The likelihood of a “Eucharistically coherent” Church
Way back in 2004 I wrote a commentary entitled Why Communion Won’t Be Withheld. In it I assessed the question of withholding Communion, in accordance with the provisions of Canon Law, from manifestly grave public sinners. The future Pope Benedict XVI, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had just clarified the circumstances under which Communion should be withheld, especially from politicians who sought to encode grave evils into law, or to declare grave evils as human rights. It turns out that I was right in thinking that nothing would be done in the immediate future by the American bishops to demand what some are now calling “Eucharistic coherence”.
But almost twenty years later, our bishops as a body may finally have achieved both the clarity and courage to take a stronger stand. Given opposition to a teaching document on this issue from a number of high-ranking American churchmen, it is already a very good sign that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has decided to go ahead. Now it is worth considering what the eventual document should and should not say.
It goes without saying, I hope, that the Conference should not mandate the refusal of Communion to particular individuals. The authority to withhold Communion from a particular individual belongs to the bishop of each diocese and, by extension, to the priests administering Communion under each bishop’s authority, in accordance with ecclesiastical law. The Conference cannot bind individual bishops in this matter; only the Pope can do that.
But at the same time, it is crystal clear that the Conference should not limit itself to an anemic emphasis on the need for each Catholic to examine his conscience prior to receiving Communion, and to refrain from reception if he or she is conscious of unconfessed grave sin. It is more than clear that a great many Catholics—and certainly many Catholic politicians—believe that they can advocate, facilitate and participate in very grave evils in the name of virtue. Those whose consciences are malformed or dead do not recognize grave sin for what it is; they persistently ignore both the natural law and the teachings of the Church in the name of a “superior” cultural understanding of “virtue”.
They are, in fact, intellectually and morally enslaved to the dominant culture. To that degree, they are (often willfully) blind to reality—even in flight from reality—and they are seeking to strengthen what we might call an anti-culture to shield them from uncomfortable reminders of the true and the good. In such cases, the Church must make clear that their advocacy of evil is actually an attack on the Good, on Christ, on His Church and on the souls entrusted to her care. This attack must be repelled by the Church for three reasons: First, to ensure the honor and reverence due to Christ; second, to protect the faithful from scandal, which will lead others into similar sins; and third, to attempt to awaken the consciences of those at fault, that they might repent and re-open themselves to the Lord.
An important part of this response involves the question of who may and may not receive the Eucharist.
Toward a proper teaching document
For these reasons, an appropriate teaching document on Eucharistic coherence from the USCCB ought to make plain that this coherence—this compatibility between the Eucharist and the recipient, this reflection of the reality of the Eucharist in our personal moral commitments—lies at the heart of the Christian life. As such the Church has a special obligation both to proclaim this coherence in theory and to enforce it as a matter of ecclesiastical practice, for the good of both individual souls and the Church as a whole. At the same time, an appropriate teaching document on Eucharistic coherence will explain why false arguments against this coherence are wrong, such as the argument that a basic pattern of Eucharistic coherence throughout the Church is really a “weaponization” of the Eucharist for political ends.
One of the problems with the loss of a Christian culture—a problem which is typical of pagan societies—is that everything is regarded as political because the power of the “strong man” or the “State” is ultimately all that matters, in some sense even our only chance for happiness. This divinization of political leaders or of the political order itself is, paradoxically, most evident precisely in those who see every defense of moral and spiritual principles only in terms of political power and political outcomes. It is true, of course, that some societies may not discern a higher law to which even political parties and the State itself must bow (if these are to become genuine human goods). But this does not mean that advertence to that higher law on the part of those who recognize it can be dismissed as politically-motivated.
What happens in pagan, relativist societies is that the standard of justice is reduced to what is desired by cultural elites. When there is no intrinsic right and wrong, everything becomes a matter of mere policy, and it is deemed “political meddling” for the Church to distinguish between prudential judgments about the best way to achieve particular goods, on the one hand, and intrinsically immoral actions on the other. Eucharistic coherence is not rooted in prudential judgments but in what God has revealed as intrinsically good or evil, through either nature or Revelation, or both.
Unfortunately, the American bishops have, over many years, rather frequently confused prudential judgments with moral principles by their constant practice of advocating for any number of social, political and economic policies, the feasibility and efficacy of which they are not qualified to judge. It will be interesting now to see if they can limit a document on Eucharistic coherence to the absolute principles of right and wrong and the intrinsic goods and evils which must lie at the heart of the Christian life. We ought to pray for this.
I suppose, then, that some critics may be forgiven for assuming the Church will define Eucharistic coherence in a prudential manner which admits of partisanship. But that is not what is driving the current criticism of the idea—a criticism which is typically self-protectively amoral. Moreover, partisan interests are clearly not driving the advocates of Eucharistic coherence right now. They are driven, rather, by the need to escape the constant “prudentialism” of episcopal discourse over the past fifty years or so, in favor of clear correlations between right and wrong, life and death, Heaven and Hell.
The whole point of Eucharistic coherence, in fact, is the same point Moses made to Israel, as recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy (30:15-19). It is, in truth, the only point that matters to Christ, and the only point that ought to matter to His Church:
See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD...by walking in his ways...then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you.... But if your heart turns away...I declare to you this day, that you shall perish.... I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!
Posted by: ILM -
Jun. 24, 2021 9:46 PM ET USA
It is said that in the 1950's 90% of Catholics believed in the true presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist while less than 30% believe today. Certainly the Church's looking the other way when unworthy recipients very publicly approach the the Communion rail today is a BIG reason.
Posted by: miketimmer499385 -
Jun. 23, 2021 7:38 PM ET USA
Jeff, I agree and appreciate everything you say, and say so well in this post. But tell us, how do the bishops rectify their continuing individual scandals? That is, the faithful need to see and/or hear them confront the apostates in their diocese so as to know that they are serious about Catholicism. This has gone far beyond a simple "you can trust us now by virtue of our professed doctrine of coherence" which as you note binds no bishop to "enforce" the doctrine. If not this, why marriage etc.