In the seven months since Joe Biden was elected President of the United States, a growing movement has emerged in the United States that calls upon the Catholic bishops of our nation to publicly exclude PresidentBiden and other Catholic public officials from the Eucharist. Those who support this action have a three-part argument.
1. The president publicly supports positions on abortion that
clearly depart from the teaching of the church.
2. The long tradition of the church requires personal worthiness to
receive the Eucharist.
3. The persistent rejection of clear Catholic teaching extinguishes
However, the proposal to exclude pro-choice Catholic political leaders from the Eucharist is the wrong step. It will bring tremendously destructive consequences—not because of what it says about abortion, but because of what it says about the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “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 the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.” Because of this sacred nature and identity, the Eucharist must never be instrumentalized for a political end, no matter how important. That is precisely what is being done in the effort to exclude Catholic political leaders who oppose the church’s teaching on abortion. 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 will be broad and deep. The Catechism proclaims:
“At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet.” A national policy of excluding pro-choice political leaders from the Eucharist will constitute an assault on that unity, on that charity. Fully half the Catholics in the United States will see this action as partisan in nature, and it will bring the terrible partisan divisions that have plagued our nation into the very act of worship that God intends to cause and signify our oneness.
The theology of worthiness in the church teaches that Catholics conscious of grave sin should receive forgiveness in the sacrament of penance before receiving the Eucharist. The particular theology of worthiness that proponents for a national policy of Eucharistic exclusion have advanced dramatically discipline. Thus, it would best be labeled “a theology of unworthiness.” Another problematic dimension of this theology of unworthiness is that while it is expansive in its notion of unworthiness, it applies sanctions very selectively and inconsistently. 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. Their logic is that abortion and euthanasia are particularly grave evils, they are intrinsically evil and they involve threats to human life. 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. The conference of Catholic bishops has proclaimed that “racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world.” 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. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will be dealing a great blow to
our integral unity if it passes a national policy of Eucharistic exclusion aimed at abortion but not at racism. Racism is tearing at the heart
of our nation with intense fury at this very moment, yet the intrinsic evil of racism is not grounds for Eucharistic exclusion in the proposals that have been brought this year to our conference of bishops for action. It will be impossible to convince large numbers of Catholics in our nation 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. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned bishops against just such a pathway. “The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will be dealing a great blow to that integral unity if it passes a national policy of Eucharistic exclusion aimed at abortion but not at racism. The traditional Catholic teaching on worthiness for reception of the Eucharist is an important one in the life of the church. However, it is not the centerpiece of the church’s understanding of Christ’s invitation to receive the Eucharist. As Pope Francis made so clear in “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (No. 47). The newly emerging American theology of unworthiness is a direct challenge to this teaching and poses great dangers to Catholic faith, spirituality and practice. It constitutes a significant departure from the emphases of the Second
Vatican Council. In the decision that the conference of bishops must face in the coming months lies a monumental choice: 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? At a time when we are emerging from a pandemic and seeking to rebuild the Eucharistic community, it would be particularly wounding to embrace and emphasize a theology of unworthiness and exclusion rather than a theology that emphasizes Christ’s unrelenting invitation to all. Moreover, it would undermine the tremendous work that our priests and lay leaders are doing in emphasizing the importance of every Catholic returning to full and active participation in the liturgy of God.