Any Catholic on this side of Judgment Day can call himself a “practicing Catholic”. After all, our earthy pilgrimage in this “valley of tears” is our one time opportunity to “practice” Catholicism until we get it right. But “getting it right” for a practicing Catholic means conforming oneself to the will of God as revealed to us through Scripture and Tradition and as definitely set forth by the teaching authority of the Church. A practicing Catholic cannot invoke “conscience” to defy or disregard what the Church definitely holds as true – for a practicing Catholic doesn’t create his own truth but forms his conscience according to the Truth.
Invincible ignorance, culpable willfulness, or ingrained habits of sin might explain why a self-described “practicing Catholic” might dissent from one or more of the definitive teachings of the Church in word, thought or deed and still think that he or she is a Catholic in good standing able to be admitted to the Eucharist. One of these factors may explain such behavior but none can excuse it.
We can explain, for example, why Pontius Pilate, though he personally was convinced of Jesus’ innocence, could not bring himself to “impose” his views on the mob. Yet, he did not demand to participate with the Apostles in “breaking of the bread” as the Mass was first called. While we do not judge his ultimate fate – for only God can judge the subjective state of his soul – we nevertheless cannot excuse his cowardice. Had Pontius Pilate shown up and presented himself for communion, the apostles certainly would had admitted him to communion – but only after he had first repented and reconciled himself to God and the Church.
Serious sin breaks our communion with God and his Church as does refusing by one’s dissent obedience to Church definitive teachings in matters of faith and morals. Before participating in the sacramental expression of that communion – by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion – “practicing Catholics” must be restored to spiritual union with God and with their fellow believers through Sacramental Confession in which they repent for the serious sin and express a firm purpose of amendment. Our admission to Holy Communion depends on our prior “visible” communion with the community of faith (i.e. that we are in fact Catholics) and of our prior “invisible” communion with the Lord (i.e. that we are not in the state of serious (mortal) sin. To insist on partaking in communion in the first case would be, on the face of it, boorish behavior, (equivalent to a guest who behaves badly in his host’s home) and in the latter – at least objectively speaking – sacrilegious (for as St. Paul says, unworthy reception brings judgment, cf. 1 Cor 11: 23ff).
Bishops as teachers of the faith have no special competencies in the world of business or politics – and in those worlds we have no regulatory or legal powers. We don’t want such power – nor should we. But precisely as teachers of the Catholic faith we do have competence to tell businessmen or politicians or anyone else for that matter what is required to be a Catholic. It is totally within our competence to say that one cannot be complicit in the injustice of denying the right to life of an unborn child or an invalid elder and still consider oneself a good Catholic. It is totally within our competence to urge our Catholic people to participate in the political life of our nation with coherence and honesty. It is within our competence and our responsibilities as pastors to advocate for laws that protect the rights of all human beings from the first moment of conception till natural death.
To be a Catholic is to strive after holiness. This is a daunting task for us all – impossible without the saving grace that embraces us through our turning to the Lord and walking in his company. The Lord is patient with us – after all, we all are still just “practicing”. He warns his disciples not to be too ready to pull out the tares lest we damage the wheat. For this reason, when rebukes are necessary, pastors generally strive to give them in private.
But to fail to rebuke when necessary is to fail in the charity we owe our brethren. (And we bishops will be apologizing for a long time for the failure to rebuke and apply sanctions to those wayward priests who criminally sinned against young people and children.)
The Church wants all her members to become holy. To this end, she offers the examples of the saints to encourage and inspire us. For politicians, St. Thomas More stands as a role model. He did not draw any false distinction between his personal morality and his public responsibilities: he was his king’s good servant, but God’s first. Today, some self-identified Catholic politicians prefer to emulate Pontius Pilate’s “personally opposed but unwilling to impose” stance. Perhaps, they are baiting the Church, daring an “official sanction” making them “bad Catholics”, so as to gain favor among up their secularist, “blue state” constituencies. Such a sanction might turn their lack of coherent Catholic convictions into a badge of courage for people who hold such convictions in contempt.
But if the whole of point of being a Catholic is to grow in holiness –admittedly by practicing a whole lot and making some errors along the way – then it would be as John Paul II reminds us “a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a sentimental religiosity”. You cannot have your “waffle” and your “wafer” too. Those pro-abortion politicians who insist on calling themselves Catholics without seeing the contradiction between what they say they believe and their anti-life stance have to do a lot more of “practicing”. They need to get it right before they approach the Eucharistic table.
May 3, 2004