Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”?, coeditor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His new book Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021), is published by the Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to “Our Sunday Visitor” newspaper, “The Catholic Answer” magazine, “The Imaginative Conservative”, “The Catholic Herald”, “National Catholic Register”, “Chronicles”, and other publications.
As most readers know, the debate among Catholics in the U.S. about pro-abortion Catholic politicians and reception of Holy Communion has been around for decades. But the election of Joe Biden—who is routinely painted as a devout Catholic by media members and progressive Catholics—has brought the issue to the front again, and this time it appears the growing tension will not be easily stuffed back into the “kick it down the road” bag. The question of “Who can receive Holy Communion?” is, like many matters of theology and discipline and practice, rather complicated. But the core is quite simple, as The Pillar states: “Since the early days of Christianity, Church leaders have taught that Catholics in situations of serious and ongoing external sin would not be admitted to Holy Communion. That determination has long been reflected in Church law.”
The Catechism explains:
To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion. … Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance. (CCC 1385, 1415)
The key phrase here, which is often ignored, is “in a state of grace”. That is, those who are not filled with the divine life of the Triune God and thus in communion with Him (see CCC 1997), are to refrain from speaking—acting—a lie by doing something (receiving the Body and Blood of Christ) that is contrary to their actual state (not being in communion with Christ or His Mystical Body). This basic theology is imperative because so much of the ink spilled on this topic is fixated on politics, social standing, optics, and values more consonant with secular society than with soteriological reality.
So, for instance, Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego recently wrote the following at America:
Because of this sacred nature and identity, the Eucharist must never be instrumentalized for a political end, no matter how important. But that is precisely what is being done in the effort to exclude Catholic political leaders who oppose the church’s teaching on abortion and civil law. The Eucharist is being weaponized and deployed as a tool in political warfare. This must not happen. The substantial damage that will take place within the eucharistic community as a result of this instrumentalization will be broad and deep.
By all means, let’s not plays politics with the Eucharist. But, also, let’s not deflect from the Eucharist by constantly playing the politics card. It appears—and I think this is a reasonable and fair reading—McElroy believes that any bishop who will not give Holy Communion to a pro-abortion politician is motivated first and foremost (if not entirely) by politics. This, I suggest, says more about McElroy and even the bishops at large than it does about the essential heart of the matter. Far too many bishops, as I noted back in January (in remarking directly on Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago), are “obsessed with [secular] power but is oddly uncomfortable with apostolic authority.” With that in mind, let’s follow McElroy’s argument, put forth in strong terms:
Notice that there is not, in fact, an argument made in McElroy’s emphatic paragraph above. There is simply assertion. McElroy says such-and-such is “being done”, but only that: says—not argues or proves. It’s even worse, however, because the actual point being made is this: bishops should refrain from their governance and administration of the sacraments when it comes to politics and politicians. Years ago, I noted—half jokingly—that the progressive two-step is: 1) tell Catholics that they are welcome to comment in the public square about matters that are not political, and 2) inform them that, alas, everything is political. Well, everything now is political—especially if you are more attuned, again, to secular power than you are to Eucharistic (and, more broadly, theological) coherence and authority.
McElroy asserts that any serious act by bishops to “exclude pro-choice Catholic political leaders from the Eucharist is the wrong step. It will bring tremendously destructive consequences…” Keeping in mind that abortion is the murder of innocents and that Gaudium et spes flatly states that “from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes” (par 51), McElroy’s “consequences” can be summarized as following:
(1) It will rupture “unity” and will be seen by “half the Catholics in the United States … as partisan in nature” and “will bring the terrible partisan divisions…”
(2) It over-emphasizes “discipline” by fixating on a “theology of worthiness” while ignoring the reality of communion with Christ and the mercy of God.
(3) To exclude Catholics “who continually rejects a significant teaching of the church” sets the bar too high, for it means “worthiness requires integral union with all of the major teachings of Catholic faith.”
Without writing the book required to fully respond to these claims, I’ll simply note:
(1) Unity and communion with Christ is ruptured by sin. Those who knowingly persist in grave sin are the ones destroying unity. To speak of “unity” with those who have severed themselves from communion with Christ is to overlook the lamentable rupture and to posit a false unity. Furthermore, again, this is first and foremost about following Christ and submitting to the clear teachings of His Church. Politics be damned. To even speak here of “terrible partisan divisions” is, frankly, both embarrassing and scandalous.
(2) This is dubious, perhaps even flatly false. The discipline involves flows directly from the truths about grace, communion, good and evil, and sin that every Catholic—especially “devout Catholics”—should know. This attempt by McElroy to paint traditional Church teaching on these matters (cf. 1 Cor. 11:27ff) as legalistic is, ironically, itself the epitome of Pharisaical parsing, the sort of antinomianism so handily dissected by St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. (For a deeper dive into that important topic, see my November 2016 essay titled “The Four Cardinals and the Encyclical in the Room”.) God is merciful, of course, but Jesus didn’t begin his public ministry by saying, “Do the best you can! For the kingdom of God is at hand!” Repentance is “a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed” (CCC, 1431), and there is no substitute for it when it comes to have right relationship (that is, filled with grace) with God and the Church.
(3) We might call this the “Kasper bar”, after Cardinal Walter Kasper, who in 2014 opined that “heroism is not for the average Christian,” apparently unaware of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the history of the saints and martyrs. We are, in fact, called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Even more to the point, we should recognize that even while we very well might struggle with this or that sin (as I certainly do), we should never publicly uphold and promote such sin and then claim we are “devout Catholics”, as if holding temporal public office somehow magically excludes us from our eternal heavenly calling.
McElroy, on cue, then plays the racism card, which has become a favorite among many of the bishops (some of who only recently, it seems, learned that all white Americans are racist to the bone):
Proposals to exclude pro-choice Catholic political leaders from the Eucharist have focused on abortion, and at times euthanasia, as the imperative issues for which the bishops should adopt a national policy of eucharistic exclusion. …. But why hasn’t racism been included in the call for eucharistic sanctions against political leaders? Racism was enumerated as a compelling intrinsic evil by St. John Paul II in “Veritatis Splendor” and by the Second Vatican Council.
He then states, “As to whether racism is a sin that threatens human life, anyone with doubts should talk with the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin.” There has, so far, been no evidence offered or accepted in a court of law that the death of George Floyd was due to racism (federal charges will apparently try to prove so). Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes”, was asked if Floyd’s death was the result of a “hate crime” and the prosecutor replied: “I wouldn’t call it that because hate crimes are crimes where there’s an explicit motive and of bias. We don’t have any evidence that Derek Chauvin factored in George Floyd’s race as he did what he did.” The point, regardless, is that bringing up racism in such a way is a red herring.
Furthermore, McElroy waxes poetic against racism, but without addressing the obvious problem: there are no politicians promoting and supporting policies and laws that are racist. “It will be impossible to convince large numbers of Catholics in our nation,” McElroy writes, “that this omission does not spring from a desire to limit the impact of exclusion to Democratic public leaders and a desire to avoid detracting from the focus on abortion.” This is weak, whining, and deflective, and it’s easy to demonstrate: does anyone really believe that if any Catholic politician today advocated for policies and laws that were racist (and I mean actually racist, just as Biden, Pelosi, and Co. openly advocate for abortion) that they would not be—rightly!—torn limb to limb (politically, at the very least) by the bishops and all Catholics of good will? Yes, racism exists, without doubt. But speaking generally about racism while ignoring the specifics of abortion and Holy Communion is, again, another convenient distraction.
Two final points. First, as per progressive practice, McElroy selectively quotes from Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2002 “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life”, conveniently overlooking the sentence: “… it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” And, by the way, we haven’t even broached the subject of Biden officiating at a 2016 “gay wedding”, which means, in his case, he has publicly supported (and in the case of the wedding, acted hands-on) actions that are in direct and obvious conflict with the Church’s teachings on two sacraments!
Secondly, McElroy asks (apparently rhetorically), “is the central identity of the invitation of Christ to the Eucharist a sign of personal worthiness or the graced call of the God of mercy?” Again, this is misdirection. The Eucharist can be described in many ways, but let’s begin with the fact that it is Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality are not the way, the truth, or the life; on the contrary, they are direct assaults of life at the beginning, life at the end, and life in-between. They are false versions love; moreover, they are idols, and the lead to destruction.
The Catechism says, “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being. It is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship, men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1325). Again, note the emphasis: communion, divine life, true unity, sanctification, and worship. How, exactly, does the public support of any grave evil have anything to do with such glorious gifts?