(A sequel to “Hello ... Can you hear me?”)
A middle aged man with a shock of dishevelled straw-yellow hair approached the altar of the cathedral in London, in wedding attire. He had been born a Catholic and subsequently joined the Anglican Church. He had been twice married and divorced, and now had a child from his current partner. Could such a person get married in a Catholic sacrament of Matrimony? The average Catholic would say an emphatic “No”.
As in my last article, this one also has a Trans Atlantic saga. An old man who had been through much personal suffering, including the death of his son and first wife, was a regular Sunday Mass goer. He always carried a rosary in his pocket and often spoke of his Catholic moral beliefs. Yet he was denied Holy Communion, and the American bishops were conspiring to ensure that he did not get to receive the same; because of his support for pro-choicers; those who believed that it was a woman, and she alone, who had the right to decide about her own body. Was this fair? Again, a majority of Catholics would probably say “No”.
Yet the Catholic Church in England said “Yes” to the man whose hair looked like a straw hat; and the American bishops too said “Yes” to deny Communion to the old man. By now you would have guessed who these two are – Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the UK, and Joseph Biden, the President of the USA. How did this happen?
First the facts. Johnson got married this 28th May in Westminster Cathedral. How did the Church allow it, when lesser mortals in a similar situation have been vehemently denied such a facility or even the admission to Communion? They are the Divorced and Remarried Catholics (DARCs). Johnson was very much in that category.
Nine days later (6th June) was the Feast of Corpus Christi. Rev Sean Hall, a former professor of theology and now a priest in the Catholic diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, had this to say in his sermon that Sunday, as reported by La Croix International on 11/6/2021.
Hall referred to the Last Supper, the first Eucharistic celebration. He describes the recipients as “unworthy”. One was a traitor, another in denial, and the rest were cowards. The one “recipient” who did stand by the cross did nothing to alleviate Jesus’ pain or to plead on his behalf. So who then is worthy? In my previous piece I had already described the Jansenist heresy on “holiness” and Vatican II’s dogmatic teaching on “embracing sinners in its bosom”.
Hall must have been confronted by his parishioners and some DARCs on the church’s double standards. He laments “that there would seem to be one law for the rich and powerful and another for the rest ... The distress caused to these people is incalculable”. He adds that “The church has lost some excellent people because of its rigidity and coldness of heart towards those who are hurting, and in need of healing, not the wagging finger and judgment of Church law ... its rules and regulations regarding admittance to the sacraments now look ludicrous and unstoppable”.
Across the Atlantic, the antics of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) seem even more ludicrous. On 21/6/2021 Giulia Heyward reported on it in the New York Times. She said that on 18/6/21 they voted to “begin drafting new guidance (sic) that could deny President Biden and other pro-choice public officials Communion, due to their support of abortion rights”. This move is spearheaded by the conservative Abp Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the USCCB President. After three days of virtual debate (many bishops were not tech savvy enough to even mute or unmute their mikes) 75% voted in favour of preparing the document, while 24% opposed the move. One may safely presume that most of the US bishops now in office are appointees of either Popes John Paul II or Benedict XVI, both arch conservatives.
Heyward states that though the proposed document will not specifically name Biden (it dare not) “the debate has been heavily focussed on the nation’s second Catholic President, making it clear that he is the motivating factor behind the proposed draft”.
Democratic Representative from California, Ted Lieu, called the bishops “partisan hypocrites”. Sixty Catholic Democrat lawmakers have released a statement “urging the USCCB to not formalize the practice of withholding the Eucharist based on political beliefs”. Is the USCCB stirring up another political storm, probably egged on by Donald Trump, who could hardly be described as being on a higher moral ground than Biden?
The lawmakers described the USCCB action as “the weaponization of the Eucharist to Democratic lawmakers for their support of a woman’s safe and legal access to abortion, as contradictory. No elected officials have been threatened with being denied the Eucharist as they support and have supported policies contrary to the church’s teachings”. One could also ask the USCCB what action it has taken against drug lords, war mongers, human traffickers, pornographers, paedophile clergy and the ruthless mafia; who could possibly be major donors to church coffers!
Heyward says that Catholic bishops opposed to this document have said that it has “the potential to create more division and exclusion within the faith community. Bp Robert McElroy of San Diego warned that “we will invite all the political animosities that so tragically divide our nation into the very heart of the Eucharistic celebration ... That sacrament that seeks to make us one will become for millions of Catholics, a sign of division”.
Interestingly, 61% of Catholics over the age of 18 said that abortion should be kept legal. Again, 67% said that Biden should be allowed to receive Communion. Among Democrats the figure was higher at 87% and lower at 44% among Republicans, according to a survey by the Pew Research Centre.
Is all this much ado about nothing? For now, the USCCB has only voted on preparing the document. In November it will review the “proposed document”. Even after that it will only be in the nature of a guideline, and the final decision will be “left to the discretion of the local bishop or the pope”! One therefore wonders if this is just a diversionary tactic, to detract from one’s failures on other fronts?
Yet, what is happening in the USA now is nothing new. It happened 125 years ago with the advent of Americanism – an undefined term. If the USCCB has now taken a sharp turn to the conservative right, the last time it had a spat with the Vatican was for leaning too far to the liberal left! This is found in the encyclical “Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae” issued by Pope Leo XIII on 22/1/1899, addressed to Cardinal James Gibbon, of Baltimore.
The then pope was concerned about the new opinions being expressed that “the church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of faith”. The encyclical is uncompromising on what it considers matters of faith but acknowledges that “in regard to ways of living she has been accustomed to so yield that, the divine principles of morals being kept intact, she has never neglected to accommodate herself to the character and genius of the nations which she embraces”.
We need to remember that this encyclical was written years before the far reaching changes in ecclesiology of Vatican II. It ends by saying “We are not able to give approval to those views that, in their collective sense, are called by some as Americanism ... For it would give rise to the suspicion that there are some among you who conceive and would have the church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world”.
This seems like a comedy of errors, with a complete role reversal. The USCCB today seems to be talking the language of Pope Leo in 1899, and the Vatican today seems more in keeping with the liberal thinking of the condemned Americanism!
It is for this reason that Cardinal Luis Ladaria sent a letter on behalf of Pope Francis, to the USCCB in May, warning that their vote “could become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United States”.
Let us objectively look at Vatican II teachings, Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) vis-à-vis the Eucharist, especially of its unifying effect.
The Eucharist manifests the unity of the Body of Christ (LG 11). It brings about the unity of the church (UR 2). It is the source of perfecting the church (AG 39). It is the hope and strength for life’s journey (GS 38). Community building must originate in the Eucharist (PO 6). Bishops should live the paschal mystery more deeply through the Eucharist and thus become a firmly united body in the solidarity of Christ’s love (CD 15).
Canon Law asserts that any baptised person who is not forbidden by law may and must be admitted to Holy Communion (Can 912), as it is an action of Christ himself, and of the church (Can 899).
The Catechism describes it as the centre of Christian life (CCC1343). It has been there from the beginning of Christian devotion (CCC 1342 & 2178, cf Acts 2:42-46 & 1 Cor 11:17). It therefore encourages the faithful to receive the Eucharist, even daily (CCC 1389).
I really wonder if the USCCB has bothered to refer to the Church’s own teachings before embarking on its present highly motivated and suspect action against Joe Biden and his ilk?
Finally, there is the abiding example of Jesus himself, who said that the Sabbath was made for man, and not the other way around (cf Mk 2:27). He did not condemn sinners but shared the table with them (cf Lk 15:2). He did not condemn the woman caught in adultery (cf Jn 8:4), or the Samaritan woman who had been through five husbands (cf Jn 4:18). Can we be more sacrosanct than Jesus?
Remember how Pope Francis blessed the marriage of a live in Chilean couple that were flight attendants on one of his journeys in 2018. He was touching hearts, not flouting or flaunting rules. He is indeed a pastor with his oft repeated “smell of the sheep”. And sheep don’t smell of eau de cologne!
He believes in the pastoral, not dogmatic approach, to situations. The dogmatist would say “Don’t jump into the water, it is dangerous”. Seeing a man drowning he says “I warned you, now you face the consequences”. The pastor, on the other hand, says, “That man is drowning. I must save him, even at the cost of my own life or reputation”.
I will conclude with some examples of what moral theologians call “situational ethics”. Firstly, Jesus said that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of their hearts (Mat 19:8). Today it may be permissible because of the complexities and uncertainties of modern life. If I correctly recall, Pope Francis’ sister in Argentina is a divorcee, so he understands their pain.
My wife had both her confinements in Catholic hospitals. Both were caesareans. After the second one, while my wife was still on the operation table, a Catholic nun came out of the theatre asking me to sign for a tubectomy, while her abdomen was still open, so as not to endanger her life. As a conscientious Catholic I was in a dilemma. My mother-in-law, sensing my confusion, told me to sign. I did.
Another very different example. Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of U.P. is a sadhu who doesn’t even eat onion or garlic. Yet he encourages the sale of liquor because the Govt desperately needs the money, more so in these corona times. Then there is St Thomas Aquinas’ theory of “double effect”, used to justify killing in war. Protecting people is the prime motive, but killing others in the process is the unintended “double effect” (CCC 2263). Generals today refer to it as collateral damage.
My parting shot; as per Canon Law, only the Pope has the right to judge Heads of State (Can 1405:1)! Perhaps that is why he permitted Johnson’s marriage and may not permit the USCCB to get away with their antics of Weaponizing Communion and Demonizing People.
- The writer is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum