When a man and woman fall in love and choose each other in marriage, they also choose to forego other choices. They submit themselves to each other. They give up certain rights over themselves out of love, and they take on certain responsibilities. The joys, sorrows, children, self-sacrifices, car loans and mortgages that follow become part of the story they share. That's why infidelity is always such a serious wound in marriage. It's not just a form of lying. It's also an act of violence against a very intimate bond of trust.
It's no accident that Catholics have always described the Church in the language of marriage and family. The Church is “the bride of Christ.” The Church is our “mother and teacher.” The Church is the family of God's “sons and daughters in Christ.” The Church is a web of relationships based on the most important relationship of all: Jesus Christ's gift of Himself to us in the Eucharist for our salvation. That relationship has consequences or should for every decision we make.
None of us earns the gift of Christ's love. None of us “deserves” the Eucharist. The words of the centurion are just as true today as they were 2,000 years ago: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and my (soul) will be healed” (Mt 8:8).
As Catholics, we believe that the Eucharist is not just a symbol or a sacred meal or an important ritual expressing our community. Rather it is, quite literally, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It's His living presence in our midst. This is what distinguishes the Catholic faith from nearly every Protestant denomination. In fact, it's one of the central Catholic beliefs that the Protestant Reformation eventually “protested.”
The Eucharist remains today the source and summit of Catholic life. And like every Catholic generation before us, we need to take the words of St. Paul very seriously: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27). We should also remember the words of St. Justin, the great martyr from the second century: “No one may take part (in the Eucharist) unless he believes that what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ taught.”
What's the lesson for Catholics? Fifty years ago, too many of us avoided receiving Communion out of an excessive fear of our own sins. Today, far too many of us receive Communion unthinkingly, reflexively, with no sense of the urgent need for our own self-examination, humility and conversion. Worse, too many Catholics receive the body and blood of Christ even when they ignore or deny the teachings of His Church.
When we sin by theft, lying, adultery, pride, gossip, anger, envy, callousness to the poor, pornography or indifference, we do not live “in keeping with what Christ taught.” We remove ourselves, by our actions, from friendship with God. That means we need to turn back to the sacrament of penance before we receive Communion. In fact, many of us today need a deeper devotion to confession simply to regain a basic understanding of grace and sin.
Likewise, if we ignore or deny what the Church teaches, or refuse to follow what she teaches, we are not “in communion” with the Catholic faith. We separate ourselves from the community of believers. If we receive Communion anyway, we engage in a lie.
Claiming to be Catholic and then rejecting Catholic teaching is an act of dishonesty and a lack of personal integrity. Worse, if we then receive Communion, we violate every Catholic who does believe and does strive to live the faith fully and unselfishly. And that compounds a sin against honesty with a sin against justice and charity. Again, as Justin Martyr said: “No one may take part (in the Eucharist) unless he believes what we teach is true.”
If we claim to believe in Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith, then we need to act like it without caveats, all the way, all the time, with all our heart, including our lives in the public square.
The current media turmoil over “denying Catholic politicians Communion” is filled with ignorance about the Church and the real meaning of the Eucharist. Denying anyone Communion is a very grave matter. It should be reserved for extraordinary cases of public scandal. But the Church always expects Catholics who are living in serious sin or who deny the teachings of the Church whether they're highly visible officials or anonymous parishioners to have the integrity to respect both the Eucharist and the faithful, and to refrain from receiving Communion.
One of the ironies of an already strange election year is the number of non-Catholics, ex-Catholics and anti-Catholics who have developed a sudden piety about who should receive Communion and when. We should thank God for them. Whenever the Church is criticized, she understands herself better and is purified. And when she's purified, then she better serves the Lord.
We're at a time for the Church in our country when some Catholics too many are discovering that they've gradually become non-Catholics who happen to go to Mass. That's sad and difficult, and a judgment on a generation of Catholic leadership. But it may be exactly the moment of truth the Church needs.
Charles J. Chaput is the Archbishop of Denver.
(This article originally appeared in the Denver Catholic Register and is used by permission.)