Biden and the History of the Exclusion of Catholics from Communion

Joe Biden speaks at a worship event at AME Brown Chapel Church on March 1, 2020, in Selma, Alabama.
Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

For many Biden-loving Democrats, and probably for most non-Catholics, the idea of ​​denying Communion to the second Catholic President of the United States probably seemed bizarre. Ultimately, thanks to the Vatican’s intervention, the plan of the conservative American bishops to “discipline” Biden and other pro-choice public officials by forbidding them from taking Communion was scrapped.

But although this effort has failed, there is nothing unusual about the general notion of the Church controlling the altar. The truth is that the Roman Catholic Church (like its Eastern Orthodox counterparts) has always treated the Holy Eucharist (the more formal name of the sacrament of communion) as a blessing that can be withheld from the “unworthy”. As you may know from your European history lessons, the Church used to do this formally through the “excommunication” of individuals or classes of individuals; There used to be a territorial version of the latter sanction called ‘forbidden’, applied, for example, to England in the 13th and 16th centuries for royal interference in papal prerogatives (in the latter case, the claim of Queen Elizabeth I to be head of the Church of England). Technically, everyone in the Forbidden Country has been denied not only the sacraments in this lifetime, but Heaven in the next. It was a very serious matter.

But from the beginning of Christian history until very recently, the Catholic Church has relied less on the excommunication of ostensibly evil people or their subjects than on exhortations to self-excommunicate – to refuse voluntarily. to receive Communion when there was the slightest doubt about their “dignity”. And that’s actually what the conservative bishops want Biden and other pro-choice political leaders to do: no longer “show up” at the altar. In the past, for better or for worse, these self-excommunication efforts have been very successful.

A great scandal in Catholic history, though remarkably little discussed, is that for a period of about 1,500 years – from the 4th century until about the 19th – most lay Catholics did not regularly take Communion. For centuries, religious leaders have pleaded with the faithful to receive the sacrament at least once a year, usually on Easter Sunday. But at the same time, they put conditions on a “dignified reception” that made it difficult and psychologically dangerous – even terrifying – to do so.

The fear of an “unworthy reception” was rooted in Paul’s New Testament exposition on the Eucharist (I Corinthians 11: 29-30), involving those who did not grasp the nature of the Sacrament:

For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body [of Christ], eats and drinks judgment on itself.

That’s why many of you are sick and crippled, and a great number die.

Early and medieval church leaders heightened these fears by treating “unworthy hospitality” as grave and mortal sacrilege and by imposing prerequisites for fellowship that included not only confession, absolution, and the fulfillment of fellowship. penance for all mortal sins, but also extensive fasting and abstinence (often from marital sex as well as meat and other specific foods), and sometimes positive obligations such as acts of charity and displays of devotion.

Why did the church leaders do this? Do they have want to keep exclusive communion? According to the great 20th-century liturgical reformer Gregory Dix, the closing of the altars was mainly due to the vast wave of pagan conversions that occurred after the end of the Roman Empire imposed Christianity as the official religion:

It was the blind admission to baptism and confirmation of infants of [superficially] Christian parents when all of society began to become nominally Christian, which was the origin of this decline in lay fellowship that occurred in the fourth and fifth centuries …

Between the 7th and 19th centuries throughout Christendom, the clergy were normally the only really frequent communicants.

Eventually, a toxic dialectic set in in which the laity were afraid to take Communion and the clergy were afraid to administer it to them. More and more, Mass has become a ceremony performed by and for the clergy with lay people listening with half-understanding to a ceremony sometimes mumbled and sometimes sung in a foreign language across physical and psychological barriers. Over the centuries, the emotional culmination of Mass for the laity was no longer Communion (which they generally did not receive) but the elevation of an ever greater host (the Communion plaque) glimpsed through incense in a dark church, as a bell rang to remind those present that something important was happening. Indeed, many (and in some areas most) Masses in the Middle Ages were actually said by priests in the absence of anyone else for the benefit of the souls of wealthy people who left bequests for this purpose.

Catholics were hardly the only ones who made Communion available to most believers. Many Protestant denominational communities, fearing the “superstition” of the Mass with its proclaimed real and material presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, snatched Communion from the weekly worship service, subjecting it to annual, quarterly or monthly. In the 19th century, when Christians of all faiths began to understand that something essential had been lost, there were very few non-religious practitioners who communicated regularly.

Perhaps (as Gregory Dix argued) Western secularization has receded fears that hordes of people would unworthily commune, or perhaps those who still attended church were hungry for more commitment. active in worship. But even as Protestants began to rediscover communion and reintegrate it into regular worship, Catholics, in the great reforms of Vatican Council II in the 1960s, completely reorganized the mass so that everything, including communion , revolves around the participation of the laity. The prohibitions on attending communion remained based on the fear of an “unworthy reception”; lay people are still told that they must confess serious sins and be absolved before approaching the altar (it is less clear how many people obey such instructions). But communion is now seen as an ordinary act, not an exceptional one, and a token of undeserved grace rather than a reward for exemplary behavior or rigorous obedience to the teachings of the Church.

This is why the recent push by conservative bishops to deny Joe Biden (and Nancy Pelosi, and John Kerry, and many other regular devotees who share their pro-choice views) now seems strange and even un-Christian. In rebuking these efforts, Pope Francis appeared to embrace an understanding of the Eucharist that sins on the side of inclusion, as Bishop Robert W. McElroy explained earlier this year in Jesuit magazine. America:

Traditional Catholic teaching on the dignity of receiving the Eucharist is important in the life of the church. But this is not the centerpiece of the Church’s understanding of Christ’s invitation to receive the Eucharist. As Pope Francis said so clearly in “Evangelii Gaudium”, the Eucharist is “not a price for the perfect, but powerful medicine and food for the weak” (no. 47). The newly emerging American theology of indignity is a direct challenge to this teaching and poses great dangers to Catholic faith, spirituality, and practice. It constitutes a significant departure from the priorities of the Second Vatican Council.

And this represents a counter-revolution, not a defense of established Catholic doctrine.

Despite the much-discussed decline of religion into what was once called “Christendom,” there are almost certainly more people today who take Communion regularly than at any time since the early Christians gathered to meet. the agape meal which was the link between the Lord’s Supper and the Eucharist of the Church. And it is not only because Christianity continues to grow in the countries of the South. This is because more and more Christians regard this great ritual of unity with believers down through the centuries and in the world as essential to their faith. This is not the time for clerics to claim communion as property belonging to the church to be conferred and retained. They are not worthy to receive this power.

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