The current debate surrounding the idea of Eucharistic coherence rightly is being described as central to the future of the Church in the United States. But, given all the public back-and-forth and controversy over the topic’s impending discussion at this week’s gathering of U.S. bishops, if somehow it is a portent for the future, things do not look so promising. What’s more, behind the debate is a two-sidedness that, in fact, hinges upon a faulty premise. Let me explain.
Often, the concept of Eucharistic coherence is tied to the idea of a person’s worthiness to receive the Eucharist. As a result, you have one side arguing that, out of care for a person’s soul, the pastoral thing to do is to call a purportedly “unworthy” person to correction, while the other side is arguing that it is not our place to judge the worthiness of the receiver, leaving the decision to the individual’s personal conscience. The care for souls on both sides is laudable, but it misplaces the central argument that ought to be at the heart of the debate: that the Eucharist is the lynchpin of ecclesial life. The Eucharist is the unifying principle of the Church.
In other words, what seems to be missing in the debate so far is the intrinsic ecclesial character of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not only something that has personal and private implications, but it also has implications for the existence of the whole Church. It is regrettable that this point has largely been lost in the current debate, which has mostly focused on the interior condition of a person that, rightfully, cannot be judged. The worthiness or unworthiness of the particular recipient, though, is not the point. No one is truly “worthy,” as we say in the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
Rather, the debate ought to be centered around the symbolic, or sacramental, character of communion. The word “symbolic” here does not contain the more modern notion that removes any real meaning between the sign and what is signified. Rather, what is meant here is its more ancient and true sense: something real, that causes and achieves unity as a spiritual fruit of what is occurring in its celebration. The Eucharist is not just something we receive as a private gift from Jesus, but it is also the means by which the communion of the Church is built up. As Michael R. Heinlein and I wrote in “Finding Christ in the Crisis: What the Pandemic Can Teach Us,” “In the end, reception of the sacraments is meant for the good of the Church and humanity, which is to say more than just for our own good.”
This implies, then, that the role of the Eucharist — something that is meant to be instantiated through the canons that speak of public sin and the reception of the Eucharist — is not only a personal gift, but a symbol of one’s unity with the Church. When it comes to certain teachings, such as the sanctity of life or marriage, the nature of holy orders, etc., the reception of the Eucharist is our personal assent to the deposit of faith revealed by Christ to the Church. In short, receiving the Eucharist as a gift from God to the Church intensifies the bond for those of us who are in communion with her.
In this light, then, we are able to dispel the idea that this debate should be centered around personal worthiness, or even care of souls. The Church’s law reflects a balance between the facts that the Eucharist is not a private devotion nor a reward for good Christian behavior. Rather, the Church’s law underscores the Eucharist’s character as the symbol of Christian unity that renews and intensifies our bond with the Church. When a public figure, in one form or another, denies something that is intrinsic and central to the Church’s moral or doctrinal teaching — and does not publicly repudiate the issue — he or she is stating publicly they are not in communion with the Church. It is not about personal worthiness but about visible communion. Is such a person truly one with the members of Christ’s body?
Thus the over-spiritualization of the debate with a one-sided care for the individual — laudable yet incomplete — ignores the sacramental character of the faith and the unity of life between what is visible, physical and public, and what is interior, spiritual and private. The Church can never truly judge the latter — only God can — but she can, and must, judge the former.
The debate on “Eucharistic coherence,” then, ought to refocus its direction. Doing so is an opportunity for the bishops to move away from the individualistic spiritualism that is atomistic and that removes us from the organic connection we have, by baptism, to the Church. This ecclesial and sacramental turn further removes us from an overly individualized vision of personal conscience, which too often has no real reference to the revealed moral and theological truths that are inherent to the deposit of faith. They can, instead, use this as an opportunity to truly apply the teachings of Lumen Gentium from the Second Vatican Council — teachings that, by the way, are implied and reflected in Canon 915, and are indeed the reason the canon was created in the first place.
The purpose of Canon 915 — which states that “those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion” — is precisely to encourage the more sacramental structure of the Church that Vatican II set forth. It implies that the reception of holy Communion is not just a private act. Rather, its reference to excommunication, interdict and persistent manifest sin applies to the Church’s visible life. And the visible, if we remember our Catechism, is part of the “sacramental economy” — the “communication (or ‘dispensation’) of the fruits of Christ’s Paschal mystery in the celebration of the Church’s ‘sacramental’ liturgy'” (No. 1076).
A facile separation of a person’s interior motives from his or her exterior actions undermines the sacramental vision the council desired to implement. Canon 915, then, exists primarily to protect the Church visible, which, as Lumen Gentium teaches, is the “universal sacrament of salvation” (No. 48). And a sacrament needs both a spiritual character and a visible character that signifies what it affects. In short, there is nothing more at play than saving the Church’s mission to the world. By ignoring the ecclesiological implications of Canon 915, we undermine the Church’s necessarily visible role as the sacrament of salvation. Furthermore, it undermines the unity that is needed in order truly to be the sign and symbol of the unity that God desires for all of humanity.
In the “Eucharistic coherence” debate, not only is the future of the Church in the United States at stake, but the very future of the Second Vatican Council — a council that has yet to be properly implemented and lived. By shifting this debate toward the Eucharist’s ecclesial nature, the need to worry about interior motives — motives that God alone can judge — disappears. What remains is the fact that the Church can, must and does judge exterior actions. And these same actions can harm the visible unity of the Church — and, in turn, interfere with its mission to mediate the salvation of Jesus Christ to the world. This is the Church’s fundamental task, and it is also what is at stake in this debate.
Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @FrHarrison.