teachings and will remain so, oblivious to political winds, until He returns.

  • To me, the phrase “the gifts of God for the people of God” always suggested two things: first, that the grace bestowed through the Eucharist is God’s to give as God chooses–anyone God deems not “worthy” may well receive the incidentals of bread and wine, but God is certainly capable of withholding the grace. Second, “the people of God” is all-inclusive; all persons belong to God, whether they recognize it or not, and therefore all are invited to receive God’s gifts. To withhold the grace (assuming it were even possible for the church to do so–God, after all, can provide grace in other ways than the sacraments) that might help turn a sinner from his sin seems, well, cruel.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I appreciate where you’re coming from, and if there weren’t complicating factors, I would wholeheartedly agree. The more grace, the better. But Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 11 makes it clear that unworthily partaking can be disastrous. “He that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment to himself.” There’s no grace in that. Given Paul, in which heart does the cruelty lie, the permissible priest or the one who covers the cup?

      This doesn’t mean that sinners cannot approach the cup, only that we must acknowledge our sin. Paul says that we must not only discern the Lord’s body, but also ourselves. We bring judgement on ourselves when we fail to do this.

      Commenting on 1 Corinthians 11, John Chrysostom notes that this self-discerning, this self-evaluation is not onerous. We only discern ourselves; we don’t castigate and punish ourselves.

      “[H]e said not, if we punished ourselves, if we were revenged on ourselves, but if we were only willing to acknowledge our offense, to pass sentence on ourselves, to condemn the things done amiss, we should be rid of the punishment both in this world and the next. For he that condemns himself propitiates God in two ways, both by acknowledging his sins, and by being more on his guard for the future. But . . . we are not willing to do even this light thing. . . .”

      Given the above, many of us have partaken unworthily. Me especially. But the ubiquity of the offense doesn’t lessen its gravity. To take the cup while not acknowledging our sin — or that our behaviors are even sinful — is unwise. Hence the warning not to approach the rail. If the warning is unheeded, can the priest be faulted for withholding the sacrament?

  • mikehorn

    Of course they are playing politics. Denying communion to public figures in a public way …. how is that not politics, no matter what else it is? It can be both a theological matter and a political matter, which is why Bishops need to consider both. It is a matter of politics if you deny communion for marriage equality but not for economic safety net. Abortion but not torture/aggressive wars or the death penalty. If Bishops start emphasizing GOP positions they support and not DNC positions they agree with, they will be seen as partisan hacks who have been emphasizing one Church position over the others. Please note that Paul Ryan has been publicly condemned for his heartless Objectivist anti-poor people positions. And there are a handful of former officials who can no longer travel freely due to their support and leadership on torture (Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush 43 would be arrested in several nations for war crimes – Switzerland, Malaysia, and Spain last I heard). The Bishops need to be careful here.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Mike: For what it’s worth, I agree with the objection to Rand. Read this.

  • Mike Petrik

    First, none of Rumsfeld, Cheney or Bush are Catholics, so withholding communion based on there immoral support of torture would seem kind of silly.
    In any case, I hereby publicly condemn you for your heartless Leftist pro-abortion positions.

  • Matt

    “I don’t feel comfortable”? What does one’s personal comfort have to do with something being true or false, or right or wrong?
    One blocks one’s own access to the Lord by sin. Notorious public sinners always were prevented from receiving sacraments because it is not just about their personal salvation, but also about the grave scandal they cause and thus put others’ salvation at risk, too. Interdiction and excommunication are medicinal, needed for the inveterate public sinner to repent and be made whole again. What’s more, the mortal sinner condemns himself (or herself) to hell by receiving the sacrament without first going to confession. Refusing to offer communion to inveterate, notorious public sinners is doing them a favor.

  • mikehorn

    Mike Petrik,

    Sure they are not, but the cover for torture and Iraq came from Catholics. Rick Santorum was pushing torture as recently as the 2012 primaries. Bush 43 convened an advisory council of Catholics partially so that the Vatican wouldn’t declare Iraq to be an unjust war, which they stopped just short of. If you are going to get on DNC Catholics who are personally opposed to abortion but are willing to play a complicated dance for the sake of social programs to help the poor (and reduce abortions by going after the main cause), but not condemn the GOP people who try and go after abortions through laws but fully support shafting the poor, how can you possibly claim impartiality?

    My point is that the Vatican and Bishops already look partisan.

  • Mike Petrik

    Your point about torture is reasonably fair, but suffers from imperfect reasoning. Your point about social programs is simply off-base.
    First, Santorum et al profess agreement with Church teaching about torture — they just don’t believe that the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques employed by the Bush administration qualify. I disagree, but given that both the definition and the facts suffer from imperfect clarity, it is dangerous to reach determinations. This is precisely why the Vatican prudently decided to not reach a formal determination on the Iraq War. The abortion analogy fails because Pelosi et al dissent from Church teaching, period.
    Given that the number of abortions have skyrocketed in the US since the advent of robust social programs it is simply not credible to suggest that more social programs will reduce the number of abortions. Moreover, the number of abortions have increased 100 fold since its legalization, so plainly legalization is precisely a root cause.
    I volunteer and serve on the boards of several charitable organizations and see little evidence that government programs are beneficial on a net basis. As a Catholic you are free to disagree with me on my assessment, but you are not free to call into question my right to my assessment as a Catholic.
    The Bishops have been partisan for decades — favoring the big government policies of Dems. This is imprudent nonsense. The Bishops should teach faith and morals. Their application in the civil world is outside their charism. Which economic and social policies best elevate the life of the poor is not something bishops and their staffs no any more about than you or me, which is why they are foolish to weigh in.

    • Andy

      Let’s waterboard Santorum and see if he changes his mind about it being torture. I’m guessing you like the Bishops teaching as long as it comports with your political agenda. Which, I think, is Mike Petrik’s point. I would underscore that point also: conservatives have a particularly tin ear/deaf ear when the Bps criticize their pet agendas, but love it when the Bps criticize Democrats. You should break with your political party at some point; otherwise, you are no longer fulfilling your role to be a prophetic voice. I break with the Democrats on abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research. Where to you break with the GOP? If not on something as straightforward as water boarding being torture, then where?

  • Diane Winningham

    Let he who is without sin, throw the first stone.

    • Joel J. Miller

      There is a significant difference between stoning someone and withholding the sacrament. The same Paul who said don’t judge (1 Cor 4) also said several verses later that the flagrant offender should be excommunicated (1 Cor 5).

      • Steve Brown

        Christ himself did not condemn her, but he did ask her to sin no more. John 8:7-11. The Catholic Church has a mission to save souls by pointing out what sin is and how to avoid it. One of the reasons that is hard to be Catholic is because we must come to believe in the concept of, both/and. As opposed to either/or. We believe in the totality of the Word, as presented to us through Tradition, and the continual teaching of the Magisterium.

      • Andy

        This isn’t directed just to you, Joel (great blog, BTW), but to all who are salivating over excommunicating Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden and other pro-abortion-rights Democrats: Doesn’t it strike you as odd that only a tiny handful of bishops agree with you on your excommunication desires? Doesn’t it strike you as odd that your typical response to the overwhelming majority of bishops who disagree with you is that they are all sell outs, or insufficiently holy, or beholden to liberals, or whatever? Isn’t it at least possible that the vast majority of Bps: (1) are seeking God’s will in all areas, including this one; (2) disagree with pro-abortion-rights Democrats, yet also, for very good reasons, (2) disagree that the best course of action would be mass excommunications?

  • Mike Petrik

    Amusing that so many people pick up Christ’s quote out of context and then launch it as a stone.

  • Alan Hubbard

    Two observations from a convert Catholic: 1) I think it was G.K. Chesterton who said “God commands me to take and eat, not take and understand.” , which I believe states the Eucharist quite well. 2) It’s the heart of the receiver, not the giver, of the Eucharist that matters. I have been asked by both Catholics and non-Catholics how I can take the Eucharist and not be concerned that the priest has been molesting children/women/etc that would taint my Communion. As long as I am of clear conscience as I can be the Eucharist is valid, even if the priest had just done some evil deed…… The cleanliness of the giver has no bearing on the validity of the gift from God.