This month, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will debate the topic of Eucharistic coherence at their annual general meeting. Predictably, the bishops do not all agree. Unfortunately, some bishops’ first instinct is to see the Church’s eucharistic discipline as politically motivated, especially when it comes to denying communion. The world of politics is always changing and easily manipulated, and it is easy to find excuses for inaction. But despite the Church’s internal messiness, she is not a political organization. A better analogy to account for the reality of the mess within the Church is that of the family—especially when it comes to communion and the consequences of high-profile Church members’ behavior.
Many families today are deeply affected by one or more children suffering from physical or mental illness, maturity concerns, addiction, or grave behavioral challenges. In each case, the child in question necessarily requires additional attention—a reality that affects everyone and everything in the family. As a result, family dynamics shift.
Such issues have the potential to call forth incredible virtue from the rest of the family: children and parents grow in respect for the value of human life, discover meaning in suffering, develop patience with the limitations of others, and overlook superficial barriers between people. The heroism of families with children who have a physical or mental disability is a good example. Healthy self-sacrifice and goodwill enrich their communion.
When a child’s problems are rooted in his own voluntary behaviors, the effect on the family is often especially harmful. Left unchecked, the other children in the family also suffer the negative consequences of this wrongdoer’s behavior. Many times, the legitimate needs of the other children are neglected.
Blaming the “problem child” is an obvious and understandable reflex. After all, the child’s behavior has ruptured the communion of the family. But parents are the ones most culpable when these disruptions overtake the home. Parents are responsible for setting the family agenda. It is their role to offer encouragement, correction, and exhortation. When parents fail to establish and enforce the boundaries and expectations of family life, they end up intensifying the harm caused by their child’s behavior. Very often, co-dependent or enabling behavior develops from a false sense of compassion or misplaced guilt.
When it comes to dysfunctional children, the Christian imagination tends toward images of lost sheep and prodigal sons, and rightly so. But to misunderstand the lessons of these parables is wrong and even dangerous.
The good shepherd loves selflessly and extravagantly as he searches for just one lost sheep. But if the shepherd left his other sheep in a dangerous place surrounded by wolves, he would be no longer good but wicked. The parable of the lost sheep illustrates the lengths to which the Lord will go in order to bring a sinner back into the communion of his love. It is not a parable that justifies gross neglect.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the father gives his defiant son everything he demands. But even in his deep longing to have his son back with him, the father does not forsake the rest of his household just so that he and his lost son could be together. If the father abdicated the family patrimony in order to accompany his lost son in that distant country, what would have become of the rest of the household? Instead, the father eagerly hoped for his son’s return but waited at home. The home, the father, the life of that family remained in place. The stability of the home was a necessary condition for the son’s return.
The family of the Church has both functional and dysfunctional members: saints and sinners. Recent problems facing the Church—sexual scandals, doctrinal disputes, bureaucratic infighting, a creeping cultural accommodation—have everything to do with the dysfunction of its members but, perhaps even more so, with the neglect of those responsible for keeping it all together.
When the Church’s prodigal children stubbornly reject her core beliefs and practices, communion is already broken. Therefore, presenting oneself for Eucharistic communion is disingenuous. Are our “problem children” still part of the family? Yes—at least in name if not in practice. The question of Eucharistic coherence, however, is not just about which individual Catholics get to receive the Eucharist.
More fundamentally, it is about the stability and coherence of family life in both belief and behavior. Negligent parents often do not realize the effect their co-dependent behaviors have on the rest of the family. When shepherds of the Church excuse or enable the behavior of a defiant high-profile Catholic, they compound the damage. They discourage earnest Catholics, place stumbling blocks before wavering Catholics, and trivialize the great sacrifices made by many other Catholics to remain in communion.
Parents who neglect their families, lead them based on what other people might say, or act simply to prevent childish tantrums fail in their responsibility. Spiritual fatherhood in the Church is no different.
Fr. Jim Baron is a diocesan priest and pastor in the diocese of Colorado Springs.
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