When Communion Is Political (Hint: It's Always Political)

When Communion Is Political (Hint: It's Always Political) October 6, 2010

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?

Photos from communion at Journey in Dallas, Texas, taken by Courtney Perry.

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  • Tony,

    Jesus taught that if we have un-repented sin in our lives, we need to first get right before God and our fellow man before we can participate in the rituals of the church (Matthew 5:22-24). Indeed, the church is supposed to bring us together into Christian unity, but not for a false unity or a superficial unity, where unity isn’t really there on a deeper level.

    Repentance is essential for all of us. We are sin-making machines. It’s through repentance that we are cleansed, forgiven (1 John 1:8-9) and restored to fellowship. Without repentance of sin, Jesus taught that the unrepentant should not be part of the church (Matthew 18:15-19).

    When we fail to call sinners to repentance, we are not doing them any favor. We are merely enabling them to continue in behavior that is self-destructive on so many levels (1 Cor. 6:18-19).

  • Marusha

    Well said Daniel Mann.

    Yes, I know SURPRISE!

    I know I have caused you all to spew your coffee all over your screens.

    Anyway, I will admit that there is some human political influence on the sacraments sometimes but I can’t help but wonder why these students are making a statement in this way. It seems ironic to me when I consider the communion meal where we must examine ourselves and repent. There is also a warning about partaking in an unworthy manner. I know, I know…these students aren’t the only ones in danger of this but this is the most overt example I’ve heard of. I agree that there is a deep responsibility with any minister who administers the sacraments but each recipient has one as well.

  • this made my think of Padraig O Tuma’s line;
    “we gather here, a table of strangers,
    to speak of our hopeland, and talk of our danger”

    and of Rollin’s emphasis that at communion, we suspend our identities- neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither fox news or cnn, neither republican nor democrat, neither gay nor straight. we suspend our judgement of the other, letting the spirit convict if she so pleases, but encountering everyone as a person, not an other/sinner

  • simply being a Christian is being political, and it has been ever since the beginning (before it was even its own religion). If they want to turn people away from communion, that’s on them, but I don’t want to be anywhere near that.

  • Joey

    Daniel Mann, that scripture is about reconciling with a brother/sister with whom there is a broken relationship. Paul’s own exposition on the eucharist is in the same vein. Neither of those passages supports what you just implied. That doesn’t mean what you said can’t be true, but please use better support.

  • Jim

    In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul specifically addresses sexual immorality, though not communion. He only says they should be put out of fellowship. I assume that would include the lord’s supper. Whether encouragement to sexual immorality would fall under this category I don’t know.

    We don’t have to agree that homosexuality is sexual immorality. But the catholic church seems to think so. And barring the participation/encouragement divide it seems the church did right according to that belief. I’m new to this kind of discussion, though Haven’t thought about it much in the past.

  • Rachel

    Love your thoughts Tony (and @Tad). Ran across this quote today; thought it was helpful too. “The beauty of the Eucharist is precisely that it is the place where a vulnerable God invites vulnerable people to come together in a peaceful meal. When we break bread and give it to each other, fear vanishes and God becomes very close.” – Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey.
    Fear vanishes; sounds like thy Kingdom come on earth to me.

  • Daniel,

    I dont think the scriptures you used back up what you are saying…

    Matthew 5 doesnt say you can not participate in the eucharist, but rather is making a point about anger with others for if you say you love God but hate your brother you are a liar…( i also dont think if you have ever muttered the word “fool” you are in danger of hellfire)

    Also, matthew 18 isnt talking about “kicking someone out of church” but rather showing the there is no end to forgiveness… read that scripture in its context (The lost sheep, and then the unmerciful servant) first of all and then ask how Jesus treated tax collectors… he restored them not excluded them. Why would peter ask how many times to forgive those who siun against you if Jesus just said 4 times… Jesus is more likely insinuating a never ending cycle of acceptance rather than a step by step guide to giving someone the boot. (I wrote about this here… http://b-logismos.blogspot.com/2010/10/if-brother-sins-against-you.html )

    And i would say that the Bible speaks more of repentance as a response to forgiveness rather than a condition for it. If there has to be a condition for forgiveness is it true forgiveness. i wrote about this here… http://b-logismos.blogspot.com/2010/10/response-rather-than-condition_06.html

    Great post Tony.

  • carla jo

    Isn’t it kind of presumptuous to equate wearing a sash with sin? I mean, as far as I can tell, wearing the sash is a sign of protest against the church’s position. It is not an indication that someone is a practicing, sexually active homosexual in a non-monogamous relationship or even that someone is a celibate homosexual. Is there some other way in which the Catholic church views homosexuality as a sin that I’m not understanding?
    I guess I’m not sure what, exactly, these students were doing that would preclude them from partaking in the Eucharist apart from disagreeing with a position of the church. Certainly there are others at the communion rail who hold various shades of disagreement with some other position of the church and yet they were served. Even in the most stringent understanding of the pre-requisites for Communion, I can’t see what protocol or spirit of the sacrament the students were breaking.

  • Kenton


    I’m not buying the “denying the Eucharist was itself a political act.” Yes, technically it is, but the point the Bishop was making was that the rail is not the place for political statements. The students could have taken the sash off, yes? They could have held up signs outside the church or put stickers on their car or taken out an ad. But no, they insist on wearing the sash to the rail. What does it say about them that wearing a sash is more important than the sacrament?

    Ironic that you close with a picture of communion at Journey. I took communion there last Sunday along with a few folks that I have political disagreements with. But we celebrate our unity at the table. In a sanctuary that is supposed to be a “sanctuary.” And it’s beautiful. And we save the disagreements for… cohort. It just seems to me the Bishop is saying, “take it outside” and rightfully so.

  • Marusha


    I hope this isn’t too much off topic but i want to respond to:

    “And i would say that the Bible speaks more of repentance as a response to forgiveness rather than a condition for it.”

    I disagree with this because if we repent and trust He is faithful to forgive us of our unrighteousness.


    I like your take on this

  • Joey and Jacob,

    Thanks for caring enough about Scripture to check it out! Although God isn’t mentioned explicitly in Matthew 5, He’s undeniably present. Jesus was teaching that we shouldn’t even make an offering to God if we have unresolved issues. Also, if we have a sin-issue with a brother, we also have it with God. He is also the offended party (Psalm 51:4).

    Even in the OT, offerings couldn’t be offered un-repentantly or insincerely (Psalm 51:16-19; Numbers 5:6-8; Lev. 5:5-6.) Even our prayers are unacceptable if offered without a repentant spirit (Isaiah 1:13-15).

    Regarding Matthew 18, the context rules against the conclusion that Jesus was teaching that “there is no end to forgiveness.” It is judgment that is primarily in view here. It describes someone who refuses to repent when confronted with his sin by one person and then two or three others. That’s why he is brought before the whole church. Jesus also mentions the OT principle of establishing guilt by “two or three witnesses” (Mt. 18:16; Deut. 19:15). You never need witnesses to establish grounds for mercy. He concludes that the church must made a judicial decision based upon the evidence to either retain the sin or to exonerate (Mt. 18:18). This isn’t the language of “no end to forgiveness.”

    Jesus also concludes that “If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17) Tax collectors were regarded as traitors, having sided with the Romans. Therefore, they were avoided.

    Of course, there are many teachings that as soon as the disciplined party repents, then he should be received back. Jesus taught,

    • “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4).

    Complete forgiveness and restoration always depended upon repentance. There’s just no way around it!

  • carla jo


    That sort of gets at my question above. What do you think the students needed to repent of (for?)? I’m trying to find the inner logic in the Archbishop’s refusal to serve them communion, something that might make it a justifiable (at least to him) response to wearing a sash, and I’m stuck.

  • Marusha

    Interesting. Did the Archbishop refuse because it was a political thing that the students were doing or because of the sin it represented?

  • Daniel,

    Yes tax collectors were considered traitors by society however, some of jesus’ followers were tax collectors. So maybe how we interpret the “treat them as tax collectors and pagans” says a lot about how WE view “sinners”.

    And again, why would your interpretation prompt Peter to ask such a question as, “and how often should I forgive my brother? Seven times?” of course Jesus response with, “not seven times but seven times seventy.” this doesn’t make sense if Jesus just explained when to draw the line.

    Not to mention the whole conversation is about if a brother sins against YOU not the church. The church wasn’t established yet.

    And about the establishing guilt… Ok the person is guilty. People who need forgiveness usually are guilty.

  • carla jo

    Marusha–that’s what I’m trying to figure out, too. I wonder what he would do if a pro-choice person came to the rail or someone who opposes the Catholic church’s response to the sexual abuse scandal. It seems like it’s less about their protest and more about the content of their protest.

    And I’m trying to figure out how the comments ended up talking about sin and repentance. It seems like there’s an assumption that these students needed to repent for something, but I don’t know what that is.

  • I was responding to Daniel. I do not think there is a need for repentance and I agree with tony’s original post on the matter. (for the record)

  • Carla Jo asks: “I guess I’m not sure what, exactly, these students were doing that would preclude them from partaking in the Eucharist apart from disagreeing with a position of the church.”

    Disagreeing with the position of the church is grounds. Yes, there are many people who are in that position, who are practicing Catholics. The fact of the matter is, if a priest had a mind to do it and he knew their position on certain matters, he could excommunicate any number of people.

    In this case, these students are coming to the rail wearing something that proclaims their rejection of one of the teachings of the church. That demonstrates that they are not, in fact, in communion with the see of Rome and that makes the unity expressed by participating in the Eucharist a sham, at least from a certain perspective.

    I’m not saying I agree with this but this is grounds on which a priest could deny communion. The point he makes in the quote above about political statements aside.

    I think there has to be a balance between participating in the sacrament for the sake of unity and allowing our common participation in it be the only substance of our unity.

  • Marusha

    Jacob – you said above that you don’t think repentance is necessary. I read your blog post on it and I can see why you would believe this.

    The Bible does say however that godly sorrow leads to repentance which leads to salvation. I’m not even sure that we can say that God’s love is unconditional. If I am wrong, please show me why.

    I can understand the priest refusing to serve communion to unrepentant sinners but is that the reason why he didn’t or is it really because it seemed like a political statement to him?

  • L. Reese Cumming

    It seems Tony’s blog hinges upon an assumption that one who declares oneself Christian is a Christian. That’s an old political tactic. I can’t buy into that one. Work is required, and attendance to church on any given Sunday just doesn’t cut it.

    I’m not going to give anyone a pass simply because the church manages to handle things poorly in a political-charged, no-win situation. That would be immature. Critics abound, but they’re all man.

    ‘Politics’, the word, is ill-defined these days, for in truth it refers to the relationship of man to man in quest of the common good for man, and not the modern concept of one man’s attempt to dominate another man. That interpretation is left to the individualistist, the relativist, the emotivist, and so on.

  • Jacob,

    I sorry — I wasn’t able to follow your response. Here’s a short essay on this subject. Perhaps that might get us back on track again: http://mannsword.blogspot.com/2010/08/judging-others-is-it-christian-thing.html

  • carla jo

    Thanks Annie. That’s helpful.

    So if it is within the bounds of his authority to excommunicate anyone who he knows to be in disagreement with the church’s teaching on an issue, it seems to me that the archbishop’s actions were highly political in that they were focused on one area of the church’s teaching, an area that happens to be very much in the spotlight at the moment. Perhaps it he had taken the opportunity to make a broader statement by also refusing to serve those who don’t believe in purgatory or those who are less-than-convinced about transubstantiation, he would claim that his actions were theological in nature and not political. But as it stands, I have a hard time seeing how he was making a statement about anything other than the fact that anyone who challenges the church’s teachings will be denied a place at the table. That’s his prerogative, of course, but he needs to own up to the message he’s sending.

  • Let’s look at the bigger picture here. We can spew verses back and forth all day but in the end, the Bible says what we want it to say. We can also spout off concerning tradition and dogma, but what is the over-arching theme of the Eucharist? I would submit that it is Liberation and that liberation requires political acts and gestures to be granted. The cross is a very political place (and as such, relegates communion to that very same status). If these young people seek justice, what better place to seek than in the Eucharistic moment. I would argue that it is in acts like these we most closely identify with the suffering Jesus.

  • Jim

    True, carla jo. But how many parishoners were wearing pins and clothing protesting the church’s stance on purgatory?

  • RJ

    Tony, you are correct in the statement that communion is always political. It is a statement that those who receive are united in Christ as part of his new creation.

    If I were the Bishop I am not sure if I would have witheld communion from the students. If I did, it would not be because they disagreed with my thoughts, or the churches teaching on this issue. I can, however, see a good and valid argument for witholding communion because a statement of division at the altar is a denial of the political statement that communion is supposed to be making. I would first have to know that the students were aware, or should have been aware that the Archdiocese had asked people to refrain from this demonstration of division at the Eucharist. If they did know, then the students were using the Eucharist to further a theological controversy in a way that may divide one Christian from another. If the students knew that the Archdiocese had asked people not to wear these symbols at the table, then they went with the hope that public pressure (a form of coercion which Moltman rejects) would force the Archbishop to communicate them, or, they went with the hope that the spectacle of excommunication would in some way further their agenda. (I think Moltman would frown on that as well).

    On the other hand, I think the stance of the Archdiocese is counterproductive at best. At worst it’s a form of intentional coercion that runs counter to what Christ intended at his table.

    All of this to say that I think both sides have attempted to coopt the Lord’s table to make a statement that is directly contrary to the political statement that Jesus intended to make.

  • carla jo

    Jim, Likely none, but that’s what I’m getting at. These students wore a sash as an outward sign of their inner struggle with the church’s teaching. But the whole “examine yourself” element of communion suggests that it’s not what’s happening on the outside that matters but what’s happening inside. The only difference between these students and someone who might have their doubts about some other teaching is that the outside matched the inside.
    Let’s say they had taken off their sashes before the archbishop saw them. They would have come to the rail with the same disagreement, but not the outward sign of that disagreement. And they would have been served.

  • Jim

    But I’m not sure how that helps your case, carla jo. The fact that students could get away with taking communion while secretly rebelling against church teaching is no argument that they should be served when openly rebelling.

    Now, I’m not Catholic, and I don’t know what I would do in such a situation. I’d need to take a careful look at the new testament and see how open advocacy of sin was handled (again, we may or may not think of it as sin, but Catholics certainly do). But a knee-jerk “anything that separates Christians is bad” is not the answer. Sometimes we are commanded not to be in communion with others.

  • Korey

    I too don’t agree on this one. There must be some actions that are openly defiant of teachings and some manner of decorum during communion that even the most liberal church might talk with the person at the very least. Carlo jo, what if someone wore a shirt mocking the notion of purgatory or a “Transubstantiation is bunk” button?

  • carla jo

    I’m not necessarily trying to make a case–and I agree that a church can choose to refuse communion or other kinds of fellowship to anyone it wants to . I’m really just trying to push the archbishop’s decision to what I see as its logical end. If the problem is a difference in belief, then how–apart from a sash or a pin or some other outward sign of that difference–does the archbishop know he didn’t serve communion to a bunch of other rebels on the same day? What about the guy who is stealing from his company? The married woman sending suggestive e-mails to her neighbor? The young adult who is disrespectful to his parents? I’m confident there were at least a few unrepentant sinners at that communion rail who know that all they have to do is keep their heads down and their mouths shut and they are welcome any time.

    If the church is going to exclude people from the sacraments based on open defiance and/or sin, then I think it needs to be very careful about singling out one kind of sin.

  • Jim

    I think we’re in agreement, carla jo. I agree that hypocrisy, the sins you don’t wear on your t-shirts, is a very grave danger and should be discouraged by all necessary means (open sin is preferable to hypocritical sin). And I agree that a church should certainly not deny communion for one particular sin but refuse to admonish another. That would be a notorious abuse of church discipline.

    See, sometimes discussion in blogs does bring about agreement!

  • Jay

    I think we need to understand the manner and attitude of the protesters together with background of the conflict. Darius was just banned from having communion on this blog do to his own protesting and uncooperative manner. I was wondering if there could be any parallels drawn.

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  • RJ

    Jay, my reading of the situation was that Darius withdrew himself. I suppose, in a way, these students chose to withdraw. The policy of the Archdiocese was that they would not communicate anyone wearing a rainbow sash. The students had to decide if they wanted to make a statement at the Table enough to risk excommunication. They chose to do so.

    Like most broken relationships, when we examine this situation, the break has been taking shape over time with both sides taking steps away from one another. Finally, one moment becomes so charged that it explodes. That’s my view of what is happening with these students.

  • Patrick M

    I cant believe what I’m reading here. I know that we are all sinners, save by the grace of God, but to blatantly wear your sin into the house of the Lord and complain and point fingers on why you were blessed. I see what the Archbisop did, he prayed for the sinner, love the sinner, hate the sin. He didnt have them escorted out of the Lords house, he allowed them to come forward and be blessed.

    I’m reading a pharisean article. Homosexuality is a sin, not to me or the archbishop, but to God. If you dont like it? Take it up with Him, most of us are just following the plain and simple words.

    Good day madams and men

  • Who authorizes anyone to close off the Table that Jesus opened for everyone?

  • Patrick

    Who gives themselves authority to receive the body of Christ with a non repentant heart towards the sin against God?

  • As Jesus Himself stated, Luke 17:3-4 “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”