Column: Weaponizing the Eucharist

For the Valley News
Published: 6/26/2021 10:20:05 PM
Modified: 6/26/2021 10:20:06 PM

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have hit a new low. In voting on June 18 to draft a proposal that would deny the sacrament of Holy Communion to any Catholic politician who supports abortion rights, the bishops not only flouted the wishes of Pope Francis, who warned them last May that such a move would politicize, divide and thereby weaken the church, the bishops also ditched a principle laid out by two of the greatest saints in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

I know something of this history because I was raised a Catholic. I’m the ninth and last child of a Boston-based obstetrician who delivered more than 8,000 babies in the course of his long career and who vehemently opposed the legalization of abortion throughout his life. I admired him greatly, and I know all too well that I owe my very life to my parents’ willingness to let procreation run its course, no matter how prolific.

But I also know that many young women who become pregnant now have nothing remotely like the support furnished to my mother, who regularly got three weeks of rest after each delivery and who was able to devote her life to being a mother and wife. That is just one reason why I do not believe that all pregnant women should be legally compelled to bear children.

A more important reason, as I noted in an earlier column (“A sin, a crime,” Nov. 7, 2020), is that sin and crime are two different things. This point was explicitly made by St. Augustine of Hippo in the late fourth century, and by St. Thomas Aquinas nine centuries later.

Consider first what Aquinas wrote about prostitution. He called it a “sin committed directly against human life” and therefore a “mortal sin” binding the soul to spiritual death. But guess what? He also thought civil authorities should tolerate it. And to back up this point, he quotes Augustine. “In human government,” Aquinas writes, “those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain evils be incurred: thus Augustine says in De Ordine (On Order): ‘If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust,’ ” (Summa Theologica 2-2.10.11).

Whether or not American bishops would now accuse Aquinas of being “pro-prostitution,” he and Augustine both distinguished between sin and crime, between divine law and human law. Since human law aims not to promote eternal salvation but to ensure temporal order, it cannot, says Aquinas, “forbid all vicious acts.”

Having trashed this fundamental distinction between sin and crime, the bishops have put the American Catholic Church on the slipperiest slope imaginable. For the new principle clearly implied by their vote is that all Catholic politicians are morally obliged to criminalize all sins: to advocate for the criminalization of any act the church defines as sinful.

Consider, then, the U.S. Constitution, which every president must swear to uphold and defend. Do any of the bishops realize that in granting all U.S. citizens the freedom to worship as they please, the First Amendment legalizes idolatry, which is expressly forbidden by the first of the Ten Commandments, as well as Catholic doctrine? Under the bishops’ new principle, any president who swears to uphold and defend the Constitution is pro-idolatry.

If that sounds crazy, consider some other acts that the church considers sinful but are also perfectly legal in the U.S., such as adultery and divorce (followed by remarriage while the original partner still lives). Should any Catholic politician who tolerates these acts — who declines to advocate the criminalization of them — be barred from receiving Holy Communion, or even be excommunicated?

It may be argued that abortion differs from those other sins because the Catholic Church considers it murder. In the firm belief that “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception,” the church opposes any procedure that aims to destroy a zygote, blastocyst, embryo or fetus, all of which “must be recognized as having the rights of a person.” Unlike Saints Jerome and Augustine, who left God to decide just when a fertilized egg received a soul, the church now presumes to know exactly when this happens.

But if even the abortion of a zygote must be treated as murder in the eyes of the law, what do the bishops say about the killing of children — not zygotes or blastocysts — by American forces and their allies? Between 2003 and 2011, the Iraq Body Count project estimates that U.S. coalition forces killed at least 1,201 children in Iraq alone. And according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan between 2005 and 2015 killed between 172 and 207 children. Have the bishops ever argued that we should criminalize the killing of children in airstrikes or drone strikes, or that any Catholic politician who supports the legality of such strikes should be denied Holy Communion or excommunicated? Not to my knowledge.

And consider the tens of thousands of people — men, women and children — who die by firearms in this country each year. (In 2019, the total was 39,707, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) To their credit, the bishops supported the assault weapons ban that was passed in 1994 but expired in 2004, and they have also endorsed background checks and the regulation of handguns. But they have never threatened to deny Holy Communion or excommunicate any Catholic politician who supports the right to own an assault weapon.

Nevertheless, as Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego — one of their own! — has said, they now plan to “weaponize” the sacrament of Holy Communion, which Pope Francis has called “not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.”

In re-enacting the Last Supper, wherein Christ shared with the apostles his body and blood in the form of bread and wine, the Holy Eucharist is above all a communal sacrament, an outward sign of sharing in the mystical body by the community of the faithful. In threatening to deny this sacrament to Joe Biden, the most devout Roman Catholic who has ever been elected president of the United States, the bishops are not only flouting the wishes of the pope but willfully provoking schism: A quarter of U.S. bishops oppose the majority’s move, and they include Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, who has made it clear that he will never deny the Holy Eucharist to President Biden.

Behind the bishops’ latest move, however, stands an alarming bit of history.

During the presidential campaign of 2004, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver joined other bishops in asking Sen. John Kerry not to present himself for Holy Communion because of his stance on abortion, and said Catholics who voted for a candidate who supported abortion rights or embryonic stem cell research, as Kerry did, would be “cooperating in evil.”

It did not matter that Kerry was the first Roman Catholic to be nominated for the presidency by a major political party in 44 years, or that he was personally opposed to abortion. Since Kerry did not think abortion should be recriminalized, the archbishop argued that voting for him was mortally sinful. But Chaput left the Communion rail wide open to anyone who voted for candidates who supported the war in Iraq, torture, capital punishment, the criminal neglect of the nation’s real needs and the political exploitation of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church is now being exploited by the Republican right, whose chief aim is to undermine Biden’s presidency. Though the church has now paid nearly $2 billion to settle sexual abuse claims that have bankrupted more than 20 of its dioceses, it has excommunicated very few of the thousands of accused pedophile priests or the church leaders who tried to cover up the abuse.

But now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wants to deny Holy Communion to one of the most genuinely Christian presidents we have ever had — simply because he doesn’t believe in criminalizing what the church calls a sin.

James Heffernan, of Hanover, is a professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth College and the author of Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature.

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