Let me first of all put my remarks in context. Clearly we are in a situation where there are basic differences of view in which there has, at times, been more heat than light. I believe it is important to avoid a context of debate, to say nothing of personal criticism. What is needed is careful discussion of the issues, and that is what I intend to do. This means that we assume that those on both sides of the argument are sincere, care only for the good of the Christian, and have given thoughtful reflection to their public statements.
I propose to discuss these four points: First, who owns the Eucharist? What are legitimate grounds for excluding someone from Eucharist, i.e., excommunicating them? Second, what is the purpose of Christians gathered to celebrate Eucharist? Third, how in such celebration, do people's conscience judgments interact with the sincerity of their eucharistic participation? Fourth, how should ones profession of Catholic belief affect ones responsible public conscience judgments?
1. Who owns the Eucharist? This may sound like an inflammatory and confrontational question; it is not meant o be. Instead, an answer to this question is basic to our examining the issue of excluding some from Eucharist. If, as I believe, eucharistic celebration is both the right and responsibility of a Christian community, admitting or excluding members would appear to be the prerogative and responsibility of the community.
Clearly, a given community, as part of the broader church, must be guided by the legitimate judgments of the universal church and give respectful consideration to statements by church officials. However, this does not absolve community members from the responsibility of making their own honest, shared conscience decisions, especially when there is a division of opinion among church officials. Such a matter of judgment is not a matter of legislation, so an edict of a church official cannot replace a community's conscience.
Quite simply, no church official owns the Eucharist, grants permission to a community to celebrate, and sets the conditions for such a grant. Humanly speaking, I believe we must be considerate of the still prevalent view of ordained presiders. They still think of themselves as the "celebrants" of the Mass. They have thought of it being their Mass, and they do it reverently for the sake of the people. Even the pope in his recent encyclical speaks nostalgically of the many times he has celebrated the Eucharist around the world. He makes no mention of the crowds celebrating the Eucharist under his presidency.
2. Why do Christians gather on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist? Many would still say that they come to attend Mass. Actually, they come for a variety of reasons: some, because it is a pattern well established in their families; others, because it is a law of God through the church that they must fulfill under pain of grave sin; others, because it is a situation where they have a sense of community with their fellow Catholics; still others, because it is a context in which they contact God in a special way; others come because it is a key expression of the Christian faith they cherish.
Why should we come? For many of the above reasons, but most basically to remember Jesus, his living and dying and rising. They should come to allow the truth of the proclaimed Gospel to challenge their view of themselves and their world. They should come so they can publicly re-commit themselves to their faith and its implications in their lives. They should come to gain hope that the evils of this world can be overcome through the empowerment of the Spirit given to them. They should come to ritualize together , not to observe a privileged individual (priest, bishop, pope) perform something that they observe. They should gather to do Eucharist; that is their responsibility and their right.
However, a given community is not free to do whatever it wishes. It must be controlled in its activity by the intrinsic nature of eucharistic celebration. Its celebration is part of the liturgy of the entire church. The faith it professes regarding what is meant to happen in Eucharist is that of the entire church and as such cannot be fundamentally opposed to that faith.
3. So what should happen regarding people's beliefs and conscience formation when people gather for Eucharist? A given assembly of the faithful comes together with the experience of their daily lives, with the meaning they have given these experiences, with the conscience judgments they have made during the time since they last gathered. With that shared awareness they hear the truth proclaimed to them in the liturgy, understand the implications for their lives, and are challenged to a continual conversion of their consciences.
The word of God addressed to them is neither simple nor general; it touches them as the people they are in the concrete circumstances of their lives, faced with the need for decisions and actions In what often are complex and less-than-clear situations. The response to this word of God should be an honest commitment to seek truth and follow it as best they can. This is what conscience is all about. No one can judge from outside the conscience of anyone sharing the Eucharist.
4. What ground, then, could there be for excluding someone from Eucharist participation? Clearly, one would be a public explicit rejection of a basic element of belief, e.g., that there is no presence of the Risen Christ connected with Eucharist celebration. Again, a publicly acknowledged, flagrant non-conformity with accepted Christian morality : e.g., a married person living openly in another marriage situation.
The issue that immediately arises and which is at the center of the present controversy is that of legislative judgment relative to abortion. Several things need to be examined on this topic. First, the two classifications of people usually employed ("pro-life," "pro-choice") need clarification : especially the latter. Most people who think of themselves as "pro-choice" are opposed to abortion, consider it an evil and a tragedy for individuals and for society-at-large. However, they recognize the fallibility of their own judgment and the fact that they have no right to impose their conscience judgment upon another.
On the "pro-life" side, there are those who feel obliged to work for public recognition of the evil of abortion and strive to convince others of their view, but who do not advocate the imposition of their view by law. There are others who are convinced that only they have the truth, who tend toward a one-issue morality, and for whom the complexities of moral judgments about abortion are dismissed without question. Those in public life are faced with a double moral imperative: to honor the oath of office, to hold and apply laws of the land many of which are (or should be) aimed at social justice for the poor, and at the same time work against the evil of abortion.
Legislating is very often a messy affair. In a given bill there may be a mixture of items with which the legislator agrees or disagrees. For the sake of an item clearly benefiting the poor, one may have to accept another that he/she considers unjust but be unable effectively to remove.
For example, at present, much needed international financial help for clinics serving poverty-stricken women is denied because these clinics provide abortion counseling. My purpose here is not to point to solutions to such dilemmas but to suggest that a devoted Christian can sincerely make judgments on either side of an issue in good conscience as a Christian. To ban such a person from Eucharist is an illegitimate exercise of power.
One of the basic principles guiding us in our conversion on these matters is that morality cannot be legislated; overt damage to people does fall under the purview of the law, as do violations of people's civil rights. Morality, on the other hand, is the business of religion. Such clear lines become blurred however when dealing with abortion. The unborn's right to life concerns both the ethical teaching of a faith community and the safeguarding of a person's rights. Government does not exist to implement the moral teaching of religious groups, nor should religious groups appeal to civil legislation to enforce their ethical teaching.
To further complicate the issue, neither government nor religious teaching can decide the philosophical question as to when personal human life begins. Finally, to an extent sometimes overlooked, decisions about abortion, especially when they concern the very poor, often involve prioritizing competing rights and relationships. As stated earlier..., I simply wish to highlight the fact that this issue is complicated, and that the respective obligations dictated by church teaching and civil law do exist, and both rest upon a Catholic lawmaker. Therefore, it seems to me that to insist that a civil lawmaker abandon his civil oath and relinquish the public arena to others whose public policies contradict those elements of Catholic teaching that deal with justice but embrace the "pro-life" position, is impractical and wrong.
Obviously, this introduces yet another dimension into our conversation: the militant advocacy of the "anti-choice" position of the conservative wing of the Republicans. I insist that we must carry on, as far as we can, our discussion with respect for the sincerity of those differing from us. However, I must be honest and admit that I am a bit cynical about the publicly proclaimed embracing of the "pro-life" position by some politicians.
About the sincerity of those bishops who talk about refusing Communion, I have no doubt. My problem here is that they have exceeded their legitimate authority and tried to use the Eucharist as a hammer to impose their conscience judgment. Actually, what they are doing is attempting to excommunicate without due process or justifying grounds [ -- a familiar pattern in church history! ].
Eucharist is the supreme Christian ritual of unification. The central invocation of God's Spirit, the solemn action linked with the consecration of bread and wine, asks God to send the Spirit to transform these gifts into the Body of Christ, and through the symbolic effectiveness of that transformation, to unite the gathered assembly into the One Body, that of Jesus Christ. Certainly, exclusion of sincere faithful people because of their political position does not seem to honor this central purpose of Eucharist celebration.