Here is my not-so-hot take on Eucharistic coherence: When we lay out the Welcome mat at Church, it shouldn’t have an asterisk.

I found this conversation on Gloria Purvis’ podcast very helpful in outlining the rationale behind Eucharistic coherence, which, for those who aren’t nerdy Catholics, is the concept from which the current hullabaloo around US bishops talking about denying President Biden communion springs. There is something to be said for the idea that to participate in a communal ritual, your life ought to align with the norms of that community. While I don’t think this was part of the podcast’s discussion, there is good Scriptural evidence for the position that participating in the Eucharist while living a life contrary to the Christian calling is unacceptable (c.f. I Corinthians 11).

In theory, the idea is that a bishop (or priest) should let a parishioner know when they are living contrary to Church teaching and encourage them to repent and seek reconciliation before coming to communion. In extreme cases, if a member of the Church doesn’t accept this pastoral correction, they could be denied communion.

I understand the rationale of this idea, but I don’t find it compelling, for a number of reasons. 

  1. Experience – I have been fortunate to know a number of excellent, faith-filled priests, and none of them have ever broached anything like this conversation. And I am definitely not above reproach. I would love to know if others have had different experiences, but my sense is that this sort of pastoral correction doesn’t happen in most places.
  2. Scale – My experience is one of an active, involved member of the community. Most priests, much less bishops, can’t possibly know enough about the thoughts and actions of all their faithful to be able to identify where they may be falling short of the norms of the community. So it would seem to be impractical to expect them to be able to assess the worthiness of every member of their parish/diocese.
  3. Pastoral model – In party because of #2, most of our model of Church revolves around communal activities and sacramental celebrations rather than serial one-on-one relationships between pastors and parishioners. Generally, my sense is that when a pastor builds a strong personal relationship with a parishioner in our churches, that parishioner is an active volunteer, a significant donor, someone seeking pastoral counseling, or someone who is otherwise actively seeking to cultivate that relationship. In many of those cases, it seems unlikely that a pastor is going to be motivated to deliver an ultimatum for the parishioner to reform their life or else forgo communion. Nor, in the case of those seeking pastoral care/counseling or spiritual direction, would such an approach be compassionate or effective.
  4. Scope – This topic of Eucharistic coherence only arises with a very narrow range of Church teaching – almost always abortion- or sexuality-related (and almost exclusively in the US). Given the breadth of Catholic social teaching, much less the breadth of manner of human failing, it can’t reasonably be the case that these are the only norms Catholics are breaking that threaten to rupture the community.
  5. Spotlight – For several of the practical reasons mentioned above, these issues only seem to arise around high-profile Catholics. (In almost every case, it’s a politician.) That would seem to imply that we mundane Catholics are exempt from this sort of scrutiny, and that can’t be true.
  6. Perspective – Even in Paul’s admonishment to the Corinthians, the focus of Eucharistic coherence is on the Christian ensuring that they themselves are aligned with the community. Not only Paul but the Gospel writers, too, level heavy criticism against those who focus on judging others, which, you have to admit, is the primary focus of those engaged in promoting the denial of Eucharist to others.

These are all concerns about practicality. There are more fundamental, theological concerns that this concept raises as well.

  1. Proponents of the concept of Eucharistic coherence characterize their opposition as lacking a proper appreciation of the depth of grave sin. Maybe. But I would counter that this focus on “protecting” the Eucharist by withholding it from the “incoherent” betrays a lack of proper appreciation for the power of the sacrament. A major part of why this is an issue lies in the fact that Catholics have a much stronger theology of sacramentality than do many Protestants. We care about the Eucharist because we profess that Jesus is really present in the Body and Blood; it is for us not just a symbol or remembrance. That said, if we truly believe that the Eucharist is what we profess it to be, aren’t we also expressing the triumph of God’s merciful love over ALL human sin? It seems to me that if we truly believed that God was present in the bread and wine AND that the Good News was that God’s powerful mercy overcomes any sin we can concoct, we wouldn’t be holding it back from ANYONE.  The idea that God’s mercy is somehow ineffective against some of our sins is an admission of defeat I won’t make. I don’t buy in to Eucharistic coherence, not because I underestimate sin, but because I refuse to underestimate grace.
  2. This debate speaks to a fundamental difference in ecclesiology between Catholics (and Christians more broadly, I would observe). Are we a fortress against the world, or a rescue ship in its midst? I often see among more traditional believers a dualistic (almost Gnostic) split between Church and world in which the role of the former is to protect members from being sullied by the brokenness of the latter. But the Gospel says otherwise. Pope Francis echoes a long line of Church teaching in urging the Church to be a “field hospital”, bringing mercy to the most broken, rather than withholding it from those who don’t measure up.

OK. Now that I have that off my chest, I can get back to more important things. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can be a better rescue ship and want to flesh that out. Someday.

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