Editor’s Note: This article is part of The Conversation, a new initiative from America Media offering diverse perspectives on important and contested issues in church life. Read another look at receiving the Eucharist here and here.
In the six months since the 2020 election, a growing movement has emerged in the Church in the United States that calls on our nation’s bishops to publicly exclude President Joseph R. Biden and other Catholic officials from office. ‘Eucharist. Those who support this action present a concise, three-part argument: the president supports positions on abortion that clearly deviate from church teaching on an extremely serious moral issue; the long tradition of the Church requires personal dignity to receive the Eucharist; and the persistent rejection of clear Catholic teaching extinguishes this value.
It is understandable that many Catholic leaders arrived at this time. Almost 50 years have passed since the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. While progress in reducing abortions has been made in some jurisdictions and the number of abortions nationwide has declined, the United States still rejects legal structures and policies that can provide meaningful protection to the unborn child. The election of President Biden and a Democratic Congress is a sign that, outside of the courts, federal progress on the crucial moral issue of abortion will not occur in the immediate future. It is an immense sadness for every bishop in our country and for the church as a whole, and church leaders are eagerly seeking a step that will advance the protection of the unborn child.
The proposal to exclude pro-choice Catholic political leaders from the Eucharist will have extremely destructive consequences.
But the proposal to exclude pro-choice Catholic political leaders from the Eucharist is a wrong step. This will lead to extremely destructive consequences, not because of what he says about abortion, but because of what he says about the Eucharist.
the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and the sublime cause of this communion with the divine life and of this unity of the People of God by which the Church is maintained. It is the culmination both of the action of God sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship that men render to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Because of this sacredness and this identity, the Eucharist should never be instrumentalized for political ends, however important they may be. But that is precisely what is being done in the effort to exclude Catholic political leaders who oppose Church teaching on abortion and civil law. The Eucharist is militarized and deployed as a tool of political warfare. This must not happen.
The substantial damage that will take place within the Eucharistic community as a result of this instrumentalization will be wide and deep. the Catechism proclaims:
At the Last Supper, the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. He did this to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross through the ages until his return, and thus entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, an Easter banquet.
A national policy of exclusion of pro-Eucharist choice political leaders will constitute an attack on this unity, on this charity. A full half of Catholics in the United States will see this action as partisan in nature, and it will bring the terrible partisan divisions that have plagued our nation into the very act of worship that is intended by God to cause and signify our unity. .
A Theology of Unworthiness
Proponents of the proposal to adopt a national policy of excluding pro-Eucharist choice political leaders need justification to support this unprecedented action. They proposed that it lies in the theology of the dignity of receiving the Eucharist which has existed since the beginnings of the church. Rooted in St. Paul’s exhortation not to eat or drink unworthily at the Lord’s table, the traditional theology of Eucharistic dignity is both an exhortation, an acknowledgment of human weakness and a discipline. This traditional theology is an exhortation because it reminds us that the Eucharist constitutes the reception of the Lord Himself, and therefore all believers approaching the altar should respectfully attempt to conform their lives more fully to the person of Jesus Christ. Second, traditional dignity theology incorporates into its presentation of the Eucharist the recognition that human failure is deep and wide and that God’s grace and mercy abound. Finally, the theology of dignity in the Church teaches that Catholics conscious of grave sin must receive forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance before receiving the Eucharist.
The particular theology of dignity that proponents of a national policy of eucharistic exclusion have advanced greatly reduces the emphasis on the first two elements of traditional theology and concentrates on the third element: discipline. Thus, it would be better to call it “a theology of unworthiness”.
Two specific dimensions of this theology of unworthiness deserve particular examination.
The first is the extremely broad notion of what triggers the unworthiness of receiving the Eucharist: any Catholic who continually rejects an important teaching of the Church is automatically unworthy to receive the Eucharist. Proponents propose that because President Biden rejects the moral obligation to seek laws protecting the unborn child, he should be excluded from the Eucharist. For dignity requires integral union with all the main teachings of the Catholic faith.
It is the moral obligation of Catholics to embrace all the teachings of the Church in their entirety. But failure to fulfill this obligation in its fullness cannot be the measure of Eucharistic dignity in a church of sinners.
How many Catholic political leaders of either party could pass this test? And because any notion of Eucharistic unworthiness in Church theology must apply not just to political leaders but to all Catholics, how many of the faithful will be eligible for the Eucharist according to this criterion? It is the moral obligation of Catholics to embrace all the teachings of the Church in their entirety. But failure to fulfill this obligation in its fullness cannot be the measure of Eucharistic dignity in a church of sinners and questioners, who must deal with intense pressures and complexities in their daily lives.
A second problematic dimension of this theology of unworthiness is that, while expansive in its notion of unworthiness, it applies sanctions very selectively and inconsistently. Proposals to exclude pro-choice Catholic political leaders from the Eucharist have focused on abortion, and sometimes euthanasia, as imperative issues where bishops should enact a national eucharistic exclusion policy. Their logic is that abortion and euthanasia are particularly serious evils, that they are inherently evil and that they involve threats to human life.
But why was racism not included in the call for Eucharistic sanctions against political leaders? Racism was enumerated as an irresistible intrinsic evil by Saint John Paul II in “Veritatis Splendorand by the Second Vatican Council. Our own conference of bishops proclaimed that “racism is not just one sin among others; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. As to whether racism is a sin that threatens human life, anyone in doubt should speak with the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will deal a great blow to this integral unity if it adopts a national eucharistic exclusion policy targeting abortion but not racism.
Racism is tearing at the heart of our nation with intense fury at this very moment, but the intrinsic evil of racism is not grounds for Eucharistic exclusion in the proposals that have been brought to our bishops’ conference this year for the action. It will be impossible to convince large numbers of Catholics in our country that this omission does not stem from a desire to limit the impact of the exclusion to Democratic public leaders and a desire to avoid diverting attention from abortion.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his “Doctrinal note on some questions concerning the participation of Catholics in political life“warned the bishops against such a path. “The Christian faith is an integral unity, and therefore it is inconsistent to isolate any particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will deal a great blow to this integral unity if it adopts a national eucharistic exclusion policy targeting abortion but not racism.
Christ’s invitation to the Eucharist
Traditional Catholic teaching on the dignity of receiving the Eucharist is important in the life of the Church. But this is not the centerpiece of the church’s understanding of Christ’s invitation to receive the Eucharist. As Pope Francis said so clearly in “Evangelii Gaudium”, the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (no. 47). The new American theology of unworthiness is a direct challenge to this teaching and poses great dangers to Catholic faith, spirituality and practice. It constitutes a significant break with the orientations of the Second Vatican Council.
Is the central identity of Christ’s invitation to the Eucharist a sign of personal dignity or the gracious call of the merciful God?
In the decision facing the bishops’ conference in the coming months lies a monumental choice: is the central identity of Christ’s invitation to the Eucharist a sign of personal dignity or the call of grace of the God of mercy? At a time when we are emerging from a pandemic and seeking to rebuild the Eucharistic community, it would be particularly hurtful to embrace and emphasize a theology of unworthiness and exclusion rather than a theology that puts emphasizing Christ’s unceasing invitation to all. And it would undermine the wonderful work that our priests and lay leaders are doing to emphasize the importance for every Catholic to return to full and active participation in God’s liturgy.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to “Lumen gentium”.