From homosexual activists in Chicago to Catholic politicians in Washington D.C., an enormous discussion has arisen about who should or should not be permitted to receive the Eucharist. This kind of discussion is not new to the Church, but today it is deeply misunderstood. We think of it as an act of punishment, when in fact, it is an act of charity that finds its roots at the very beginning of our history.
For instance, the first excommunication happens in Genesis 3. In Genesis 1 and 2, Adam and Eve had communion with God: they could speak to Him in the cool of the morning. But, due to their disobedience, they were cast out of this communion, out of the Garden of Eden. This casting out was an act of extraordinary mercy and charity on God’s part. After all, they had offended against the Most High – in perfect justice, He could have annihilated them or allowed them to live eternally in that complete separation from God that we call hell, for that was the level of separation they had chosen.
But He did neither. Instead, He permitted salvation to come to mankind, even though He would have to spend thousands of years preparing humanity for the salvation He promised at the moment He excommunicated us. Far from damnation, our excommunication was a blessing, as the Easter Vigil liturgy attests: “O happy fault of Adam, which merited for us so great a Saviour!”
Moses likewise experienced excommunication, not once, but twice. As the leader of the Chosen People, he spoke with God face-to-face in the Tent of Meeting, as a man speaks to a man. Yet, when God threatened to destroy the Chosen People because of their grievous sins, Moses intervened on their behalf. Because of Moses’ intervention, the Chosen People were instead simply excommunicated – none were to see the Chosen Land. But Moses chose excommunication for himself in order to help atone for their sins. He was no longer permitted to see God as he had (Numbers 14). Later, when Moses disobeyed God and struck the rock for water, God forbad him entry to the Promised Land – he was cut off from communion with Israel. Miriam, his sister, was likewise excommunicated, stricken with leprosy, for joining with those who argued that there was no such thing as an ordained priesthood (Numbers 12).
Jesus likewise cuts people off from contact with the holy. In John 2, He whips the money-changers out of the Temple, while in John 6, He allowed those who disagreed with His teaching to leave – He did not call them back. Indeed, He simply turned to His apostles and asked which they would prefer: His presence or excommunication?
Paul follows this example. He tells the people of Corinth that the infamy of their sexual sins has reached his ears, and further orders that one man, infamous for his sins, should be delivered “over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor 5:5). Notice how Paul phrases it: he orders the excommunication in order to help assure the man’s salvation. His order was an act of charity.
In fact, excommunication is always a mercy. God is love. Everything He did and does is an act of love. He chastises those whom He loves (Proverbs 3:12).
So, He showed His love for the Pharisees and Sadducees by charitably pointing out to them that they were “blind guides… fools… hypocrites… a den of vipers.” If He had not told them the truth, they would have suffered even more from laboring under their own illusions than they did under the scourging lash of His accurate description. Indeed, one can argue that Jesus loved the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes even more than He loved the other inhabitants of Jerusalem precisely because we know He chastised them more than He did anyone else. He recognized that they really wanted to serve God and that they worked hard at doing so. That’s precisely why they received such enormous chastisement. They had been given an enormous grace to be the spiritual leaders, and “to whom much is given, much is demanded.” (Luke 12:48).
Through the ages, the decision to cut someone off from the sacraments has been an exercise of the deepest charity, an example of divine love for the sinner. The Church first dialogues with the sinner, trying to make sure that the error the sinner is living or promoting is not simply the result of ignorance. Once it becomes clear that the sinner is firm in his wrong understanding and refuses to take correction from the divine authority of God’s ministers, he is cut off. And this is the last kind deed the Church can do for such a man.
We are made to be in communion with the holy. Hell is precisely this lack of communion: our refusal to join ourselves to the thing we were made for.
When we sin, we refuse communion with holiness. We can spend our whole lives in such refusal, but God’s “grace springs new every morning” (Lam 3:22-23). He sends us new grace every morning, new power to accept his invitation to communion with Himself. If it were not for His grace, we could never choose Him. If it were not for His grace, we would always choose to be agonizingly incomplete.
If we die still refusing, then God finally takes us at our word and allows us what we want: permanent excommunication. He respects our decision and stops sending us the grace, the power, to change our mind. We have definitively refused His grace. Once the grace is no longer being sent to us, we are no longer receiving the power necessary to want anything else. That’s why the people who are in Hell want to be there. They are too weak to want anything else, and they have definitively refused all attempts to change their mind.
Thus, the act of excommunication is meant to give the sinner a chance to taste of hell during his life on earth, during the time God sends new grace every morning and there is still a chance to repent. If we are cut off from communion with the holy while we are still alive, perhaps the agony of being incomplete, perhaps the emptiness of life without God, will finally bring us to accept the grace God sends new every morning of our lives. Perhaps the memory of that agony will drive us to embrace Him from that moment on, through all eternity.
The refusal of the Eucharist and the act of excommunication: these are the kindest things God can do for unrepentant, sinful man. These acts honestly recognize and fully respect where we have decided to put ourselves in relationship to Him and they give us the opportunity to live out our decision while we still have a chance to change our minds.
Praise God for the charitable anathema!