"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, November 24, 2006

We have the beef, but where's the teeth?

Ten days ago, the U.S. bishops finally delivered themselves of a thoughtful, comprehensive statement describing and explaining the conditions under which people may and may not receive the Eucharist. It's called "“Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper”: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist, and you can download it as a PDF file from the USCCB website. Why does that matter?

Such a statement was widely anticipated during the 2004 election campaign, when even then-Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the CDF, felt obliged to address the issue in a "memorandum" to the bishops because of the"pro-choice" stance of presidential candidate John Kerry and many other Catholic politicians. A handful of bishops, including my own Peter Jugis, publically announced that they would deny the Eucharist to any Catholic politician who supported legal abortion. But Cardinal McCarrick, then Archbishop of Washington and thus the politically most influential bishop, did not join them and basically swept the memo under the rug. And characteristically, the bishop's conference postponed formally addressing the issue until "after the election." Well, they did address it after the election: the 2006 election!

Having just read the document, I find it sound and even helpful. I was especially impressed with its description of how one ought to prepare, spiritually, to receive the Eucharist. As usual, however, the question is not principle but practice. And on that score, what the document does not specify is all too significant.

It is well known that most American Catholics reject Catholic moral teaching on some important topics, most of which have to do directly or indirectly with sex. Capital punishment, war, and care for the poor are also serious issues on which American Catholics are politically divided; but for reasons Cardinal Ratzinger explained in his memo, they don't have quite the same status. Now here's what the document says (emphasis added) about dissent from Catholic moral teaching as that pertains to fitness for receiving the Eucharist:

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.

Prior to that, a number of specific moral norms had been cited, such that violation of those norms was said to make somebody unfit to receive the Eucharist. Quite rightly too; all represent "definitive" moral teachings, and procuring abortion was duly mentioned among them. But publicly advocating a legal right to abortion, which the US bishops as well as the previous and present popes have repeatedly indicated is morally wrong for Catholics, was not mentioned. And contraception, which the majority of Catholics practice without the slightest regard for the definitive Church teaching that it's "intrinsically evil," was never mentioned either. So, on the two most controversial moral topics in the American Church, the bishops said absolutely nothing about how dissent from Church teaching on them affects one's fitness to receive the Eucharist.

Once again, the ball has been dropped. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised: even if this weren't just business as usual, the bishops' "street cred" is rather low right now due to the sex-abuse scandals. But it would have been refreshing, even evangelically energizing, to see some courage. Not a few non-Catholic Christians are scandalized by how Catholics can thumb their noses at the Church with impunity.

Shall I wait, like Cubs fans, till next year?
blog comments powered by Disqus