Wednesday, April 10, 2013

No communion for you!

My gut reaction is to wonder when Jesus ever said:  "You!  Away from the table!"  Not to the woman in Luke 7; not to Zaccheus; not even to Judas.

And yet:

A Detroit professor and legal adviser to the Vatican says Catholics who promote gay marriage should not try to receive holy Communion, a key part of Catholic identity. And the archbishop of Detroit, Allen Vigneron, said Sunday that Catholics who receive Communion while advocating gay marriage would "logically bring shame for a double-dealing that is not unlike perjury." The comments of Vigneron and Edward Peters, who teaches Catholic canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, are part of a polarizing discussion about gay marriage that echoes debate over whether politicians who advocate abortion rights should receive Communion.

I know the historical power of excommunication, but that was some time ago.  I don't know what the Church position, or its canon law, is now on the situation.  Which is to say I don't know what effect it would have for Catholics to deny themselves Communion, or to be denied (other than the public embarrassment) at the altar.  Considering the number of Catholics who are "lapsed" or no longer regularly attend Mass, I'm guessing this is much more a symbolic gesture than ever it was.  And really, the argument being made is a private one:  the authors want to shame, or self-shame, those they disagree with on a moral issue.  I suppose they are without sin, and so get to cast the first stones....

Because it takes some serious stones to put forward a position like this.

What is the morality of refusing someone a place at the Lord's table?  I understand the arguments that it is to be reserved only for the baptized.  My own UCC has in its heritage a service of preparation every E&R church member had to attend in order to take communion (which, in good Reformed tradition, was only served four times a year).  If you didn't bring your token from that service, you didn't get to go to the altar.

Things change, of course.

There was a church in Austin, Texas that made a member of an atheist.  He confessed no faith in Christ, but he was offered membership anyway.  I agreed with that move, though it created a stir within the Presbytery.  Should non-believers be allowed to the table?  Do we defile it by allowing them to come?  That was a hot issue in seminary.  We were challenged to defend a defended table, or a completely open one.  I don't know anyone who practiced a completely open table (all are welcome), but I don't know of anyone who checked baptismal certificates at the door, either.

Well, you gotta draw the line somewhere, right?

Part of this is the laity once again being more devout than the clergy.  Laity love this kind of stuff:  certain people are allowed here, certain people aren't, and ideally the clergy is the gatekeeper.   I actually had a church member insist I bar another church member from entrance to the church; not on theological grounds but on purely personal ones.  I suppose it would be easier for me to refuse to offer him communion, but I would no more do one than the other.  Still, lay people are generally more keen on purity and holiness than the clergy generally are.  Interestingly, the class of people who are usually least interested in purity, and most interested in people, are the monks and nuns who devote their lives to God by devoting themselves to service.  I've always thought their devotion to God gave them the right perspective on matters of holiness.

I don't presume either the professor or the teacher of canon law speaks for Rome, so I don't assume their words carry any more weight than mine.  But it's always struck me as an issue of theology and hospitality (and I contend the two are virtually one, or should be; especially where matters of ecclesiology are concerned), not to mention ethics, about who has the standing to refuse anyone the grace of God's table.*  Jesus, after all, didn't check the baptismal records before he ate with sinners and tax collectors, and there's no record I know of that any of the twelve that night had been baptized and, as I say, one of them turned bad, but was allowed at the table anyway.

Maybe we're supposed to correct that?

(*I suppose someone does if it's the church's table.  Which it is, actually; Protestant or RC, the table is offered by the church in the name of God.  Who, then, do they offer it to?)


  1. Scott the Obscure8:41 AM

    Theoretically, the "Office of the Keys" includes the power to bind as well as to lose. Since some traditions hold Communion as a means of transmitting forgiveness, withholding it can be seen as within the authority of the Church.
    I can't see that as a righteous act regardless of the authority, myself. Probably another example of why I'd be ill-suited to that kind of vocation...

  2. When we were growing up as Presbyterians I recall, at the conclusion of the rite of the Lord's Supper, an admonition that those who were hard or unrepentent should not come forward, lest they eat and drink judgment upon themselves.

    I think, for all the media love of "excommunication," that what is being talked about here is reflection upon one's committments. Most of us Catholics know very little of our faith, and those of us who know tend not to overserve it closely. It is certainly part of the office of a bishop to teach and exhort. If we had to wait for those with no sin there'd of course be no Church at all.

    Among those teachings most ignored, of course, are those on chastity and marriage. It's kind of joke to most outsiders, and an uncomfortable thing to many on the inside.

    Vatican II, of course, in Gaudium et Spes, exhorted Catholics to ensure that public authority upheld the authentic nature of marriage. But few would see the neglect of that duty as sufficiently serious to warrant abstention from the sacrament. Marriage law in the United States is already so far from the Catholic understanding of marriage that it's hard to see how there's anything much left to protect.

    A few of us, apart from religious opinions, may still cling to the notion that the sexual relationship of people of the opposite sex is not the same as the sexual relationship of people of the same sex, and that the principle of equality is violated by treating things essentially different as indistinquishable. But that seems to be becoming a minority view, at least among the right-thinking, and most of us are learning to keep our mouths shut, or to express our opinions only in very closed circles. The bishops, however, by virtue of their office, are held to a rather higher standard, and must continue to teach what many now proclaim hatred, bigotry and errant nonsense. They have my sympathy, and gratitude.

  3. I would only note, Rick, that from the information I have here, no Bishops were involved.

    The two speakers are lay people.

    The admonition you mention comes from 1 Corinthians 11:

    "27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves."

    The E&R church repeated it in the "Preparatory Service" necessary before coming to the communion service. It doesn't even get an honorable mention in most modern communions, though (it doesn't appear at all in the UCC Book of Worship).

    The modern practice is an open table accessible to all Christians (which is, indeed, a limitation). The issue always prompts a lot of consideration about what should be "holy" and what "holy" should mean.

    To those who would say the table should be open to anyone at all, I'd say: then what's the point of it as a sacrament? To those who would say it should be closed, open only to certain persons based on specific criteria, I would ask: and who is the judge?

    Interestingly, Paul puts it on the individual. Which is practical, since he wasn't there to check everybody's moral/spiritual status at the door. Perhaps the lay people in this story are trying to act in Paul's stead.

    I'm not sure they have that status, however.

    My only comment on this:

    A few of us, apart from religious opinions, may still cling to the notion that the sexual relationship of people of the opposite sex is not the same as the sexual relationship of people of the same sex, and that the principle of equality is violated by treating things essentially different as indistinquishable.

    Is that is precisely the argument made for the miscegenation statutes struck down by Loving v. Virginia, and for the kind of inequalities struck down by Brown v. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and other legal opinions (such as the banning of racial covenants in real property conveyance). There was a firm argument that blacks were "essentially different" based not just on skin color but on other perceived criteria, and such differences should not be regarded as "indistinguishable."

    With all due respect, it's not a very tenable argument.

  4. One point I would make about the nature of homosexuality:

    What is the basis of human nature? Sexual orientation? Or spirituality?

    If the former, then the difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals is fundamental, and one of these things is not like other; one of these things just doesn't belong.

    If the latter, well......

  5. Isn't part of the issue what you communicate about yourself and obligate yourself to do by coming to the table?

    I know most synaguogues would not allow a non-Jew to lead the congregation in the prayers before/after reading the Torah because they conclude "Praised are you, LORD, giver of the Torah"; to lead this prayer is to thank God for the Covanent whos terms are laid out in the Torah and hence would only be appropriate for a party to that Covanent (i.e. a Jew).

    OTOH, after the services when bread is broken (which is considered, arguably like Communion, to be a meal in memory/continued observance of the Temple cult), all are invited to partake.

    The issue is that in the case of leading the prayer you communicate that you accept certain obligations, the communication of which if you do not accept such obligations would be vanity, while eating bread extended to you by the community does not communicate the same thing.

    So what do you communicate when you partake of communion?

  6. This reminds me that I've not been holding my breath waiting for a bishop to ban A. Scalia from communion for saying that there is no right for an innocent person to not be executed or for politicians who pass laws allowing divorced people to remarry. Not to mention those who violate actual commandments to feed the hungry, dress the naked and visit the prisoner.

    The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops have so destroyed their credibility that I doubt anyone takes their moral authority seriously. Not even most parish priests who aren't neo-integralist nutcases. If the new Pope wants to leave behind a better legacy than Ratzinger has, he will begin replacing these whited sepulchers right away.

  7. Anonymous2:54 PM

    The bishops, however, by virtue of their office, are held to a rather higher standard, and must continue to teach what many now proclaim hatred, bigotry and errant nonsense

    Respectfully, there are a number of problems with this assertion and its unspoken assumptions.

    Historically, there has never been unanimity of teaching among bishops. There have been disagreements on styles, practices, pastoral advice, crucial teachings and dogma going all the way back to Acts. Bishops have disagreed with one another and with Church teaching privately, from the pulpit, and in their Council votes.

    To the extent there is more uniformity of teaching today is a result of - if not a testament to - the ability of Benedict and John Paul II to use their influence to carefully cull the ranks of dissenters and generally promote only those individuals who shared their particular worldview, even to the point of requiring them to sign "loyalty oaths." Despite this, there is still a considerable difference between the opinions of say, the US Council of Bishops and the German or Argentinian conclaves on any number of issues, although not as much as there was thirty and forty years ago.

    Secondly, it is certainly not clear that the standard of the bishops is "higher" whatsoever. Throughout Church history the official teaching of the church often approved of monstrous endeavors such as oppression, enslavement, and genocide, and it often took grassroots movements by the clergy and laity to get the church to reverse their position on these matters. For example, during the colonial expansion of the Spanish and Portuguese, Nicholas V and Paul III authored the bulls Dums Diversus, Sublimis Deus, and Pontifex Rex which not only authorized the enslavement of Muslims, pagans and indigenous people but promoted it as urgent for the success of the Church. The consequences were some of the most notorious cruelty and barbarity ever visited by humans upon one another, as chronicled by Catholic witnesses.

    It took the work of radically progressive clerics like Bartolomé de las Casas (who became a bishop himself) and his followers who strenuously argued with other bishops and the pope on this matter to persuade them to reverse the official teaching of the Church and work toward ending the abuse, slavery, and mass murder of indigenous. At the time, everybody just "knew" that enslavement and murder of non-Catholics was the correct moral approach. Everybody "knew" it was good for society, good for the church, that the bible clearly justified it, and that it was the right way to dispose of creatures who were depraved and morally inferior not by birth...but by practice.

    The point is that the Holy Spirit sometimes leads by giving inspiration to the laity, clergy or religious (e.g. "Nuns on a Bus"), or even through using influences external to the Church, which often involve dragging an unwilling and resistant hierarchy in tow and eventually overcoming their objections (or not). I understand the ramifications this has for the Church's official ideas about its own authority and methods of inspiration but I suspect the cat is out of the bag for the internal inconsistency to be found in their argument.


    P.S. I'm assuming my comment originally disappeared due to the vagaries of Blogger. If not, please let me know and I will discontinue attempts to repost. Thanks!

  8. Windhorse, not that I think we want to get into the details, but I find no encyclicals in Google entitled "Dums Diversus" or "Pontifex Rex," and the following exerpt from Sublimus Dei is not exactly a call to enslave:

    "We who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect."

    This did not in fact end the enslavement of Native peoples in the New World. It's a long, complex and depressing story, all told. There is much done by popes and bishops and priests and pious laymen that causes one shame. But we ought not to make it out worse than it really was.

    There is much to be said for evangelism of the clergy by the laity; St. Francis' words to Innocent III come to mind, as do those by St. Catherine of Sienne to Pope Gregory XI. But that doesn't obviate the need that there be some office, or body, with the authority to make judgments. I don't really see how turning that authority over to a majority of the faithful really would work. Even purely secular democracies seem to me to be, in fact, hidden oligargies. At least with the bishops we know who we are dealing with.

  9. Anonymous4:37 PM

    My mistake for misspelling a bunch of Latin there.

    Dum Diversas:

    "We grant you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property [...] and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.

    It is true that Sublimis Deus reversed this with the language you quoted, but unfortunately it was annulled just a year later and regardless, had it remained in force it would not have changed the teaching that enslavement and death of non-Christians was permissible if they refused evangelization and the serfdom that came with colonialization. Further, it only addressed the indigenous in the Americas and not the black or Muslim slave trade, which was in full force.

    This is a glaring example of certainly dozens of cases in which the official church teaching was not only immoral, but lagged behind the moral understanding and spiritual development of its members.


  10. Anonymous4:55 PM

    I don't really see how turning that authority over to a majority of the faithful really would work.

    Of course that would never happen in the Catholic Church: not only do history and tradition stand in the way, but power and influence in the form of the oligarchy you mention. And there is an unfounded Catholic belief that the Church has been consistent in its teachings since the dawn of time. This is simply not true, of course, as doctrines such as the Trinity and nature(s) of Christ, for instance, took centuries to develop and many different ideas were held and taught and fervently believed about these matters over time (cf Jerome writing that the "whole world" was Arian). But the Church hierarchy perpetuates the notion of unchanging doctrine to cling to its own authority.

    If it were simply to change its attitude toward its own magisterial infallibility and humbly acknowledge that of course moral and spiritual understanding unfold over time (i.e. slavery is no longer permissible), that sometimes probably more often than not it originates from the faithful, and be more responsive to the movement of the Spirit among the Church members, then needed change might happen more rapidly.

    I don't have a dog in this fight, I just think that humanity benefits if the Church is simply more than a rubber stamp on imperial ventures or an obstacle to social justice.


  11. As I hope I said, a complex and hotly-contested historical question, and one that typically comes up as a prelude to an entirely different issue.

    I don't feel terribly strongly about the same-sex mariage issue. I think it's a mistake, but, since I think marriage is a real thing, and that it will continue regardless of whatever secular law says, I don't exactly buy the notion that it can be destroyed. I suspect, overall, the net effect will be some transfer of wealth from the poorer classes to the richer, but that's kind of par for the course in this country. Already some are questioning the undoubted and seemingly-arbitary inequality between married couples and unmarried couples, and a continuing committment to equality can't help but eventually key up for questioning that last remaining status from the old law of persons.

    The slavery question is, of course, of great interest on its own. We in this country have one of the largest slave populations in the world, thanks to the exception clause in the 13th amendment. But of course we don't typically use that terminology.

    Slavery is a form of arbitrary human domination. Except as noted above, we have largely abolished the form, but not the vice itself, and I have no idea how we abolish the vice. Marx had an idea, but it didn't really work out. With that failure hardly anyone else seems interested anymore. Sexual questions have largely edged out the old social question. In our last election the poor were hardly mentioned; everything is for the "middle class."

    I don't mean to be contentious or snarky, and I always enjoy your contributions here, Windhorse. We of course see things very, very differently. You see the bishops as arrogant, hypocritical, and mostly wrong. I see them as trying to accomplish an almost impossible task, mediate the gospel, as it has come through history, to a world as cruel and indifferent as that into which the Church first came. But, to me, the fact that we can see clearly their personal failings highlights their success in keeping those seemingly-unattainable gospel values alive in our own judgments.

    And, of course, if one still can't stand them, there are hundreds of other Christian communions to choose from.

  12. Anonymous6:42 PM

    You see the bishops as arrogant, hypocritical, and mostly wrong.

    I suppose that's true as far as it goes, but that wasn't always the case for me; I used to be the truest of the true believers in the hierarchy of the church. It was living and dining with orthodox priests and bishops and discovering that a large part of their motivation for the interpretation of their religious beliefs emerged from self-pity, vanity, anger and prejudice that disabused me of my true believership. The sum total of church posture towards the world simply cannot derive from unexamined psychological fixations or the whole thing is a farce. One must engage in ruthless self-examination and every time one finds within oneself a reason to discriminate or hate or feel superior, just pare it away.

    It may be that there are really only two modes of Christianity, as one of RMJ's taglines suggests: a church of martyrs, or a church that goes along to get along. The Church started out as a church of martyrs but eventually became a state actor, and Christianity turned into a Christendom with power, property and prestige to protect - and one can only protect those things by force and discrimination. I don't deny there are and have been wonderful catholic leaders, of course, spiritual men ahead of their time and leagues above anything I could ever hope to attain to. But those Christian leaders have usually been the very champions of the unwanted and discriminated against who clashed with the champions of Christendom, like the Franciscans and de las Casas or his spiritual descenders the bishops from Central and South America who advocated a preference for the poor they served and whose pleas were rejected.

    Thank you for the compliment, I certainly feel like you are the more intelligent, well-read and by far the better writer. And my apologies for my wroth around this particular issue or if you've felt attacked: I don't know that I'll ever get it under control in this lifetime, just given that my personal experience with the church felt so distinctly like a betrayal, though it was simply a broadening of awareness about some things of which I'd been ignorant. I certainly bear you no animus whatsoever and as I've said many times I love the liturgy and sacraments and devotions and understand what a useful praxis they provide for spiritual growth and worship, it's the politics that's put me off.


  13. "it's the politics that's put me off."

    They are indeed frustratingly off-putting.

    The problem, as I see it, is that any institution has to have a politics, an organization, and there, right away, arise all the power trips and struggles for control or freedom from control. And in this respect the Church is no different. It can't be.

    One solution, perhaps temptation is a better word, is to for-go the institution, which will actually work well for me--except that, when I think about it, here I have, two thousand years hence, all the insight and comfort of the Christian faith, and so many before me have worked so that I could receive this rich gift--so, how can I profit from it, and not work to protect the admittedly imperfect means by which it can be passed to others?

    So, if you are very critical, I, in my turn, am probably too defensive, since there seems a certain ingratitude in enjoying the fruits and not defending the knobby old tree that supplied them.

    One of the advantages of these more extended conversations is that, after disagreeing, and lobbing a few at each other, we come to see where we're coming from--you from a very orthodox background, myself from a mildly liberal Protestantism. I think we see more clearly the problems with our beginnings than with our present. Which is why it can be enlightening to talk these things out.

  14. The issue is that in the case of leading the prayer you communicate that you accept certain obligations, the communication of which if you do not accept such obligations would be vanity, while eating bread extended to you by the community does not communicate the same thing.

    So what do you communicate when you partake of communion?

    Participation in a sacrament; which, of course, involves certain social obligations (how you behave) and certain spiritual obligations (how you understand the sacrament).

    These are real and important differences. Roman Catholic doctrine teaches (others will correct my ignorance on this point) transubstantiation, the change of the elements into the body and blood of Christ. Luther didn't reject that wholly, but didn't teach that such a miracle occurred at the altar (there was a period of time in which the epiclesis, the raising and blessing of the elements, was almost a spectator sport. One was not supposed to look upon a miracle being performed, because it was a naked moment of the presence of God. Yet some would go from church to church, to catch just that moment of blessing by the priest, and then race to the next one.). Luther (and my memory fades on these details now) taught that the elements didn't transform but were changed, were more than bread and wine; but the Reformed tradition taught they were symbols only, and no change took place in them at all, so the real impact of the communion was in the heart and soul of the believer as he/she partook.

    As I say, these were not idle distinctions. The German Evangelical church was formed out of a forced merger of Lutheran and Reformed churches, and the point of agreement had to be the nature of communion, and what that sacrament meant. So the E&R service added the lovely line to the invitation to the altar: "May it be unto you according to your faith."

    When you join the community in communion, you confess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (both complex terms with deep meanings behind them, and I daresay my interpretation of both would be in sharp contrast with that of many Christians) and join the community in a common act of worship and intimate participation, one that goes beyond merely the breath (prayer; although prayer should be of the spirit, also; spirit and breath being both pneuma, or, if my Hebrew serves, ruach).

    What you communicate is more complex than that, however. It's a question worth pondering.

  15. Adding: There is a constant tension here, DAS.

    If we don't define the actions of communion as "holy," they can be trampled, the boundaries taken down, the very remembrance itself lost.

    On the other hand, Jesus is constantly tearing at the barriers of the holy, according to the gospel accounts. The picture of Jesus most people get is a man at odds with the Pharisees; which isn't so much an accurate representation of the Pharisees, as it is a distinction between what Jesus calls holy, and what the Pharisees in the gospels call holy.

    Jesus is a "holy man," yet he eats with sinners, and whores, and pals around with tax collectors, and ignores certain rules of the Sabbath ("Was man made for the Sabbath, or the Sabbath for man?"), and generally challenges our ideas of pure and impure (comparing the kingdom of God, for example, to the yeast in bread; yeast was almost equal to corruption, to putrefaction [dead bodies swell up, too]). Jesus even allows women into his entourage, and treats them as equals. We're still catching up with that one.

    Part of the work of the church ever since has been to put those boundaries back up, but make sure we are inside of them. Part of the work of discernment among Christians is to recognize those boundaries and see which of them are false, which of them Jesus would, again, trample and ignore and simply step over. We are, or should be, constantly asking ourselves, as Christians, what we communicate when we do anything in the name of Christ.

    How critical we are in our reflections on that question, is the hard issue.

  16. Anonymous2:32 PM

    RMJ: Part of the work of discernment among Christians is to recognize those boundaries and see which of them are false, which of them Jesus would, again, trample and ignore and simply step over. We are, or should be, constantly asking ourselves, as Christians, what we communicate when we do anything in the name of Christ.

    So well said. This blog is the best class in hermeneutics I never took.

    I stumbled on to an expansion to Archbishop Vigneron's remarks:

    On Sunday, Vigneron said about supporting gay marriage and receiving Communion: “For a Catholic to receive holy Communion and still deny the revelation Christ entrusted to the church is to try to say two contradictory things at once: ‘I believe the church offers the saving truth of Jesus, and I reject what the church teaches.’

    The bar for being prohibited communion has always been mortal sin. Is the archbishop suggesting that believing in or promoting the legitimacy of gay marriage a mortal sin because the church disagrees? The church also rejects yoga, Communism, Masonry, Liberation Theology and a thousand other things over the centuries that faithful and even otherwise orthodox Catholics were involved in. My own devout Polish grandmother with her holy cards and Infant of Prague statue believed in reincarnation. I wonder if the archbishop believes that she and people like her should not receive communion either, or if somehow their wrong beliefs are less bad than a belief in the permissibility of gay marriage?


  17. The church also rejects yoga, Communism, Masonry, Liberation Theology and a thousand other things over the centuries that faithful and even otherwise orthodox Catholics were involved in.

    I am reminded of Thomas Merton's work with Buddhism, and his death at an interfaith conference, with his plan to go to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. I don't know where that falls of the spectrum of things the Church doesn't approve of, but it called that to mind again.