May 13, 2021

On Preoccupying Distractions

Are we in the worst of times for the Church? Should we be worried about it? Do we need to be concerned with whether or not others are receiving communion? We examine these and more in this article...

On Preoccupying Distractions

The Church is ever in a state of disrepair and needing reform. Are we worse off than under the Arian controversy? Are we worse off than when the mendicant orders sprang into being in order to try to stave off mass defections from the Faith? Are we worse off than during the "bad popes" in the late 1st millennium, or the Renaissance era? Are we worse off than in the period leading up to, during, and after the Protestant Reformation, including the wars of religion and French Revolution? What about during the Great Schism? Or the Western Schism? Are we worse off than when the Church was abused by the Iberian royalty to further their political ends in the New World?

The truth is that only those ignorant of our history can assert that we are worse off today than in very many other times in our history. We just have different challenges. Challenges that we must rise to meet, just as the saints of other times did to theirs.

Those of a certain mindset worry a lot about the perceived state of the Church and, in particular, catechesis today. I challenge any of them to go and meet the average layperson in the Middle Ages, or even ancient or early modern times--or even the average parish priest! (You can in a sense do that by studying those times..) The vast majority of Christians throughout history have had only a very minimal catechesis and consequent depth of intellectual understanding of the Faith. That minimal understanding was and is the norm, and that’s OK! God requires our faith (which he gives us!), a spirit of repentance, and striving to love Him and others as best we can--with the help of His grace and the Holy Spirit. He does not give us a written test to receive his grace—He freely bestows it on us in so many ways, especially through the Sacraments.

Even the ballyhooed Baltimore Catechism in the oft-idealized Church of the first half of the 20th century offers, at best, simplistic formulae and rote repetition over and against cultivating a lived, deep grasp of the Faith. If that approach to teaching and living as the Church were so great, why would it ever have given way to what many think is worse? Surely part of being a great way to pass on the faith would include resistance to deterioration? On the contrary, if you read the Second Vatican Council fathers, especially Pope St. John Paul II, it is clear there is a great concern for better fostering and nurturing a lively faith, a living in the Spirit, in the Church. That concern is obvious in the reason for calling the Council and in its teachings. There was definitely room for improvement in how the faith was taught and lived—there always is!

Sadly, far too much time is spent hand wringing and bemoaning the current state of affairs by many in the Church. This seems to be a way for The Enemy to drag many conscientious Christians down, to lead them closer to despair, to deteriorate their appreciation and trust in the infinite mercy of God, to incline them to be overly scrupulous with themselves--and, not inconsequentially, overly judgmental towards others. It is a great trap and most pernicious because it lures those who seem to want to be more devout, and, because that trap has the appearance of piety, it can go unnoticed and undiagnosed for years or even a lifetime. Woe to us when we think to ourselves “I thank God I am not like those sinners”!

The very notion that you or I should be trying to convince others that a politician (or a remarried person or a gay person or a…) should be denied communion seems to me to be itself indicative of a serious spiritual disease. I find the term "weaponizing the Eucharist" to be dramatic, but not entirely inapt. I do not say this has never happened—most definitely it has. The most egregious examples are interdicts from the Middle Ages. I am glad the Church (by and large) has left those days behind us. But even in those times, for us as individuals to be preoccupying ourselves with whether or not some other priest is denying some other person the Eucharist is, I have to say, just wrongheaded, even if somehow well intentioned.

As I understand it, "scandal" properly understood—and as I recall this is how even Abp. Cordileone defined it in his recent letter—must be an action or words evil in themselves that occasion serious sin. (See the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the subject, for reference.) This is not the way that most people use it, even in the Catholic commentating world. Most mean that it is a source of indignation—often that felt by the self-styled pious towards the actions of certain bishops or priests. The purported “scandal” is that this or that priest or bishop is not saying or doing what they would have them do. The Catholic Encyclopedia asserts, to the contrary: ‘Still less can that be considered scandal, which only arouses comment, indignation, horror etc., for instance blasphemy committed in the presence of a priest or of a religious; it is true that the act arouses indignation and in common parlance it is often called scandalous, but this way of speaking is inaccurate, and in strictly theological terminology it is not the sin of scandal.’

To apply the term “scandal” to not refusing communion to a politician on the basis that the politician fails to support a certain political policy that is perceived by some to contribute to limiting a particular sin (or conversely for supporting a policy perceived to increase it)--even one as serious as abortion--appears to fail to meet the definition of the term. Not insisting on a specific political policy is not, in itself, a sin, at least not categorically. Failing to refuse the Eucharist, similarly, is quite obviously not a sin ipso facto. These are matters of pastoral prudence and judgment left to particular priests and bishops with regards to particular individuals and their particular actions. And the fact is that God will hold those individuals accountable if their failure in this area is a sin. We best leave that judgment to Him.

At best, so the argument goes, denying communion would “send a clear message” that the Church really means business that a thing is bad (e.g., abortion). But because we are dealing with political policies that only indirectly impact abortion, it is more likely to be interpreted as the Church insists on this or that political policy. It is easy to conflate those two things--very many do, but particular policies are not at all guaranteed to have the desired outcomes. Inevitably, they also have unforeseen consequences that may vitiate or overcome the good intended. In addition, by censuring someone for one policy, it can happen that another policy that the person supports and believes will actually do more good to address the evil is thereby denigrated or ignored. The end result of that would be the potential for a censure to effect a worse outcome in reality. This is the perennial argument in favor of focusing more on solving the conditions that lead to abortion than making it illegal, for example. This is a matter of political prudential judgment, not a denial of doctrine.

Further, there is an equivalent chance that such censure would send a message that the Church is endorsing a certain political party, which is guaranteed to not be free of serious error in its platform. So while purporting to be clear, this approach can in fact increase confusion by suggesting that “oh, these other things must not be so bad" to the faithful and other people who follow the Church. I dare suggest this has in fact already happened in the way that so many Catholics unrestrainedly endorse the GOP (and Trump!) and quickly dismiss suggestions that there are serious problems with that party.  In reality, there are many grave concerns that all our political parties fail to address. It seems the “clear message” of censuring/refusing communion to some politicians would not be so clear after all.

As Fr. Sawyer noted (echoing Cdl. Ladaria, Bp. McElroy, and others), it also appears to be unjustifiably selective. Once we say that “this” policy is worthy of such action, what about other policies that directly contravene Church teaching? And once the Church gets into that game, it is a short step from there to it being the Church effectively forcing us to vote for particular candidates and coercing us to support certain policies, which is not only problematic from a U.S. Constitutional view but also from a Catholic moral view that respects the conscience of the individual. Using the Eucharist as a reward for supporting the “right” political candidates and policies in this way should be obviously bad and wrong.

Perhaps most importantly, there is also grave risk of further alienating many from the Church (dare we say a little more than half of Americans—including roughly that percentage of practicing Catholics?). Rather than increasing respect for the Church’s teaching authority and opening ears and hearts to the Gospel message, it would induce those persons to scorn it (even more than many do already!). Now that would be real scandal. This is something I fear that too many folks completely fail to appreciate. Very many persons do not respond well to authoritarianism. In our society and culture especially, trying to impose your views and coerce others into them is the fastest way to get dismissed and canceled. That is hardly a winning formula for evangelization. Woe to us if we cause a little one to sin! That includes alienating persons by being tone deaf in how the Gospel is presented.

Consider this from Gaudium et Spes (#43): ‘Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church's authority for his opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good.’ This is exactly what we are seeing happen when someone says, "you cannot vote for so-and-so and be a faithful Catholic."

Anyone who claims that the Church has not been abundantly clear about the truth regarding evil of contraception, abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty, the right use of our sexual nature, our duty of stewardship towards the care of the Earth and other creatures, our duty towards the immigrant and stranger, and especially our duty towards the poor is simply being willfully ignorant. Our bishops have been clear and remarkably consistent. Our official Church teachings have been as well. There really is no excuse in our day and age for a Catholic to be ignorant of them--they are freely and easily accessible to the inquirer, and they often show up in the news, and they often are taught in Church contexts. And yet, despite Her clarity and insistence on the truth of these things, the Church still respects the conscience of individuals and teaches the individual responsibility we all bear for our choices and actions. She does not make those decisions for us, especially when there remains legitimate disagreement on the best way to attempt to realize the common good in society in this life.‌‌

And there is disagreement amongst the laity, amongst religious, amongst priests, and even amongst bishops as to the most prudent means to realize the common good in the world. It is not insignificant disagreement, and the disagreement even extends to policies that touch on grave evils. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the evidence of reality suggests that these are valid disagreements for faithful Catholics to have—in that so many faithful, religious, priests, and bishops hold varying opinions on the matters. No, someone holding a different opinion on these things does not, in point of fact, make them de facto an unfaithful Catholic or a wolf in sheep's clothing. There is by no means a consensus or anything akin to a sense of the faithful on such controversial issues. For one side (especially one so clearly aligned with American partisan politics) to arrogate to themselves that they have the “only valid” position for a “faithful Catholic” to hold is contrary to the evidence of reality and the teaching of the Church (as noted above in GS 43 and elsewhere regarding the freedom of individuals to decide and act in the political sphere).

So, not only is it wrong (or at best misguided) for us folks to be worried about whom else gets communion, it is also wrong to say that not refusing communion to them is itself a scandal, and it is wrong to insist that our own political views are the only ones a faithful Catholic can hold. We can and should strenuously argue for the merits of political policies and candidates with a view to how well we think they can help realize the good and the true, but this desire to try to coerce others into those views is not, in the final analysis, a good one. Nor is it a good impulse to vilify and ostracize others if they won't comply. Worrying about denying others communion is a symptom of a spiritual illness, not a manifestation of piety. Being preoccupied with the sins of others is a sure sign that we are not focused enough on our own sins and our own growth.

The Good News is not that we are as Christians anointed to sit in judgment of others. It is, rather, that through Christ’s work in becoming man, in taking up His Cross and dying, and in rising again, we can be reborn as the adopted sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ, and become partakers of the ineffable, infinite Good who is God. Our orientation and preoccupation should ever be towards realizing that for ourselves by a life of penance, prayer, and recourse to the grace of God, especially in the Sacraments. Only out of that loving, prayerful life comes our ability to in some small ways contribute to the salvation of others. Out of that life comes the good works that God has prepared for us. Out of that life comes the joy, peace, and charity that ought to be a witness enough in itself to draw others to Christ.