Insistence on the Church’s authority is required for growth.
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my frustration gets such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s heads off—then, I account it high time to get to my word processor as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
The preceding sentences are (almost) the opening lines of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the paragraph which so bracingly follows “Call me Ishmael.” The only difference is that Melville wrote of knocking people’s hats off and of getting to sea, not to his pen and ink. The passage nicely captures my mood as I reflect on the position of the German episcopal conference—along with so many others—on Communion for Protestant spouses of Catholics. This is closely allied to the movement to open Communion to those who persist in invalid marriages.
It is a hotly-contested issue even in Germany, and it will soon be discussed by all parties in Rome. Two writers have already taken it up on CatholicCulture.org this week: Phil Lawler asks, “Are German Catholic bishops trying to export their model for failure?” And a new contributor, Fr. Timothy Vaverek, offers a brilliant refutation of the so-called “New Paradigm” for pastoral care being touted by so many theologians and even bishops in Europe and America (see “The ‘New Paradigm’: Old Errors, Same Tactics”).
For my part, I am glued to my word processor so that I may ask, incredulously, “What are you thinking?” This modern practice of rationalizing both sin and the failure to accept the Church’s spiritual authority is a death sentence for souls, because it is a death sentence for the mission of Christ.
The doctrinal and legal context
Before considering these consequences, however, it will be helpful to remind everyone of the constant Catholic approach to this question in the past. We must begin with St. Paul who, in perhaps the earliest inspired text of the New Testament, gave the lie to a casual or undiscerning attitude toward reception of Holy Communion:
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 any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. [1 Cor 11:27-29]
This apostolic framework is the origin of the traditional provisions of Canon Law, which Pope Saint John Paul II, at least, did not think could be changed because of their strong Scriptural roots. Please note that even Francis has not dared to change them officially:
Can. 915: 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.
Can. 916: A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.
We can see, then, that both Scripture and ecclesiastical authority highlight three enormous impediments to what we might call unrestricted access to Communion:
First, it is sacrilegious to receive Communion without “discerning the body”, as St. Paul puts it. But Protestants, though they may be baptized, do not discern the body. If they did, they would enter the Catholic Church. For all Protestant denominations not only reject the priesthood by which the Eucharist is confected but hold that the Eucharist is something less than the real body and blood of Christ. With only very rare exceptions, they regard the Eucharist as merely a symbol, though Lutherans are prone to see in it at least an explosion of grace. But St. Paul says that to receive Communion without discerning the body is so serious a sacrilege that it amounts to eating and drinking “judgment” upon oneself. Another translation uses the word “condemnation”.
Second, for Catholics, if there has been an adverse ecclesiastical decision or there is consciousness of grave sin (as understood by the Church), absolution must be sought before receiving Communion. It goes without saying absolution must be possible, and must be granted. But absolution is impossible in some cases without a formal ecclesiastical inquiry, and it is always impossible without a firm purpose of amendment. Both conditions apply to invalidly married Catholics who refuse to separate or live as brother and sister.
Third, as a general principle, logic demands that anyone who denies the authority and efficacy of the Catholic sacramental system can have no claim to receive the sacraments. The very desire to receive would be suspect, for the motivation could not arise from faith but rather from some earthly goal, such as emotional inclusion or, worse, unwarranted vindication. Surely this applies to all those who persist in invalid marriages (in denial of the Church’s sacramental jurisdiction) and to all those who seek Catholic Communion while refusing to become Catholic (unmoved, apparently, by the prospect of encountering Our Lord directly and most fully through the sacramental life of the Church).
But what keeps my fingers glued to the keys, as surely as Ishmael and Ahab were driven to their reckoning with the white whale, is not the confusion over the internal logic or the external requirements of sacramental life but rather the unrelenting effort among too many Catholic leaders to expand the Church by weakening her very identity. In contrast, Our Lord refused to explain away his teachings, still less to help people circumvent them, no matter how many refused his authority. Reread John 6, where he discusses what the crowd regarded as his “hard sayings”.
It is inescapable that there is always a judgment to be made in the administration of the Church concerning what we might call the cost of becoming and remaining a Catholic in good standing. We know that the Church is made up of sinners. Since her purpose is progressively to unite her members more closely to Christ, it can hardly be otherwise. But this purpose can succeed only with those who believe, and there is a huge difference between being a sinner, on the one hand, and refusing to accept the remedy for sin, on the other—namely, the Church’s exposition of Divine Revelation, by which she distinguishes between truth and falsehood, and by which she makes Christ present through her sacraments for the salvation of souls.
The very highest reading on the “absurdity meter” is reserved for the facile assumption that the Church can save more souls by including those who reject her spiritual authority than she can by insisting on the acceptance of that authority by the sinners she yearns to embrace. For only through such an insistence can she successfully preach the Gospel—the luminous and life-changing teachings of Christ. The prudential supposition must be that such insistence is by far the preferable course.
Once again, we have three ironclad proofs of the soundness of this conclusion. First, this course is endorsed repeatedly by Christ Himself. For example:
- “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 7:21)
- “If he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Mt 18:17)
- “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Lk 10:16)
Second, this refusal to tolerate either rejection of the Church’s authority or evil in the absence of repentance is mirrored repeatedly in the apostolic Church. Let me offer two examples, one from St. Paul, the other from St. Peter:
- “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you…. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus…. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:1-7)
- “There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction…. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls…. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” (2 Pet 2:1,14,21; read the entire chapter)
Note again that we are not excluding the toleration of repentant weakness here, but the acceptance of rationalized evil.
Third, is not Church history over the last fifty to a hundred years a sufficient reminder of the colossal imprudence of muting or denying the truth in order to foster growth? If we study this period, or even all of Christian and Jewish history, we will find that growth is always fostered by a strong, coherent and authoritative message of truth along with support for those who accept this truth and repent of their sins. The opposite course—inclusion through silence or even denial of the truth, and active participation without repentance—always and everywhere has the opposite effect.
For in that case all the real advantages of being a Catholic are lost. Everyone realizes it: Those within the fold leave in droves; those outside find no reason to enter. Is not Germany itself the poster child for this process in our time? Does not the modern history of the entire West teach us that the Church cannot decrease the clarity of the Gospel in order to increase her numbers?
How is it possible to claim the name of “Catholic” while failing to grasp a spiritual principle so fundamental and so simple as this?
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