Monday, May 3, 2010

Everybody is Somebody

It's hard to move on from communion without addressing one of the more complicated and difficult issues the U.S. church has faced in the last decade with regard to it, namely how to receive politicians who vote pro-choice. Articles ad nauseam have been written pro and con; if you're interested in that debate, I highly recommend the archives of America Magazine, where I used to work. They've had a lot of interesting takes on the issue, particularly in the months preceding the 2004 and 2008 elections. Check them out.

Personally, I resist the idea of denying people communion. Not because I think the church doesn't have the right. Of course it does. Nor because I think the issue of protecting the lives of the unborn isn't incredibly important. It is.

No, my problem is, I don't think this policy is terribly effective in changing hearts and minds. Prohibiting Catholic politicians from receiving communion certainly has the capacity to force them and others to reconsider their positions. I have no doubt, in fact, that the experience of being refused has caused some soul-searching.

But it's also gotten a lot of Catholics and non-Catholics angry at the bishops. In the American context, it is read by many as an abuse of power. Some see it as well as a political move, meant not simply to help the unborn but to help the Republican Party. (And a few bishops have seemed by their words to suggest this interpretation is a fair one.) And it has led to some radical misperceptions of the circumstances in which communion can or should be denied, too!


None of this helps the cause. Indeed, it redirects attention from the issue we want to talk about, the sanctity of all life, to questions about the bishops' use of their authority. The more heavy-handed the bishops' action, no matter how well intentioned, the more the conversation becomes instead about them.

Last year, when Timothy Dolan was installed as Archbishop of New York, he touched on the issue of the sanctity of life. And his approach was to offer a very simple (and also hard to argue with) explanation for the church's thinking. "Everybody is somebody," he argued:
Yes, the Church is a loving mother who has a zest for life and serves life everywhere, but she can become a protective "mamma bear" when the life of her innocent, helpless cubs is threatened. Everyone in this mega-community is a somebody with an extraordinary destiny. Everyone is a somebody in whom God has invested an infinite love. That is why the Church reaches out to the unborn, the suffering, the poor, our elders, the physically and emotionally challenged, those caught in the web of addictions.

Don't mess with the mamma bear.

I would suggest that with this simple statement, the archbishop did much more for the cause of social transformation that the Church seeks than the activity of refusing communion is likely to. It avoids the distractions of power and speaks about the human person in a clear, compelling way. And the argument is so well grounded in the values of American society, and in God's love, it's very hard to dismiss outright.

I think as Church we need to keep asking ourselves, what is it that we want? When it comes to the pro-life issue, what we want ideally is not a smaller or "purer" church (whatever that would mean, given our fallen humanity), but a transformation of our broader society's understanding. Conversion.

Refusing communion is one approach to that goal. But if that approach is not bearing fruit, or worse is diminishing our capacity to achieve that goal -- that is, if it's not speaking in a way that people can understand, that causes the change of heart desired -- well, then, let's not get mired down in it. There are are other methods available.

The AA definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result....