The long anticipated Bishops’ statement on the Eucharist has finally arrived, and the Catholic internet is already full of more-or-less predictable reactions. Unfortunately, many of these reactions are driven more by politics than by the Catholic Faith. Political controversy tends to make the world uglier than it really is, and this case is no exception.
Having already read some of these reactions, I was pleasantly surprised when I read the actual text of The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church. On the whole, I found it to be a good, solid presentation of the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist; some parts of it were quite beautiful and even profound.
After a highly contentious June meeting, during which 43 individual bishops expressed views on whether the document should be drafted and what it should say, many Catholics anticipated that the final statement would be a rebuke of Pope Francis. Last week, however, there was little public debate over the content and all but 11 of the 233 bishops at the meeting voted in favor of the document. This suggests a consensus among them was achieved. No doubt, Pope Francis has opponents among the USCCB, but it’s hard to believe that he has only 11 allies among our bishops.
In fact, the document draws heavily on Pope Francis. It opens by depicting the Pope’s Eucharistic Benediction during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in concluding it cites Evangelii Gaudium’s call to evangelization. In many ways, the document faithfully reflects the Pope’s vision for the Church, particularly when it speaks of the Church’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.
This is true even of the discussion on the worthiness of public figures to receive Communion which is far and away the most controversial aspect of the document and the one that generated the most debate. After explaining the Church’s teaching on reception of the Eucharist, the document merely states:
Likewise, the reception of Holy Communion entails one’s communion with the Church in this visible dimension. We repeat what the U.S. Bishops stated in 2006:
If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain. (48)
The document then draws on the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II about the necessity of visible, outward communion with the Church. While an inward, subjective state of grace is necessary for worthy reception of the Eucharist, this must be coupled with a visibly manifested loyalty to the Faith. The document then continues as follows:
It is the special responsibility of the diocesan bishop to work to remedy situations that involve public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law. Indeed, he must guard the integrity of the sacrament, the visible communion of the Church, and the salvation of souls. (49)
This relatively mild statement doesn’t single out any particular individuals or particular sins, and it emphasizes that this teaching on worthiness pre-existed the current political situation, and it does not insist on any particular course of action on the part of the diocesan bishops, but leaves the issue up to their pastoral judgement.
It does not, for example, contain a passage equivalent to this one found in CELAM’s 2007 Aparecida document:
We hope that legislators, heads of government, and health professionals, conscious of the dignity of human life and of the rootedness of the family in our peoples, will defend and protect it from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia; that is their responsibility. Hence, in response to government laws and provisions that are unjust in the light of faith and reason, conscientious objection should be encouraged. We must adhere to “eucharistic coherence,” that is, be conscious that they cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals. (436)
Although the then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio headed the drafting committee for the Aparecida document, this specific paragraph has been attributed to the influence of the late Columbian Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, whose intervention at the October 2005 Synod of Bishops first introduced the term “Eucharistic Coherence” into the Church’s lexicon. Still, Pope Francis has never publicly said anything that indicates he disagrees with the paragraph. This passage in Aparecida is, in fact, a rather stronger statement than anything found in the USCCB document. But it should be noted that like the USCCB’s document, Aparecida puts the burden of responsibility on the individuals themselves. Furthermore, the USCCB document leaves any potential enforcement of sacramental worthiness up to individual bishops.
Worthiness to Receive
Some Catholics may be disturbed that the issue of worthiness to receive was brought up at all; they might see worthiness as a purely private matter. Such worthiness, however, is part and parcel of our Faith, and is an inherently social issue. The warning of 1 Corinthians 11 on this topic is well known. What is not as well-known is the context of this warning. In the surrounding text, St. Paul speaks of care for our brothers and sisters in Christ. As William T. Cavanaugh puts it in Being Consumed:
Paul, too, places neglect of the hungry in the context of judgement. At the eucharistic celebration in Corinth, which included a common meal, those who eat while others go hungry “show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing.” Those who thus—in an “unworthy manner”—partake of the body and blood of Christ “eat and drink judgement against themselves.” Those of us who partake in the Eucharist while ignoring the hungry may be eating and drinking our own damnation. (pp. 97-98)
Theology of the Body
The connection between care of our neighbor and worthiness to receive can be better understood by reflecting on the meaning and purpose of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacrament of communion, of unity. By receiving it, we enter into the Mystical Body of Christ, and are bound into a unity tighter than that which binds together the members of our physical bodies. Such unity can’t be confined to church; as the bishops are reminding us, we have to express it in every action of our lives.
In a sense, this can be seen as a “Theology of the Body”—a theology of the Body of Christ. The Catholic faith demands integrity in all aspects of life; we are called to live the truth fully. The use of contraceptives is forbidden by the Church precisely because contraception renders an aspect of the life of a married couple untruthful. In a similar way, if we receive the Eucharist and then oppress or exploit our neighbors, we are living a lie, and the truth is not in us. Receiving the Body and Blood of Christ under such circumstances can be fairly described as a mockery, a blasphemy. A proper reception of the Eucharist calls for a true “culture of life” that values and respects the divine image in every person.
A culture of life includes the protection of the unborn—and of all human life. Public and political figures who refuse to promote human dignity—whether it’s the lives of children in the womb, workers, the poor, migrants, or the imprisoned (especially those on death row)—should not present themselves for Communion, because their actions demonstrate a grave lack of care for others. A true culture of life entails much more than an opposition to abortion. Any grave sin against human life and dignity is a sin against the Eucharistic love we must have for others.
Political controversy not only tends to portray the world as an ugly place; it also tends to overshadow our own personal responsibility. It traps us in arguments about what other people should be doing or saying. The debate over the bishops’ document perfectly exemplifies this. Catholics are divided into camps about who should receive Communion, whether the bishops should deny (other) people Communion, whether the bishops should have said what they did, whether the bishops should have written any document at all. All these things are out of our control and serve merely to distract and divide us.
By contrast, God’s will for us is always to be found in the duties of the present moment. In the present moment, the bishops’ document calls on us to participate in an important task. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, and our world certainly needs a renewed focus on the Eucharist, since the Eucharist in a certain way sums up the Faith. All disagreements about policy aside, how could any Catholics disagree with this document’s central point?
We can’t let cynicism and politics divide us and distract us from performing our duty. If this document grew out of a process marred by political maneuvering, we should rise above all that. There is plenty to criticize about the USCCB; it is, after all, a bureaucratic institution and suffers from all the flaws typical to such institutions. It also hasn’t escaped unscathed from the polarizing ideological conflicts of our times. Still, Jesus told people to listen to the Scribes because they “sit on the seat of Moses,” and the same principle holds true for us. The Bishops are entrusted with the governance of the Church, and so we are called to listen attentively when they teach, whatever deficiencies we may find in them as individuals or as a group. If we take this document seriously, we can imitate God, who writes straight with crooked lines.
First and foremost, individual Catholics are being called to a renewed love for the Eucharist. The bishops are asking us to “take a full, conscious, and active part in the liturgical celebration,” to foster a spirit of thanksgiving and adoration, and to allow the Eucharistic graces we receive to transform our spiritual lives.
Such renewal can’t be restricted to the personal level. Paragraph 35 of the document begins:
The personal and moral transformation that is sustained by the Eucharist reaches out to every sphere of human life. The love of Christ can permeate all of our relationships: with our families, our friends, and our neighbors. It can also reshape the life of our society as a whole. Our relationship with Christ is not restricted to the private sphere; it is not for ourselves alone.
How can we, the laity, best participate in this call to renew society through the Eucharist? The document’s second page mentions Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Like Dorothy, we are called to bring the presence of Christ into the mundane realities of the world. Our role is to work for social justice, to eliminate the shocking disparity between the Sacrament of Unity and our individualistic, divided world. As Pope St. Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio:
Lay people must consider it their task to improve the temporal order. While the hierarchy has the role of teaching and authoritatively interpreting the moral laws and precepts that apply in this matter, the laity have the duty of using their own initiative and taking action in this area—without waiting passively for directives and precepts from others. They must try to infuse a Christian spirit into people’s mental outlook and daily behavior, into the laws and structures of the civil community. Changes must be made; present conditions must be improved. And the transformations must be permeated with the spirit of the Gospel. (81)
The bishops’ Eucharistic document gives us the following “teaching and authoritative interpretation”:
The very solidarity or communion in Christ’s self-giving love that makes the Church and makes us members of the Church orders us beyond the visible community of faith to all human beings whom we are to love with that very same love that forms our communion with the Lord. … This love extends particularly and “preferentially” to the poor and the most vulnerable. We all need to be consistent in bringing the love of Christ not only to our personal lives, but also to every dimension of our public lives. (35)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the “Eucharist commits us to the poor. To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren.” Preaching on Mt. 25, Saint John Chrysostom observed: “Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same One who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food.’.”
Just as we are impelled by the Eucharist to hear the cry of the poor, and respond in love, we are also called to hear the cry of the earth and, likewise, respond with loving care. Pope Francis, like Pope Benedict XVI before him, has eloquently drawn the connection between the celebration of the Eucharist and care for the environment. All creation gives glory to God, and journeys toward divinization, toward union with the Creator. (37)
It is frequently lamented that our bishops are not more invested in the struggle for social justice. Such laments, however, can easily become just another political way to avoid personal responsibility. This is one aspect of the Faith where the laity are supposed to take the lead; we can’t let a clericalist mentality hold us back. In the end, the USCCB, following the lead of Pope Francis, has given us an excellent statement of principles. Will we rise to the challenge and turn these principles into concrete, lived realities?
Image: NOGALES, Arizona (April 1, 2014) – Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston distributes communion during a Mass he celebrated along with seven other bishops on the US-Mexico border in Arizona to commemorate the deaths of migrants in the desert and to pray for immigration reform. More information is available at www.justiceforimmigrants.org
Earlier this year we shared Cardinal O’Malley’s reflection on unity and worthiness to receive the Eucharist.
(Photo credit: George Martell/The Pilot Media Group) All photos available under a Creative Commons license, Share-Alike, Attribution-required.
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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.