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Monday, November 23, 2009

Reese, Crossan, and Witherington on communion

- The Last Supper by Jacopo Bassano

Saw this today at America magazine's blog - Bishop vs. Kennedy: Confidential or Not?. The post is about the bishop of Rhode Island, Thomas J. Tobin, publicly telling US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy that he can't take communion because he's pro-choice. The post dwells on whether this on-going argument between the two should be public or not, but what comes to mind for me was whether there's any basis for it at all. Should people ever be denied communion? My own personal feeling is "no" ..... it's not that I don't think churches should get to decide who's "in communion" with them, but maybe communion is about more than just community, maybe it's about being with Jesus too, and he turned nobody away. I thought I'd post bits of three past articles on the general subject: one by Thomas Reese SJ, one by JD Crossan, and one by Ben Witherington .....

The Body Politic and the Body of Christ: Candidates, Communion and the Catholic Church. This is a transcript of a 2004 moderation discussion with Fr. Reese and George Weigel. Here's a bit of what Fr. Reese said .......

"[...] First, is this pastorally a good idea to deny communion to Catholic politicians who are pro-choice? The conflict between Catholic bishops and pro-choice Catholic politicians is not new. All we have to do is remember Cardinal O'Connor – his dispute with Governor Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro. What is new is the decision of a handful of bishops – at least, so far, only a handful of bishops – to deny communion to Catholic pro-choice politicians. Most bishops do not support this position. In the June 21st issue of America, we published an article by Archbishop Burke of St. Louis, who was the first bishop to deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, and as we mentioned, copies of that issue are available for you here. It's also available on our Web page at Also in that issue is an article by Father John Beal, a canon lawyer at the Catholic University of America, who argued the opposite position.

Both sides present complex and nuanced arguments, but I think Father Beal had the better case. Church law must be interpreted strictly, and "strictly" in canon law means the absolute opposite of what you think it means. For example, in this case it means giving any prohibition the narrowest construal consistent with its literal meaning. He notes that during the drafting of the code of canon laws, some wanted to make it easier to deny communion to some Catholics, but that view was rejected. Nor is the pope or the Vatican pushing a denial of communion, although there are some in the Vatican who would support the idea. The pope himself has given communion to pro-choice politicians such as Tony Blair and Francesco Rutelli, the former mayor of Rome who was the center-left candidate for prime minister in the last Italian election.

Finally, there is the practical problem of implementing such policy. Unlike airports, churches do not have sin detectors in the aisles. And where do we draw the line? If a politician votes in favor of outlawing partial-birth abortion, but does not support a constitutional amendment, does he get communion? Do we deny communion to New Jersey state legislators who denied additional welfare benefits to women who had babies while on welfare and thereby caused an increase in abortions? Should Senator Santorum be denied communion for endorsing a pro-choice Republican for the U.S. Senate, even though Senator Santorum has a pro-life voting record?

Second question – is this politically a good idea? Traditionally, Catholic bishops have talked about political issues but have not endorsed political parties or candidates. The political problem with the communion issue is that it looks like it's an attack on Democrats, although people forget that there are pro-choice Catholic Republicans such as Governor Pataki and former Mayor Giuliani in New York and Governor Schwarzenegger in California. The real problem with this approach, though, is that it helps to brand abortion as a Catholic issue – as a matter of faith and doctrine and church practice and sacraments rather than as a human rights issue. In the long run, these few bishops are doing exactly what the pro-choice lobby wants – defining abortion as a religious issue. As long as abortion is branded as a religious issue, the pro-life movement will fail. Abortion is not a religious issue or a matter of sexual morality. It is a human rights issue – the right to life of the unborn child.

And what would be the impact of all of this on voting? My guess is that the impact is going to be zero. Most people for whom abortion is the central issue knew how they were going to vote four years ago. They know how they are going to vote four years from now in the next presidential election, and their views are not going to change as a result of the bishops' statement – whether they are pro-choice or whether they are pro-life. Seventy-five percent of Catholics, according to a Time magazine poll, do not think that Catholic politicians should be denied communion because of this issue and say that they would not be influenced by the Catholic bishops' positions on this. So what impact is this going to have? It doesn't look like much ...... "


And here is part of what JD Crossan wrote .....

Whom Does Christ Exclude? (2008)

"[...] The Christian Eucharist has two intertwined layers. First, it is bread and wine, the standard summary of a Mediterranean meal, the normal synthesis of Mediterranean eating. It is, in other words, about food. Throughout his life, Jesus insisted that food, as the material basis of life, was to be fairly and equitably distributed to all God's children around God's table. He imagined God-as-Householder (he said "Father" but that was patriarchal normalcy) of the House-World or Homemaker of the Home-earth. And his question was--as in any well-run family--whether everyone had enough or some members had far too much while others had far too little.

Second, none of that was about compassionate charity but about distributive justice. (The Roman Empire did not crucify you for insisting on the former but for insisting too much on that latter.) So Jesus, having lived for non-violent justice died from violent injustice. When one dies an ordinary death, we speak of the separation of body and soul. But a violent death--like crucifixion--involves a separation of body and blood.

In forging the magnificent eucharistic ritual, those twin layers were inextricably linked together to proclaim this: if you live for justice very strongly you could die from injustice very swiftly. When those earliest Christians participated in that ritual, they understood all too well what it meant and to what they were committing themselves. They were pledging themselves to a way of life by participating in the life (definitely) and death (possibly) of Jesus.

They did not have time to debate about the exact mechanics of the "transubstantiation" of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (watch for red herrings, always watch for red herrings) because they were too acutely aware of their own "transubstantiation" from Roman citizens to Christian traitors.

Finally, then, we can face our question. In general: who should accept the eucharistic ritual? Those and only those who are intentionally, self-consciously, and publicly committing themselves to live like Jesus and, if unfortunately ever necessary, to die like Jesus. That is, of course, an on-going lifelong process and it is precisely such eucharistic participation that initiates, continues, and consummates it. The eucharist both proclaims and empowers a life, as Paul, would say, "in Christ" or, better "in the body of Christ."


And here is part of the post from Ben Witherington ....

Who can Commune with God? (2006)

It is a delicate question--- Who can Commune with God? And today Catholic Bishops have been voting on this matter. The issue is this-- who is worthy to partake of the Eucharist? Should just anyone be allowed to do so? In the past, and now the Catholic Church has taken the posture not that priests should police the Eucharist or fence the table, but that all the congregation should be told in advance that in essence they must police themselves. If they are knowingly in violation of church teaching on some major matter they should not take the Eucharist. For example anyone, gay or straight who is having sex outside of Christian marriage are encouraged to abstain. Now this raises all kinds of questions.

In the first place, no one is actually 'worthy' of partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. All have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God. If we waited until we were worthy we'd all still be waiting. But there is some pertinent material about this question to be found in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul says there that we must not partake of this sacrament "in an unworthy manner". Now that's a different matter than 'being worthy'. That has to do with how we partake of the sacrament, and Paul somewhat cryptically gives us another clue-- we should partake: 1) together, waiting for one another and doing it as a group together; 2) we should do it in a worthy manner; and 3) we should do it discerning 'the body'. Paul even goes so far as to say that if you violate these three rules you could get sick and die. That sounds pretty serious and drastic. Scholars have debated what 'body' Paul is talking about. In traditional Catholic theology it was assumed that this was a reference to the elements of the sacrament, but this is unlikely. For one thing where is the reference to discerning the blood? For another thing the context doesn't favor this reading of 1 Cor. 11. The 'body' here as elsewhere in 1 Corinthians refers to the Body of Christ in the ecclesiological sense--- that would be us, the church. Paul is saying that if you go ahead and take the Lord's Supper without doing it as an act of the communion of the saints, of the church itself, you have commited a grievous mistake. The Lord's Supper is not all about you and your private relationship with God. Its about your vertical relationship with God of course, but it is also about your horizontal relationship with your fellow believers as well. We have been reconciled to Christ corporately, and one of the functions of communion is to bind us to each other.

Most denominations have some sort of invitation to the Table-- ours goes back to the Anglican liturgy in which we say "all who truly and earnestly repent of their sins, and are in love and fellowship with their neighbor, draw near with faith..." John Wesley was to add to this that if one was prepared to repent and come to the table for the first time as an act of faith, even though one was not previously a Christian that that was fine-- he saw the Lord's Supper as a converting sacrament in such cases, and not just a confirming sacrament. What is however very clear from 1 Cor. 11 is that this is not a sacrament that was intended for those who "do not discern the body". Unlike baptism which is a passive sacrament, the Lord's Supper is an active sacrament, and must be consciously and actively partaken of. So perhaps now is a good time for us all to think about should and shouldn't take communion. One thing is clear to me-- this is indeed a means of grace which changes lives ........



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