The issue of communion, particularly “who is allowed to receive,” is a topic that I run up against often. Many people have questions, and I am happy to talk about it.

That said, I find it to be one of the most frustrating topics to discuss. I can talk myself blue in the face and make no progress. There is a disconnect in communication, it seems, and I never seem to be speaking the same language as those who are curious.

The problem, I see, is that I can never get people to break out of a fundamentally private, individualistic notion of faith. Many think that because they believe in the real presence of the Eucharist and are approaching the altar with good faith that they should be welcomed. Who are we do “deny” them entry to Christ. “I am a follower of Christ. I believe in the real presence of the Eucharist. Why can’t I receive?” It seems wholly unChristian, just the work of an exclusivist Church that wants people to jump through hoops.

At work here, whether fully expressed or not, is a very problematic Eucharistic theology, at least from the Catholic perspective. Driving one’s desire to attend and receive is the notion of the Eucharist as a holy commodity, a “thing” that will bring us closer to God and make us better people. Even the way we speak of it betrays this idea: “We go to mass to get grace.” (For further evidence, notice how many leave right after receiving communion rather than staying for the closing prayer and blessing.) While others might be gathered in the same place for the same reason, at its core, Mass is nothing more than a very holy convenience store: we come in, follow the protocols, wait in line, and get what we want. There could be 1000 people or just me, it wouldn’t matter. We come to get Jesus.

From that mindset, I completely understand their frustration. It does seem exclusivist for the Church to restrict this. If Mass is nothing more than a believer wanting to come to Jesus and receive grace, then who are we to deny them that opportunity?

Of course… Mass is much more than that.

And here’s the point that I work so hard to get people to understand but find myself constantly running into a wall: the Eucharist is not a private act. Personal, yes. Absolutely. It is deeply personal. But there is hardly a less private act in the entire life of the Church! What we do, we do together. What we receive, we receive together. In the Eucharist, we receive the body and blood of Christ, yes, but we also give of ourselves to God and one another; we lay our sacrifices on the altar, pray in one voice, confess our need for mercy, and share peace with one another. The Eucharist is not simply the reception of a commodity, not simply about what God does for me; it is a communal celebration in which we gives thanks for what God has done for us.

Christian life is not a solitary act but one that is innately communal. When we speak of the body of Christ, we of course mean the Eucharistic species we receive from the altar, but we must also speak of the community that does the receiving: when we take Christ into ourselves, we become that body, united with Christ and one another. This act of receiving serves as a covenant in blood for those who receive, symbolizing the one baptism that we all share, but also constituting the one community that we make. That’s the beauty of the sacraments: they make present what they symbolize. In this case, what the sacrament makes present is not simply the Eucharistic species, but the community, bound by the blood of the lamb.

If someone is not a part of the community, doesn’t want to be a part of it, or has actually hurt the community, how can they take part in a celebration that symbolizes and constitutes community? That is the question we as Catholics ask when people who do not regularly come to Mass want to receive. It is not enough to believe in the real presence just as it is not enough to call him “Lord”; even the demons recognize this. To be a part of the celebration, one must break out of their private, individualistic notion of faith and realize that faith is inherently communal; they must make a commitment beyond themselves to be a part of the larger mission of Christ; they must be willing to pour out their own blood, lay down their own lives, and carry their own cross for the person to their right and to their left.

Anything less, really, and all the Eucharist becomes is a private commodity meant for me. Surely, it’s more than that, right?

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Protestants believe that we are justified by “faith alone” while Catholics believe that we are saved by a combination of faith and works. Right? At least, that was what we were taught in catechism class through apologetics. Those foolish Protestants believe that they can do anything they want as long as they have faith!

Of course, Protestants don’t believe this, but it’s easy to see how this simple formula can be whittled down to this gross oversimplification. It’s also easy to see how, from this formula, Protestants might think that Catholics believe that we can save ourselves through good works. This is hardly the case, and a faithful Catholic should be repugnant at the idea: at the Synod of Orange, Council of Carthage, and Council of Trent (the latter being the one directly responding to Protestantism) the Catholic Church categorically denounced this position.

So how did we get here? And how we do get out of there?

The answer lies in cutting through the oversimplifications and getting to the root of what we actually believe. Novel idea, right? This means that things will not be automatically apparent to us. It means that the answer is going to be a bit confusing at first. We’re going to want a simpler answer to remember, a way to boil down the difference to a single line. But that is what got us into the mess in the first place! We must resist this temptation and try to get to the precise language our Church’s have come up with after hundreds of years of thinking about these topics.

Up for the challenge? Then I present you with the latest episode of Catholicism in Focus, a look at how Lutherans and Catholics define justification.

What was the first sin? Not what was the first act (eating of the fruit), but why was the first sin a sin and what did it do?

While it might seem like an easy question, there are a number of ways of looking at it. Some might see it as an act of disobedience against God, that humanity sinned in breaking God’s law. Others might see it as a poor use of the intellect, that it was the act of choosing something that was not pure and true, turning away from the source of Truth. Others, still, might see it as an act that affected future generations, breaking down the ways of a perfect society to create a world of injustice. All of these things are true, and yet they reveal a different operative theology.

This week on Catholicism in Focus, I look at the work of Justo Gonzalez, Roger Schroeder, and Steve Bevans, theologians that suggest that there are three types of theology for which all theologians generally conform. These types identify how we may begin the theological process from a different assumptions and values, and how this leads us to a different conclusion.

Take, for instance, the role of evangelization. What is mission and why should we engage in it? For those of Type A (sin as disobedience), the outside world is depraved and without the light of Christ, so we must save souls by informing them of what they do not know, namely, that Christ saves. For Type B (sin is untruth), the truth of Christ can be found everywhere and so we must ask questions, engaging in mutual discovery with all of creation. For Type C (sin as social disorder), the kingdom in which we live is far from the Kingdom of Heaven and we must undertake the process of bringing, proclaimed and lived by Jesus, of reconciliation and justice.

Are all three of these answers capture an important aspect of our theology. All three of these answers have defined our mission theology for centuries. And yet, all three of these answers end up at a completely different place with widely divergent expectations.

And for me, that is not only fascinating, but encouraging. When we think of Catholic theology, we must fight the temptation to think of it as a singular relation of answers and open ourselves up to the true meaning of “catholic”: we are a universal Church. When we look to the full history of our Church, we see that we consist rather of Catholic theologies, many perspectives that offer a deeper, more universal take on God and our reality.

no.

Okay, maybe a little more needs to be said…

For one, we have to understand that major geo-political shifts occur for complex reasons. The problems felt in the 6th to 11th century Europe were the result of the world’s largest empire collapsing and taking with in the infrastructure on which many nations were built. Without safety, investments in roads, and a surplus of food, it doesn’t take long for an entire civilization to crumble.

Second, we also have to question what we even mean by the “Dark Ages.” What was felt in Italy, France, and Germany was not felt in the Byzantine Empire or Ireland. In fact, in both of those places, culture thrived, and much of what remains from the ancient world comes through these nations (each of which were Christian.)

And finally, and maybe most to the point, we need to look at the positive effect that Christianity had on the world throughout history. While the overall output of societal growth may have been much lower in the year 950 than in 150, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any advancements or that the Church was getting in the way. The reality of it all is that the Church was the only major force keeping the Western world from complete collapse, and had it not been for its insistence on art, culture, and studies, the scientific revolution may never have happened.

If you’ve ever been to confession, you know that it is a “safe space.” When you bear your soul, confessing sins committed, the priest is forbidden to tell anyone what you’ve said. This is the “inviolable” seal of confession.

What most people don’t know, however, is that this seal extends far beyond words and is completely free of exceptions. A priest may not act upon anything he hears in the confession, neither telling anyone else or changing the way he would normally act, no matter what is confessed. While a mandatory reporting for things like suicide in abuse in every other case, if such things are revealed within the confessional, he risks excommunication if shared with authorities.

Recently, this is come under great scrutiny by civil authorities, and some states have even made it illegal, forcing priests to break the seal under certain circumstances or risk being imprisoned. At the moment, California is considering this exact legislation.

And in one way, it makes sense, right? Why would we want to protect a potential murderer, child molester, or someone at risk of suicide? We should want to do everything we can to turn this person in, either to get them help or to punish them for their actions.

And yet, I have to argue that something quite essential would be lost within the sacrament if the inviolable seal were removed: with anonymity comes the freedom to return to God with one’s whole heart and take the first step towards retribution for one’s sins. Without the fear of civil punishment, the Church is able to engage with people who would have otherwise carried their sins alone until their death, never taking a step forward and never finding the peace necessary to make things right. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, a firmly believe that the seal of the confession actually makes it more likely that people who have committed horrible sins will seek the help they need and reconciliation will be achieved by all involved.

As the Church continues to move forward with scandal, showing that it has been irresponsible to keep the safety of the public in mind, this case is going to be more and more difficult to make, but it is one that I think we must continue to hold. There is truly nothing like the opportunity that the sacrament allows, to step outside of our time and space, and to speak directly to God.