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.”