When popular columnist Robert Novak observed some Catholic politicians receiving Communion at two stadium Masses celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI, he took a bishop and a cardinal to task over it in the pages of the Washington Post.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing for laity to raise a respectful eyebrow at clerics whom they believe are falling down at the job, and Novak certainly got a rise out of New York’s Edward Cardinal Egan, who — within hours of the column’s publication — released his own statement. Cardinal Egan scolded former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for not abiding by an “understanding” they had come to, some time before Giuliani’s marriage to Judith Nathan. Wrote the cardinal:
The Catholic Church clearly teaches that abortion is a grave offense against the will of God. . . . Thus it was that I had an understanding with Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, when I became Archbishop of New York and he was serving as Mayor of New York, that he was not to receive the Eucharist because of his well-known support of abortion. I deeply regret that Mr. Giuliani received the Eucharist during the Papal visit here in New York, and I will be seeking a meeting with him to insist that he abide by our understanding.
Giuliani said he would be happy to have that meeting, in private, which is where he believes his religious faith should be discussed.
Some wondered why the cardinal was specifically chiding Giuliani for his pro-abortion opinions, rather than for receiving Communion while married outside of the church. A spokesperson for the cardinal explained that the “agreement” referred to predated his divorce and subsequent remarriage.
But that answer doesn’t sit well.
As a politician, Giuliani has never been a legislator or a judge; he has neither written nor ruled abortion rights into law. His career has in no way involved him in the procuring, legislating, or legalization of abortion. He has not negatively affected the free speech of pro-lifers, nor sought to use arcane legal maneuvers to do so. This puts him in quite a different league from some of the other communicants skewered by Novak (Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy) but who — thus far — have suffered no public discipline by Washington’s Archbishop Donald Wuerl. The prelate ducked the issue altogether by saying, “The decision concerning the refusal of Holy Communion to an individual can best be made by the bishop in the person’s home diocese with whom he or she presumably is in conversation.”
Leaving aside whether or not Archbishop Wuerl has a responsibility to pastor those politicians who spend a portion of their time living in his diocese, Giuliani is currently a private citizen, neither an office-holder nor a current candidate for any office. As such, should his now-private opinions have been used as an excuse for public excoriation? Is Cardinal Egan teaching that all Catholics — not just active politicians — must on this issue conform with their whole minds to Catholic teaching or else recuse themselves from Communion?
It’s a fair question. If that’s what Cardinal Egan is saying, he needs to make himself plain about it and explain the rather dramatic implication that Catholics are not entitled to their private thoughts and opinions, unless they are perfectly reasoned in faith.
One doubts that the cardinal will take that public stance; it would be a difficult and unpopular position to defend, and Cardinal Egan was not willing to make the more straightforward (and scripturally explicit) argument that Giuliani’s divorce and remarriage rendered him ineligible to receive Communion. With so many remarried Catholics ignorant of the Church’s teaching, the cardinal was — with Novak’s prompting — handed a dynamic teaching moment, and chose not to give the lesson.
That is a terrible shame. There are many within his purview who needed to hear it, and he might have consoled them by reminding them of their ability to make a “spiritual” communion at Mass. What’s more, he could have explored the notion that Catholics in Giuliani’s circumstances might present themselves during Communion in the manner of a respectful non-Catholic, with hands crossed at the breast, in supplication for a blessing.
Novak’s piece prompted a good deal of debate online, covering a broad spectrum of opinion. On the one hand, there’s the notion that Giuliani’s reception of Communion (and Pelosi’s, Kerry’s, and Kennedy’s) was “between them and God.” Well, yes, but they publicly proclaim themselves Catholic, so it is also between them and the rest of us. And then there was the opposite position, the strongly held opinion that “unworthy” reception creates scandal and dilutes understanding of what the Eucharist truly is (a valid worry), to the very charitable concerns of some that — given St. Paul’s charge, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord” — bishops and priests were vow-bound to prevent “public sinners” from bringing such a harsh judgment upon themselves.
Unfortunately, these interesting and often prayerful conversations frequently degenerated into political rather than theological debate:
I am tired of conservative laymen denouncing our bishops when they fail to follow the talking points from the Republican National Committee. Benedict is not dumb. He knows what he is doing. If he wanted to have a showdown at the altar rail . . . he could have done so. The archbishops of Washington and New York are not “disobedient.”
So wrote left-leaning Michael Sean Winters at America magazine’s blog, In All Things. By contrast, Phil Lawler at Catholic World News found an enormous and explicit wealth of teaching in Cardinal Egan’s very brief and dubiously wrought remarks: “Cardinal Egan deserves praise and thanks for his public statement, in which he shows himself to be a leader, a teacher, and a pastor of souls.”
The stark contrast between the shrugging shoulder of the Left and the wagging finger of the Right reveals the vast middle ground where — as Novak correctly notes in his column — some ardent pro-lifers, uncomfortable with the idea of standing between Jesus and a communicant, stay prayerfully pondering.
Appreciating all of these valid and reasonable prohibitions, I still wonder whether we’re not sometimes so busy shielding unworthy communicants from themselves, and protecting Jesus from entering into the abysses and the dark, unworthy places, that we forget a great mystery of our creed: “He descended into hell . . . He rose again.”
In Communion, Jesus the Divine Physician descends into our private hells, and we — hopefully — rise with Him.