Roman Catholic bishops in the USA are meeting to decide whether or not to permit US President Joe Biden to take communion as long as he supports legalized abortions. This would apply to all Roman Catholics, of course, not just POTUS. The New York Times reports that the Vatican has advised the bishops not to take this action, but the bishops are likely to continue the debate in their meeting anyway. They have a contingent that opposes the present Pope and his progressive stance. On theological grounds, several prominent Jesuits, however, oppose the use of sacraments as a “political” weapon. Their opposition is spurring a “This Is Not Your Table Movement” against the bishops.
Here’s my take on the theological issue, as a Presbyterian observer:
1. Weaponizing the Eucharist or any sacrament is indefensible. That is what the “This Is Not Your Table Movement” is saying.
2. Ecclesiology (the nature and role of the church) is the theological doctrine at stake here. If the Church is the body of Christ in the world today, then “the Church” is both the guardian and advocate of the sacred mysteries contained in the sacraments. To say that the Church cannot stipulate and regulate the form of those sacraments and access to them is to cast the Church aside and nullify its authority. The bishops, of course, will not do that and neither would most other theologians.
3. But it is important at this time and all the time to be alert to the possibility that the Church is in error. It has been in the past. This could be another of those times. This could be one of those times in which error is being embraced by enough of the organizational structure of the Church to indict the entire organization (in this case the Roman Catholic Church).
4. Correction from error of this type, of this magnitude, and of this effect, is a prophetic undertaking which is initiated by a call to repentance on the part of those who err. If they refuse to repent they stand in need of reprimand. If that still does not bring about repentance the Church takes still stronger action.
5. If, in the end, the Church remains adamant, there is no outside agent to enact punishment except God, the “author and finisher” of the Church and all creation.
6. This, then, brings us to the matter of legitimate protest. Can people exit the Church when they perceive the Church is unrepentantly and irremediably wrong? Of course they can, and they do. It is not an infallible sign that the people are right and the Church is wrong when people leave. But there was never, in the entire history of the Church, a time when branching off and separating was not taking place, nor was there a time when such effrontery of those leaving was not excoriated by those being left. In solemn retrospect, Christianity has spread this way.
7. Having said this, we come to the question of ecclesiastical authority in our time. It is being insisted that there is no Church (overall, capital C) that is proprietor of the sacred mysteries. Even when the sacred mysteries are symbolized as sacraments they remain available to any and all who perceive and give reverence to them. Therefore, the role and the nature of all churches are relegated to the socio-political realm. Churches are human organizations performing human, humane and humanitarian missions, albeit in honor of Christ. God is instrumental in these ministries in the same way that God is influential in every human life.
8. Is affiliation with a church valuable, then? Is it a necessity as insisted by the dogma that “outside the church there is no salvation”? Can an individual alone discover enough of the mysterious truth that encompasses life? Can life be fully realized without the support and accountability of a community of faith? For most of us the answer is that commitment to the best good and highest values will dwindle for those who refuse the kind of community found in the best churches. Fortunate, indeed, are those who connect to one like that.
9. Is the world a better place because there are Christian churches proliferating almost everywhere? Certainly there is strength in numbers. Effective action, and especially opposition to power, requires unity. A church is valuable as a strategic partner with other advocates of compassion and justice. A church that exists for the exclusive benefit of its members is not one of the best, no matter whether or not those benefits are religious and spiritual.
What is the best course for the bishops? Listen to your own best theologians rather than your politicians. Be one less combatant in the devastating US culture war.
The mundane world is not intimidated by our threats. It is attracted by our love.
We are on the cusp of the greatest reformation the Church has experienced since the 16th century. The side that will emerge and be called Christian three centuries from now will be the one with roots in this century that has the most Christ-like theology. Love leads to immersion, involvement, and incarnation. Love creates allies but it also enlightens the lover to the presence of the Holy One.
Theology begins where one is and asks, “Where is God in this?” It is impossible to accurately imagine that God is removed into a sublime heaven now that Christ has ascended there, and that our theology is all about how to expand that heaven into this abysmal mundus. It is ludicrous to fantasize about God caring for creatures while being remote and aloof. Theology as Jesus taught us how to do it begins in the here and now and identifies God imminently invested in this messy place. Theology asks, “What is God doing?”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.