Should Catholic politicians who publicly support abortion be denied Holy Communion? Various Church leaders have weighed in on the topic, both for and against. Bishop Robert McElroy recently continued the debate with an article that states that denying Communion to these elected leaders would have harmful results for our country.
Bishop McElroy makes several reasoned arguments to support his position. One of those arguments, as stated in his title, is that this approach would “weaponize” the sacraments. Unfortunately for the bishop, the implication that the sacraments have never been made into political weapons prior to the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973 is patently false.
The rich, the powerful, and those who want to be both rich and powerful have tried to use the sacraments for their own purposes many times since the time of Christ. Simon the Magician was probably simply a layman looking for a way to increase his profits when he offered to buy the Holy Spirit from Saint Peter (Acts 8:18). But his disturbing conclusion—that the sacraments are things that can be bought, sold, and manipulated for personal gain—did not die with him. Instead, his name was attached to a particularly odious practice that became common in medieval times. Simony, the practice of Church offices being bought and sold to the highest bidder, rather than conferred on worthy candidates, spread like the plague. Kings made “donations” to the Church to make sure that the men chosen for the influential positions of bishop and abbot were those who could be trusted to support their feudal lord. As a result, men who had no intention of living simple, virtuous, chaste lives scandalized the faithful through their luxurious lifestyles, power-hungry practices, and sexual improprieties. (Ponder that description and see if you think it sounds like any recent Church scandals.) Many saints such as Peter Damian, vigorously opposed simony, generally at great personal cost. For example, Pope Saint Gregory VII, who told the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV that he did not have the right to appoint bishops over the pope’s objections, was eventually forced into exile.
As Catholics, we know that sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC, no. 1116). But the secular world sees sacraments as political tools to be used to gain power and money. What other sacraments have been misused in this way?
The Catholic understanding of free will means that no one can be forced to accept a sacrament, including the first sacrament for any Catholic: Baptism. Unfortunately, more than one pagan ruler has converted to the Catholic faith and had a difficult time letting go of un-Christian patterns of governing. Vladimir, Crown Prince of Kiev (958-1015), for example, forced at least some of his subjects to convert after his own (apparently genuine) conversion to faith in Christ. In contrast, saints from Saints Peter and Paul in the first century to Saints Francis Xavier and Peter Claver in the seventeenth have proved that the witness of Christ-like charity, rather than force, is a much more effective way to encourage unbelievers to consider faith in Christ.
What about abuses of the sacraments of Confession and Matrimony? Suppose you were a king, and you thought your wife had been unfaithful to you. Wouldn’t it make sense to order her priest to reveal the details of her Confession, and presumably her lover’s name? That happened in the year 1383, when the king of Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic) was certain that his wife had been unfaithful to him. (For the record, he was wrong.) The king executed the priest Saint John Nepomucene when he refused to break the seal of Confession.
What if you, as a member of the nobility, decided to marry for political or financial advantage but later wanted to get rid of your wife? That scenario has played out many times in history, most notably when King Henry VIII of England decided to dump his faithful wife for another woman and broke an entire nation away from the Church, which led to hundreds of Catholic saints—though they were almost entirely martyrs.
Apparently, it is more difficult to manipulate the sacraments of the Anointing of the Sick and Confirmation for political gain; those sacraments have not generated much controversy with the secular world. However, the sacrament of the Eucharist has been “weaponized” before.
Perhaps the most famous example is from the life of Saint Ambrose. Ambrose was the bishop of Milan, Italy, during the fourth century. Following a riot in the city of Thessalonica, Greece, the Roman emperor Theodosius ordered his troops to take revenge on the city—by massacring seven thousand men, women, and children who had innocently gathered in the city’s amphitheater. For his wanton disregard for human life, Ambrose confronted the emperor and refused to allow him to receive the sacraments—the Eucharist, that is—until he had repented and done penance for his crime. The emperor, who apparently had enough of a Christian conscience to know he had done something wrong, obeyed.
But the takeaway lesson here is not that the sacraments have been used as political weapons before. The real point is that, with respect, the bishop has the situation completely backward. We Catholics do not politicize the sacraments when we expect Catholics to obey the teachings of the Church and do penance on those occasions when they fail. It is the secular world which has, throughout history, misunderstood the purpose of the sacraments (which is understandable) and has repeatedly tried to force Catholics to redefine practices and teachings to match their own mistaken understanding of the sacraments (which is intolerable).
The Vatican has helpfully provided some guidance to our bishops, encouraging them to work together to create a coherent approach on this issue, so the matter is not yet settled. But we are not the ones using the Eucharist as a weapon.
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