There has been a good bit of online buzz about the policy dated September 22, 2015, of Archbishop John Myers in Newark on the reception of Holy Communion – David Gibson covers it for RNS here. Gibson writes that the archbishop “has given his priests strict guidelines on refusing Communion to Catholics who, for example, support gay marriage or whose own marriage is not valid in the eyes of the church.” And so forth.
I have some sympathy for the drafters of this short statement. It is exceedingly difficult to be concise while also being accurate. If you account for every possible unique situation and every possible exception, your statement ends up being a lengthy treatise that nobody will read or comprehend. That’s hardly the much-touted “New Evangelization.”
But still. Even in a short statement, one shouldn’t say things that are wrong – or worse, don’t make sense. And there are ways to hint at ambiguity and complexity without going into them in order to signal that the writer gets it, with wording that invites the reader to look elsewhere for greater detail.
In its defense, the statement from Archbishop Myers rightly begins with a word of welcome. That is important. But then it gets specific, and the problems start. I raise the following concerns about the three points of the policy (which is reprinted below).
Ad unum: Say what? “Catholics must be in a marriage recognized as valid by the Church to receive Holy Communion or the other Sacraments”?? I’m not in such a marriage – I’m a monk. Taking the statement at its word, I would not be permitted to receive Holy Communion in Newark. Nor would any priest or nun, or single person, or widow or widower. Surely they don’t mean that?! (OK, a married ordinariate priest could receive – so there is that.)
“Non-Catholics … are not to receive the sacraments” – is this meant to overturn church legislation currently in force which allows for reception in particular circumstances? (John Paul II wrote about, and legislated about, this issue.) Are all the exceptions of church law revoked in Newark?
Ad secundum: Church facilities may only be used by those who agree with, or at least don’t oppose, church teaching and legislation. Even privately? (The statement does not limit it to public opposition or non-agreement.) So everyone at a bridal shower or AA meeting or quilting circle in a church basement in the Archdiocese of Newark must agree with all Catholic teaching and legislation? I’m being picky – but that’s what it says.
How would one enforce a policy that seemingly excludes any person from any event on church grounds who disagrees (even privately) with, say, the ban on artificial contraception, or mandatory clerical celibacy, or this or that canon of church law? My point here is not to support or encourage that dissent, but to question the wisdom of a policy that would seemingly ban the vast majority of practicing Catholics (on some point or the other), and virtually all non-Catholics, from attending events in Newark churches.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I don’t see how one could hold Sunday Mass and be in accord with this policy.
Ad tertium. No attending a religious or public event which supports those who reject Church teaching and law? Taken at its word, this would exclude a good deal of ecumenical prayer in common. Catholics could not attend, for example, Protestant and Orthodox ordinations, since the ordinands of course do not accept Catholic teaching on papal primacy and infallibility, and the ordination liturgy certainly supports them. One could argue that any Protestant or Orthodox public prayer is now off limits to Catholics, since such prayer supports its ordained leaders who are not in complete agreement with Catholic teaching and law.
And that’s only Christian religious events – what about interfaith events? Should Pope Francis have been at that interreligious prayer service in New York which gave support to all those non-Christian religious leaders who do not agree with Catholic doctrine and legislation?
And then there are non-religious public events. Neither major political party in the U.S. supports Catholic teaching (all the less, legislation) entirely, and political events typically support candidates who disagree with one thing or another. Are Catholics in Newark now prohibited from attending any Democrat or Republican event if they wish to receive Communion?
The policy seems to reach even further. If my 4-H club or FFA chapter, or Lions or Jaycees, supports someone (say, with an award or election to office) who rejects any point of Catholic law or teaching, I may not be present at the meeting of my organization if I wish to receive Communion?
I’m sure the policy doesn’t mean any of these absurd and thoroughly unenforceable things. But the problem is, it says them.
Come on guys, it’s not that hard to write, for example, “Catholics who are married must be…”. It’s not that hard to distinguish private doubts and dissent from public, obstinate, and notorious opposition. Surely there is compact and nuanced wording for describing organizations publicly known for their hostile opposition to the Catholic Church – which I hope wouldn’t mean the Lutherans and the Kiwanis.
I have some sympathy, in fact, for the archbishop’s desire to set some boundaries. Organizations need to do that at times, and organizations without any identity typically have difficulty attracting and retaining members.
But this policy isn’t the way to do it. Back to the drawing board, I’d say.
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Principles to Aid in Preserving and Protecting the Catholic Faith in the Midst of an Increasingly Secular Culture
I. The Church will continue to cherish and welcome her members and invite them to participate in her life to the degree that their personal situation permits them in honesty to do so. Catholics must be in a marriage recognized as valid by the Church to receive Holy Communion or the other Sacraments. Non-Catholics and any Catholic who publicly rejects Church teaching or discipline, either by public statements or by joining or supporting organizations which do so, are not to receive the Sacraments. They are asked to be honest to themselves and to the Church community.
II. Parishes and other institutions of the Archdiocese should allow use of facilities only to persons and organizations which agree with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and its canonical legislation or, at least, not oppose them.
III. Catholics, especially ministers and others who represent the Church, should not participate in or be present at public religious events or events intended to endorse or support those who reject or ignore Church teaching and Canon Law.