Tony Jones: Once again, Holy Communion has turned political

Up here in the barren northland, there’s been a dust-up in the ongoing struggle of the church in America to accept GLBT persons.  This time it’s the Catholic church, the St. Paul & Minneapolis Archdiocese of which recently mailed tens of thousands of copies of a DVD opposing gay marriage to its communicants.  Of course, the DVD is timed to arrive as we approach mid-term elections.  

From where I sit, social issues are playing a negligible role in these elections.  I don’t even hear Crazy Michelle Bachmann talking about them.

But that’s what the Catholic church wants its people talking about and voting on.  Oh, would that they sent out a DVD about developing a just economy or about extricating ourselves from foreign wars.  But, no, their primary interest this fall is making sure that GLBT persons are not afforded the right to marry.

In an odd radio interview, the local archbishop, John Nienstadt, claimed that he had no idea who gave the money for the production and distribution of the DVDs nor did he know how much the campaign cost.  That denial very much strained the bounds of believability for me.

But, regardless, ship the DVDs they did.  A local Catholic visual artist decided to collect as many copies as she could and make them into a sculpture advocating Catholic inclusion.

All that is fine, it seems to me.  Freedom of speech and all that.  The archbishop and his anonymous funder have just as much right as anyone to try and influence public opinion.

But then the StarTribune broke another story: It seems that the archbishop just last month denied communion to a couple dozen college students at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.  Here’s the pertinent part of the story:

That Sunday, according to those at the mass, about two dozen worshipers positioned themselves to receive communion from Nienstedt, who was saying his first student mass at the abbey. Some reached for the communion wafer but were denied it. Rather, the archbishop raised his hand in blessing.

The archdiocese long has denied communion to members of the Rainbow Sash Movement, who wear the colors to mass in protest of the church’s stance in opposition to homosexual relationships. Its leader, Brian McNeil, said the action at St. John’s was not connected to his group.

Archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath said the church has told McNeil’s group “for years you cannot receive communion if you wear the rainbow sash, because it’s a political statement, a sign of protest. Going to the communion rail is the most sacred part of our faith, the eucharist. We don’t allow anybody to make political statements or any kind of protest.”

Well, this is a strange kind of thing for the archbishop’s spokesman to say, especially in that denying the Eucharist to these students was itself a political act.

Indeed, the leading theologian in his archdiocese, William Cavanaugh, has written persuasively in his book, Torture and the Eucharist, that the Eucharist is, by its very nature, political:

Torture is both a product of—and helps reinforce—a certain story about who “we” are and who “our” enemies are. Torture helps imagine the world as divided between friends and enemies. To live the Eucharist, on the other hand, is to live inside God’s imagination. The Eucharist is the ritual enactment of the redemptive power of God, rooted in the torture, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jurgen Moltmann, in The Church in the Power of the Spirit, says that communion is an “eschatological sign of history” — both a remembrance of the past and a repeatable sign of hope in God’s promised future.  Therefore, he writes,:

The theological doctrine of the Lord’s supper must consequently not be allowed to exercise any controversial theological function through which Christians are separated from Christians.

He goes on to say,

Hierarchical legalism spoils the evangelical character of the Lord’s Supper just as much as dogmatic and moral legalism.

I have come so far from my seminary days in which I was trained that what ultimately mattered in the sacrament of communion was the the “words of institution” were correctly stated by a properly trained and ordained clergyperson.  Archbishop Nienstedt’s refusal to serve communion to his fellow Catholics because he didn’t like the buttons and sashes they were wearing shows that it doesn’t matter how much training and hierarchical heft a clergyperson has.  He can still royally screw up the sacrament that Jesus hoped would bring us all together.

This post was written by  Tony Jones and originally published on the  Tony Jones Blog. Follow him on Twiter:@jonestony

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/08/2010 - 09:26 am.

    Looking through stained glass darkly…

    Sounds like the Catholic Church have a bundle of problems lately; not-too-clean church politics exposed finally?

    Might be a fine time to re-clarify that politics within the church are not the politics of the state…we are not a Catholic nation and separation of church and state is still taken seriously by some of us,eh?

    And if I read this and take it as ‘gospel’, the archbishop lied…not a great way to go, no, to establish confidence in your congregation? Seems like a valid conclusion, from outside…so what else is new?

    Looking in again, it could be said that wrapped in the ancient robes of past historical digressions and exploitations, the ‘church’ needs to clean up its act and those who oppose its dictatorial state should probably work boldly in opposition to unfair, unacceptable policies…that’s honorable indeed.

    The state has enough problems of its own considering the careless abuse of civil liberties lately.

    Mine is but one opinion…others may think otherwise…bless you, whomever…

  2. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/08/2010 - 10:14 am.

    On a separate note, I would love it if countries took a good hard look at the benefits they give to Organized Religion and started taxing them as any other business.

  3. Submitted by Bert Perry on 10/08/2010 - 12:14 pm.

    The author is incorrect here; homosexual marriage and the refusal of the communion host is not a political issue to the Catholic Church, but rather a spiritual one.

    More or less, they believe homosexual marriage is wrong, and that the wearing of a rainbow button indicates a rejection of Catholic theology. Hence, the priests implement 1 Corinthians 11:27-8, which notes a curse on those who take the Lord’s Supper while in willful sin, and refuse to provide it to those whose very apparel conveys a rejection of Catholic doctrine.

    If you disagree with that doctrine, don’t be Catholic. I’m not, for other reasons, but I do respect their right to their doctrines.

  4. Submitted by Clare LaFond on 10/08/2010 - 01:30 pm.

    Thank you, Bert (#3), for the clarification of the basis on which the sacrament of communion is withheld.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/08/2010 - 02:55 pm.

    Bert beat me to it.

    People who believe the anyone in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, from the Pope down to Parish Priest, have any leeway regarding abortion or homosexuality doesn’t have the first clue about what Catholicism is.

    The day the Church accepts the idea that homosexual relationships are on par, in any way, to holy matrimony between a husband and wife (that’s a man and a woman), it ceases to exist.

    It’s just that simple, and just that implausible.

    Refusing communion, but bestowing a blessing to people who present themselves before the alter wearing their defiance and sin in blazing Technicolor is exactly and precisely what any Catholic would expect of any ordained clergy.

    This latest assault upon the Church by secular humanists seeking to bend it to fit their lifestyle choices proves, once again, Christ’s wisdom in rejecting the idea of “freelance theologians” in favor of placing His trust in the succession of His heirs; the practise of Catholicism is not up for committee vote.

  6. Submitted by Bert Perry on 10/12/2010 - 01:42 pm.

    It should also be noted that Christian churches of all types view the Church as the Bride of Christ. So to recognize the proposed mis-definition of marriage really strikes at a lot more than just a narrowly defined doctrine of marriage. The nuclear family of husband, wife, and children speaks to much more than just that family in Biblical theology.

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