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I take my non-Catholicism seriously: Reflections on not receiving the Eucharist

If you don’t agree with or abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church, you aren’t Catholic. Clinging to the label when the substance is gone is like cherishing wrapping paper after discarding the gift.

(Image: Josh Applegate/Unspash.com)

I take my non-Catholicism seriously. This is, in part, because I have good reasons to become Catholic. My wife is Catholic, as are many of my friends and colleagues. I sometimes write for Catholic publications. Additionally, I am drawn to aspects of Catholicism, especially its magnificent intellectual and aesthetic traditions, which were absent in the non-denominational evangelicalism I was raised in. Thus, I cannot drift along in unreflective Protestantism, but must consider the claims of the Catholic faith.

Having done so, I remain not Catholic because I am not Catholic. To explain the tautology, I am not Catholic because I do not believe essential Catholic doctrines such as transubstantiation. Therefore I cannot, in good conscience, join the Catholic church, even though it would please my wife, simplify Sunday mornings and allow me to claim the Catholic aesthetic and intellectual heritage as my own. Being Catholic means believing and attempting to live by the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Not everyone agrees. For many self-proclaimed Catholics, including the current President, Catholic identity is not about belief manifest in faithfulness to church teaching. Rather, Catholicism is treated as an inherited identity, and devotion is measured by attendance, not adherence. Catholicism of this sort is compatible with a life conformed to the ways of the world. And in our culture of consumption, autonomy and expressive identities, many believe they have a right to claim the religion of their choice, even if they deny its teachings and disobey its commands.

Of course, as a Protestant, I do not think it is wrong per se to reject the Catholic Church and its authority—it depends on what specifically is being denied. What is definitely wrong is the deception (including self-deception) of claiming to be something one is not.

Though there is room for limited dispute within Catholicism, some doctrines are settled. And though everyone falls short of the perfection of the Gospel, the penitent Catholic will go to confession for the sacrament of reconciliation. There is a great difference between those whose sin is followed by repentance, and those who remain in rebellion and deny that they have anything to confess.

Thus, in cases of significant sin and rebellion, especially in public, Catholic leaders have a responsibility to discipline members for their own good and the good of all the Church. This is meant first to bring the wayward to repentance. Those who are rebelling against the Church should be warned of their spiritual peril; if they persist then refusing them communion is for their own good, in light of the Biblical warning that to take communion unworthily is to bring judgment upon oneself, an admonition also heeded by many Protestant churches.

Denying communion to those publicly defying the Church also protects the rest of the congregation from scandal. A church that does not enforce its teachings indicates that they are not worth taking seriously, thereby leading others astray. The higher the profile of the disobedient, the greater the risk of such scandal, and the greater the need for public rebuke.

Nonetheless, public excommunication is only perceived as a punishment if the target still wishes to be Catholic and partake of the Eucharist. For example, it would be pointless for the Catholic Church to declare that I should be denied the Eucharist, because I am not seeking it. But many people want to defy the Catholic Church and have communion too.

Efforts to bar prominent disobedient Catholics, especially pro-abortion politicians, from receiving the Eucharist have therefore provoked pushback. For instance, a New Mexico politician recently made headlines when he complained about being denied communion for a pro-abortion vote—after having been warned repeatedly on the subject. But from the faithful Catholic perspective, this backlash only confirms the need for firm Church leadership to preach and practice the teachings of the Catholic faith. The alternative is to allow lies about the faith to flourish, to the damnation of souls.

For example, the New York Times recently published an essay by Garry Wills arguing, as the headline summarized, “The Bishops Are Wrong About Biden—and Abortion.” This dishonest piece was promptly torn to bits by various writers. The problem is that Wills’ essay was not written and published to persuade, but to reassure. Its target audience does not read National Review or any of the other outlets that ran rebuttals. The point of the piece was not to advance arguments in a good-faith debate, but to provide spiritual plausible deniability to sympathetic readers who wish to avoid the truth of Robert George’s observation that, “If on every issue on which the Catholic Church and the NY Times differ, one is sure the Times is right and the Church is in grave moral error, why claim to be a Catholic? One is a Timesian.”

From a Protestant perspective, this is obvious: if you don’t agree with or abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church, you aren’t Catholic. Clinging to the label when the substance is gone is like cherishing wrapping paper after discarding the gift. But many Timesians want to think of themselves as Catholic. This identification many have many sources, such long habit or the emotional attachment engendered by the memory of a saintly relative. Indeed, ignoring doctrine would naturally lead to emphasizing the personal and emotional basis for Catholic identity.

But no man can serve two masters. Joe Biden, for instance, can support taxpayer-funded abortion on demand until birth, or he can be Catholic. He cannot be both, try though he and his apologists may.

And they certainly do try. It is not just that defending the President is a political imperative. It is also that Biden comes from an era of American Catholicism that seems particularly prone to trying to have it both ways. For a generation or two of postwar American Catholics, the ordinary temptations to rebellion and apostacy were joined to a Catholic culture that was eager for acceptance and determined to fit in with the world. These generations were often poorly catechized—as a Protestant, it is often shocking how little Catholics, older ones in particular, know about their faith.

That the younger Catholics I meet seem to take the faith more seriously may be nothing but coincidence or selection bias, but I suspect that there has been a winnowing. Those who drift with the culture now tend to drift out of the Church altogether, preferring sleeping in and brunch to attending a church service they don’t really believe in. This is not without its costs, but it provides needed clarity.

The point of the Catholic Church is to be the Catholic Church, and some of us appreciate that, even in disagreement. As for those who want Unitarian beliefs with Catholic ceremony, they are welcome to join the Episcopalians. I understand there are literally dozens of them left.


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About Nathanael Blake 11 Articles
Nathanael Blake, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has focused on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre and Russell Kirk. He is currently working on a study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s anti-rationalism. He writes from Virginia.

13 Comments

  1. A well defined assessment of what it really means to be Catholic by a non Catholic. Often the intellectual non believer, although it seems with a better appreciation of Catholicism, the doctrine of transubstantiation he may become Catholic nevertheless has that intellection freedom that’s derived from unattached objectivity. Apparent to Blake is the mindset of the nominal Catholic perhaps most evident in politics, “Rather, Catholicism is treated as an inherited identity, and devotion is measured by attendance, not adherence. Catholicism of this sort is compatible with a life conformed to the ways of the world”. Although I would add for consumption, if disbelief in the real presence is what leads to this vacuous practice, why then should belief in the real presence [transubstantiation merely man’s description of that reality] effect a transformation that defies logic? A man prepared to take heroic measures of compassion and justice were it not a reality.

  2. I would be remiss if I didn’t add that non Catholic Nathaniel Blake gives us among the best arguments, loss of credibility among the faithful of essential doctrine, here the Eucharistic real presence – why the Church should refuse communion to pro abortion politicians.

    • Great explanation and argument by a non-Catholic that many professed Catholics don’t understand or don’t want to understand. Thank you Dr. Blake

  3. I have been following the Trad’s, the Liberal’s, the N.O’s and they all have valid points about Catholicism. MR Blake has another great point of view .At the end of the day, what we are matters not,who we are does. We are Catholics. There is no middle ground on Communion, we respect life, feed the poor, have no need to be woke, acknowledge the sins of ourselves, of our priests, of our church. If our President cannot vote his faith which is understandable, then he needs avoid presenting himself for communion. If the speaker of the House feels she understands her faith better than the doctrine we all follow, then she is a problem that needs to be addressed by the church Bishops. We cannot let Satan misdirect our energies, steal our children, and crumble the walls of our church. We are a Historical Church as well as a Living Church. The living church can look back on the past, see the chaos and ruin left in the Pagan’s wake and see also how the core of faithful rebuilt the church even stronger.We the quiet faithful who are Catholic first will continue to survive and though we will diminish in numbers, we are the foundation of Peters Church

    • The CWR comments are usually very good, many are excellent. Occasionally I flag excellent comments. This comment caught my attention, the points made are so true. Thank you for comment.

  4. Nathanael Blake, you need to become a Catholic. You express an understanding of the Catholic Church’s teaching absent in so many Catholics in the pews today. Transubstantiation is not an intellectual exercise on the part of the recipient, it is taken on faith. Jesus said it. I believe it. I am a cradle-convert, raised sort of as a Methodist but without much instruction. I have been fascinated by the Catholic Church all my life and, looking back, I can see the working of the Holy Spirit in my life drawing me to the Church. Here I am, a 72-year-old, 52-year-Catholic and still converting and seeking to understand the teaching of the Church. I have benefitted from the four-year Catholic Biblical School and the two-year Catechetical School offered by the Lay Division of the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. I always seek more knowledge and understanding of the faith. I am privileged to have made Her acquaintance. You demonstrate a knowledge of Church teaching absent in so many lifelong Catholics. Please join and continue to convert for the rest of your life. It’s a journey worth everything you have, everything you are, and everything you hope to be.

  5. Your article hits the nail on the head. I do agree that older Catholics were not catechized properly but I think this is all changing. Since I see you are already studying Tolkien I would like to recommend a book by Peter Kreeft called SYmbol or Substance:Dialogue on the Eucharist with CS Lewis,J.R.R.Tolkien and Billy Graham. It is not easy being Catholic or Christian today but if you dont agree with the Church’s rules feel free to leave. Thank you so much for this awesome article.Praying for your conversion

  6. A prideful Protestant celebrating his closed mind on the Eucharist and the Gospel of John.

    Willful ignorance on history.

    • “A prideful Protestant celebrating his closed mind….” That’s really what you got out of this essay? Good grief.

      • You’re not familiar with Blake’s scholarship outside of this piece which is just a repeat of the obvious by a Protestant?

        I am.

        • Translation: Take my word, my opinion, my conclusions as the correct ones and ignore whatever the author says, or whatever thoughts on it you may have yourself. End of discussion. Signed: ‘Ramjet’

  7. Mr Blake, what a lovely article. Are you certain that Ms. Farrell above and I cannot convince you to give us a try?? Yes, it is required to believe in transubstantiation. You didnt say if you have attended Catholic Mass much or at all , your marriage to a Catholic aside. At my church, that transubstantiation moment is accompanied by dead silence, in which you can almost touch the respect and awe-filled feelings of those there. I take that for an expression of faith. Jesus did in fact say this IS His body. Most Protestants take the bible literally yet make an exception for this, for reasons I dont understand. I was impressed a few years back to read the conversion story of Theologian Scott Hahn. The book is called “Rome Sweet Home”. Prior to his conversion to Catholicism, he spent much of his life in strong dislike of the Catholic religion and was converting Catholics to Protestantism. He decided to go to a Catholic Mass one day well into his career, just for “research” purposes. And what he saw and felt hit him like a sledgehammer. His unexpected conversion created quite a stir at the time. I recommend the book. Meanwhile I am hopeful that you will keep an open mind about us. I imagine that many readers here ( along with your wife??) will now pray for your conversion.

  8. “I am not Catholic because I do not believe essential Catholic doctrines such as transubstantiation.”

    Perhaps Dr. Blake needs to carefully read the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel (‘The ‘Bread of Life Discourse’) along with the writings of the early Church Fathers. As pointed out by Scott Hahn, if the Eucharist is not the true body and blood of Jesus Christ, then it becomes one of the worst forms of idolatry.

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