Up here in the barren northland, there’s been a dust-up in the ongoing struggle of the church in America to accept GLBT persons. This time it’s the Catholic church, the St. Paul & Minneapolis Archdiocese of which recently mailed tens of thousands of copies of a DVD opposing gay marriage to its communicants. Of course, the DVD is timed to arrive as we approach mid-term elections. From where I sit, social issues are playing a negligible role in these elections. I don’t even hear Crazy Michelle Bachmann talking about them.
But that’s what the Catholic church wants its people talking about and voting on. Oh, would that they sent out a DVD about developing a just economy or about extricating ourselves from foreign wars. But, no, their primary interest this fall is making sure that GLBT persons are not afforded the right to marry.
In an odd radio interview, the local archbishop, John Nienstadt, claimed that he had no idea who gave the money for the production and distribution of the DVDs nor did he know how much the campaign cost. That denial very much strained the bounds of believability for me.
But, regardless, ship the DVDs they did. A local Catholic visual artist decided to collect as many copies as she could and make them into a sculpture advocating Catholic inclusion.
All that is fine, it seems to me. Freedom of speech and all that. The archbishop and his anonymous funder have just as much right as anyone to try and influence public opinion.
But then the StarTribune broke another story: It seems that the archbishop just last month denied communion to a couple dozen college students at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Here’s the pertinent part of the story:
That Sunday, according to those at the mass, about two dozen worshipers positioned themselves to receive communion from Nienstedt, who was saying his first student mass at the abbey. Some reached for the communion wafer but were denied it. Rather, the archbishop raised his hand in blessing.
The archdiocese long has denied communion to members of the Rainbow Sash Movement, who wear the colors to mass in protest of the church’s stance in opposition to homosexual relationships. Its leader, Brian McNeil, said the action at St. John’s was not connected to his group.
Archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath said the church has told McNeil’s group “for years you cannot receive communion if you wear the rainbow sash, because it’s a political statement, a sign of protest. Going to the communion rail is the most sacred part of our faith, the eucharist. We don’t allow anybody to make political statements or any kind of protest.”
Well, this is a strange kind of thing for the archbishop’s spokesman to say, especially in that denying the Eucharist to these students was itself a political act.
Indeed, the leading theologian in his archdiocese, William Cavanaugh, has written persuasively in his book, Torture and the Eucharist, that the Eucharist is, by its very nature, political:
Torture is both a product of—and helps reinforce—a certain story about who “we” are and who “our” enemies are. Torture helps imagine the world as divided between friends and enemies. To live the Eucharist, on the other hand, is to live inside God’s imagination. The Eucharist is the ritual enactment of the redemptive power of God, rooted in the torture, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jurgen Moltmann, in The Church in the Power of the Spirit, says that communion is an “eschatological sign of history” — both a remembrance of the past and a repeatable sign of hope in God’s promised future. Therefore, he writes,:
The theological doctrine of the Lord’s supper must consequently not be allowed to exercise any controversial theological function through which Christians are separated from Christians.
He goes on to say,
Hierarchical legalism spoils the evangelical character of the Lord’s Supper just as much as dogmatic and moral legalism.
I have come so far from my seminary days in which I was trained that what ultimately mattered in the sacrament of communion was the the “words of institution” were correctly stated by a properly trained and ordained clergyperson. Archbishop Nienstedt’s refusal to serve communion to his fellow Catholics because he didn’t like the buttons and sashes they were wearing shows that it doesn’t matter how much training and hierarchical heft a clergyperson has. He can still royally screw up the sacrament that Jesus hoped would bring us all together.
UPDATE: You know what? Something else occurs to me. And it’s this: the archbishop refused the students communion not because any of them had had gay sex in front of him, but because of what they were wearing. In his opinion, what they had on represented something that he found offensive. And yet he himself was vested with liturgical garments that themselves bear all sorts of meaning, most of which I find offensive. Of course, I’m not a Catholic, so he doesn’t really care what I think. But I wonder, if a high school kid came up to the altar to receive the Eucharist, and the archbishop noticed that he was wearing a t-shirt bearing the logo of Trojan condoms, would he withhold communion then as well?