Father Augustin Escobar, associate pastor at St. Norbert’s Church in Orange, California, invited a Presbyterian minister to concelebrate Mass, partake of the Holy Eucharist, and distribute the sacrament to the faithful. Bishop Tod Brown of the Diocese of Orange, California put Father Escobar on leave while an investigation ensues.
The few brief news items about the story leave more questions asked than answered, but a lack of solid information never stops people from opining, and in the social and alternative media forums the usual suspects dismiss the matter as “trivial” or denounce it as “a travesty” and the more middling folks vacillate between the two extremes. The debate comes down to an ancient question: what is more important, the letter of the law or its spirit? If we believe that the Holy Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t we be inviting all to approach and Commune with Him, or must we instead protect Christ from irreverence?
For many Catholics (and other Christians), this seems like a no-brainer: who has the right to stand between Christ and another human being? Jesus prayed “that all might be one,” and so Catholics should enthusiastically open their communion, some say, to any-and-all, and trust the Holy Spirit to work it all out. Others argue that withholding communion from non-Catholics seems like a remarkably ironic exclusion, given the number of Catholics who themselves either receive communion unworthily or without true understanding. Still others suggest, provocatively, that excluding non-Catholics or even Catholics in grave sin from communion prevents Jesus from converting hearts through a physical encounter.
While I understand the first position, I am inclined toward the second, and not because of I am a "legalist" but because I believe in common sense, respect, and common courtesy.
The argument that our communion restrictions are made irrelevant due to the imperfect participation of our own poorly-catechized members really has no bearing on whether our communion should be further opened. Common sense tells us that if I spell cat with a K, my ignorance in no way suggests that everyone else should do the same. Catholics have a duty—no matter how happy-clappy we get—to keep proclaiming what the Holy Eucharist is, and explain why what is Holy is not meant to be received lightly, or without full appreciation.
If we’re not teaching this well to our own, it seems a bad idea to broaden our poor instruction.
There exists an odd double-standard concerning Catholic observances and almost any other ritual. Culturally nuanced and sensitive Americans would never presume to attend a Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim or even Orthodox Christian celebration with an expectation of full participation, but when Catholics ask the same respect for their holiest sacrament, they are criticized for being unreasonable and “exclusionary,” and always there is a whiff of that dreaded word “intolerance.” Other cultures and religions are to be allowed their exclusivities with full respect, but Catholics who base their beliefs on Jesus’ own words, and on reasoned theology and philosophy, tradition and supporting scripture, ought not expect the same courtesy.
And then there's courtesy. Holy Communion is a great mystery of ponderous depth. People like to call it “a meal” and “a banquet,” and if it were only that, there would still be rules about reception. One does not go into a neighbor’s house, open the fridge, and gobble down the food that has been prepared for a family event, with a careless, “What, it’s for everyone, right?”
But our Communion is much more than a mere family meal. it is a face-to-face, one-on-one, intimate encounter with Christ. This is nothing to engage in lightly. Paul warned us in 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 against unworthy reception of the Eucharist and canon 908 is just the expression of this apostolic instruction in canon law. If the Church seems to “stand between” a person and Christ it is only because we each of us have a responsibility to stand between ourselves and the reception of Christ in the Holy Sacrament, if we are not rightly disposed. That means not only that we be free of the stain of grave sin, but that we also bring ourselves to Him in humility.
And part of that humility is to consider one’s beliefs in the light of all of Scripture—including Paul’s admonishments—and the teaching of the Church, including her canon law. If one does not believe what Scripture and the Church say about the Mass, one ought not allow a feel-good pretense to overrule one’s manners.
The Holy Eucharist is the all-or-nothing Source and Summit of our faith. It either is what Jesus said it is, or it is nothing at all. If it is the Flesh and Blood of Christ, truly Present, then common sense says the Holy Eucharist deserves our highest honor, our highest respect, our most complete reverence, and all of the excludes those who don't believe this from participating.
If it is not, then as Flannery O’ Connor so perfectly said, “to hell with it.”
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here. Read the most complete report on Fr. Escobar and Rev. Whitney’s concelebration.
UPDATE: Fr. Escobar has issued an apology, according to the California Catholic Daily website.