Enough with the dis-graceful, politicized commentary on Communion

The Catholic Faith, in the strange and decidedly secular world of politics and journalism, consists of external gestures that have only tenuous connections to vaguely held sentiments.

A priest prepares to distribute Communion during Mass in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

“In journalism,” wrote Venerable Fulton Sheen in 1955’s Thinking Life Through, “the modern man wants controversy, not truth.” I could say that examples abound, but that would assume a broad definition—to the point of non-definition—of “journalism”.

Still, let’s consider a recent article in Slate, a popular online outlet which allegedly “combines humor and insight in thoughtful analyses of current events and political news.” The piece in question is about a controversial vote, ideological conflict, community discord, conservatives v. liberals, “partisan politics”, authority, “factions”, committees, and even “monarchy”. The young author makes no attempt to hide her rooting interests: she is fully on the side of the long-suffering and merciful liberal leader over against the ideologically-rigid “renegades” who oppose him.

Yes, it’s an article—“Why the Pope Won’t Rein In the Renegade American Bishops” (June 22, 2021)—about Pope Francis, the U.S. bishops, and the recent USCCB Spring Assembly: “The vote was part of a campaign by conservative bishops to deny Catholic politicians who support abortion access—most notably, President Joe Biden—the Eucharist, one of the most central and sacred elements of the Catholic faith.”

Perhaps Molly Olmstead, the author, is interested in truth. I cannot judge her heart, only her article. And it is rather dreadful. The style is wildly breathless and the approach is mostly witless. Now, I do not expect, in 2021, to read a secular news account of this topic that masterfully addresses or references matters of theology, doctrine, soteriology, sin, confession, grace, and canon law. But shouldn’t there be a hint that those do in fact exist? And they really do matter? It’s like reading an account of Lincoln-Douglas debates that never mentions slavery, racism, popular sovereignty, territorial rights, or “Dred Scott”.

I admit that my choice of Ms. Olmstead’s article has the appearance of cherry-picking. Alas, her piece is hardly unique, just as it is hardly readable. The Washington Post, to choose another outlet, shouts, “Biden, deeply Catholic president, finds himself at odds with many U.S. bishops”, as if Mr. Biden, in the course of innocently turning political water into jars overflowing with social justice, was suddenly ambushed by a gang of neo-Pelagian prelates outside an ice cream shop in the Midwest.

“Biden is arguably the most observant president in decades, and his faith is a core part of his identity. He rarely misses Mass. He crosses himself in public,” reports the Post, with the sort of objectivity one now expects from a mainstream news outlet, “He quotes scripture, he cites hymns and he clutches rosary beads ahead of key decisions.” However, we also read, he “rarely discusses his Catholicism”. But why would he need to discuss it when MSM scribes mention it constantly and a Catholic professor (quoted often by the Post) pens a hagiographical pamphlet titled Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States? (Full disclosure: I have a deep and abiding aversion to any and all books about any politician and his “deep” and “devout” faith, no matter how “complex”.)

More to the point, the Post reports: “Biden said he personally accepts the church’s position on abortion, ‘but I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.'” Again, theology, doctrine, soteriology, sin, confession, grace, and canon law make no appearance. Catholicism, it seems, is about going to Mass and clutching a Rosary while talking about how one’s faith is “private”. The Catholic Faith, in this strange and decidedly secular world, consists of external gestures that have only some tenuous connections to vaguely held (or clutched) sentiments.

Put another way: Catholicism is essentially a political prop. It is understood, viewed, and used in purely political terms and for political ends. “We once lived in the age of the Theological Man;” wrote Sheen in 1944, “then came the age of the Economic Man; now we are in the age of Political Man”—and he “lives for the State.”

One of the most powerful tools of the Political Man—and here I am not thinking of Biden as much as I am of almost every politician today—is sentimentality. Sweet, simple, and seemingly innocent, sentiment is the candy cast from the constant political parade. And in this particular narrative, a key form of sentiment is the amorphous appeal to “unity”.

A recent piece in America states: “Baseball’s All-Star Game has a lot to teach American Catholics about Communion and unity”. First, no, it really doesn’t. Secondly, the appeal to unity throughout is decidedly one-sided and so disparate as to mean nothing at all: “The unity baseball players enjoy during the All-Star Game is based on tradition and a common love, albeit the love of a game. We Catholics also have a common tradition and a love for our faith.” Hmmm. Do we?

Here’s an essential question the author misses or avoids: What if a baseball player cheats? What if an entire team cheated and enjoyed success because of it? Further, what if a pitcher insisted that even though he uses steroids and puts gunk on the ball, he should not be punished because he is personally opposed to doing those things, but he is still a good man and a fine pitcher despite it? All analogies limp, of course, especially as they round third base, but the point is obvious: if you are going to appeal to the unity enjoyed by baseball teams, you have to acknowledge the integrity in conduct and consistency in rules required for such unity to be real in any meaningful way. Team A cannot claim points for hitting a single, Team B cannot have ten men on the field and insist they are “observant baseball players” who have been “playing ball since birth”, and Team C cannot hire hit men to kill opposing players and call it “health care”.

Again, not much mention of theology, doctrine, soteriology, sin, confession, grace, and canon law, though the author does correctly (to his credit) observe, “Unity itself [in the early Church] was a central dimension of the faith. It was grounded in the spiritual communion of the sacraments and the Trinity.” This raises plenty of questions, many of them with fairly clear answers. For instance: did the sacramental unity of the early Christians involve moral standards and take into account public actions? (Answer: It most certainly did.) And: did bishops sometimes discipline Catholics who failed to adhere to moral standards? (Answer: Yes, of course they did.)

And then there is a Commonweal piece by a professor of religious studies (more on it next week) that begins by lamenting the anti-Catholicism of the Catholic bishops:

Now, a rather large swath of the American bishops feel no such pride at the election of our second Catholic president. Instead, they seem intent on making him a negative example to the American Catholic faithful. This initiative is especially striking because President Biden is a practicing Catholic, a palpably good man who speaks readily about how his deep faith has been a source of comfort in facing the tragedies that have beset his life.

Once again we see the appeal to external gestures and the vaguely held sentiments rather than a sober assessment of public actions and positions held over long periods of time. While many rightly point to President Biden’s support of abortion (there is a reason that NARAL endorsed him, after all), there is also the fact that he officiated at a “gay wedding” and has clearly rejected the Church’s teaching about the nature of true marriage.

But, to the bigger point, the Commonweal essay claims the U.S. bishops are falling into the heresy of Donatism, which involves the nature of grace, the veracity of the sacraments, and the nature of the ordained priesthood:

 In the judgment of the bishops, Biden’s sin seems to be that, as a Catholic politician, he has not taken a public, political stand against abortion. Biden has stated many times that he considers abortion to be a moral evil. This is his Catholic belief. But, like many Catholics who believe the same, he finds that his personal belief conflicts with the beliefs of other citizens and with the law in a democracy that affirms the First Amendment.

Much could be said, but suffice for now to note that this is meek homage to the triumph of Political Man over Theological Man. Or, simply, of hypocrisy over integrity; of falsehoods over truth. The Donatist spin is clever, but misrepresents the historical issue—the veracity of the sacraments regardless of the holiness of the ordained priest—and the nature of the current situation—refusing to give Holy Communion to a Catholic is a necessary call to repentance and restoration of the communion the would-be communicant has severed by his own freely chosen public actions.

Now, let’s get theological for a brief moment. In baptism, we are filled with divine, Trinitarian life: “Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God. . .” (CCC, 1213). The newly baptized believer is made “a new creature, an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature’. . .” (CCC, 1265). In this way we enter the Church and become members of the Body of Christ (CCC, 1267). So, through the sacraments we are made “children of God, partakers of the divine nature” (CCC, 1692) and now “participate in the life of the Risen Lord” (CCC, 1694). The life of grace—God’s divine life—increases or decreases through our growth in virtue, which is rooted in charity and is expressed and demonstrated in acts of sacrifice, goodness, and holiness. This is both pre-political and trans-political; the political and public realms reveal the nature of our Christ-like, Trinitarian-fueled commitment and love. There is no place for saying, “I really do believe X, but because of this or that reason I have to do Y or Z.”

Furthermore, the life of the sacraments is not by nature private, but ecclesial, communal, and public. Just as Christ’s incarnational, saving work is demonstrated and revealed to the world through the sacraments, the sacraments “are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body. The Church, then, both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies.” This is why Vatican II referred, in an analogical sense, to the Church as a “sacrament” (CCC, 774; Lumen Gentium, 1). The Church is “the sacrament of the inner union of men with God.” (CCC, 775). And the Church shines forth in the lives, actions, and words of the children of God.

Which is why Saint Paul exhorted the Christians in Philippi to “be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…” (Phil 2:15-16a). And, elsewhere, tells the Christians, “For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness” (1 Thess 5:5), while Saint John states, with startling starkness:

By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he who does not love his brother. … Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. (1 Jn 3:10, 18)

The Political Man will have no part of this sort of language; in fact, he must denounce it. It is judgmental, rigid, harsh, hateful, unmerciful. But the Political Man not only peddles false mercy, he claims that he will judge what is good, even while he so often spits in the face of He who is Good.

Finally, Sheen (once more) in his 1943 book The Divine Verdict observed that liberal Christianity—which certainly includes today’s progressive Catholicism—”thinks of God solely as a God of sentimental love—such love as a doting modern mother might have for her erring son who could do no wrong, and even when he did it, must needs be forgiven, for he did not mean it.”

We too often hold to a high and lofty view of man without God while ignoring the truly high and lofty calling of the man filled with God’s life. Too much of the furor and discussion about the Eucharist has been dis-graceful: absence of any reference to grace, to any real belief in grace or in the saving power of God—and the complete commitment and utter devotion that power should inspire:

The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged. (Lumen Gentium, 14)


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About Carl E. Olson 1161 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His new book Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021), is published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

36 Comments

  1. Joe Biden’s personal opposition to abortion as a great moral evil while profiting politically from publicly promoting it is like Colonel Sanders claiming to be a devout vegan while feeling an obligation to make fried chicken available to those who want it.

    • Besides, I don’t recall Biden ever saying “I personally believe abortion is a great moral evil,” as maintained by the journalist. He has said “I am personally opposed to abortion because my church has a rule against it, but to each his own…” which could not possibly be a more pathetic hypocrisy. Abortion is not wrong for some because they belong to a club that disavows it, it is wrong because it is intrinsically evil. Advocating for an intrinsic evil makes Biden an evil person and he spits in the face of the crucified Christ every time he does it. And every time he takes Communion.

    • Imagine if Abraham Lincoln said he was personally opposed to slavery, but if folks want to own one, that’s their choice, and I’ll sign the paperwork.

  2. Excellent and well developed. My only “criticism” is with the headline which may have been clearer, as it is the faithful Catholic being accused of “politically weaponizing” the Eucharist. So, one might have an initial impression that this article was geared to a different audience? Perhaps… “Dis-gracefully Politicalizing Communion are…the Politicians.” Just my thoughts but again…great article!

  3. Enough about Bishop Sheen, let’s talk about Cupich, Tobin, Gregory and McElroy, among others, including the pope. That’s whom the Post, Slate, America (that pathetic Catholic periodical) and others are listening to … as are many Catholics who voted for Biden. And they are the bishops who provided the Catholic narrative for Biden. Enough with this papering over of the current bishops responsibility in this travesty.

  4. Catholicism has become the 6th grade honor role. No one gets hurt feelings, we all get good grades and honors, even though we deserve nothing. Sadly, like the laity, the hierarchy is deeply divided and leading this parade right to the evil one. Time for people to be Catholic, stand up, and tell the truth. That child, at the moment of conception, is a human life with a soul, and deserving of life just as much as you or I.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.
    One expects the theological dimension of the issue to be absent from the secular media, but it is distressing, though perhaps symptomatic, to see it lacking even in Catholic circles.
    As the article implicitly indicates, Sheen’s “political man” has given way to contemporary “therapeutic man.” My “feelings” above all.

  6. This piece is brilliant and illuminating. Great analogy with baseball too. I’ve stopped expecting the mainstream media to do anything in a nuanced way, and they certainly don’t understand the Church, so it’s not surprising they also don’t know how to explain why it matters for public figures to be able to receive the Eucharist or not. Our culture despises authority, especially religious authority. I think that’s one reason this is such a hot button issue. While people might ask, “How dare the bishops judge?” I would ask, “Do they dare not shepherd souls?”

  7. The hypocrisy of saying that one believes something but is unwilling to stand for that belief in the public square is appalling. John F. Kennedy stated that his Catholic beliefs would not influence his actions as President of the United States. I simply don’t understand how anyone can leave their personal beliefs behind while serving as a public official. It is a clear disintegration of the soul to claim the ability to do so. If your personal beliefs don’t influence your public policy, how can I know that voting for you is the right thing? One must stand for one’s beliefs no matter where one finds oneself. Otherwise, one cannot be an integrated whole.

    • There is nothing in our Catholic Faith that precludes us from being good and moral citizens ; The Catholic Faith, Grounded In The Truth Of Perfect Love Incarnate, has always and will always serve for The Common Good.

  8. “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, for “It Is Through Christ, With Christ, And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost”, That Holy Mother Church, outside of which, there is no Salvation, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, exists.

    “No one can come to My Father, except Through Me.”

    It has always been about The Marriage, In Heaven and On Earth.

    “Blessed are those who are Called to The Marriage Supper Of The Lamb.”

    Let no man deceive you, those who are Baptized Catholic, but deny that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, and thus, in essence, deny The Divinity Of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, because they desire to render onto Caesar or themselves, or Pachamama, what Has Always And Will Always Belong To God, ipso facto exist in a state of Apostasy.

    As The Veil Is Being Lifted, The Counterfeit Church is being separated from The True Church.

  9. Thank you for adding clarity and truth to this current situation between Joe Biden and his error ridden understanding of the Catholic faith. It is clear that the media who support him do not understand the Catholic faith, either and most likely have not studied the Catholic Catechism in any depth. By distinguishing and describing the difference between Political Man and Theological Man was brilliant will be a point of reference for me in the future. I always return back to Scripture (Navarre New Testament edition) and thought about Jesus’ admonishments and warnings to His apostles regarding the Pharisees and Sadducees. That would describe our political leaders who use their Catholic faith in order to gain a veneer of holiness. I pray for their souls and hope they repent of their errors. Christ is merciful. I pray for the continued strength of our Catholic Bishops in the United States. May the Holy Spirit fortify them and may they show the strength of St. Paul in this attempt to water down and undermine the Catholic faith. May our Bishops never take a knee to the relativism and atheism of this world. I found this article illuminating. Thank you for this!

  10. Pope Benedict’s Teaching reminder, in regards to worthiness to receive The Holy Eucharist has been ignored and revised by those who desire to consume The Holy Eucharist but not take The Word Of Perfect Love Incarnate into their hearts.

  11. Whether in this life political expediency overrides good and evil is the question. Reasonably assessed Biden’s rationale that Catholics can’t impose their religious views on others has justification. Red line separation of religion and natural law is what’s lost in the Biden rationale. That which is a question of justice, a natural law first premise also a religious tenet of Catholicism, the right to life. No State judicial process can by its power to legislate transform injustice into justice. Abortion is inherent evil that cannot become a neutralized issue for Catholic, or politicians of any persuasion to accommodate. Never mind promote and expand. MSM has long since gone with the flow of legislatively purified inherent evil as human rights to be defended at all cost on every level. Carl Olson raises the initial question of why virtually all media has taken the rosy path of moral transformation. His suggestion is that controversy makes headlines and sells papers [today lucrative advertisement contracts]. That can’t be denied, although the facility with which journalists, media pundits sold their souls to the devil is the secularization of American culture by which the Church, its members are not excluded. I would add even its most exalted members. Amoris Laetitia provides the rationale for political expediency based on difficult concrete situations and the primacy of conscience. Moderation, the mitigation of religious rules for sake of societal pluralism. If adultery can be moderately assessed as acceptable why not abortion for the Catholic politician? There is in this an enticing fallacy that subverts revealed truth, a true religious deception. A deception that omits reference to grace. That is Olson’s strong point as well as the determinant of the question of political expediency versus legitimate practice of the faith.

  12. We read: “The Donatist spin is clever, but misrepresents the historical issue…” Indeed, from a Church-State perspective, the Donatist spin is the REVERSE of the current situation/schism…

    The DONATISTS were criminals and even murderers: “constantly recurring scenes of violence, arson, rapine, even murder [….] laying ambushes for many of the Bishops and Clergy, not to speak of laity, sacking some churches, setting churches on fire.”

    All of this was such a disruption of even the secular order that St. Augustine and his colleagues PETITIONED the Imperial Court (the State!) to intervene with secular punishments against the Donatists, for example, to “debar them from making or profiting from wills.” After which, “How many lawyers have you not consulted, what frauds have you not contemplated in order to get your wills validated despite the Imperial decree denying their validity!” (Source: Fr. Hugh Pope, “St. Augustine of Hippo”: Essays, his Letters, etc., 1937, 1961).

    Again, the REVERSE of the current situation…With Eucharistic coherence, the American bishops do not petition the State to dissuade Biden and his puppet masters by, say, cutting off his future government pension…

    The Church only seeks to regenerate its own membership about the sacramental life, and to EDUCATE Biden and his Imperial Court into the most rudimentary coherence—to stop posturing as “pious and private” Catholics while also publicly using the State to promote the “ambush, burn[ing] (the saline induced abortions, incinerator disposal), and murder” of countless unborn children.

  13. Olson has provided every one of us with the best reasons for insisting that the reception of the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, is an act of faith and a great blessing rather than a political act. All of us at American Life League are indebted to Olson for his clarity.

  14. So as of today, we are very likely to see people with a devotion that includes the Traditional Latin Mass excommunicated before Biden ever is.

  15. Superb? Obviously the “ progressive “ view of the author feels that cheating at baseball has some similarities with the horrific murder of the 60 million innocent lives funded by complicit elected government officials! The Universal precept of our Faith does not allow for personal opinion that has dual consequences!
    Biden leads the Democratic Party and is responsible for the results of their efforts! Period!

  16. Biden has the power to stop it but he uses his power to legalize it, he promotes abortion, abortions all the way to birth, Hyde amendment, even infanticide if the baby survives. And he claims to be a good faithful catholic. That is a deadly presumption. Deadly, like mortal sin; telling God I eat the body and blood of Christ anyway, so I do not loose any votes

  17. This could not be more relevant than it is today. I have often wondered where my church leadership is on this issue, only to find out that they “don’t want to get involved in politics.” This is a perfect time to teach others what the Catholic church stands for. The church does not have to call out these rogue Catholic politicians by name. They should, however, stand up and inform the public what the Church teaches and believes. Not doing so is missing a big opportunity. Not only will the Catholics be confused with a lack of support, but the non-Catholics will believe that the Church stands for nothing, since no one will publicly denounce what it happening.

    It’s a great opportunity. I pray that it’s not missed.

    • I have often wondered where my church leadership is on this issue, only to find out that they “don’t want to get involved in politics.”

      You mean like opining of the federal budget, immigration law?

      It would be more fair to say they don’t want to get involved in some politics.

  18. Excellent piece, Mr. Olson.

    I salute you for taking the time to give a sober, well-reasoned response to the inane, laughable, immoral and illogical position held by our inane, laughable, immoral and illogical President.

    (ENVISION REVULSION EMOJI HERE)

    • It only seems illogical because you are using truth-based logic. Try outcome-based logic and it will be VERY LOGICAL…and effective.

  19. The sacrilege and grave scandal committed every time this promoter of death receives the Holy Eucharist from complicit priests is gut wrenching. Isn’t he also married to a divorcee?

  20. Commonweal says “Biden’s sin seems to be that, as a Catholic politician, he has not taken a public, political stand against abortion.” I find it very interesting that those who defend Biden’s reception of Holy Communion always trivialize his “sin”– Biden doesn’t simply not take a stand against abortion– he actually supports the unjust law of Roe v. wade that has exterminated 62 million human beings, he advocates for legalized abortion and facilitates it! That’s why he should be denied the reception of Holy Communion. Such advocacy is a sin against one’s neighbor, in this case the innocent unborn– One cannot help kill Christ’s brothers and sisters–and then receive HIM. The incongruity is staggering. The bishops need to say so!

  21. Joe Biden is warmly welcomed by the Holy Father who could not contain his displeasure at a photo op with the 45th President of the United States. We know the 46th President isn’t pro-life, but is the Pope? The Republican Party establishment will never forgive Donald J. Trump for appearing onstage at the March for Life. It is impossible for me to vote for Democrats, but can I vote Republican with a clear conscience? No. See Republican White House advisor Karl Rove’s July 22, 2021 column where he gives Biden credit for a “restored normality and decency to the presidency.” And now more scandal at a high level of the bishops’ conference with Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill allowed to resign for his disgusting betrayal of Holy Orders and a scandalising yet again of the faithful. Politics is handicapping and betting at the track. But isn’t that now true of the Church? Admittance to the seminary, ordaining priests, consecrating bishops, a conclave — place your bets.

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