Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Battle at the Communion Rail

Communion rail, Church of the Holy Ghost, Tiverton, RI
(© 2012 Fr. Jay Finelli)
The new pastor of the Windy City, my fellow Omahan the Most Rev. Blase Cupich, didn’t wait too long to start the usual suspects huffing about the “Francis Effect”. In an interview with CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell, Abp. Cupich stated — or rather implied — that he wouldn’t deny participation in the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who hold positions contrary to Church teaching.

I say “implied” because, in context, +Cupich seems to be talking about an ad hoc decision during a Mass to withhold Communion: “I would not use the Eucharist, or as they call it ‘the communion rail,’ as a place to have those discussions or a way in which people would be either excluded from the life of the church.

“The Eucharist is an opportunity of grace and conversion,” he told [O’Donnell] in an interview that aired on “Face the Nation” Sunday. “It’s also a time of forgiveness of sins, so my hope would be that grace would be instrumental in bringing people to the truth.”

Naturally, this is the kind of thing that leads Huffington Post’s Carol Kuruvilla, playing the classic “good Church/bad Church” game, to gush, “Cupich’s softened approach stands in stark contrast to the position held by Cardinal Raymond Burke, a prominent conservative Catholic archbishop who has led campaigns to ban Catholic politicians who support abortions from receiving communion.” Just as naturally, it leads many in the Catholic commentariat, such as Brian Williams of One Peter Five, to wail and harrumph:

Let us hope and pray that Our Lord is not subjected to further sacrilege, and His Church to further scandal, by an outright refusal to enforce Canon 915 in Chicago. The Church loses credibility when she rightly advocates for protecting the unborn, but then gives Holy Communion to high profile, unrepentant, Catholic politicians who support the “right” to an abortion.

Sin and the Real Presence

In all fairness — and in direct contradiction to the somewhat-hysterical moans of Williams and John-Henry Westen of Life Site News — +Cupich didn’t say it’s okay for dissident Catholic politicians to show up in line for Communion, or that they would never be denied participation. The conflict here is not exactly over the theology of the Eucharist. Rather, it’s a matter of what part of that theology should get emphasis. As in many battles, both sides have valid points.

The first thing the non-Catholic has to understand is that the Eucharist is more than a mere symbol, metaphor, or ritual of Christian unity. Rather, during the consecration, the elements undergo an ontological change: both become in substance the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, while retaining the accidents of unleavened bread and slightly-watered wine. Put differently, Christ is really and fully present in every portion of the elements.

Yes, really. Seriously.

The implication of cannibalism is not only unmistakable but extremely bothersome, so much so that denial of the Real Presence has been a recurring feature of Christian heresies from the beginning. Around the year 107, St. Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to his martyrdom in Rome, railed against the Docetists:

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 7)

Hand in hand with the belief in the Real Presence has gone the awareness that participating in the Eucharist ought to be done with a clean conscience. Saint Paul warns us of this:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)

At the same time, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that Communion “separates us from sin”. Quoting St. Ambrose’s On the Sacraments 4:6:26-28, the Catechism reminds us of the words of the Institution, that “[t]he body of Christ we receive in Holy Communion is ‘given up for us,’ and the blood we drink ‘shed for the many for the forgiveness of sins.” (CCC 1393) Communion is therefore held to wipe out venial sins (CCC 1394) … assuming the proper disposition.

The Pro-Reception Bias of Canon Law

Let’s turn now to Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion [bold font mine.—ASL].” The fullest and most frequent commentary on the application of Canon 915 comes from canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters; on this page you’ll find various links and citations, including those to his numerous posts on the matter through March 2013.

Doctor Peters argued in an advisory opinion (“Withholding of Holy Communion by Extraordinary Minister”, 2008 Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions, pp. 80-83), “Reception of Communion at Mass is a public action in service to rendering liturgical worship to God; it is not the place for the proclamation of behavior.” In context Dr. Peters was referring to occult sins (i.e., hidden or publicly unknown); nevertheless, the remark speaks as well to Abp. Cupich’s concerns about using the communion rail as the locus for a public confrontation.

While Catholics’ right to receive the sacraments of the Church isn’t absolute, canons which restrict or remove that right are required by the selfsame Code (Canon 18) to be interpreted narrowly, in order to avoid intemperate and unjust application. Canons 213, 843.1 and 912, Dr. Peters notes, are a “complex of canons [which] uphold[s] the faithful’s fundamental right to receive the sacraments,” and thus create a “strongly pro-reception” bias.

And so it should be. To paraphrase Scripture, the sacraments were made for man, not man for the sacraments. To properly fulfill its role in the economy of salvation, the Eucharist must be consumed; to get the many spiritual benefits of the Eucharist (CCC 1391-1401), one must eat and drink at the banquet. Without a stringent interpretation and application of canon law, Catholicism risks becoming a Pharisaic “cult of purity”, with the administration of the Eucharist a crook to separate the sheep from the goats in an unwarranted anticipation of the Judgment of the Nations (vide Matthew 25:31-46).

Feigned Ignorance and Hardness of Heart

However ….

Canon 916 tells us that a Catholic who is “conscious of grave sin” is not to receive Communion without confessing that sin first. As I’ve explained before, the individual conscience can’t be used as a magic wand to make the objective sinfulness of particular acts subjectively inapplicable. “It’s not a disorder if I think it isn’t” may work for the American Psychiatric Association; “It’s not a sin if I think it isn’t” doesn’t fly with the Catholic Church.

Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart [cf. Mark 3:5-6, Luke 16:19-31] do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

… There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit [St. John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem 46]. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss. (CCC 1859, 1864; bold type mine)

Our salvation requires our active and willing cooperation. As much as I appreciate Abp. Cupich’s concern, the language of dialogue and mutual understanding is inappropriate to subjects in which compromise and middle positions are by definition unacceptable. Moreover, the dissident Catholic politician who refuses to repent and recant from formal cooperation in evil closes himself off by his own stubbornness from the very graces the bishop hopes Communion would impart.

As Matthew Tyson points out in his Catholic Stand post “Love and Judgment”, Jesus’ gospel message teaches us that the appropriate response to God’s love is repentance, not self-assertion. For all the blather and bleat about the “Francis Effect”, even that worthy is willing to use the language of sin, judgment, condemnation and repentance as he feels needed. Sometimes intolerance is the most loving response.

Archbishop Cupich, then, shouldn’t feel that following in Francis’ footsteps requires the toleration of sacrilegious participation in Communion. Because the true battle is not at the communion rail, but rather in the hearts of the faithful.