To a lot of Biden-loving Democrats, and probably to most non-Catholics, the idea of denying Communion to the second Catholic president of the United States probably seemed bizarre. In the end, thanks to the intervention of the Vatican, conservative U.S. bishops’ plan to “discipline” Biden and other pro-choice public officials by barring them from receiving Communion was dropped.
But while this effort was unsuccessful, there’s nothing that unusual about the general notion of the Church policing the altar. The truth is that the Roman Catholic Church (like its Eastern Orthodox counterpart churches) has always treated the Holy Eucharist (the more formal name for the sacrament of Communion) as a blessing that can be denied to the “unworthy.” As you may know from your European history classes, the Church used to do this formally via “excommunication” of individuals or classes of individuals; there was once a territorial version of the latter sanction called “interdict,” applied, for example, to England in the 13th and 16th centuries for royal interference with papal prerogatives (in the latter case, Queen Elizabeth I’s claim to be head of the Church of England). Technically, everyone in the country under interdict was denied not only the sacraments in this life but paradise in the next. It was a very serious business.
But from early in Christian history until very recently, the Catholic Church relied less on excommunicating ostensibly evil people or their subjects than on urging them to self-excommunicate — to voluntarily decline to receive Communion when there was any doubt about their “worthiness.” And that’s actually what the conservative bishops want Biden and other pro-choice political leaders to do: no longer “present themselves” at the altar. In the past, for better or worse, such self-excommunication efforts were very successful.
A great if remarkably little-discussed scandal of Catholic history is that for a period of about 1,500 years — from the 4th century until roughly the 19th — most Catholic laypeople did not regularly take Communion. For centuries, church leaders begged the faithful to receive the Sacrament at least once a year — typically on Easter Sunday. But at the same time, they put conditions on “worthy reception” that made it difficult and psychologically dangerous — even terrifying — to do so.
Fear of “unworthy reception” was rooted in Paul’s New Testament exposition on the Eucharist (I Corinthians 11:29–30), involving those who don’t grasp the nature of the Sacrament:
For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body [of Christ], eats and drinks judgment on himself.
That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.
Early and medieval church leaders increased these fears by treating “unworthy reception” as a grave and deadly sacrilege and imposing prerequisites for Communion that included not only confession, absolution, and performance of penance for all mortal sins, but extensive fasting and abstinence (often from marital sex as well as meat and other specific foods), and sometimes positive obligations such as acts of charity and demonstrations of piety.
Why did church leaders do this? Did they want to keep Communion exclusive? According to the great 20th-century liturgical reformer Gregory Dix, the fencing of the altars was mostly attributable to the vast wave of pagan conversions that occurred after the late Roman Empire imposed Christianity as its official religion:
It was the indiscriminate admission to baptism and confirmation of the infant children of [superficially] Christian parents when all society began to turn nominally Christian that lay at the root of that decline in lay communion which set in during the fourth and fifth centuries …
Between the seventh century and the nineteenth all over Christendom the clergy were normally the only really frequent communicants.
Eventually, a toxic dialectic set in whereby laypeople were afraid to take Communion and the clergy were afraid to administer it to them. More and more, the mass became a ceremony performed by and for the clergy with the laity listening with half-comprehension to a ceremony sometimes mumbled and sometimes sung in a foreign language on the other side of physical and psychological barriers. Gradually over the centuries, the emotional high point of the mass for laypeople was no longer Communion (which they typically did not receive) but the elevation of an ever-larger host (the Communion wafer) glimpsed through incense in a darkened church, as a bell sounded to remind those present that something important was happening. Indeed, many (and in some areas most) masses in the Middle Ages were actually said by priests with no one else present for the benefit of the souls of wealthy people who left bequests for this purpose.
Catholics were hardly alone in making Communion disposable for most believers. Many Protestant faith communities, fearing the “superstition” of the mass with its proclaimed real and material presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, ripped Communion right out of the weekly worship service, consigning it to annual, quarterly, or monthly observances. By the 19th century, when Christians of every persuasion began to grasp that something essential had been lost, there were very few nonclerical churchgoers taking Communion regularly.
Perhaps (as Gregory Dix argued) Western secularization made the fear that hordes of people would unworthily take Communion recede, or maybe the people who did still attend church became hungry for more active engagement in worship. But even as Protestants began to rediscover Communion and reintegrate it into regular worship, Catholics, in the great reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, completely reorganized the mass to make all of it, including Communion, revolve around lay participation. Bars to frequent Communion remained based on fears of “unworthy reception”; laypeople are still told they must confess grave sins and be absolved before approaching the altar (it’s less clear how many people obey such instructions). But taking Communion is now thought to be an ordinary, not an exceptional, act, and a token of unearned grace rather than a reward for exemplary behavior or rigorous obedience to Church teachings.
That’s why the recent push by conservative bishops to deny Joe Biden (and Nancy Pelosi, and John Kerry, and many other regular churchgoers who share their pro-choice views) Communion now seems strange and even un-Christian. In rebuking these efforts, Pope Francis seemed to embrace an understanding of the Eucharist that errs on the side of inclusion, as Bishop Robert W. McElroy explained earlier this year in the Jesuit magazine America:
The traditional Catholic teaching on worthiness for reception of the Eucharist is an important one in the life of the church. But it is not the centerpiece of the church’s understanding of Christ’s invitation to receive the Eucharist. As Pope Francis made so clear in “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (No. 47). The newly emerging American theology of unworthiness is a direct challenge to this teaching and poses great dangers to Catholic faith, spirituality and practice. It constitutes a significant departure from the emphases of the Second Vatican Council.
And it represents a counterrevolution, not a defense of established Catholic doctrine.
Despite the much-discussed decline of religion in what used to be known as “Christendom,” there are almost certainly more people today taking Communion regularly than at any time since the earliest Christians gathered for the agape meal that was the link between the Lord’s Supper and the Church Eucharist. And that’s not just because Christianity is still growing in the global South. It’s because more and more Christians view this great ritual of unity with believers across the centuries and around the world as essential to their faith. It’s no time for clerics to reclaim Communion as a church-owned property to bestow and withhold. They are not worthy recipients of this power.