Starting in 2013 and variously thereafter, Pope Francis has called upon Catholics, especially young Catholics, to “make a mess.” In a way, this makes admirable sense. Reform and renewal always involve a kind of creative destruction. Disrupting old patterns of sin and purifying the spirit can be turbulent work. There’s a reason James Joyce described the Catholic faith as “here comes everybody.” The Church is a very big family packed with sinners and eccentric personalities from top to bottom, all in need of conversion.
The key word in that sentence, of course, is “conversion.” Conversion involves separating our appetites, thoughts, and actions from conformity to the world and cleaving instead to the gospel. It’s a word more easily said than done. And the evidence is its utter absence from the current turmoil in the German Church over sex, marriage, and intercommunion—a perverse but logical distortion of synodality, the kind of mess-making that Francis clearly did not intend and did not foresee.
Like any family, the Church has basic rules for inclusion that require certain behaviors. No family can endlessly sustain behavior that compromises its own identity and well-being. Nor is any family borderless. If, as Vatican II insisted, the Eucharist is “the source and summit” of Catholic life, then reverence for the sacrament, its meaning, and its proper reception mark our family’s border. In Germany, the violation of that reverence involves sharing the Eucharist with persons who quite consciously do not accept Catholic belief and thus do not belong to the Catholic community. In the United States, the circumstances may be different, but the substance of the issue—who can and should receive the Eucharist—is essentially the same.
Persons who do not believe in the Real Presence, who ignore or do not accept Church teaching, or who are otherwise objectively in a state of serious sin, should not present themselves for Communion. It’s that simple and that serious. If they do, they not only put their own souls in grave jeopardy, but—just as grievously—they also violate the rights of Catholics who do seek to live their faith authentically.
This Eucharistic discipline, the coherence of Catholic belief and the behavior it requires, is rooted both in Scripture and constant Church practice. It applies to all Catholics, not merely public officials, and it applies all the time and everywhere. There is nothing intentionally “political” about it. Claiming that it weaponizes the Eucharist for political ends is both misleading and, when advanced by anyone in Church leadership, inexcusable. No bishop eagerly seeks to punish or publicly humiliate anyone by denying a person Communion. Such an action is always a last resort for the salvation of the sinner’s soul. Additionally, in today’s thoroughly cynical media environment, any such action invites a storm of faux outrage over the “martyrdom” of the wounded public figure. But the obligation of “eucharistic coherence”—i.e., conforming our private and public lives to what the Church teaches and what we claim to believe as Catholics—remains as a matter of personal integrity. And Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila and San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone have articulated that fact very well.
Today’s dust-up over Communion for the likes of President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the latest rerun of a 48-year-old argument that began with Roe v. Wade. Roe’s permissive abortion license created a profoundly inconvenient problem for Catholics who describe themselves as “progressive.” There is nothing progressive about allowing the intentional killing of unborn human life. Early Church Fathers quite rightly called abortion a form of homicide, and while other serious issues like racial equality, immigration, poverty, and health care clearly demand our attention, none of them alone nor all of them together can balance or cancel out the iniquity of tolerating a regime of systematic homicide against innocent human beings. Arguing (as some do) that the child in utero is not fully a person, and thus not entitled to the protection of the law, is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested decades ago in his Ethics, a uniquely obscene form of self-deceit.
The Democratic party now functions as a franchise of the abortion industry, with the right to abortion as a new kind of sacrament. Saying this does not excuse the many examples of callousness and hypocrisy—their name is Legion—one can easily find in Republican ranks. But what now distinguishes self-described Catholic public figures like President Biden and Speaker Pelosi is not just their surrender to the abortion lobby, but their enthusiastic embrace of its policies. For this, there is no precedent.
Or perhaps not quite. As Randall Smith noted recently, many prominent American Catholics in the 1800s, including clergy and some bishops, defended slavery or owned slaves themselves, despite centuries of vigorous papal attacks on the evil of slavery. It’s thus ironic that U.S. and Roman roles today seem to be reversed. Most American bishops seek a strong, faithful, and unified conference statement on eucharistic coherence in the face of an entrenched abortion regime. It is Rome’s Cardinal Luis Ladaria that now counsels a more patient approach on the matter of Communion and politicians, with more dialogue and discussion—as if that strategy hadn’t already been tried and failed, repeatedly, for the last four decades. There’s a reason Nancy Pelosi was “pleased” (her word) with the recent letter from the CDF’s prefect Ladaria to USCCB president Archbishop José Gomez. It can only provide her with cover, assuming she even bothers with such details. The letter also fleshes out what Rome may actually mean by that ambiguous word “synodality.”
I suppose the lesson here is that all of us who call ourselves “Catholic” could do with a lot more of the right kind of mess. We already have too much of the other kind.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia and the author, most recently, of Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living.
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