When it comes to talking about the Catholic Church, it’s always advisable to take the long, broad view. The recent vagaries of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have been well-publicized: Following conspicuously Catholic President Biden’s reversal of a decades-long ban on federal abortion funding, the USCCB voted to draft a document that would redefine the Eucharistic discipline (that is, encourage or possibly even mandate priests not to grant communion to openly pro-choice Catholic politicians). A subsequent document apparently backtracked on the decision, claiming, “There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians.” All of a sudden, everyone had an opinion.
Before diving in here, there are two things I think I should tell you. The first is that denying communion to a Catholic because they oppose outlawing abortion strikes me as a very, very, very bad idea, for reasons I will try to explain below. The second is that when I say this, I am speaking as a Catholic, someone who returned to active practice after more than a decade away from the church.
I don’t expect readers of The Nation to be much interested in my own beliefs and the circuitous route by which I arrived at them. I bring up the issue of my own Catholicism only because the question at the heart of the controversy is one of belonging: Are you part of this community that calls itself the Catholic Church? If you are, what difference does being Catholic make in the way you live your life in the world? If you aren’t, why are you invested in an issue that doesn’t directly pertain to you? You might have very good reasons to be interested, but you should be clear and explicit about what motivates your interest. As a member of the communion, I have a stake in the controversy. What’s yours?
The matter has drawn plenty of attention from outside the Catholic Church. More telling than the write-ups in The New York Times and The Washington Post are the bits and pieces of social media that have turned up in my own small, ostensibly progressive corner of the Internet. There’s the tweet by the Rev. Daniel Brereton, an Anglican priest from Mississauga, Ontario, who claims not to understand the concept of withholding communion (which, to a believer, is a grace extended by God rather than some human intervention). “But what if someone unworthy receives it?” he imagines someone asking. “Uh, that would be ‘everyone,’” he answers. Another meme accuses the bishops of deflecting attention from the more serious issue of excluding child molesters, rather than politicians, from communion. A third argues that the bishops’ actions violate the separation of church and state, warning, “If you’re going to politicize communion, then it’s time for the Catholic Church to pay taxes.” And not a few commentators noted the hypocrisy of denying Biden communion when similar moves are not being made regarding Catholic politicians like William Barr and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts despite their contradicting church teaching with their support for the death penalty. These posts, by ex-Catholics, non-Catholics, and assorted liberals may well be passionate and sincere, yet their tweets and memes serve mostly to troll perceived enemies and rally fellow believers. When it comes to advancing the conversation, they’re less effective, precisely because they lack self-reflection and don’t take seriously the position of those bishops who would like to exclude politicians like Biden from communion.
For example, it’s not at all clear what stake a Canadian and an Anglican like the Reverend Brereton has in a conversation about US abortion policy and the Catholic Church—aside, that is, from virtue signaling and scoring points in an inter-ecclesial fight. His theology is attractive, but misses the point. Those who argue that communion should be denied to Catholics like Biden speak more often of “Eucharistic coherence” than personal worthiness.
Historically, excluding baptized Christians from communion has had more to do with the coherence of the community than with the worthiness of the individual recipient. When bishops gathered in the Spanish town of Elvira in the early fourth century to decide matters of church discipline, for example, they saved the severest penalties for adultery, the sexual abuse of boys, murder, and apostasy. Each of these sins left behind victims—suffering spouses, exploited children, grieving family and friends—many of whom were also members of the community who would be pained to see their abusers receive the sacrament unimpeded. Perhaps they should have simply forgiven the people who wronged them, like good Christians, but if the sexual abuse scandals of the last decades have taught us anything, it’s that reconciliation is an arduous process that demands, at the very least, that the wrong be openly recognized for what it is.
Even apostasy can leave others wounded. In the third century, for example, the church of Carthage was torn apart when Christians who had sacrificed to Roman gods demanded readmission to communion. They did so in obedience to a series of imperial edicts that were intended to obtain divine favor and as a display of unity in an empire ravaged by civil wars. When these “fallen” Christians sought to return to communion, they were welcomed by some of their coreligionists and fiercely opposed by others. It might be tempting to dismiss the latter group as self-righteous prigs, but it’s only fair to ask how many of those “prigs” had spent time in prison, lost property to confiscation, or seen friends and relatives executed because of the edicts. Expecting them simply to set aside their hurt and resentment and to receive the fallen with open arms might be akin to asking the victims of priestly sexual abuse simply to forgive their abusers.
At the same time, it would be a mistake simply to accuse the “fallen” of cowardice in the face of “persecution.” The edicts seem to have been addressed to all Roman citizens and were probably not intended to single out Christians who kept their religious beliefs and practices private. Many Christians who obeyed the edicts and sacrificed did so not out of fear of punishment but out of a real sense of civic duty at a time when the empire arguably faced its most serious crisis since the fall of the Roman Republic. In effect, they felt that the needs of civil society trumped the demands of private belief. In doing so, of course, they fed the sense among other Christians that the church was under attack by a hostile society.
The situation of those early Christians is surprisingly analogous to the one we face now. On the one hand, there are Catholic bishops who teach that abortion is the taking of human life and, therefore, violates the cohesion of the community. Some of them, and some (though probably not a majority) of the Catholic laity also feel that secular society and the state are encroaching on their freedom. Their feeling of being persecuted resembles what those Christians felt who held out against the edicts. On the other hand, many non-Catholics see the bishops’ behavior as threatening and divisive. They might argue that Catholic belief and practice should have no direct application to politics, including the politics of abortion. Given that the most recent appointments to the Supreme Court have heightened fear that Roe v. Wade might be overturned, secular voters might worry that moves to restrict communion will force Catholics to vote against all pro-choice politicians, effectively threatening to unleash a tidal wave of votes undoing their own liberties.
As understandable as their fears might be, when non-Catholics insist that the needs of civil society trump the demands of private belief, they end up feeding the persecution narrative dear to some Catholic bishops and laity. Ultimately, their fears are probably groundless. USCCB efforts to restrict abortion, far more likely than motivating Catholic voters to try to outlaw abortion, will probably just drive even more Catholics out of the pews. Others, their hides hardened by years of disagreement with the bishops, will simply ignore the rule, continue receiving communion, and vote their conscience in the privacy of the booth. As the editors at the National Catholic Reporter put it after the USCCB first voted to create the document outlining the new Eucharistic restrictions, “if there happens to be a Catholic remaining who is not convinced that the bishops’ conference, as it stands today, has become completely irrelevant and ineffectual, they will be crystal clear about that reality after the conference leaders move forward with this patently bad idea.”
It’s perfectly plausible for Catholics to maintain that the church should not be swayed by the claims of civil society while still arguing that bishops should back away from their war against abortion rights precisely because it’s contrary to the principles of the Gospel. If the bishops do not want to be coerced by the state, they should be wary of pushing the state to coerce those who get abortions and those who provide them. They should recognize that the rights of persons to control and protect their bodies, even if it means taking the life of an unborn human being, is analogous to the right of people to injure or kill others in self-defense—a right that the bishops recognize, however regretfully. And if they really want to reduce the number of abortions, they’re going to have to embrace programs of health care, child care, and contraception that might be hard for their libertarian allies to swallow.
For my part, by framing this issue as a conflict between Catholic bishops and non-Catholic, secular society, I risk obscuring the role of another group in the controversy: baptized Catholics who have either joined other communions or no longer practice. I noted above that many of them have been lobbing verbal hand grenades at the bishops in the past weeks. I respect any pain and anger they feel. I still feel pain and anger myself, more than 10 years after returning to active practice, and I’m tempted to lob similar grenades. I would never dare call their decision to leave “apostasy” or think myself injured by their decision to leave. But sometimes I do wish that, instead of throwing stones from the outside, they would come back in and help me fight for the church I love.