The controversy over communion in the Catholic Church dates back around 2,000 years
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently approved a document on communion in the Catholic Church. It will include a section on standards for politicians and public figures who support laws allowing abortion, euthanasia and other “moral wrongs”.
The proposed document has already sparked controversy. The Vatican has warned of an exclusive focus on abortion and euthanasia and warned the document could further divide American Catholics.
As a Catholic scholar of religion, I would say that battles for communion are not new in the Catholic Church.
The importance of fellowship
In the Catholic Church, the service of communion is one of the seven rituals called sacraments which have primary significance. During this service, called a Mass, Catholics believe that the bread and wine, when specially blessed by a priest, become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Ritually consuming this bread and wine is a special way to “commune”, or be united, with Jesus Christ.
Catholics call both the celebration of Mass and the bread and wine blessed the Eucharist, from the Greek word meaning “thanksgiving”. Receiving Communion can also be called receiving the Eucharist.
The Catholic Church teaches that in order to receive Communion a person must not be aware of a serious sin – such as murder or adultery – that has not already been absolved by confession to a priest.
In early Christianity, the rules for communion could be strict. Christians who were known to be guilty of serious sins were not supposed to receive Communion until they had gone through a process of reconciliation with a local bishop. In the Middle Ages, very few Catholics actually communicated, as many thought they were unworthy to do so.
The possibility of a scandal
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Catholic Church encouraged a more frequent, even daily, reception of Communion.
Yet one of the main concerns surrounding fellowship is that a person who is publicly known to be committing serious sins receives fellowship. Such cases create a “scandal”.
In the terminology of the Catholic Church, scandal is “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil”. So, someone who accepts Communion while publicly continuing to behave sinfully encourages others to continue to do the same.
When it comes to public policy, the collection of Catholic doctrine, the Catholic Catechism, specifically states, “They are guilty of scandal that establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of practice. religious”.
There is a history of the Catholic Church denying Communion to those who participate in what is considered publicly guilty behavior.
One of the most famous examples is that of Ambroise, bishop of Milan, who baptized the theologian Augustine of Hippo, who later became one of the most influential figures in Christian history. Ambrose refused Communion to the Roman Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century. Enraged by the lynching of a Roman army garrison leader, Theodosius gave orders that led to a massacre in the port city of Thessaloniki, which killed 7,000 citizens. In a letter calling on Theodosius to take responsibility for his actions, Ambrose wrote: “Are you ashamed, O Emperor?
From 1208 to 1214, Pope Innocent III instructed his bishops to place England and Wales under “forbidden” or “prohibition,” which prohibited the performance of all sacraments – including the Eucharist – in except baptism and confession of the dying. The reason for this extreme act would be that King John had rejected the candidate of Innocent III for the important post of Archbishop of Canterbury.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Irish bishops spoke out against the continued acts of violence by Irish nationalists who opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which established the Irish Free State and ended the war. Irish independence. In a letter published on October 22, 1922, the Irish bishops refused absolution and communion to “irregulars” using violence against “the legitimate authority” of the government.
More recently, it was reported in 2011 that Maltese priests were denying Communion to Catholics who supported legalizing divorce. In the United States, presidential candidate John Kerry was denied Communion in 2004, apparently for his support for the right to abortion. The same problem saw Joseph Biden deny Communion in 2019 by a church in South Carolina.
At the same time, the Catholic Church was also questioned for not refusing Communion to Catholic public figures who behaved in a sinful manner.
During his trip to Chile in 1987, Pope John Paul II criticized the military dictatorship of Army General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet led a revolt that toppled the elected government. Thousands of people were tortured and executed during his reign. But the Pope still gave Pinochet Communion.
When Pope John Paul II was beatified – a crucial step in becoming a saint – Zimbabwe’s ruler Robert Mugabe was present. Among the many human rights violations, Mugabe sanctioned the murder of 20,000 people belonging to the Ndebele ethnic minority who were loyal to his rival, Joshua Nkomo. Nevertheless, Mugabe was allowed to receive communion in the Vatican, in St. Peter’s Square. Some in the African Catholic media have called this a “scandal”.
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The path to follow
Pope Francis declared: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and food for the weak. And so one of the key issues that the document proposed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will surely need to address is where human weakness becomes a grave sin and scandal.
While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will issue guidelines for receiving Communion, it will be up to each bishop to decide how to put them into practice. And some Catholic bishops, including Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington DC, have said they will not deny President Biden Communion in their jurisdictions.
Today, the Catholic Church in America is highly polarized. For his part, President Biden, who attends mass every week, said he had no plans to change the way he prayed. In such a context, the American Catholic bishops will have to move forward very cautiously.