The relationship between Roman Catholic beliefs/ practices and societal norms has always been complex and ranged from agreement to outright opposition. Church teaching has also evolved. Its “just war theory,” for example, changed over time from a pacifist position in the earliest Christian centuries, to one which allowed for legitimating defense of the innocent, to the recognition in our own time that nuclear war cannot be justified in any situation. Pope Francis stated in 2019 on the 74th anniversary of the nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima that “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possession of atomic weapons is immoral.” The pope is using his considerable influence to impact world opinion, yet it is clear on this issue that ecclesial teaching is at odds with US nuclear policy and the position of many politicians (Catholic or not).
It is one thing to engage in debate on public policy, it is quite another for Church leadership to threaten individual Catholic politicians with refusal of eucharistic reception because of their public stance on abortion. It is difficult to understand or justify why abortion is the only contemporary moral issue where punitive Eucharistic action has been threatened by the episcopacy. Catholic politicians who support the possibility of nuclear war which threatens millions of lives, worldwide social stability, and the very viability of living on planet Earth have never been threatened with Eucharistic sanctions (nor, I would argue, should they be).
Since their online meeting in June 2021, the majority of bishops in the US Episcopal Conference have promoted such sanctions against President Biden and other Catholic politicians despite warnings from the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to be cautious about doing so and to work toward consensus instead. While President Biden is personally against abortion, he makes clear that in a pluralistic society his public posture toward those who hold alternate views can be different. In a democratic society, prudential judgement on whether and when to act in the public forum regarding any moral issue must be based on “the art of the possible” and a calculous on timing when to act.
Two issues are really at stake: shaping public opinion and freedom of conscience. The role of the Church is to persuade the general community and its own members of its moral beliefs and encourage its politicians to work these values into law, at least in some circumstances. Protecting the right to follow one’s conscience with prayerful discernment has long been upheld by our Church. While forming the consciences of its own members, its official position is not a substitute for an individual’s discernment. The role of the politician is to follow her/his well-formed conscience, but also to do the difficult work of fostering these values in a pluralistic society in a timely fashion.
Turning to our sacramental issue, the practice of “fencing” the Eucharistic table has a long history. From the beginning of the Church, to “be in communion” over doctrine and practice was symbolized by standing around the altar and sharing in the Eucharistic meal. During early doctrinal struggles, for example, bishops who were not in agreement with accepted Church teaching were not allowed to participate in communion because they literally were not “in communion” with the Church. Eucharist, among other things, is a symbol that communicates truth; you could not symbolize by sharing at the eucharistic table a “communion” that did not exist.
The Eucharistic controversy of the 3rd century was slightly more complex. Those who had apostatized or denied their faith in the Decian persecution later were not allowed to participate in the Eucharistic meal. When another persecution threatened, the Church decided to welcome them back to the table in order to nourish them for the challenges ahead. In this case, Eucharist was understood as strengthening food for the perils of life.
In conclusion, as Pope Francis says, the Church must evangelize culture with the Gospel in a post-Christian world. It also must support its politicians who do the hard work of embedding gospel values in public policy. The Eucharist should never be used to threaten individual politicians who are working in the difficult space between the Gospel and the coming reign of God.