Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Canadian Prime Minister Communion Controversy

Here is a new story that riled Roman Catholics in Canada, as the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, a Protestant, received communion at a Catholic funeral.

The video of the event shows Mr. Harper taking the consecrated host with his hand, but does not show him eating the host, leading to speculation that the Prime Minister, whose religious beliefs would consider the Catholic Mass to be idolatry, pocketed the Body of Christ.

The Prime Minister's office claims he ate the host after fumbling around with the church bulletin - something that does not seem to be happening in the video.

Of course, politicians say a lot of things. Who knows what the truth is?

But the story has a few lessons of practical theology:

1) If you are a guest at a church that is not your own, it would be best to refrain from participating in any sacramental rites, unless: you know what you are doing, it does not violate your own religious beliefs, and is being done by express invitation of your hosts. Figure all this out ahead of time. It would help to know what everyone believes beforehand.

2) If you are a pastor, make it clear what your church's policy is, and if a guest shows up for communion and you know they ought not be receiving it, have a clear back-up plan, such as a blessing to be given in such a situation - even if the person is a powerful politician.

3) Any hint of scandal that the Lord's Body went into someone's pocket could easily be avoided by the traditional practice of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue.

Lessons 1 and 2 both involve what is commonly called "closed communion." Church visitors need to respect their host churches, and officials in those churches need to make sure visitors respect the religious doctrines held by the hosts - lest others be scandalized.

Lesson 3 addresses the role of tradition in theological practice.

There is nothing inherently wrong or sinful about taking the host in the hand. And doing so has almost become a "law" in the Roman Church over the last 40 years or do. It has also become the norm among modern American Lutherans, as the old adage: "When the pope gets a cold, the Lutherans sneeze" is yet again shown to be true. What's done is done. Taking the host in the hand in no way invalidates the sacrament or does damage to our Lord's holiness. And lest the unscrupulous attempt to put words in my mouth, I am by no means saying that communing on the tongue makes one a "better Lutheran" or communing in the hand is in any way banned in my parish. Most of my parishioners commune the traditional way as they always have, but many also prefer the more modern method. It is the choice of the communicant. We have no canon law on the matter.

However, there was a reason why the medieval practice (continued by Luther and the reformers for centuries) of distributing on the tongue was initially put into place, and why it had such staying power: to avoid this very kind of scandal. In the centuries before the Reformation, some people, pious but ill-advised, would pocket the host to take it home and use it in a superstitious way as a talisman. This negates the benefit of the sacramental mandate: "Take, eat." Similarly, some non-believers (perhaps including witches or even Satanists) would pocket the host in order to show contempt to Jesus, the Church, and the sacrament, or even to use the pilfered consecrated host in desecratory rituals.

Both problems were solved by having the celebrant distribute the Body of Christ directly onto the tongue of the communicant.

There was simply no good reason to change this practice in the 1960s - not even the romantic idea of returning to the primitive church, or making the laity feel good about themselves that they were now free to touch the host with their hands - a practice previously reserved to the clergy.

In spite of whatever good intentions the Vatican II reformers had, the net result is that the Lord's Body is now much easier to desecrate - whether by intent or accident. And if the Lord's Body is desecrated even one time, was the change worth it?

This entire scandal could have been avoided - had the priest and the prime minister behaved with integrity, and had the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church not been so eager to throw out a church tradition that came into being centuries ago to prevent this very thing from happening.


Past Elder said...

On the scene report:

Before the Council, I (RC kid) was taught that in Communion Christ feeds us directly, and to be sure to extend the tongue such that the host can be placed securely on it so that the Lord feeding one of his faithful is not frustrated by the host falling off.

I (RC altar boy) was also taught to be sure to place the paten exactly under the communicant's chin, so that if it did happen, it would fall on the paten, but if for some reason it fell to the floor, under no circumstances pick it up, this is the priest's responsibility.

Come the Revolution, er, Vatican II, we were taught that this was actually just late mediaeval piety and now we have recovered the ancient practice of the early church, and with that, finally can get away from this "me and Jesus" passive thing that ignores that Communion is a horizontal event as a member of a believing community as well as a vertical event which is an interaction between us and God.

Therefore, just like in faith itself, God's action toward us is met by our action toward God, therefore, we extent the hand as a sign of our active faith to meet God's action toward us, rather than just passively take the host from the priest.

Whatever its pedigree, the fact is its dusting off for use in our times was firmly tied to a concept of Communion as an act of ours, as well as an act of God's.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Past Elder:

By the way, when I see you referenced as "PE" it reminds me of my experiences in Physical Education classes in junior & senior high school. Not pleasant memories.

Anyway, Our little working class parish on Milwaukee's near south side has taken a definite turn for the traditional. E.G., we now use a server's paten, which is held, just as you describe, under the chin of the communicant.

An unforeseen phenomenon, incidentally, occured when we started using the server's paten, viz., whereas most of our parishioners took communion by the hand before, virtually all of them now take it by the tongue. This was not suggested or urged or debated or taught in an 8 week bible class, or "prayerfully considered." We simply started using the server's paten, with the truly innocent and simple idea that it is the reverent thing to do on our side of the rail, regardless of how someone takes communion. I had not predicted that the people would modify their practice accordingly, but most have. And no one has complained, or been scandalized, or was led to think that they had not received the true Body of Christ theretofore.

Nor, of course, would the Pastor (or deacon) at our church be unsympathetic, unmoved, impatient, demanding, or any such thing, if we were to encounter someone who has been led to confusion.

Father Hollywood:

You are absolutely right that the issue of closed communion is one in which responsibility must be shown on both sides of the altar rail, ie., both communicants (and potential communicants) and Ministers. Incidents like the one you report remind me that this sort of thing happens all the time, in not only Catholic churches, but Lutheran ones as well. I have heard LCMS pastors who profess a position of closed communion, when they are pressed, admit that if someone comes to the altar rail, they don't feel that is the place for a scene, and so they will simply give communion. Here the pastor might well remind himself of the words of Saint Paul:
"Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God."

Anonymous said...

When I think back to the year it took for my husband's annulment to come through and I was waiting to be received into the Catholic church, I faithfully attended Mass and never received Communion.

Once I was "in the door", wow, what an eye-opener. I can't fault the average suburban parish priest, the parishes are simply too large for the clergy to know who is "properly disposed" to receive and who isn't. They don't even know most parishioners' names.

Vatican II Catholics pretty much make up their own minds these days as to whether they "should" or "shouldn't" receive. My own brother-in-law, divorced and remarried without an annulment received anyway.

As for receiving Communion in the hand, the Vatican has repeatedly instructed the bishops that the laity may receive on the hand or the tongue, they have the right to choose. There are still, however, "progressive" bishops who humuliate laypersons who choose to receive on the tongue.


Anonymous said...

It might also be worth mentioning that under current canon law bishops are given the discretion to allow Eucharist sharing at Catholic funerals where some family members are not Catholic.


Anonymous said...

From the National Catholic Register, a reliable Catholic source:

Harper, who belongs to an evangelical church, accepted a consecrated host from Archbishop André Richard of Moncton, Brunswick, at the funeral Mass in New Brunswick for former Canadian Governor General Romeo LeBlanc.

Initial concern over Harper’s actions focused on the fact that in a video of the Mass posted on YouTube, Harper can be seen accepting the Eucharist but does not appear to consume it. Subsequently, though, a spokesman for Harper said he did consume it and a Canadian senator who was standing nearby at the Mass confirmed he had seen Harper do so.

What predisposed an Archbishop of the RCC to offer Harper Communion is a mystery to me although he certainly has the discretion to allow it. Perhaps it was because of the political nature of the funeral.

Of course, the incident involving Bill Clinton in South Africa was a disgrace -- Clinton attended Georgetown and knew perfectly well that he and his wife shouldn't present themselves for Communion. But then, the egos of the Clintons know no bounds.

Peter said...

From the recording, I have some sympathy for the PM. It doesn't look like he "went up" to communion, but was simply given it without much time to think. (Why the priest gave it to him, who knows? He was distracted?) The PM at that instant, did not wantto be disrespectful by refusing it, perhaps. So, assuming this isn't a trend, and it's a lesson learned, I'll give him a pass.

Anonymous said...

Well, again, it is significant that it was an Archbishop who OFFERED Holy Communion to Mr. Harper. It behooves to keep in mind that the official RC position is that Communion for non-Catholics is not "ordinarily permitted".

The Archbishop may have decided to suspend "normal" Catholic practice, this being a state funeral.

But as I like to observe (and giving full credit to Past Elder on this wonderful observation), the RC can just about theologize anything to death.

It has also become the norm among modern American Lutherans, as the old adage: "When the pope gets a cold, the Lutherans sneeze" is yet again shown to be true.

Heh, my sister is still in an ELCA parish and observed recently that the liturgy there very much resembles the RC novus ordo. I haven't been successful in convincing her that's that's *not* a good thing. Just about every heterodox liturgical mainstream Protestant body has it too.

Nor have I been able to quench her admiration for her Synod's lady *bishop* (who is married to an Episcopal priest. Very handy).


Father Hollywood said...

Dear Peter:

I agree that the PM very likely acted out of ignorance - which is a sad commentary on the affairs of both church and state.

The church has done a poor job of confessing before kings, and any man who would rise to the stature of prime minister should know better.

The priest who administered the Holy Sacrament to Mr. Harper was an archbishop - and his remarks about "special occasions" (once in a lifetime event?) demonstrate either a lack of basic doctrine or the lack of courage in carrying out his duties - or (worst of all, and hopefully not) a lack of belief about what he is handing out.

My point in posting this is not to vilify the PM, but rather to show the "comedy of errors" and the resulting scandal that ensues when even well-intentioned changes to traditional practice become the rule.

This simply would not have happened a century ago.

Anonymous said...

his remarks about "special occasions" (once in a lifetime event?) demonstrate either a lack of basic doctrine or the lack of courage in carrying out his duties - or (worst of all, and hopefully not) a lack of belief about what he is handing out.

That's the point that I am trying to make. This IS the reality in the RCC since the Second Vatican Council. The pope does not micromanage the RC on a world level and bishops have a great deal of power and latitude in their own diocese. "Collegiality" was a big theme of Vatican II.

The Archbishop knew exactly what he was doing and was carrying out his episcopal prerogatives.

I'm sure you remember that Brother Roger Schutz, a Protestant of the ecumenical Taize community received Holy Communion at the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

Which is why those of who have experienced the RC from the inside out keep sounding the warnings.


Past Elder said...

Herr Diakon: Well, I suppose as long as you don't mistake PE for Pastor Esget all will be well!

Abuse of denominational communion practice abounds everywhere, let alone whether those practices are correct or not.

Even though in WELS our pastor clearly announced the practice, and referred anyone with a question or wanting further explanation to speak to him or one of the elders, not once was I ever spoken to about it.

Makes you yearn for the old days of announcing for Communion the night before. They did it when it meant swinging by the parsonage; with phones, cell phones, email, texting, IM etc now this is less possible?

My original point is, though, that communion in the hand, as reintroduced in our times, is directly connected to a concept of Communion as partly an action of merit on our part, not wholly the gift of Christ but a gift AND our action -- really an altar call, decision theology and all, but with all kinds of trappings so it seems Catholic.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Christine:

You are absolutely right. Open communion is everywhere. It exploded among all Christians since the 1960s, since Vatican 2. I believe Benedict is fighting the same battle that many of us are: trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, and to do it in such a way as not to destroy the faith of those whom have been taught that this is the proper, loving thing to do for an entire generation.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Father Hollywood, Benedict is trying to fight the good fight.

Unfortunately the battle is being waged more at the chancery level. Nuns with "high" theological degrees who now serve as "pastoral associates" and priests who see the main purpose of the RC as engaging in social justice are not too concerned about whether canon law is followed. The situation in Europe is far worse, as we all know.

The generation that lived before the Second Vatican Council will soon come to an end. I wonder what will happen when a pope is elected who has no memory of the preconciliar church?

Time will tell. My cradle Catholic husband would agree that the RCC as it is now is no longer "his grandfather's church."



Mike Keith said...

It has been interesting to hear the responses. Most people are shocked to find out that not anyone should just stroll up to the altar and recieve the Sacrament. Some poepel on the call in radio shows have been irrate upon learning that this is the teaching of the Roman church. It has been good to have this discussion raised - it has made some peopel in my parish think also.

Pr. David Gallas said...

Great words Fr. Hollywood.

It is a good reminder to all who practice closed communion here in Canada and elsewhere of making the church's practice clear to all.

Here are some wise words from conservative writer/talk show host Michael Coren about this whole incident.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a "conservative" talk show host. The problem is that the Canadian Catholic church is even more infested with liberalism than the RCC in the U.S.

On the other hand, here's another view from an American priest:

Yes, U.S. Catholic is a very liberal publication and the priest is from Boston, which speaks volumes.

Depends very much on the diocese these days.


Anonymous said...

I also had to smile a bit at Coren's triumphalism:

The church founded by Christ, the teaching office left us by Him and the papacy created by the Son of God has lasted for 2,000 years and still will be here when Tories, Liberals, Anglicans and all sorts of journalists are long gone.

Communion will always be the body and blood of Christ.

And the critics will always be just critics.

The papacy created by the Son of God.

Spoken like a loyal son of the Empire.


Father Hollywood said...

Dear David:

Thanks for the Michael Coren link! I'm a fan of Coren, dating back to when he wrote an absolutely uproarously funny column in Frank Magazine (Mrs. Hollywood hails from Ottawa).

His article is spot on.

It is nice to see a conservative Christian unabashedly confess what he believes - and it is especially so, given that he is a Canadian - in a day and age where advocating traditional religious values can land you before an extrajudicial "human rights tribunal" (sic).

I know Coren has caught a lot of flak from the radical media for refusing to apologize for his Catholicism.

Warren said...

A similar incident occurred in New Orleans years ago when former governor Buddy Roemer, a Methodist, attended a service at St. Louis Cathedral. As I recall the story, he initially was reluctant to leave his front-row pew seat to go up for communion, but was urged to do so. Whether it was by his own aides or by an assistant priest I don't recall, but go up he reportedly did.

Ritewinger said...

Rev. Dr. Edward Kettner of Concordia Lutheran Seminary has written a response to this issue, it is on the LC-C website.