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Sacraments and Politics

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.

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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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About Dawn Beutner 10 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

8 Comments

  1. That’s right. Remember the Mass at the Fence … the southern border wall through which communion was given to would-be illegal immigrants about four years ago? There was never a Mass there before; never communion through the fence. It was a publicity stunt … by the bishops. They are the ones who weaponized the sacraments … all to stick it in Trump’s face. The bishops, the protectors of the faith and sacraments, for sheer publicity and political show, used the Mass as a weapon, on behalf of Democrats, against Trump. And now this bunch of hypocrite hirelings dares to yell “Conservative Catholics are weaponizing the Eucharist.”

    One thing I am sure of, the Vatican (the erstwhile pope, to be exact) has no intention of providing the kind of guidance that would correct the democrat USCCB. He is all in with the likes of Cupich, Tobin, Gregory and Farrell, who are democrat first and Catholic a distant second. And those are the guys running the show for “his holiness” at USCCB headquarters. Count on it.

    • Excellent point, John.

      As usual, the left is accusing its opposition of engaging in precisely the same offenses that they themselves commit.

    • I totally agree with you– keep speaking — the Catholic Church needs to do more if we are to keep it in the hands of God.

  2. “Should Catholic politicians who publicly support abortion be denied Holy Communion?”
    .
    Yes.
    .
    So should doctors known to prescribe contraception/sterilization and couples who use it. And any pharmacist who dispenses it. Or engaged in IVF. And any person known to be fornicating or engaged in sodomy. Or porn/masterbation. Or theft, chronic lying, etc.

    • And WHO exactly, would be informing the church about the couple who used IVF, the pharmacist or the doctor who prescribes contraceptives?? Beyond the fact that such medical professionals have a legal obligation to prescribe or lose their licenses, there is the small matter that not all their patients are CATHOLIC and therefore do not subscribe to Catholic ideology. Or are you suggesting we start the equivalent of a Catholic KGB or Gestapo to ferret out all occasions of sin for everyone?? The case of Biden, Pelosi and Cuomo are DIFFERENT than that of the average man precisely because they are not only public figures making statements flying in the face of church teaching, they have made it a POINT to emphasize the fact they are (supposedly) Catholic, and their pronouncements are telegraphed to a credulous public by the tens of millions by a lapdog media.That is what is called “giving scandal”. Its a good bet that nobody but the couple involved will know about their use of IVF. It is up to them to seek God’s guidance and forgiveness about their own actions. But they have little to no power to influence OTHERS into sin. ” What about” does not get Biden and other politicians off the hook. Nor does it Catholics who voted to put such people into power.

  3. Bishop McElroy says denying communion to elected leaders who publicly support abortion would have harmful results for our country, but it might be good for our Church and for faithful Catholics. That is what B. McElroy should be concerned about. Now the USCCB has to have a unity statement before any Bishop can even chastise any politician in their diocese. How much longer will that take them. Not at their June meeting, maybe in the Nov meeting?. How much longer do we have to wait for TRUTH?

  4. On a real level is it possible to “weaponize” the Eucharist? Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is only a Gift for those fit to receive. All other uses and abuses of the physical host do not drag Christ into participating in human sin. Oh what a tangled web …

  5. Blaming His Holiness for lack of guidance concerning the issue of giving Holy Communion to those who are not following the teachings of the Catholic Church is a debatable point. What the priests and bishops ought to do is to add a verbiage just before dispensing the Eucharist to the effect that “transubstantiation disappears if and when the Holy Communion is received with mortal sin.” In this way, the consciences of all unworthy recipients, politicians or not, hopefully might change as the Holy Spirit continues to work throughout their spiritual journey.

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