On June 20, 2004, Catholic dioceses in America followed the example of so many fractured Protestant denominations and began to break off communion with one another. It is now possible for a Catholic to be given the Eucharist in one diocese and simultaneously be denied the Eucharist in the diocese next door. Catholics in America no longer share full communion. Remarkably, the USCCB gave its blessing to this informal but very real schism. Why?
According to the popular catchphrase, "The Eucharist is not the appropriate place for political battles." It is a sentiment as clear and concise as it is wrong.
The Eucharist's Proper Place
A moment’s thought demonstrates that the Eucharist is at the center of every political battle. It cannot be otherwise. Christ entered the world to heal both its politicians and its politics. He intends to heal the whole of creation, Democrat and Republican. Thus, the Eucharist lies at the heart of every true political battle.
Now, that having been said, we know that we are not to use Him as a tool. The Eucharist is not to be used to hold up the importance of man-made law. We do not use His divine Personhood to accomplish purely political ends. But we do require man-made law to conform to the Eucharist. A partisan political battle is sometimes necessary to assure the Eucharist remains above everything else. In that situation, the Eucharist is not only appropriately placed in the center of the political battle, but bishops, cardinals and lay faithful are required to wage the ensuing Eucharistic political battle.
Let’s take a case in point. When Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and set himself up as the head of his own Church, everyone expected England to be placed under interdict. An interdict is an ecclesiastical penalty directed against an entire country. It closes all the churches, prohibits the celebrations of the sacraments, and causes the population of Catholic faithful to become so incensed that the ruler whose actions warranted the interdict generally either retreats from his stated intentions or is overthrown.
Henry’s break with the Pope risked interdict. He avoided it only by taking the initiative. Before the interdict could be pronounced, he ferociously attacked every orthodox member of the Church he could find, thereby removing the core of dissent in England. Fortunately for him, most English bishops were cowards who, prefering heresy to martyrdom, fulfilled St. John Chrysostom’s famous dictum, "The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops." They did not want to the Eucharist involved in politics. Thus, Henry’s troops had only to publicly murder several hundred lay people and execute the members of several monasteries and convents in order to extinguish the English desire for orthodoxy. Interdict was rendered useless in restoring the True Faith to England precisely because Henry had wiped out the True Faith first.
Correlations between Henry’s era and today are not original to me, but few have pointed out the way King Henry avoided what would otherwise have been unavoidable. For restrictions on the Eucharist, the Mass, the sacraments, to be really effective, you must first have an informed, orthodox population who understands what is being lost.
Now, we should note a few things. Interdict applies to whole towns, provinces and countries. It cuts off not only the ruler who breaks with the Church, but also the lay faithful under his rule, even model Catholics, even living saints. Popes and bishops have used the interdict and excommunication for the whole of the Church’s history. It is still a perfectly valid ecclesial penalty in canon law. Thus, contrary to popular opinion, having a confrontation at the altar rail is not an unusual situation in Church history. Many a consecrated man fought with a recalcitrant sinner while holding the sacred body and blood of Christ in his hands. That’s why a man is consecrated, after all. He is empowered to wage precisely this kind of battle.
Christ Himself is witness to this connection between the Eucharist and politics. The very establishment of the Eucharist was deeply political. Christ was crucified precisely because He had become a political liability in an area where people held politics in higher esteem than holiness. He told us we are to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God’s the things that are God’s. The Eucharist has never belonged to Caesar. We are not to give Him to anyone who esteems Caesar higher than Christ.
God imposed the first interdict in the Garden of Eden. Because Adam, the eldest of our race, sinned, we all suffered a loss of grace. But even as He lifted the interdict through His crucifixion, He imposed a second and different interdict on anyone who denied the divine Person Who existed in the flesh at the moment of conception. The witnesses of the crucifixion might have shared His bloodline and the promises of the Old Covenant, but they could not share in the Eucharist until they accepted that conception was the point at which the divine Person entered creation and that we are made in His image and likeness. In short, they had to repent of their sins and be baptized.
The original system of Temple sacrifice brought actual graces to the people of the divine covenant, graces that would help bring acceptance of the Messiah to the world. But the tearing of the veil at His death, the destruction of the Temple forty years after His death, this was the second interdict. The veil was torn while the Body and Blood hung on the Cross, the Temple was destroyed in the midst of a horrible bloodbath wreaked by Roman troops upon the rebellious and the innocent alike, a political bloodbath that imposed a divine interdict.
Thus, when a bishop says the Eucharist is not the place for political battles, he admits at least one of two things: he is ignorant of theology and history, or the people in his diocese are. Either way, it is not a strong commentary on him.