Certainly I’ve followed this issue as it has played out in previous election cycles, in discussions with my colleagues and parishioners, through interactions on the internet, and in personal reading. It’s not an issue in which I believe I possess a particular competence. But I do have an opinion. People have challenged me to defend or justify that opinion. I can also read canon law, and I can read the essays of others schooled in canon law. So here goes.
Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.
Here are the issues involved, as Archbishop Burke summarizes them:
1. The Church’s history of dealing with public sinners is clear. The minister may give Communion only to persons who, externally, are “properly disposed.” The minister may not give to those who obstinately persist in public grave sin.
2. The archbishop appeals to the invisible bond which unites individuals, the believing community, and God. Grave public sinners are presumed to lack this bond. The minister is required to take this into account.
3. Denying Communion preserves the objective sanctity of the Sacrament and prevents other believers from falling into error.
4. Any gravely sinful public conduct is cause to deny Communion.
5. There is a series of requirements that must take effect. First, the public sinner must be cautioned not to come forward to receive. The archbishop commends the use of a conversation. Once this is done, the minister of Communion is obliged to deny Communion if the public sinner still presents herself or himself.
6. Avoidance of scandal and confusion requires this stance. The archbishop gives the specific example of the legal support of the procurement of an abortion.
The archbishop doesn’t get explicit about politics. His essay is focused on eleven sections of history. These illustrate an approach ranging from apostolic times to recent documentation from the USCCB and Rome. The matter is phrased entirely within the bounds listed in his conclusion: the holiness of the sacrament, the situation of the sinner, and the responsibilities of both pastors and Communion ministers. It’s important to read the piece, and I’d encourage anyone to do so.
Rather than get into a marathon post, I’d like to explore different aspects of the issue in future posts. To conclude tonight’s thoughts, I’d like to offer a corrective to an earlier statement John challenged. In the comboxes, I wrote:
And I distrust Archbishop Burke’s approach. Denying Communion is a private matter. It’s not intended to give hope and cause for cheer among pro-lifers. When it does, I believe a sacrilege has been committed, regardless of the good intention of the bishop in question.
Then John asked:
By the way, if you disagree with Burke’s approach, it’s one thing…to say that you “distrust” it is to call him a liar, is it not? Why would you do that?
Having read Archbishop Burke’s essay, let me offer an amended response. I believe the man is acting from a sense of personal conviction and his own studied approach to canon law and church history. Church teaching would oblige me to accept his public teaching in the best possible light.
Let me clarify that in the arena of the sanctity of Holy Communion, he and I are in agreement: the celebration of the Eucharist is not a locus for the “precipitous” denial of the Sacrament. I also don’t deny the objective need for a Communion minister to deny the Sacrament to a public sinner.
As a political tool, I don’t trust the effectiveness of denying Communion. The fact that it only seems to appear during an election cycle, and not connected with the legislative calendar, leads me to believe that the publicity factor has intruded on the other conclusions Archbishop Burke has offered. I’d say that given the political realities of the US, confronting politicians in this way during a campaign is likely to backfire in many ways, including the reinforcement of obstinacy, the misunderstanding of the secular press, and the perception that bishops are intruding into an area reserved for the laity.
The archbishop explicitly mentions the situations of campaigning and legislating. I have a sense of “wonderment” that the public conversation on denying Communion has lain mostly fallow for the past three years.
That said, I agree with Archbishop Burke that pastors have a responsibility to confront public sinners in their care. He commends the notion of a “conversation,” which my friend John has termed a “joke.”
I also agree with the archbishop on the objective value of the Eucharist as a celebration of holiness and dignity. The use of the Sacrament as a political tool is unseemly. Where the Eucharist is concerned, politically inclined Catholics might be better placed to cheer for the repentant sinner rather than the defeat or the embarassment of the political candidate.
That’s enough for now.