It’s a very specific debate about whether conversion and repentance are necessary, not for community, but for communion: The reception of the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, during the central act of Catholic worship, the sacrifice of the mass. And by claiming — or at least very strongly implying —that Jesus’s meals with sinners are the template for how the church should think about communion, Father Martin is effectively rejecting the entire sweep of our church’s tradition on this question.Long quote; sorry. But I don't want to be accused of taking him out of context.
This tradition is rooted in the gospels themselves, where the Last Supper is emphatically not a feeding of the five thousand moment or a meal with a tax collector: Those encounters are arguably prefigurations of the Last Supper, but the actual eucharist itself is instituted in an intimate encounter between Jesus and his closest followers, held in a private upstairs room far from the crowds and hangers-on.
The tradition is also rooted in the New Testament more broadly, and particularly in Saint Paul’s admonition that “a man must examine himself first, and then eat of that bread and drink of that cup; he is eating and drinking damnation to himself if he eats and drinks unworthily.” (Which doesn’t sound like a “community first, conversion second” admonition to me.)
And then it’s rooted in the ancient, millennia-spanning practice of the church itself, in which the idea that communion follows conversion is part of the chain of experience that binds the earliest Christians to their medieval and modern Catholic heirs.
So treating the eucharist as a form of outreach instead would represent a revolution, not a mere pastoral tweak, in the way the church thinks about that sacrament (and not only that one). That’s because there’s no clear way to confine Father Martin’s logic to the narrow cases at issue in this debate. If community precedes conversion in the reception of communion, why should only remarried Catholics (or gay Catholics, or polygamous Catholics) have the benefits of being welcomed at the altar? The same welcoming logic would surely apply to any unshriven sinner in need of conversion. And not just any sinner who happened to be baptized Catholic: If the template is Jesus’s meals with the unconverted, then it would apply to any human being, period, since who wouldn’t Jesus have dined with? Why should Protestants not be welcomed to communion? Why shouldn’t Jews? (We know Jesus liked to dine with Jews!) Why shouldn’t Muslims and Mormons, agnostics and atheists? If the eucharist is basically a form of food-based Christian fellowship, a means to outreach and welcome and hospitality rather than a sacred mystery for believers to approach with reverence and not a little fear, then forget the divorced and remarried; barring anyone from receiving makes no sense at all.
And indeed there are many Christian churches that take exactly this attitude toward communion. But they are also, not coincidentally, generally churches that don’t have Catholicism’s view of transsubstantiation, confession, or the sacramental economy writ large. They are always Protestant, frequently liberal, and emphatically not the Roman Catholic Church in which both myself and Father Martin were confirmed.
A few points:
1. To Douthat's purity principle, pointing at the Last Supper, might I point out that one Judas Iscariot was present; indeed, he was singled out for special attention:
Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.So, clearly, only the pure in heart and converted should be allowed at our commemoration of the Last Supper. Don't get me wrong; I respect the right of the Roman Catholic Church to make whatever rules it holds to be required by God and the service of God. But this line of argumentation is distinctly poor--
Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake.
He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it? Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.
2. But that's hardly surprising; Douthat argues like a high school debater. "[E]mphatically not the Roman Catholic Church in which both myself and Father Martin were confirmed," Ross? You were born in late 1979 and converted (and I'll assume confirmed) at 17. By my poor math, that means you've been a Catholic for about as long as South Park has been on the air. Your adherence to Roman Catholicism has just about tied the original run of Cats
See, sometimes change is better.
Kidding aside, My point is that this is a juvenile argument--you don't get to pull that O tempera, o mores routine based on an 18 year run.
3. He's also stone-cold ignorant about the liberal churches who do allow communion to all or to all the baptized: "there are many Christian churches that take exactly this attitude toward communion. But they are also, not coincidentally, generally churches that don’t have Catholicism’s view of transsubstantiation, confession, or the sacramental economy writ large. They are always Protestant, frequently liberal," and, as we covered earlier, not the Church he was confirmed in back in that distant era when Bill Clinton was serving his second term. Which doesn't explain his complete unfamiliarity with Anglo-Catholicism, in either its English or American forms. Short version: From its conservative, indeed reactionary, origins with John Henry Newman and the Tractarians, it had a second wave, the so-called "Second Oxford Movement", led by Charles Gore and the "Holy Party." Both variants flourish to this day, disagreeing quite often--though not always--on questions such as women's ordination and same sex marriage, while sharing a firm conviction to what Gore described as "sacramental religion." [A first rate book on the English context is N.P. Williams's Northern Catholicism (1933), and, for the American context, George DeMille's The Catholic Movement in the Episcopal Church (1941).] So, yes, many liberal protestants believe in Real Presence in the Eucharist, some in Transubstantiation, quite a few in confession, and plenty in the Atonement. (I mean, there's a whole chapter on the Atonement in Lux Mundi (1889), the founding text of liberal Anglo-Catholicism.It's by Arthur Lyttleton, and quite good.)
Oh--and that we share so precious a sacrament so widely is not because we do not value it, but because, in the words of a wise priest I know, it isn't ours to keep, but to give away. It's a vision captured in that most wonderful of hymns--which we sang at my ordination, "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy." We really believe these words: