My friend Mario, who has a rare zeal for God, shared with loving concern with his Catholic Facebook friends who had shown support for the recent SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality a story from the blog “Courageous Priest”, a post about the archbishop of Detroit implying, and a theologian at a Detroit seminary stating, that those Catholics who promote gay marriage should not try to take Communion because they may be denied it by their priest. The theologian who stated this had previously made the same point about politicians who support pro-abortion policies.
Let me start by conceding the obvious: both abortion and gay marriage are against the teaching of the Church. Both are part of Catholic social doctrine, a very comprehensive set of principles about how Catholics can best live their faith that has been laid out in papal encyclicals, vatican decrees, and statements by national conferences of bishops. The pope’s recent encyclical, Laudato si, which I had planned to write about before all this came up and still plan to get to eventually, adds a good bit about ecology and the environment to this same body of doctrine, which evolves to reflect the issues of the day.
What may be fuzzier for people on all sides is that this doctrine is not dogma; that is, it is not a truth so essential to the faith that you cannot call yourself a Catholic and still deny it. The Trinity is a dogma. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogma. If you don’t believe those things to be true, you aren’t really a Catholic. But you can believe all those things and prayerfully disagree with Catholic social thought, I have learned*. And you would still be Catholic. Some would disagree with me on that, although teaching documents of the Church have said otherwise.
Let me give you four reasons why threatening to withhold communion for those who disagree on non-dogmatic doctrine is not only bad practice but bad theology.
- It is inconsistently applied and therefore unjust. In addition to threats on abortion and gay marriage supporters, Church law would also indicate that divorced and remarried couples, and indeed couples who use artificial contraception, are cohabitating or have had premarital sex, ought to confess those sins and change their behavior before receiving communion. I see few bishops stand on that point. Earlier this week, the pope implied to children in Turin that those who either manufacture weapons or invest in weapons manufacturers cannot really call themselves Christian, but I have heard no bishop state that gun manufacturers, traders, or people with stick in such companies be denied communion. Nor have I heard such threats toward those who support the death penalty (on which the Church has longstanding opposition and on which SCOTUS ruled today with very little notice by the Church), nor those who invest in polluting companies, those who don’t recycle, those who support supply-side economics, those who withhold their money from the poor…you get the picture. If the standard is that those who do or support things against Church teaching should not partake in Communion, the line to receive will be very short. And you may have trouble finding ministers to distribute it. But if the standard is going to be applied, it’s not just to pick and choose among those guilty of breaking the same weight of doctrine.
- It is ineffective. I looked up what a grave sin was, and what I noticed first was that it takes you away from charity, the divine gift of love for God, neighbor and creation. What struck me more than anything last week was that when Father James Martin, S.J., spoke up that we Catholics should respond to this decision by loving our gay brothers and sisters as our first, foremost, and only response, people I hold dear who had written off organized religion perked up, because they saw in Martin’s call what they had been told Jesus was all about. They had been told it, but the Church hadn’t delivered anything to prove it, until then. That’s evangelism – that’s communicating the good news that is God’s desire for us. That’s our one calling as believers. And focusing on pushing people out of Communion line is its antithesis. It sparks no love, not in the righteous, not in the sinner. Whichever that may be. Everything we do should be to promote love, to promote God.
- It misunderstands our role in God’s story. The Gospels end with a command to the disciples: Go preach the Good News to everyone. That Good News is that God loves us so much that the worst we can do to Him is completely incapable of putting a dent in that love. Throughout history there is a tension between the grace of that love and the Justice of law, and as I pray daily, read Scripture daily, and put myself in His presence through the sacraments I have at a painfully slow pace grown in realizing that God’s story is about taking the side of grace, again and again, especially with those who the world marginalizes. That’s our job. Get them, get everyone in the door of God’s love, and let their prayer, study and sacrament make them better people. When we focus on laying down laws, we not only push away those we should be pulling, but we take on as our role the purifying job that is not ours but God’s. To those who would argue that God’s holiness is underappreciated, that we should pay more attention to purifying ourselves and dressing our Sunday best before we dare approach Him, I say this: if that’s what God wanted, to only be touched by the pure and clean, He wouldn’t have been born in a barn. He wouldn’t have picked such flawed followers. He wouldn’t have come back for us again and again and again. When we take the attitude that we need to be right before we come to God, we are the child who locks herself in her room until the artwork is perfect for her father, thereby losing an afternoon without ever producing a satisfactory work for a father who would have been ecstatic with a scribble and a hug.
- It misunderstands the Eucharist. We Catholics differ from our Protestant and evangelical brothers and sisters in a few ways, but none more than our belief in the mystical presence of God in the sacraments and their power to transform us. We need to recapture the faith in those sacraments by recognizing that they work on us. To deny them to someone who isn’t perfect in our eyes is to tell someone they need to be well before they go to the doctor. If we see a fellow believer that we think is an error, communion isn’t the thing we withhold, it’s the thing we should urge them toward. And we should go with them, in case the log in our own eye is bigger than the splinter in theirs.
I believe in my heart that there are proponents of the “no-bread-for-you” approach who do that out of reverence for and recognition of how holy God is and how much He deserves. I believe that there are proponents of that approach convinced that tough love will work, that denying fellow believers access to grace will bring them around to the Church’s way of teaching. And they may be right. But prayerfully, my faith today tells me that God says what He has said from the beginning, said to Abram and Moses and Mary and John and said from the cross and in the upper room: Love wins.
*Here’s an articulation of prayerful disagreement in Catholic social thought. I will look for one that isn’t in America since I know that carries little weight with those on the right. This document from the USCCB was very helpful to me in talking about the formation of conscience. Maybe that’s better.