by Tom Cordaro
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
As a Catholic striving to be faithful to the call to nonviolence exemplified by the life and teachings of Jesus, I am scandalized by those bishops and priests in the United States who would deny the Eucharist to politicians who disagree with them on the best way to eliminate abortions and create a culture of life.
And now this scandal is in danger of metastasizing because the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops will consider voting on a document prepared by its Committee on Doctrine that would encourage all bishops to deny the Eucharist to all politicians who do not support their strategy of outlawing all abortions.
The Church teaches that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. To deny access to the Eucharist is to deny fellow Catholics the spiritual sustenance they need to thrive. It constitutes an act of violent coercion – in effect starving those Catholics into submission who will not obey the dictates of the bishops.
Thankfully there are other bishops who are speaking out against this kind of action. Bishop Robert McElroy (in America magazine) was right to say, “I do not see how depriving the president or other political leaders of the Eucharist based on their public policy stance can be interpreted in our society as anything other than a weaponization of the Eucharist … to pummel them into submission.”
I find nothing in the life and teachings of Jesus that would support this kind of violence. It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus not merely ministered to sinners but identified with them. Nothing more illustrates this point than Jesus’ practice of table fellowship. In the Middle East, table fellowship or sharing a meal is a particularly intimate form of association. Most would never eat and drink with a public sinner. The scandal Jesus caused in that society by mixing socially with public sinners (tax collectors, drunkards and prostitutes) can hardly be imagined today (c.f. Jesus Before Christianity, by Albert Nolan). In the parables he told and in his own behavior throughout his life, Jesus demonstrated that our fellowship table should be open to all (Mk 1:15-17, Lk 7:36-50, Lk 14:15-24, Lk 15:11-32, Lk 19:1-10). Even at the Last Supper, knowing he would be betrayed and abandoned by his own friends, Jesus broke bread with all of his disciples, including Judas.
Like many Pax Christi members I am very passionate about Catholic Social Teaching and the call to protect and defend the dignity of life from womb to tomb. At the same time I am often disappointed by the lack of commitment to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching by many of our Catholic brothers and sisters who hold positions of responsibility in politics, business and sadly even in the Church. But it would never occur to me to seek the exclusion of any of these members of our Catholic family from the Eucharistic Table.
After his resurrection Jesus asks Simon Peter to demonstrate his love for him by caring for his flock. Three times the apostle is asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter replies emphatically, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And Jesus commands him, “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus did not say, “Feed only those sheep who follow the rules.” He did not say, “Feed only those who are free of serious sin.” He did not say, “Feed only those who do what they are told.”
For those who do not feel that the life and teachings of Jesus are enough reason to oppose these violent acts by members of the clergy, let me site some other reasons for opposing these actions.
1. Denying Communion to others is a counter-sign of the true meaning of the Eucharist.
Pope Francis teaches that the Eucharist is not a prize awarded for good behavior; it is a source of healing, mercy and reconciliation. He goes on to say, “If we don’t feel in need of God’s mercy and don’t think we are sinners, it’s better not to go to Mass; the Eucharist is a celebration of Christ’s gift of himself for the salvation of sinners, which is why the Mass begins with people confessing they are sinners and begging for the Lord’s mercy.”
The Church teaches that prior to receiving Communion individuals should examine their conscience and should refrain from participation if they are guilty of mortal sin. While this is true, it is a matter between God and the individual; not a matter of ecclesial policing.
The Eucharist should not be weaponized in order to punish or shame others because we all stand before the Lord as sinners in need of mercy, forgiveness and healing. Just before receiving the Eucharist we recall the words of the Roman centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Speak but the word and I shall be healed.”
2. Denying Communion to those who disagree with the application of Church teaching further erodes the teaching authority of the bishops.
Bishops who resort to violent acts of coercion in an attempt to force a change in the behavior or beliefs of their brothers and sisters in Christ are abdicating their role as teachers. Their resort to violence is an admission of their failure to persuade their fellow Catholics of the validity of their strategy. By acting this way they show themselves more as inquisitors than instructors; more authoritarian than pastoral.
The failure of the bishops’ teaching on abortion is evident in polling conducted by multiple sources — ranging from Pew Research to conservative Catholic media outlet EWTN — indicating that most Catholics in the U.S. believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And there is no evidence to show that punishing and shaming those who disagree ever resulted in changing hearts and minds.
Bishops and other clergy can preach and teach about the reasons the Church rejects abortion. They can lobby and they can participate in nonviolent direct action to stop abortions. They can encourage, support, and advocate for the rights and dignity of women and their children. They can condemn those social forces that promote the sexual objectification of women. They can fight against all the root causes of abortion in our society.
All of these avenues are open to the bishops to make clear what the Church teaches. But when Jesus disarmed his disciples from using the sword to protect him (Mt 26:52), he forever removed the option of using violent coercion as a means of protecting the faith.
3. Denying Communion to others based on a narrow reading of Catholic Social Teaching undermines the entire tradition.
In “Gaudete et Exsultate,” Pope Francis warns against thinking that “the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause.” He reminds us: “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
By reserving this violent punishment and shaming only for those politicians who reject the bishops’ political and legal strategy to end abortion, the bishops undermine the totality of Catholic Social Teaching and risk making the Church social teaching a partisan political tool. It gives support to those Catholics who urge government intervention to stop abortions but reject government intervention to enact other aspects of Catholic Social Teaching that protect and defend the dignity of human life.
4. This action by the bishops will sow distrust and enmity in the Body of Christ.
The action being contemplated by the bishops’ conference could have the effect of poisoning the bonds of community in parishes across the country. This Communion ban, directed at politicians, is based on the argument that because they are public figures, their punishment can take the public form of exclusion from the reception of Communion.
But why stop at politicians? Aren’t Catholics who publicly support these politicians equally at fault? And what about Eucharistic Ministers, lectionary readers, sacristans and other liturgical ministers who attend rallies or volunteer for the campaigns of these politicians? Aren’t they also acting in “public”? Shouldn’t they all be banned from the Eucharistic Table?
This ban, in the hands of parish anti-abortion zealots, will be a weapon they can use to exact punishment on all those in parish lay leadership positions and ministries who do not adequately embrace the anti-abortion strategies of the U.S. bishops. Fear and forced silence will begin to dominate parish life as many parishioners are forced to live double lives; one in the church building and another as free citizens. In one life they will be free to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens and in their other life they will be forced to live a lie.
Pope Francis warned against clergy who “act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.” He warned that parishes should not operate as “a tollhouse,” but as a space with open doors “where there is place for everyone.” This ban will force pastors to become grand inquisitors, constantly worried about running afoul of the anti-abortion zealots in their parish who will report them to their bishops if they fail to properly police their flock.
Bans like the one being contemplated by the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference are a prime example of why our young people are leaving the Church. Some leave because they have lost their faith, but most leave in order to save what faith they have. Our young people are not leaving because they reject Jesus; they are leaving because those who profess faith in him have rejected what he taught, lived, died and rose to do.
5. None of us are worthy; that is why all are welcome.
The Eucharist is powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak: it is food for our journey. When we gather around the Eucharistic Table we do so not as conservatives or liberals; not as traditionalists or progressives; but as brothers and sisters in Christ. We gathered around the table in recognition of our sinfulness and our need for God’s mercy – this is even true for bishops and cardinals. How can anyone of us turn to our brother or sister and say you are not worthy to gather at this table?
As Pope Francis points out, “In reality, those who participate in the Mass don’t do so because they think or want to believe they are superior to others, but precisely because they know they are in need of God’s mercy.”
Speaking before a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis raised up the witness of three Americans that best exemplified the best of who we are. One of them was the Trappist monk Thomas Merton who wrote: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
What binds us together is our common recognition of the need for mercy and forgiveness. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
ACTION SUGGESTION: In mid-June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will meet for their General Assembly where they will possibly consider a proposal to publicly exclude President Joe Biden and other pro-choice Catholic politicians from the Eucharist. Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace Tom Cordaro, in his column above, lays out the danger and violence inherent in such a proposal.
We are inviting our members to write personal letters or emails directed to their local bishops expressing their viewpoint and incorporating the talking points in Tom’s column that most resonate with you. You can find links to information for your diocese here, including information to contact your bishop.