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Eucharist: Who's Worthy? Whose Call?

There are two things you should never bring up in conversation if you’re not prepared for a lengthy and sometimes contentious debate: politics and religion.

So it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that sparks began to fly when people began to discuss the issue of whether or not politicians who publicly disagree with Church teaching should receive Communion.

Caught in the middle of the firestorm, the bishops responded on June 18 by releasing a statement, “Catholics in Pastoral Life,” at the end of their annual spring meeting in Englewood, Colorado. Earlier in the week, the bishops received a preliminary report from the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians. That report is available on the bishops’ Web site (www.usccb.org).

A Controversy Emerges

But in order to understand how we got to this point, we need to back up a little. This issue first began to heat up last December when Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, then bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, issued a canonical notification to all Catholic politicians of his diocese that they could no longer present themselves for Communion if they supported abortion or euthanasia.

Archbishop Burke also said that if Senator John Kerry, the likely Democratic candidate for president, presented himself for Communion in Burke’s diocese, Kerry would receive only a blessing. Kerry has said that he personally does not believe in abortion, but politically supports abortion rights.

Before long, bishops on both sides began to speak out. Some supported Archbishop Burke’s stance, saying it was their duty to present and stand by Church teaching.

Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs went a step further, saying in a May 1 pastoral letter that Catholics who vote for politicians who support abortion, fetal stem-cell research or euthanasia may not receive Communion “until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God and the Church in the Sacrament of Penance.”

Other bishops, however, balked at the idea of refusing Communion.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., who is heading the task force on this issue, said, “As a priest and bishop, I do not favor a confrontation at the altar rail with the sacred body of the Lord Jesus in my hand.”

His reasoning? “It implies that I know precisely what’s in a man’s heart or in a woman’s heart, and I’m not always sure.”

In June, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati told John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter that making a judgment on what someone believes can be tricky.

“We need to be very cautious about denying people the sacraments on the basis of what they say they believe, especially when those are political beliefs. So Kerry believes abortion is a good thing for our society. Do you refuse him Communion on the basis of his opinions? What about people who don’t like Humanae Vitae? What about people who don’t like the Church’s teaching on the death penalty, or on homosexual marriages? Are we going to refuse them?” Archbishop Pilarcyzk asked.

Also of note: In January 2001, Rome’s outgoing mayor, Francesco Rutelli, who had said he was personally opposed to abortion but would not impose his belief through law, received Communion from Pope John Paul II.

Whose Call?

In their June pastoral statement, the bishops said, “We have the duty to teach about human life and dignity, marriage and family, war and peace, the needs of the poor and the demands of justice.”

But in the end they broke no new ground, reiterating that the decision concerning who is or is not worthy of receiving Communion in a given diocese is up to the local bishop. So we’re back where we started.

The bishops are right on one thing: They do have a responsibility to speak out on the Church’s teachings. That is their role as leaders in the Church.

It is up to us, however, as individual Catholics, to decide how to implement those teachings in our lives. That includes making sure that we are prepared to receive Holy Communion. And that means making choices about such things as for whom we should vote by using some moral yardstick.

There are those, in fact, who question the bishops’ right even to speak out on any issues of moral credibility in light of the clergy sex-abuse crisis.

In their recent document, the bishops used words such as “teach,” “persuade” and “maintain communications.” Those words speak of dialogue and cooperation, not of sanctions and ultimatums. Let’s hope that is their intention. The final report of the bishops’ task force on this issue is to be released after the November elections. We’ll have to wait and see, but the tone of the interim report seems to support that stance.

Everyone Has a Role

As that report pointed out, “It is not just politicians, but all of us who should ask are we worthy to receive the Eucharist. Are we free of serious sin? Do we live according to the Gospel? Do we ‘choose life,’ serve ‘the least of these,’ hunger and thirst for justice and peace? All of us are called to reflect on our worthiness, confess our sins and renew our lives.”

For now, maybe the bishops—and all of us—should be working harder at  changing hearts and less at making judgments. Denying the Eucharist—the core unifying element of our faith—hardly seems the way to go about it.

Perhaps St. Francis de Sales, patron of the Catholic press, said it best: “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.” —S.H.B.


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