Communion Denial and Culture Wars
Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post reports this week that a woman attending her mother’s funeral was denied Communion by a priest because she is a lesbian. It’s a truly outrageous incident that should offend any person of faith who recognizes that a holy sacrament should never be used to denigrate a human being made in God’s image.
It’s also a cautionary tale now that we’re knee deep in the fever swamps of an election year where culture-war politics is back with a vengeance, and the Catholic Church is flexing its institutional muscles against contraception coverage, same-sex marriage and a host of other divisive social issues. Regardless of the view one takes on same-sex marriage, can’t we all agree that our houses of worship should be welcoming places for all people? Official Catholic teaching, in fact, is clear that gays and lesbians should always be treated with dignity. According to the Catholic Catechism “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Sadly, the church is often its own worst enemy in this regard.
Remember that this shameful story of Communion denial in the Archdiocese of Washington comes just two months after Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the past president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, compared the gay rights movement to the KKK. Last summer in Boston, the Rainbow Ministry of St. Cecilia’s Parish posted a notice in the church bulletin about a Mass that would “honor Christ’s message of hope and salvation to all people” during Boston’s Pride Month. This was not controversial news for most Catholic clergy and laity until the city’s vociferous Catholic right hit squads, specifically the blog “Bryan Hehir Exposed,” (Fr. Hehir is a former president of Catholic Charities USA and a professor at Harvard University) urged Catholics to flood Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s office with protest calls. The blog described plans for the Mass as an “atrocious scandal” and demanded that the pastor be put on leave. The Mass was canceled by the archdiocese a few days later.
Let’s not miss the big picture. A well-organized Catholic right – including bloggers and Catholic watchdog organizations that monitor supposed breaches of orthodoxy on Catholic campuses – has played a significant role in shaping the political posture of many Catholic leaders today. A generation of young priests and bishops, far quieter on issues of economic justice and peace than contraception and abortion, are also the legacy of the late Pope John Paul II – whose 27-year pontificate included a strong critique of unfettered capitalism but was largely defined by his distinctive “theology of the body” and appointment of theologically conservative bishops. A widely respected, now retired, church official who served his diocese’s social justice office for several decades told me:
I am concerned about the tone of the bishops. What is missing today is the conciliatory, collaborative, politically astute leadership of the Bishops of the 80′s and 90′s. To compromise is considered weak by this crowd. The Bishops, to a great extent, have become captives of corporate elites, the National Right to Life, and conservative lay organizations. They have access and influence that eclipse that of progressive Catholics.
The retired official also lamented that the church’s revered social justice work is increasingly being drowned out by abortion politics, the fight against same-sex marriage and deep animus against the Democratic Party. Archbishop Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, unwittingly proved the point that right-wing Catholic activists and conservative intellectuals have the ears of bishops these days when he told reporter John Allen that he gets “far more criticism from people who feel we bishops are much too soft on the Democrats, who feel that we are actually in the pocket of the Democrats.” A truly stunning and revealing statement about the conservative bubble many Catholic priests and bishops live in.
To his credit, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington (like the majority of bishops) disagrees with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and other bishops who politicize Communion, especially during election years. In this particular case, the Washington Archdiocese has written a letter of apology to the woman caught up this shameful incident, a gesture she acknowledges as sincere while still rightly calling for the priest’s removal from parish life. It’s still uncertain what will happen to this priest since archdiocesan officials have been quiet and a reporter’s attempts to reach the priest have been rebuffed. We know little about the priest other than he is fairly young, active in local anti-abortion protests and has referred to a Maryland doctor who performs abortions as the “Butcher of Germantown.” Predictably, some Catholic conservative bloggers in the archdiocese are defending the indefensible.
Many faithful Catholics who respect our church have reason to be concerned that today’s priests and some bishops often seem more eager to fight culture wars than be pastoral leaders. Let’s hope as election-year punches are thrown and divisive social issues are debated, our churches can be sanctuaries from the kind of scorched-earth tactics that have no place in God’s house.