What's at Stake in the Debates Swirling Around Eucharistic Coherence?

At their June meeting, the U.S. bishops—after hearing from all bishops who wanted to speak—voted to compose a teaching document on the Eucharist. The discussion among the U.S. bishops was open, revealingly so. It was clear that not a few bishops thought the document was intended to deny President Joe Biden the Eucharist. Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend (and the head of the committee on doctrine) underlined that developing a national policy—which would hold no canonical force—was not the purpose of the document. Instead, the goal is to foster a renewal of Eucharistic devotion and presence as a response to COVID-19

In the aftermath of the vote, it seems at least some bishops and most of the media refused to believe this narrative. In the days that followed, commentary focused on the few paragraphs in the document dealing with Eucharistic coherence or consistency. Would the U.S. Catholic Church—embroiled in its own scandals—really deny grace to President Joe Biden? Would the bishops equally enforce this denial of communion to Republican politicians who support the death penalty? Is not the Eucharist, as Pope Francis is often quoted as saying, a medicine for those in need and not a prize for the perfect?

What is your average Catholic to think about this Eucharistic controversy in the Church? We are talking here about the baptized person who is not a denizen of Catholic Twitter, who although influenced by U.S. polarization, is mostly focused on seeking holiness in daily life? Should they ignore the whole thing, hoping that the Eucharistic rigamarole dissipates when the news cycle turns its attention elsewhere? Or, is there a wisdom to Eucharistic coherence that might be beneficial for every Catholic to consider?

The Eucharist and the Church

First, what has been revealed throughout this controversy is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Eucharist within Catholic life. The Eucharist is not reducible to the sacramental grace given to the individual who receives the Blessed Sacrament. After all, St. Thomas Aquinas notes that the res tantum or the reality of the Eucharistic mystery anticipated by receiving the Blessed Sacrament is the charity or love shared among all believers. 

Therefore, the Eucharist is constitutive of the identity of the whole Church, the priestly exercise of those in union with Christ. To eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood—that is to receive communion—is to enter deeper unity with the whole Church. The Church is not just a community of like-minded individuals, who happen to get together because they believe in the same things. The Church is the communion of love shared among believers who receive the infinite gift of love bestowed by Christ himself.

And because the love of Christ is intended for all, the Church is not a sectarian or private community but instead is a public manifestation of the love of Christ that is intended to draw all human beings toward divine life. To receive the Blessed Sacrament is therefore to pledge myself to “become what I receive” in the sacrament. The love of Christ, shared in communion, with all those who hunger and thirst for love.

The Meaning of Eucharistic Coherency

For that reason, I must discern whether I receive the Eucharist in a way that is coherent or congruent with the mystery of divine love that is offered. Eucharistic worship and reception is an all-encompassing reality for the Catholic. As Benedict XVI wrote in his apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis:

We can see the full human import of the radical newness brought by Christ in the Eucharist: the worship of God in our lives cannot be relegated to something private and individual, but tends by its nature to permeate every aspect of our existence. Worship pleasing to God thus becomes a new way of living our whole life, each particular moment of which is lifted up, since it is lived as part of a relationship with Christ and as an offering to God (§71).

In receiving love, we pledge ourselves to become a human being ordered completely to the mystery of divine love. Every aspect of our lives must become Eucharistic.

Now, every Catholic knows the gravity of this task. We are sinners, failing to love God and neighbor in big and small ways. If I receive the Blessed Sacrament but refuse to confess and live out the preferential option for the poor, I contradict not only myself but the Eucharistic presence of our Lord and the mystery of the Church as a communion of those convoked by grace. If I eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood, all the while engaging as a married man in a torrid affair, I am living an anti-Eucharistic form of life.

Yes, the Eucharist is a medicine for us, forming us in the art of self-giving love. We are sinners. But the desire elicited in us during Eucharistic worship, the desire for love unto the end, should heal us of these daily sins. The impatience we manifest with our children. Even the affair of the married man, who comes to recognize his sin in the Eucharistic celebration, longing to change his life, to confess his sins, and then to receive the Eucharist is part of this healing.

But this healing gift of grace, that is of divine love, does not take away the incoherency of the Eucharistic reception, especially in grievous cases. The married man embroiled in an affair, receiving the Eucharist each week, is in fact confessing his “unbelief” in the mystery of love that he is receiving. He seems at least content with his anti-Eucharistic formation of life. There is a Eucharistic incoherence in his life.

Eucharistic Incoherence in the Church

And yet, Eucharistic coherence—because the whole Church is a Eucharistic reality—is not merely a private affair. The parish and the diocese alike can manifest a Eucharistic incoherence.

Take the sexual abuse scandals that have been part and parcel of Catholic life since the early aughts. The fact that some bishops moved predator priests from parish to parish, afraid that it would cause scandal to the faithful, is a supreme act of Eucharistic incoherence. It is why even the best policies do not blot away the scandal of this sin. Bishops, for this reason, have a responsibility to confess this sin regularly, to be aware that the decades of abuse and the subsequent cover-up is an anti-Eucharistic moment in ecclesial life.

Or take the sin of clericalism. Clericalism is when a priest perceives his identity primarily as a matter of privilege than the gift received in ordination. He sees himself as a super-Christian, coming into the parish to control rather than listen and accompany. He looks down upon the baptized, seeing them not as co-responsible for the mission of the Church but there to listen and obey him alone. He is the expert. The laity are the followers. Clericalism is a matter of Eucharistic incoherency, often made visible in the institutions of diocesan and parochial life. Clerical culture needs to return to the Eucharist, to see priesthood not as privilege but as a gift bestowed through Christ to the Church for the service of the baptized priesthood. It is the Eucharistic transformation of the world, through this baptized priesthood, that is the raison d’etre of the ordained.      

Or take the incoherency of parishes that at times capitulate to the polarization of U.S. life in general. Rather than adopt a consistent ethic of life from birth to death, the parish implicitly supports only those life issues that conform to the dictates of the Republican or Democratic party. Happy to champion the March for Life, one parish ignores entirely the plight of migrants on the border. Pleased to speak about Black Lives Matter, another parish is embarrassed by the Church’s teaching on the inviolable dignity of the unborn (targeted more frequently in Black and other minority populations) discernable by human reason rather than revelation. In each case, a Eucharistic conversion of the parish is necessary, one that recognizes that love unto the end means testifying against a throwaway culture. It means practicing a politics of dialogue, of dignity, but most of all love.

In all these cases (and we could name hundreds more), Eucharistic consistency is not just the task of an individual. It is a common act of discernment within the diocese and parish. Do we live the consequences of the Eucharist in our common life with one another? If not, what must we do to conform ourselves anew to the Eucharistic mystery?

Eucharistic Coherence and the Politician

Eucharistic coherency or consistency, therefore, is not just a term reserved for politicians. Rather, it is the entire baptized faithful—lay and ordained—that must learn to become coherent. Therefore, the Eucharistic coherency of politicians is located within this wider attunement of the baptized to the self-giving love of Christ. As Benedict XVI writes in Sacramentum Caritatis:

Worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others: it demands a public witness to our faith. Evidently, this is true for all the baptized, yet it is especially incumbent upon those who, by virtue of their social or political position, must make decisions regarding fundamental values . . . Consequently, Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility, must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce and support laws inspired by values grounded in human nature. There is an objective connection to the Eucharist (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-29). Bishops are bound to reaffirm constantly these values as part of their responsibility to the flock entrusted to them (§83).   

Because of his or her public position, the politician has a particular vocation to Eucharistic coherency. Without doubt, such Eucharistic consistency is difficult for the politician who operates in a space where the values grounded in human nature are in fact part of the debate.

Eucharistic consistency or coherence is therefore not intended primarily to keep politicians away from the Eucharist. Rather, it is an invitation for the politician to recognize first the dignity of his or her baptismal and therefore Eucharistic vocation to consecrate the world in love. The political life is never separate for the Catholic from his or her whole existence. This does not mean that the politician is a political integralist. But it does mean they cannot be Catholic on Sundays and engage in the worst vices of the political class the rest of the week.  

Second, it implies that the politician (like any baptized Catholic) may stay away from the Eucharist precisely because of the incoherencies that he or she has embraced. This does not mean that the politician is absent grace, of the gift of divine love that is offered in the totality of the Christian life. Even attending Mass, without receiving, is the reception of love. But all of this presumes that this dialogue is taking place between the politician and his or her pastor or bishop. It is not something that we should be paying attention to. It is a personal decision, a conversation that should never be made public, a matter of debate and gossip at any level of the Church.

Can the Eucharist Ever Be Denied to Anyone?

Of course, the remaining question is whether the Eucharist may ever be denied to anyone, especially to those Catholics who operate in the public sphere in a Eucharistically incoherent way. It is possible—according to canon law—that the Eucharist could be denied to a politician. After all, there could be a politician who is Catholic and who does not suffer from only an occasional Eucharistic incoherence but who consistently assaults human dignity. The history of totalitarian regimes is littered with such Catholics, who received the Blessed Sacrament and then participated in acts of torture or genocide. It is not inevitable that such a person must be denied the Eucharist. After all, the local bishop may decide otherwise for either good or bad reasons.

But it is possible. And in such a case, the denial of the Eucharist would be for two reasons. First, the Eucharist is a medicine and not a prize for the perfect. Therefore, not receiving the Eucharist in this case would be an invitation toward conversion for the politician, who we would assume loves the Eucharist enough that not receiving the Lord may invite him or her to a deeper love of the least of these. Denying the Eucharist to that person would therefore not be an occasion for partisan bickering in the Church, for the kind of schadenfreude that often accompanies the defeating of an “enemy.” It should be an occasion for the whole Church to pray for this person, to long for a Eucharistic return. It may invite all of us to fast, at least occasionally, from the Eucharist until this person also is able to receive.   

Second, it would function as a witness to the world of the communal and thus public dimensions of the Eucharist. This is not just a private rite but a public manifestation of the love of Christ. The Church is a communion of love, and that communion of love demands that members of the Body love unto the end. Again, this would be an occasion for every member of the Church to examine his or her Eucharistic coherence. But it is also an opportunity for the Church to prophetically witness to a divine love that has public consequences.

Still, just because it is possible to deny the Eucharist to a politician does not mean that it is the most prudent option. It may be the case, that in our own day, this act would be construed entirely as a matter of partisan politics. It could do more harm than good. This is an occasion of discernment, a dialogue that must take place between the bishops, Rome, and all the lay faithful.

However, that does not mean that Eucharistic coherence is meaningless to the Church. Rather, Eucharistic coherence must begin in the life of each person in the parish. It must be made manifest in the parish itself, which adopts a culture that is sacrificial, loving the least of these because of the sacrifice of Christ. In such a milieu, politicians of the future would recognize more profoundly the consequences of approaching the supper of the Lamb when everyone who comes to the altar receives in her hands or on her tongue the presence of the Lord.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Part II of this series, The Difference Between Liturgical Naïveté and a Eucharistic Culture of Affiliation, is linked below. 

Learn about our Summer Liturgy Series, "Will They Come Back After COVID?: Disaffiliation, Affiliation, and the Liturgy" 

Featured Image: Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash.


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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