By and large, Catholics in America all stand to receive the Eucharist now. Why? Because the American bishops would have it so. It is a sign of unity, we are told. When the ruling first came out, at least one bishop opined that anyone who dared to genuflect or kneel at reception of Eucharist was disobeying his authority. Instances of denying Eucharist to kneeling recipients became so common that Rome was required to reprimand a bishop and announce that kneeling was always permitted when receiving.
Still, you couldn’t tell this by many bishops’ directives. Bishop Jenky of Peoria, for instance, an orthodox man and a wonderful homilist, saw fit to issue a great set of directives on reception of the Eucharist. He took pains to point out that a sign of reverence should precede reception: a bow of the head or a sign of the Cross. He dealt with genuflection and kneeling very adroitly. He simply failed to acknowledge the existence of these options at all. Thus, no one could accuse him of being false to Rome, nor could anyone accuse him of being false to his brother bishops. What about the fullness of teaching he gave to the laity? That's open to discussion. But the point is made. Silence is become the rule that maintains unity.
In a similar fashion, we now tend to baptize by partial or full immersion. Why? Well, it is a fuller sign, you see. All the liturgists say so, and I agree. I have nothing against fuller signs – I’m all in favor of them. In fact, I may be one of the few who prefers partial or full immersion where possible at baptism and kneeling to receive Jesus from a priest on the tongue. These signs, priests instead of lay ministers, kneeling instead of standing, are fuller signs too, you know. Oddly, it seems that anyone who insists on a fuller sign at baptism recoils at the fuller signs of Eucharist, and vice versa. “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” says Emerson, so I must admit to having a very small mind indeed.
One sign of my small-mindedness is my wonder at the recent bishops’ statement on pro-abortion politicians and the Eucharist. We have been treated to marvelous discussions on the subject prior to this: cardinals and bishops, for instance, insisting that Church and state separation must be maintained (even though this particular idea is heretical according to Catholic doctrine). Or the same consecrated men insisting they don’t know John Kerry’s mind and thus can’t restrict his access to Eucharist, even though support of abortion is the only point he has never flip-flopped on during the whole of his campaign. Likewise, these gentlemen certainly were interested in presenting a united front when it came to the sex-abuse scandal – oh how they raced to stand shoulder to shoulder on that one!
So, after hearing all of this noise about signs of unity when we receive Eucharist, it is something of a surprise to hear the bishops deny the need for unity on who receives the Eucharist. The bishops may vehemently desire the faithful to avoid the kneelers during and after reception of Eucharist, but visible signs of unity don't appear to be wanted beyond that.
Instead, when it comes to who may receive Jesus, each bishop may do as he pleases. Now, this is not a violation of Church teaching in and of itself. It is certainly the case that the USCCB has as much power to mandate the actions of a specific bishop as the local Moose lodge does: that is, it has none at all. No bishop can tell another what to do in his own diocese – even Rome is much more circumscribed in this regard then most people realize. So, in that sense, the Colorado meeting was not a surprise. It merely emphasized a specific point of doctrine that most people don’t often think about: each bishop is nearly completely autonomous in his own diocese. They don't think about it because the bishops take great pains to avoid mentioning it.
That is what makes this lack of insistence on unity all the more remarkable. The bishops insist on unity, unity, unity when it comes to the lay faithful obeying them. They insist on unity, unity, unity when it comes to standing, kneeling and sitting together in the liturgy. But when it comes to actually distributing the Eucharist to people of questionable (possibly heretical) morality – suddenly they emphasize their autonomy.
Perhaps long tassels will come back in style. If they do, you can be sure the bishops will insist that everyone wear them. If whitewashing tombs becomes popular again, the USCCB will undoubtedly have a directive in support of the measure. It is important to maintain appearances, after all. But the masks are now torn off.
That’s what the recent ecclesial lawsuit charging John Kerry with heresy has done. Every bishop in North America is quaking in his shoes. If Boston rules Kerry orthodox, this case will be appealed to Rome. If that happens (and the man in Boston would be truly foolish to let it cross the Atlantic), canon law will give Rome the full jurisdiction and proper moment she so desperately needs in order to set an example. Kerry will be declared a heretic: either Boston or Rome will do it, and if Kerry is foolish enough to appeal, he will lose. Boston is caught on the horns of the dilemma. There is no way out.
This frightens the hell (we hope) out of the bishops. After all, the laity are starting to actually do what Vatican II encouraged four decades ago: they are starting to get involved. What happens to John Kerry can happen to Ted Kennedy can happen to any of the Dirty Dozen in the Congress. But why stop there? We need only change the name and the footnotes in the 18-page brief and Frances Kissling (founder of Catholics for a Free Choice) is suddenly in the dock. Ditto Fr. Drinan – and he can be laicized as a result. So can any ordained man found to be a heretic. Any number of lesser lights could quickly follow.
Rome knows this. The American bishops know this. And there is nothing anyone can do to stop it, except to desperately duplicate Bishop Jenky - refuse to publicly acknowledge what is happening and hope the lay men and women continue to play the ignorant fools.
You see, we, the laity, have the power to cleanse this Church. This ecclesial lawsuit is just one exercise of the sensus fidelium – the sense of the faithful, which is itself an infallible arm of the ordinary Magisterium. "We Are Church" can’t do this kind of thing because they are heretics. We can do it because we are not.
We are the orthodox lay faithful and we are finally helping each other. We are beginning to stand on our feet in ecclesial court and bend our knees when we receive Jesus. We are finally beginning to realize that we can join the faithful who have passed on the Truth through the generations. We can fight the scourge of heresy which has whipped us these last few centuries. And we can win.