THE POLITICIZATION OF THE EUCHARIST
The Eucharist has symbolized many things for Christians down through the centuries. The most common of these symbolisms is that it is the Body of Jesus Christ. Catholics believe that it not only represents the Body of Christ but that it is the Body of Christ.
Deprivation of the Eucharist has long been used as a penalty in Christian and Catholic history. The fundamental meaning of excommunication is to cut a person off from communicating with the rest of the believing community through the reception of the Eucharist. Excommunication also deprives a person from the most intimate means of communicating with the Lord.
The Catholic Code of Canon Law summarizes the traditional Catholic theology by describing the Eucharist as the “summit and source of all Christian worship and life; it signifies and effects the unity of the people of God and achieves the building up of the Body of Christ.” (Canon 897).
Deprivation of the Eucharist is the most serious penalty that the Church imposes. It is never to be taken lightly. While the Eucharist is the source of the building up of the Body of Christ....the expression of its ecclesial or communal dimension....it also has a personal dimension in that it is the communion or the becoming one of the individual and the Lord.
The Code of Canon Law reflects the fundamental right to the Eucharist when it says that “any baptized person who is not prohibited by law must be admitted to Holy Communion.” (Canon 912). This canon is directly related to another (canon 213) which codified the fundamental right of all Christians to receive help from the spiritual goods of the church, especially the sacraments:
The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the Word of God and the sacraments.
Both canons 912 and 213 use the word Christian and not Catholic as the descriptive of the subject of communion. This reflects the constant theology that the Eucharist is a fundamental right of all the baptized, not only those who are official members of the Catholic church. (Cf. Lumen Gentium 37).
The Code describes when non-Catholic Christians may be admitted to communion. The basic rule for sharing communion with non-Catholic Christians is found in Canon 844.
Par 1. Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments only to Catholic members of Christ's faithful, who equally may lawfully receive them only from catholic ministers, except as provided in Par. 2, 3 and 4 of this canon and in can. 861 Par 2.
Catholic law and practice does not require a theological scrutiny about the spectrum of a person’s beliefs, in the case of non-Catholics. It simply asks that they believe in the nature of the Eucharist as the church believes. In practice the law encourages a presumption of the good will and honest faith of the one asking to receive the Eucharist. This is evident from the emphasis on the fact that persons who approach the Eucharist must be admitted to communion unless otherwise prohibited. The law does not say, either in English or the original Latin, that the matter is up to the personal judgment by the priest, hence the omission of the phrase “may be admitted.”
When are Catholics to be prohibited from receiving communion? The law is clear on this point. Canon 915 says:
Those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.
It is imperative to note that this canon applies to those who are excommunicated or under interdict, but only when these penalties have been formally and publicly imposed or declared. In some instances excommunication or interdict is automatic upon the commission of an ecclesiastical crime. The penalty may not be widely known. It is not presumed to be public until it has been officially imposed or declared by a competent church authority. The prohibition from communion applies only to those who have been publicly declared to be excommunicated or under interdict.
The American Life League, in their full page advertisement in USA Today, June 16, 2004, referred to Canon 915 in an attempt to justify their demand that bishops prohibit politicians whom they deem to be “pro-abortion” from communion. The American Life League has erroneously invoked Canon 915 and in so doing they have added to the confusion, misunderstanding and alienation of those already scandalized by the subjective use of the Eucharist to enter into secular politics.
The following canon (916) refers to those who are conscious of being in a state of mortal sin. This canon does not refer to a public prohibition from communion but to the fact that such persons should deprive themselves from communion since the state of sin is presumed to be a private affair.
The law and pastoral practice of the Church distinguishes between those who are to be prohibited from receiving communion and those who are to prohibit themselves from receiving communion. Unless a person’s state of excommunication, interdiction or grave public sin is publicly known, a priest or other minister does not have the right to refuse to give communion to a person.
Canon 1398 explains the penalty imposed for abortion. It states: “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs an automatic excommunication.” The commentaries on the similar canon in the 1917 Code included under this canon those directly involved as principal agents or cooperators. “Directly involved,” means those who assent to and assist in procuring a specific abortion. The commentaries do not refer to those with indirect involvement as being subject to the penalty. Examples would be taxi drivers who drive the woman to a clinic, manufacturers of surgical instruments used, or even health care workers who might be obliged to be part of the procedure, do not approve of abortion on demand yet who are essential for the health of the patient. Without venturing too deeply into the realm of medical ethics and moral theology suffice it to say that the correct application of Canon 1398 is neither readily obvious nor simple in cases of the variety of persons indirectly involved in an abortion.
In recent weeks several Catholic prelates, including Cardinal Arinze in the Vatican, have spoken publicly about the prohibition from communion of Catholic politicians who have voted for legislation that advocates the right of women to choose to procure an abortion. In several cases the politicians have stated that they do not believe in abortion as such. Rather, they support the right of women to make their own decision about abortion.
The position of certain Catholic prelates has taken a variety of expressions. Some bishops have stated that they would refuse communion to politicians who support pro-choice legislation. Others have stated that such politicians should not present themselves for communion. One bishop, Sheridan of Colorado Springs, even extended the ban to those who voted for politicians whom he considers to espouse legislation that would allow positions contrary to his interpretation of Catholic teaching.
Placing the actions of these bishops under the scrutiny of Canon Law, it seems clear that voting for legislation that protects a person’s right to choose an abortion is not equal to directly cooperating in the procuring of an abortion. Support for the right to choosing an abortion and directly supporting an abortion are two different things. It is clear that a bishop cannot prohibit a politician from communion nor can he order priests or other ministers from so doing. This is quite separate from urging people who publicly advocate abortion rights from denying themselves access to communion. Yet here too the issue is too broadly generalized in the present contest in that there is little input on the nature of the right to communion.
Prohibition from communion is an ecclesiastical penalty. The Code is clear when penalties can be imposed. It is also clear when a church authority figure can legitimately impose a penal precept. In the first place a penalty cannot be imposed unless there is an offense. Due process must be followed prior to the imposition of the penalty. Canon 221 specifically states that Catholics have the right not to be punished with canonical penalties except in accord with the norm of law. Publicly stating the certain politicians and even voters cannot receive communion is far from due process.
The Code contains a series of canons on the application of penalties (canons 1341-1353). Banning a person from communion is always a penalty. Before this grave action is taken due process must be followed. Individual bishops do not have the right or the power to dispense from or otherwise change the penal law of the church (canon 87). It seems clear that those bishops who have publicly banned politicians or voters from communion have attempted to change the procedure for the application of penal laws, which they clearly lack the competence to do.
The fact that statements about Church discipline or Catholic theology are made by bishops or other representatives of the Church does not in itself authenticate the accuracy of such pronouncements. Bishops can and have been wrong in what they have said and done. The issue of the prohibition from communion surfaces some fundamental questions and issues about the nature of excommunication, the application of penalties and the concept of equity in church law and practice.
Similarly certain spokespersons for the Church, including lobbyists for State Catholic conferences, have made misleading and erroneous statements in order to persuade legislators to vote in a certain way. The simple fact of one’s employment as a lobbyist is far from an acceptable credential as a theologian or canon lawyer. Recent statements by Catholic lobbyists in Maryland (relative to the sacrament of penance and mandatory reporting laws) and Missouri (relative to Medicaid legislation) are clear examples of attempts by official Catholic sources to mislead legislators and the general public for self-serving purposes.
Abortion is judged by many to be one of the most significant evils of our society. At the same time it is a right protected by our legal system. In the years since the Supreme Court handed down its famous Roe v Wade decision, public approval of abortion or at least the right of an individual to choose an abortion, has changed significantly. Opinion polls have shown that a majority of the general public and Catholics as well, approve of the right to choose. A broad based opinion change will hardly be accomplished by heavy handed, punitive tactics that seek to not only politicize the Eucharist, but in so doing, to trivialize it. By such actions bishops demean their roles as leaders of the Christian faithful and propagate a highly negative and critical example of themselves and their role in the church. Such an impression is especially true in light of the clear cut evidence that bishops have covered up and otherwise enabled the sexual violence against children and other vulnerable persons in the Church. It seems to many to be blatantly dishonest and hypocritical to penalize persons for supporting a right to choose an action which the church considers intrinsically wrong yet which the secular government considers legitimate, while at the same time supporting and even enabling persons who commit similarly intrinsically evil acts against living persons....acts which are considered evil and criminal in church and civil law as well.
Thomas P. Doyle, O.P., J.C.D.
June 16, 2004
Challenges Facing Catholicism