Eamonn Clark, STL
In my recent post on introducing Canon 915, I had hoped to help bring some clarity to the discussion about “worthiness,” Holy Communion, and political life. Evidently, the Bishop of San Diego is not reading my blog. So, it is time for a pop quiz. See if you can spot what is wrong with this introductory paragraph in the Bishop’s May 5th article for America Magazine.
“In the six months since the 2020 election, a growing movement has emerged in the church in the United States that calls upon the bishops of our nation to publicly exclude President Joseph R. Biden and other Catholic public officials from the Eucharist. Those who support this action make a concise, three-part argument: The president supports positions on abortion that clearly depart from the teaching of the church on an extremely grave moral issue; the long tradition of the church requires personal worthiness to receive the Eucharist; and the persistent rejection of clear Catholic teaching extinguishes that worthiness.”
One might make a number of observations about this paragraph (and the rest of the article, which is overall a fine example of a bad argument made well), but there is a singularly fatal defect in these opening lines. It is not so much what is said but rather what is not said (and which is never mentioned in the article). What is it? What is the key principle that is lacking which sets up the rest of the Bishop’s case against what he calls a “theology of unworthiness”?
The answer is that Canon 915, which is the hinge of the whole discussion, is not a law binding recipients of Holy Communion in relation to personal worthiness, as is implied by the Bishop (who never actually mentions canon law at all, oddly enough) and which is even believed by many well-intentioned “conservative” clergy and laity. Rather, Canon 915 is a law which binds the minister of Holy Communion in relation to the possibility of giving scandal, in this case, a scandal of imitation. If a Catholic who publicly and obstinately supports or tolerates in principle the murder of innocent children can receive Holy Communion, onlookers can and eventually will infer that such support or toleration is not at odds with what is required of a disciple of the Lord, thus becoming liable to take up such behavior themselves. (And yes, this certainly would and should extend to other obstinate public support or habitual commission of grave intrinsic evils… even some kinds of racism!) The minister of Holy Communion then becomes a teacher of bad morals in the very act of distributing the Sacrament.
THIS IS THE BASIC PROBLEM. NOT PERSONAL WORTHINESS. Personal worthiness is the purview of Canon 916, and it involves a separate discussion.
Furthermore, there is a universal legal code the Church has which tells us all of this when read in its proper context in light of the interpretive tradition that accompanies it. So why there would ever be a need for a “national policy” on such things is, frankly, beyond me. We profess belief in a universal/catholic Church, not in a collection of national Churches. There is already a world-wide “policy” which is simply being misunderstood or ignored.
Not 100% of the issue could be solved by turning attention to what the law actually says… but it would definitely be a good start.