The Christians of first-century Corinth must have been a rowdy lot.
St. Paul, writing to these converts of his, chided them for their less than edifying manner of celebrating the Eucharist and added a stern warning: “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” (1 Cor 11:27).
Just as in the first century, so today “profaning the body and blood of the Lord” can still happen. It’s good to reflect on that as Pope Francis mulls the question of giving Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages have not been annulled.
But understand — in saying this, I don’t suggest moral equivalence between Corinthians then and the divorced and remarried now. That’s something about which I know, and can know, nothing at all. My point is simply that we — all of us Catholics, myself included — need to take the issue of reverence and irreverence in receiving Communion very seriously. For in this matter of transcendent importance a great falling-off has been occurring for years.
Consider two lines.
One of them is the line that’s formed by people approaching the altar to receive Communion at Sunday Mass in most churches today. Usually that means just about everyone (except for the young children, who come forward to receive a blessing).
The other line is the one formed by penitents waiting outside confessionals on Saturday evening to confess their sins and receive absolution. In most places today, those familiar lines of the past haven’t just grown shorter — they’ve disappeared. Is there a connection between the two things? If so, it’s not a healthy one.
Yes, frequent reception of Communion is a very good thing. Fifty years ago, moreover, Catholics undoubtedly did place too much emphasis on sin and guilt. But in correcting that problem, we’ve lurched to the other extreme and embraced the polar opposite: an excessively casual view of the reality of sin — not sin in general, but sin in our own lives — and of the conditions that are needed for reverent reception of the Eucharist.
I can’t pretend to read the minds and hearts of all those people lined up in the center aisle to receive Communion every Sunday. But I do wonder: What do some of them understand receiving Communion to be? A symbolic act? A way of expressing their solidarity with other people? Do they believe that in receiving Communion they receive, in St. Paul’s words, “the body and blood of the Lord”? Do they understand that serious sin is an obstacle to that?
Paul was no legalist. His long struggle against the Judaizers who wanted to impose the Jewish law on the new Christians makes that perfectly clear. But, precisely as someone who was not a legalist, the Apostle of the Gentiles knew all too well that unworthy reception of the Eucharist has very serious consequences. As he put it to the Corinthians, someone guilty of doing that “eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:29).
To be sure, this doesn’t settle the question of whether some divorced and remarried Catholics should be offered Communion. But it does supply an important part of the context for considering that question. The Church should indeed be a Church of mercy, but it should also be a Church of reverence. Let us pray for Pope Francis as he seeks a formula that respects both — with the words of St. Paul kept carefully in mind.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. He is the author of “American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America” (Ignatius, $16.95).