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The tragedy of the American church

Recently in catholic media, the story of a priest, Fr. James Altman, has been floating around, generating a great deal of controversy. In my eyes, this is simply another example of how, in America, the rampant hyper-politicization of all things church-related is a cancer. There is a tendency in the church to refer to different issues as belonging either to a liberal or conservative worldview. While this is in some sense true, the application of varying political ideologies and the disintegration they invariably cause tends towards a new form of Americanist Protestantism (I mean no offense to good, faithful protestants, of course) where the truths, teachings, and beliefs of the church are segregated from the others deemed "backwards" by either liberals or conservatives. For example, a conservative catholic may claim, as any catholic should, that abortion is a grave evil and an injustice against one's fellow man and against God. However, there is a tendency among conservative Catholics to ignore or even go against the Church when she teaches on the common good, a preferential option for the poor, or race & justice. Another example on the "liberal" side: It is correct for one to believe and uphold the Church's teaching on justice for the poor and the oppressed, but to downplay, ignore, or outright reject the importance of the dignity of the unborn or of the elderly is an injustice against one's fellow man and against God. The separation and segregation of the different aspects of the Church's moral and social teaching does violence to the Church itself, for to be catholic is to be a part of the whole, not an individualized, atomized political subject. Ultimately, the term "cafeteria catholic" refers just as accurately to conservatives as it does liberals in the church.

This has, over the past few months, been gaining more and more prominence in the public sphere. There is the previously mentioned case of Fr. James Altman who, upon listening to some of the things he has to say, has very little to stand on except the grace of his ordination. To go into detail about not only his own beliefs but what he spews from his mouth from the pulpit would only serve as an excuse for excessive anger on my part. The issue of politicians who publicly oppose church teaching on certain issues being denied communion is, at least in my opinion, a bit easier to wrestle with. The controversy surrounding that started with the election of President Joe Biden, the second Catholic to hold that office. Fairly soon after his election, some bishops began to publicly discuss- on social media, news outlets, blogs, you name it-the question of whether Joe Biden, who is a public advocate for abortion, should be denied communion. Now, this kind of question isn't new in the history of the Church. St. Ambrose of Milan, a 4th century bishop, came into conflict with Theodosius I, the emperor at the time. The emperor was excommunicated by St. Ambrose after Theodosius massacred 7,000 people at Thessalonica. It was only after several months of penance that Theodosius was allowed to receive the Eucharist.

Even though modern rulers are separated by thousands of years of history, their sins are nevertheless eerily familiar. Political violence, abuse of power, corruption, and countless others have occurred and continue to occur to this day. Violence perpetrated on the behalf of the "leaders of the free world" would more than justify the penalty of excommunication, much less a simple denial of communion. Our values of tolerance and inclusivity- often half baked, feel good notions of living meant to bring about good feelings rather than an actual, realized good- can sometimes be major barriers to the Church in her administration of her own members. Catholic politicians ought to be held to the standard the Church asks all her members- professing and spreading the gospel, even if it means persecution. However, due to America's inherent tendency to rebellion and disobedience, many politicians do not feel bound by their belonging in the Body of Christ to profess or even privately believe what the Church has to say about important issues of life and dignity. While I myself cannot decide who is and who isn't catholic (that is dependent on one's baptism), the issue of public, unrepentant sin has, historically, been met with denial of communion or outright excommunication. This does not deny the medicinal character of the Eucharist, nor does it suppose that the clergy is keeping it only to be received by the perfect (nobody is). It takes into account the very essence of the Eucharist and the warning of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:

"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself."

It is important not to downplay nor exaggerate Paul's words. This encourages neither scrupulosity nor indifferentism. Rather, it proposes an awareness of self and a willingness to acknowledge whether one is worthy (but not perfect) to receive the Lord in the Eucharist. Not only should our leaders and politicians do this, but we should as well. We are not exempt from the demands of love and the gospel- nobody is. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is bringing upon oneself the fullness of God's revelation in the very person of Christ- this includes not only Christs words of comfort and affirmation, but also his criticisms of the Pharisees, worldly leaders, the morally indifferent, and the corrupt. The Gospel cannot, nor should not, be placed in a particular "camp." It is contrary to the very nature of the Gospel and of Catholicism, which is meant to embrace the whole of the tradition, the fullness of the teaching, and hopefully the entirety of the human race. Therefore salvation or graces cannot be parsed out on the basis of ideology or adherence to a political party (as some would dare suggest, even implicitly). Rather, grace- like all things- is a free gift, given by God that we are all called to cooperate with in furthering the Kingdom of God here on earth in anticipation of the Heavenly Jerusalem, where our citizenship ultimately lies.

Ultimately, to distort the Gospel is a very serious offence (especially grave in the cases of clerics such as Fr. Altman, Vigano, etc.). It is not our business to go about making the Gospel or the Catholic faith in our own image, viewing everything through either red or blue lenses. We, like Mary, should do the hard work of receptivity- of humility, obedience, and love- the source of which being God Himself. Often times obedience has a negative connotation, especially in America, a nation built on revolution. But obedience is in service to something greater, something that draws the faithful to God and thereby inculcating these virtues amongst the faithful. That something is Love- the Love that moves the sun and the other stars, the Love that spoke creation into being and that sustains it and Loves it perfectly and wholly. Without Love, obedience becomes a tool for the powerful and the influential to coerce and coax people away from God. Without Love, service becomes self-centered. Without Love, receptivity becomes greed and an unquenchable desire for goods, money, sex, and power. Without Love, there would simply not be.

Sometimes Love asks of us painful things. Sometimes Love breaks our hearts or the hearts of those we care for. "Love," as Mick Jagger often refrained, "it's a bitch." It hurts, sometimes quite frequently and quite intensely. To love is to put aside the self and all of its wants, needs, and desires and to seek- to work for- the good of another for their own sake. So even though we might feel entitled to receive the Eucharist because we were raised Catholic and have some cultural connection with the Church, it doesn't mean we always should. To go through with doing so is to grasp at godliness. It is the very sin of Adam and Eve, to grasp at godliness, deciding what is good and evil. This pride can only be conquered by a humble obedience to the Church- not one of servility but one of love, so that the gifts of grace given to us by God can be shared with our neighbor, and we can all be drawn further into God's very life.


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