Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sharing Communion: Sometimes the Little Children are Wrong

Matthew Shadle writes at Catholic Moral Theology about an anecdote reportedly discussed at the currently-ongoing synod of bishops on the family.

At a plenary session of the Synod of Bishops on Thursday, Fr. Manuel Dorantes recounted the following remarkable story (also here), first told by a bishop in one of the synod’s two Spanish-language discussion groups. According to the bishop, he was celebrating a first communion Mass at a parish in his diocese, and a boy, upon receiving the Host, instead of consuming it broke it into two and gave a piece each to his two parents. His parents were civilly remarried after a divorce and therefore unable to receive communion. At least according to one reporter, some participants at the synod broke into tears on hearing the story.

In a simple way, this boy’s intuition was a sensus fidei—a sense of the faith. He experienced his parents’ inability to fully participate in the Eucharist as a loss, and sensed that his own first participation in the Eucharist—although a joyous occasion—was incomplete without the participation of his parents. In his own way he understood that we are all called to a communion in which the sin that alienates us from one another and from God is overcome. The story illustrates the tragic situations that have made the question of how the church pastorally cares for the divorced and remarried such a central issue at the synod.

But an anonymous blogger at Rorate Caeli—the traditionalist Catholic blog that has been a persistent critic of Pope Francis and the proceedings of both this and last year’s synods—is having none of it. The incident was a “sacrilege,” the Host “treated either as a hostage to emotions or at best as a glorified cracker.” The bishops at the synod who were moved by the story have “truly lost all sense of shame.” Of course, the blogger is concerned that the Host may have been consumed unworthily by the two parents.

The boy, though, is too young to have an ecclesiastical agenda, and as far as we know the gesture was spontaneous. And the boy’s intuition is entirely consistent with the church’s current practice concerning the divorced and remarried. Those of us who—through God’s grace—are able to receive communion should long to welcome those who are excluded from the table, and should experience our own communion in the Body of Christ as in some way incomplete as long as they are alienated from that Body. It is this longing that leads us to encourage our brothers and sisters to repentance and metanoia.

I don't often find myself on the side of Rorate Caeli these days, but I find myself much more in agreement with that assessment of this incident than with Shadle's. Indeed, my reaction to this anecdote is very, very negative, and so I wanted to try to think through why that is and why I think that Shadle's argument here is wrong.

The boy's action itself, I would assume, was fairly unstudied. A seven year old can pick up some pretty strong opinions on religious issues due to hearing about them from parents and other figures of authority, but while young age sometimes creates a willingness to act dramatically when adults would not do so, someone that age isn't likely to have the forethought to put together his own plan of liturgical protest. So I would assume that the origin of this was something along the lines of the boy having been told repeatedly that the priest wouldn't give his parents communion because they were married outside the Church, and so he decided to take things into his own hands. However, the fact that things went down this way suggests some incredibly bad formation of this child. His parents' exclusion from communion was clearly presented to him as an injustice in need of solution. It's not a surprise that a seven year old boy would try to right and injustice when he thought it was in his hands to do so, but this means that the Church's teachings about marriage here were presented to him completely wrong -- probably a result of his parents and/or others themselves not at all agreeing with Church teaching. Further, that this boy thought it was okay to break a consecrated host in half and give it to others shows that there was a huge lack in training about the reverence due to the Eucharist. One thing that was very successfully conveyed to us as kids in preparation for First Communion was the importance to treating the host with reverence: You don't take it back to your pew. You don't break it or do anything to it that would cause crumbs to break off. If you receive it in the hand, you put it straight into your mouth. The idea of breaking up and re-distributing a host outrages everything I learned at that very young age. That a bishop related the story with the boy held up as an example, and that others were deeply moved by it, seems to me to suggest all sorts of things wrong with how children are being prepared to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist.

Shadle's piece takes a more intellectual tack, one which although it is based on the idea that we should observe the wisdom of "the little children" is not actually much like how children think. While he doesn't actually make an argument that it is wrong for the Church to say that those living in unconfessed mortal sin should not receive communion, he argues that what the boy senses is that our communion is incomplete when not everyone is united in receiving it.

This strikes me as a problematic understanding.

What, after all, is the Eucharist? In the mass we participate in the unbloody sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and we experience the real presence of Christ, coming to us in the Eucharist. This is why there is real benefit in being present at mass, or present before the Eucharist, even when we are not receiving. Even if I am not able to receive communion because I haven't observed the fast or because of consciousness of sin, going to mass puts me in the presence of Christ. Similarly, going to Eucharistic adoration puts me in the presence of Christ even though it is not a time for receiving the Eucharist.

The communion which we experience in receiving the Eucharist is primarily a communion with God through receiving His body and blood. It is not primarily a communion with those around us in the church or the world. When I receive the Eucharist, my communion is not incomplete because others are not at that particular mass, receiving at that particular time. Nor is it incomplete because some people are in a state of disunion with the Body of Christ because of sin or because they do not recognize the Church or recognize Christ as necessary for their salvation.

This doesn't mean that our union with Christ is perfect in our reception of the Eucharist. Our union is imperfect because of attachments to sin, because of imperfect faith, because we are not in the beatific vision which can come only after this world. And yet these imperfections do not defeat the Eucharist and Christ's real presence to us in it. Christ's presence is not made less because some people are living in sin or living in unbelief. If the Eucharist is incomplete until everyone can receive, then it will always be incomplete. Until the end of this world there will always be people who are in sin or who are not in the faith. If their absence defeats Christ than Christ is defeated.

In a sense this line of thinking is similar to the idea that unless we believe that every soul will one day be united with God in heaven, then Christ's work of salvation is defeated. But although Christ's grace makes it possible for us to be saved, it is not rendered imperfect when some souls refuse to accept that freely offered salvation. Heaven will not be incomplete because not every human soul is in it, because heaven is complete in God.


Josiah Neeley said...

I'm currently reading Austen Iverreigh's biography of Pope Francis. There's an anecdote in the book about a friend of (then) Cardinal Bergoglio's who is an Anglican married to a Catholic woman. One day the guy's kids say to him "Dad, why do we go to a church that won't let you take communion?" When Bergoglio hears this story, he tears up and is obviously deeply moved. A couple of pages later the same guy comes to Bergoglio and says "hey, I'm thinking about becoming Catholic." And Bergoglio says "No, don't convert; we need people like you in the Anglican church."

In the book all of this is presented in a positive light, but as with the story Darwin tells, my reaction was pretty negative. Frankly, I don't get the thought process involved.

Brandon said...

One of the problems is that this is not what 'sensus fidei' is. Sensus fidei is the participation of the whole Church in the prophetic office of Christ: it is something we share together in sharing the faith. Pinning the label on a particular interpretation -- and we don't actually get "the boy's intuition" from the story, just someone's interpretation of it without much reason to think that it was actually what the boy was doing -- of an individual experience is merely rhetorical sleight of hand.

Habnd said...

This story is weird, and makes me think it never happened. I don't know how first communions work in other countries, but I've always seen a whole group of first communicants go up for communion together and receive both the host and chalice. So the boy in question would have had to hold on to the host (or pocket it?), receive from the chalice, return to his parents, and then split it up for them. Then they would have had to accept it, whereas apparently they have been obediently refraining from the communion line, voluntarily. Alternatively, if the parents were standing right next to him, and he did this, one or either of them would have encouraged him to take his first communion.

The story is just too perfect. It's a little boy at his first communion -- so much more dramatic than the more believable story of a kid sharing communion with his parents, who JUST stopped taking it themselves! All eyes are on him, yet he is able to avoid consuming the host. His parents are weirdly absent as role models, since (if they reject the church rules) they could just break the rules and go to communion, or (if they agree with the Church), they would not accept his gesture and would have had this conversation with him at home. Furthermore, he only breaks it in two, rather than three pieces, showing what a kindhearted, generous boy he is to actually give up his First Communion so his parents can, against their wishes, take communion. So it sounds, to me, like some or all of it is fake.

There is something wrong and cloying about the tale, and apparently it is already 2nd-hand. I've witnessed many times that adults wishing to make a point will invent or exaggerate a story with a child protagonist. I think, more likely, maybe a little boy in a first communion class asked if he could share it with his parents. If that happens about once or twice a year in a diocese, this in itself could make for a good story. But an adult answering a kid's question isn't enough of a dramatic tale.

Paul Zummo said...

The use of "Pharisee" always annoys me, and it does so even more forcefully here. The trouble with the Pharisees is not that they strictly adhered to the law per se, but that they fanatically observed legalities that had little to do with true worship or faith. A more apt comparison to the Pharisees would be if we strictly denied Communion to people who didn't have their shirt buttoned at least to the penultimate button. Denying Communion to those who are in a state of sin, and one that is rather forcefully and unambiguously declared so by the Lord, is nothing close to Phariseeism.

Jenny said...

I honestly can't imagine a 7 year old boy coming up with this all by himself without goading from the adults around him. This story doesn't pass the smell test.

My father is not Catholic. He goes to Mass every week. It never once occurred to me during my entire childhood or since to break the Host into pieces to bring it to my father. Not once. I asked once why he didn't go to Communion and was given the honest and reasonable answer and that was that.

mandamum said...

I was struck by the last sentence in Shadle's quote you have: "repentance and metanoia". The repentance didn't seem to occur here, though - or is it the repentance of the "mean controlling people who wouldn't share" that is referred to? Because I don't see any repentance in terms of those separated from communion by their own actions.... The longing - yes, that can lead to repentance. But if the longing just leads to taking a short-cut, you cheat repentance and just grab the thing you think you want.

Agnes said...

OK, let's suppose that this story happened the way it was told, and focus on the interpretations. I, like Darwin, disagree strongly with Mr. Shadle and agree with the traditionalist critic, although not with his style. I wonder, would Shadle say the same if the parents were guilty of some other sin? Ongoing adultery? Abortion? A doctor performing abortion? Cheating their employers of their rightful wages? Involved in illegal drug trade? Promoting polical parties with an Anti-Christian agenda? I am deliberately fanciful, of course. Would Shadle still say that our longing for all our fellow humans sharing Communion in the Eucharist with us should induce us to give the Sacrament to any sinner? My meaning is, of course, that the crux of the matter is, do we really believe that divorced-remarried people are in a state of sin that can't be absolved? If the Church cannot grant them absolution, she can't give themthe Eucharist either. This should be made clear.
There is also the deeper theological question: Shadle seems to think that receiving the Eucharist will heal these sinning people from their sin, and lead to methanoia and repentance, instead of the necessity of repentance first and absolution/restoring the communion with the Church thereafter. And that we encourage them to repentance if we say "you are OK and it's fine for you to share the Communion with us".
Also, I find the following quote an outrageous and manipulative lie:

" And the boy’s intuition is entirely consistent with the church’s current practice concerning the divorced and remarried."

This is NOT the Church's current practice but that which this liberalist lobby wantsit to change into.

Regarding the conservative blog, I don't think crying "sacrilege" and "glorified cracker" is useful. It seems many people don't understand the actual teaching of the Church and are following their emotions.
It's better to point out that the boy made a mistake, AND the religion teacher who prepared him for first communion failed to teach him 1. That those who are not in the state of grace CAN'T receive the Eucharist and it's a sacrilege if they are given it (what will he himself do if he later sins and needs absolution before Communion?) 2. That the Euchrist should be treated with veneration and immediately consumed if given into the hands; 3. ultimately, that he can't decide against Church authority who is sinner andwho isn't. And of course, that the whole occasion was about Jesus coming into his heart by himtaking part in His body - why on earth should he NOT receive Christ and give te Host away, even to his parents? The parents made the mistake of not explaining the situation to their son, and of not correcting their behavior; and the priest who gave him the Host failed to prevent the Eucharist from being used wrongly.

Darwin said...

I agree that the anecdote sounds a little too precious to be true, or at least true as told, but since there's no way of knowing about the incident other than what's reported, and the main point was that one of the bishops apparently thought this was a story worth telling, I figured that I'd go ahead and discuss it as told.

Also, for some reason, most of my post appears to have been trimmed off by blogger, so I've restored that and reposted it, so hopefully my own reaction is a little more clear now.