I have to admit that I’m more conflicted about this story than some of my liberal friends would likely want me to be. But I do think that the Eucharist is serious enough that the Church should be cautious rather than reckless in administering it. After all, I’m very impressed with the way that certain Chilean priests denied the Mass to torturers from Pinochet’s prison system. I’m horrified that Fr. George Zabelka, a Catholic army chaplain, did not immediately excommunicate the men flying the atomic bomber over Nagasaki, where they would murder thousands of Christians in one stroke. (He repented very publicly after the war.) And I think that the Church would do well to return to the old just-war tradition that witheld the Lord’s Supper from anyone who killed anyone in a war, especially those who did so in a war that the Church opposed. So by no means would I ever make the eucharist the “private matter” that so many would make of “religion.”
That said, I do wonder whether this is the time to do so, and I wonder whether limiting the interdict to Obama voters isn’t an act of crawling into bed with the GOP in the manner that Jim Dobson and his ilk have. I would propose a broader excommunication, but before I get to that, I should rehearse what’s actually happening here. As with most excommunications (including the ones I mentioned above), the edict is not a permanent ban but a call to repentance:
A South Carolina Roman Catholic priest has told his parishioners that they should refrain from receiving Holy Communion if they voted for Barack Obama because the Democratic president-elect supports abortion, and supporting him “constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil.”
The Rev. Jay Scott Newman said in a letter distributed Sunday to parishioners at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville that they are putting their souls at risk if they take Holy Communion before doing penance for their vote.
In other words, parishioners can perform penance, publicly acknowledging their complicity with the public evil, and then live knowing that Christ has forgiven them. Excommunication, from its earliest Pauline roots, assumes that contrition is a necessary precondition for repentance, and it’s basically a public acknowledgment that what one has done does not hold with what Church is all about.
Given that, I would have hoped that this South Carolina priest would have extended the call for repentance to those who voted in 2004 for the chief executive who was a perpetrator of an unjust war in 2003, to those who voted for any president who has not made the ban on abortion an actual policy priority, and for any president who advocated the proliferation of nuclear weapons, those diabolic engines so early used to exterminate all the Christians (and their beloved neighbors) in Nagasaki and which stand as the world’s foremost threat to eliminate children, pregnant mothers, and all sorts of unborn human beings. I think that such a gesture would have been quite shocking to the good patriotic folks of South Carolina (after all, how could voting be a sin?), but I think it would have been the right sort of public gesture and started the right sorts of conversations, whereas a reasonable person could look at what Reverend Newman did and think his move an act of taking sides not against sin but against one faction’s sin while overlooking the sins of all other factions.
Had the priest made that sort of gesture, perhaps some in America would have remembered (the Church has always taught this) that our citizenship is not with any nation but with Heaven, that the votes we cast as sojourners here will always smell like the Prince of the Air. Instead, he’s sent a fairly clear message: “Vote Republican, Go to Heaven.”