Deciding who is worthy of communion


American Catholic bishops recently approved a document that suggested that Catholics who don't agree with the dogma that their church hierarchy has handed down to them should not take communion in their church. According to this document,

"If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain."
This means that not only are non-Catholics excluded from the central worship event of Catholic mass, but also Catholics themselves if they commit the sin of thinking too much.

The document approved by the bishops synthesizes two aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine that I never had much use for. First, since Holy Communion in Catholic churches has always been exclusionary in nature (in contrast with the open commensality that Jesus himself practiced), this policy simply reaffirms this basic policy that all are not welcome to the table. Secondly, it is also consistent with the general intolerance that the Catholic hierarchy has for free inquiry; Catholics are expected to accept the dogma that is handed down to them. While lay Catholics have a certain amount of private latitude with respect to freedom of thought--more than the hierarchy would wish, to be sure--we have seen what has happened to Catholic theologians who don't toe the line. Just consider the examples of Matthew Fox and Hans Kung. By instituting a policy like this on communion, the church is essentially trying to extend to lay people the same intolerance that it has instituted against its theologians as a matter of formal practice.

It is interesting contrast this exclusionary doctrine of closed communion with the argument for open communion that is laid out in detail by the rectors of Saint Gregory's Episcopal church in San Francisco. Saint Gregory's is an unusual church within the Episcopal denomination; it has developed, with the blessing of the bishop, its own liturgy, one that is distinct from what is found in other Episcopal congregations. Its web site contains detailed expositions of the philosophy that lies behind its various practices, including an explanation of its position in favor of open communion. Among other things, it has this to say:
Jesus...sought out, welcomed, and dined with unprepared, unreformed, unwashed sinners. His action was a prophetic sign suiting his own more radical message: here comes God now, ready or not! And seen against Jesus' contemporary religious background, the presence of obviously unqualified diners was essential to his sign. Perhaps Isaiah's vision of a banquet for all nations inspired his choice: there the prophet says, the pure and impure will share one feast. Nevertheless such dinner company was politically scandalous for a teacher, and many scholars today, following Norman Perrin, judge that above all Jesus' actions it led to his death. He may have expected it would. His message unsettled his contemporaries as much as his chosen meal-sign did, and indeed has stirred up his church at major turning points ever since. We may reckon that he died for both scandals at once....

In our own tragic time of religious bloodshed, deeds of hospitality like Jesus' hospitality have delivered devout Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Bahai and Animist hosts to perfect their own faith through martyrdom, as Christian martyrs have always done. How ironic that among the world's great religions, only Christians keep the table company taboo which Jesus broke to symbolize his teaching, and persistently defied at the cost of his life!

This sharp irony guts otherwise reasonable arguments for banishing the unready, unworthy, untaught, unproven, and unwashed from Jesus' table any longer. Excluding them now despite what we have learned about Jesus-and what religious seekers throughout the world have learned from Jesus-would be worse than foolish. The world cannot credit what we teach about Christ while the church seems every Sunday to betray him.
I have written before that my Quaker background makes me wholly unattached to Christian sacraments. But given that almost all Christian churches, and certainly the mainline ones, practice some form of communion and consider it an important part of their worship, I think it is a worthwhile exercise to evaluate the philosophy that a given congregation has on this subject. Is the church a truly welcoming community, or is it a closed community that only makes available one of its key worship practices to those who pass some sort of test?