Polling shows that ex-Catholics are the third largest religious group in the United States. Many Catholic laity are experiencing a painful disconnect between the official teachings and pronouncements of the Catholic hierarchy and what they believe in their hearts. It’s no wonder they are voting with their feet.
The Detroit Free Press recently reported on comments made by Edward Peters, who teaches Catholic canon law and was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 to advise the top judicial authority in the Catholic Church.
Peters stated that Catholic teaching makes it clear that marriage is between one man and one woman. He goes on to write, “Catholics who promote ‘same-sex marriage’ act contrary to ‘Catholic law’ and should not approach for holy Communion…They also risk having holy Communion withheld from them…being rebuked and/or being sanctioned.”
Allen Vigneron, Archbishop of Detroit, offered this clarification: “For a Catholic to receive holy Communion and still deny the revelation Christ entrusted to the church is to try to say two contradictory things at once: ‘I believe the church offers the saving truth of Jesus, and I reject what the church teaches.’ In effect, they would contradict themselves. This sort of behavior would result in publicly renouncing one’s integrity and logically bring shame for a double-dealing that is not unlike perjury.”
I believe that using Communion as such a manipulative tool surely profanes the sacrament. Perhaps these Catholic leaders should revisit their church’s theology of the Eucharist. Reception of the body and blood of Christ at Communion is God’s gift to God’s people, not a reward for right behavior. We receive Communion not because we are worthy of it, but because God’s offers us the body and blood of Christ despite our unworthiness.
While some are seeking to withhold Communion from pro-choice and pro-marriage-equality Catholics, I have heard no call to withhold Communion from priests and bishops who have engaged in horrific sexual abuse against vulnerable children, nor their enablers. Bernard Cardinal Law, whose administration actively facilitated the moving around of known pedophile priests to other unsuspecting parishes, has not been denied Communion, but instead been rewarded with a prestigious church in Rome.
It seems that the church hierarchy is sending the following message: two gay men or lesbians (not to mention their supporters) who want to vow a lifetime of commitment, monogamy and love should be denied Communion, but those who exploit vulnerable children (and those who facilitate their abuse) for their own sexual gratification are still welcome. Those who make the excruciating and gut-wrenching decision to have an abortion (not to mention those who understand why this might be a moral choice) are barred from receiving Communion, but those prelates who live a lavish lifestyle far from the real-life, harsh circumstances some women face that might make such an abortion morally permissible are accepted at the Communion rail.
American Catholics have a long and honorable history of discerning their own consciences in matters of human life and dignity. For instance, 98 percent of Catholic women have gone against church law and used birth control. Indeed, individual conscience is a core value in Catholic teaching. It seems that Catholic laity are refusing to be treated like morally ignorant children who cannot think for themselves. At a very minimum, Catholic laity (and many of their local clergy) know that these issues should be discussed in an open and faithful way. They also know that people of faith will disagree on some of the ramifications of trying to live out the Gospel.
But increasingly, it appears that the hierarchy wants to shut down open discussion by punishing those who would raise any questions about the church’s stance on these issues. Fewer and fewer Catholics are willing to be threatened by such tactics, and many are looking elsewhere for spiritual nourishment, or simply becoming disillusioned with a church that has lost its way.
If those who have fallen short of God’s moral desires for humankind are to be denied Communion, then none of us can in good conscience receive the body and blood of Christ. The good news message of Jesus Christ is that despite our failure to be all that God would want us to be, we are all welcome at the Lord’s Table anyway. Until the Roman Catholic hierarchy gets that right, they might prayerfully consider quieting their judgmental rhetoric and contemplating the humility Jesus suggested as a value to be lived by all.
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is the recently retired Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson.