Roman Catholic bishops met to consider whether Catholic politicians who do not toe its anti abortion line should be denied access to the Eucharist, Holy Communion. Ross Douthat, an observant Catholic, wrote a piece in the New York Times a few days ago about Biden, the Bishops and Holy Communion. He said the Bishop’s case was straight forward. Abortion, he wrote, is a different matter from other moral issues because it’s the intentional taking of innocent human life. Anybody implicated in it is guilty of a grave public sin, and therefore, to protect the sanctity of Holy Communion, they should be banned from receiving it.
The apparent tidiness of the argument has several untidy problems. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church and fellow travelers insist the only way to combat abortion is to criminalize it. People who otherwise detest government interference in private lives, are avidly in favor of using the coercive power of the government to remove from women the right to make reproductive decisions for themselves. Failure to submit would be a criminal offense punishable in the usual ways. Douthat and the bishops appear unable to comprehend that one can be passionately anti abortion and also pro choice. For them, to be even “moderately pro choice” is to be pro abortion.
Abortion is not a matter to be taken lightly. Women considering whether to abort a pregnancy face a morally devastating decision that can be made only in cooperation with their God, their physician, and worthy counsel of trustworthy friends and family. The state has no place dictating and criminalizing it. The proper roll of the church is to provide pastorally supportive, loving moral guidance in the face of a situation that, no matter what the decision is, falls short of the wholeness of life God desires for all persons. Abortion may always be a sin, but it may not always be wrong. It depends, and on what it depends gets complicated.
For Douthat abortion is a slippery slope leading to the horror of third trimester abortions, which are exceedingly rare in every country that reports them, and almost always related to a medical crisis. Women who carry into the third trimester intend to carry through, although there will always be the exceptional outlier. As a rule, building public policy on outliers is a bad idea. But the slope becomes slipperier for him when it leads to an explosion of fetal experimentation, genetic engineering, and cloning. That is clearly a legitimate subject for state intervention, but to make abortion its root cause is a case that can’t be made.
The bishop’s argument, as described by Douthat, has another problem. According to him, the bishops assert that the Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion, needs to be protected from desecration by those who don’t agree with church dogma. How is that theologically sound? Holy Communion was instituted by Christ Jesus, not the church. It is sign and symbol of a new covenant between God, humanity and all of creation. The holy food and drink of bread and wine, in which Christ is truly present, brings those who receive it into the most intimate communion with God that can be had this side of heaven. For Christians in the catholic liturgical tradition, there is nothing more holy in the rituals of our worship. It’s why parishioners are counseled to receive it in humble recognition that, although all have fallen short of the glory of God, each has been made worthy by God’s redeeming acts of love to receive the holy nourishment of new and unending life. That said, the Eucharist does not need to be protected by the church or anyone else. It’s not weak, brittle, or in danger of failure. Jesus gave it to us to be received in gratitude, not to own. The Eucharist has no need of protection. Humans receiving it do. Paul, chastising the Corinthians, got after them for their cavalier treatment of the sacred meal (1 Cor. 11). The blessings of Holy Communion don’t accrue to those who take it bad faith, or no faith. Paul’s tough talking to the Corinthians remains valid for us today. But remember this, Jesus served the bread and wine of the new covenant to twelve disloyal betrayers, including Judas. In his days of earthly ministry, dining with Jesus was always to be in intimate, physical communion with the Word of God made flesh, and he dined with sinners, outcasts, lepers, religious elite, and a mob of 5,000 undifferentiated folks sitting on a hillside. All were invited. Not all received his blessings because not all chose to receive it. The consequence of communing with Christ in bad faith or frivolously is not godly punishment, but the rejection of godly blessings. It leaves one to one’s own devices, which never leads to new and unending life. The table of God’s hospitality, set in the valley of the shadow of death as one is confronted by the trials and tribulations of life, will provide no succor for those who do not receive it in good faith.
Which brings me to Joe Biden. Here is a man of life long faith whose story of success, failure, achievement, and short comings is more publicly known than you or I would like to experience. Week by week he has come to the Lord’s table, not the church’s table, but the Lord’s table, to humbly seek Holy Communion with God in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. If he is not in lock step with the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, he is in the company of Jesus’ faithful disciples. The church may have cause to excommunicate those who openly disrespect the gifts of God’s blessings in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. To excommunicate one who comes to the table in humble, honest faith because he deviates from canonical dogma is a sin of the church hierarchy God will not soon forgive. It is not Joe Biden who will stand condemned, but the bishops.