Determining to Deny Communion

Last week the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Catholic Social Services after the City of Philadelphia canceled their contract to provide adoption services with taxpayer funds because of their refusal to work with same sex couples. Later in the week, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the writing of a statement about the church’s ministry regarding the Eucharist, largely seen as an effort to propose a prohibition to deny the sacrament to pro-choice politicians – most notably, President Biden.

In both cases the church is seeking to deny people access to some of its ministry in order to adhere to its moral teachings. They argue providing adoption services to same sex couples would represent an implicit endorsement of same sex unions. Likewise, to administer the sacrament to a pro-choice politician would represent an implicit endorsement of a pro-choice public policies.

When should the church draw red lines in the exercise of its ministry? Is it problematic when the church administers the sacrament to politicians who proudly support the death penalty, or who endorse the gutting of social safety net programs for the poor – both policies in clear violation of church teaching? Is it problematic when the church uses public funds to provide adoption services to divorced couples, non-Catholics, or to woefully ungenerous, uncharitable curmudgeons – situations which all represent some sort of violation of church teaching?

When should the church draw red lines in the exercise of its ministry?

Does engagement with someone mean endorsement of their decisions or commitments?

Though I am deeply committed to the separation of church and state, I am not concerned that taxpayer dollars go to religiously-affiliated service providers. Some of the best social service, medical, and educational institutions in our country are religiously-affiliated.

But should organizations receive public contracts intended for a public mission when they cannot serve the entire public? This is a legitimate public policy concern. Why should taxpayer dollars go to organizations that cannot serve all taxpayers? This question does not risk invalidating all contracting with religiously-affiliated organizations, because there are plenty of faith-based service providers that do not put religious limits on their service.

Of course, in the above paragraphs I’m referencing the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion, care for the poor, and the like. The Lutheran tradition – and my own church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – does not have a body of teachings bearing the same kind of authority as do the papal encyclicals and the catechism for the Roman Catholic Church. Our church’s teaching authority – particularly on issues of morals – is a bit more distributed through diverse global church bodies and local ministry practice.

In the remainder of brief essay I will address Holy Communion and the pastoral decision to withhold the sacrament from people who seek it. In a subsequent post I will attempt to address denial of social services by a taxpayer funded religious entity because of religious commitments.

What red lines could a Lutheran pastor set for communion? I cannot imagine a litmus test – such as a position on a public moral issue – for admission to the Lord’s Supper. That makes sacramental reception a function of checking the correct boxes, a work we earn by having “the proper” public policy commitments. That sounds like a party platform, not an invitation to the Lord’s Table.

As I read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, the most significant violation Saint Paul addresses in the Corinthian church is division within the community. When the Corinthians met for the Lord’s meal, some people would eat until they are full and would drink until they get drunk, while others remain hungry and thirsty. This embarrassing display of inequality and selfishness in the church causes Saint Paul to condemn their meals. They are to “correctly understand” or “discern” the body (in Greek, ; 1 Corinthians 11:29) before eating and drinking. σῶμα refers both to the body of the sacramental meal – “this is my body, given for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24) – and the body that is the church itself (“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” 1 Corinthians 12:13).

Given the context of Paul’s critique of the Corinthian church’s community life throughout this letter and in the immediate preceding verses, I read σῶμα in this passage as referring primarily to the body that is the church. In failing to discern and correctly understand their own body as a church called to live according to the command and example of Christ, they bring condemnation on themselves in their unequal and gluttonous eating and drinking.

To that end, if I were to deny the sacrament to any persons in the church it would likely be to those who, through their incredibly selfish behavior, divide the church and lead it to shameful displays of inequality and division.

It’s cheap and easy to try and weed out individual offenders.
But those offenders are often created or tolerated by the whole community and its leaders.

The community itself needs to be examined.

But even more, it seems unfair to the text of 1 Corinthians 11 to view this matter of sacramental participation primarily through the lens of individual bad actors, as if the call is simply to weed out the jerks or the heretics. The crisis at Corinth is clearly a whole community problem – which is, by definition, a problem of leadership. Rather than deny communion to a few jerks in the congregation, it might be more appropriate to deny communion to the congregation’s leaders – pastor included – or even to the whole congregation until such a time as divisions within the congregation are resolved to some satisfactory degree. Drilling this down to the individual level seems misguided in a practice of ministry that compels us to share in each other’s joys, bear each others burdens, and join in the suffering of others.

Rather than try to figure out whom we should exclude from a table that is not even ours, let us consider if our communities are worthy of even having tables in the first place. And if a community is found egregiously lacking, perhaps it is the leaders themselves who should be first in penance and prayer, removing themselves from the table as they discern the body and the quality of the community’s life together.

Denying communion to a few token individuals is cheap and easy. Discerning the σῶμα, discerning and honoring the whole body of Christ, is much harder. The church is called to do hard things.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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