Catholic coherence, Catholic integrity

George Weigel

In 2007, the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean completed their fifth general conference with a final report, known from the Brazilian city where they met as the “Aparecida Document.”  Its principal authors included Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, then the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Thanks to the efforts of the future pope and others, the Aparecida Document remains an exemplary description of what it means to be the Church of the New Evangelization – and not only in Latin America. Paragraph 436 of the Aparecida Document is of particular interest in the United States today:  

We hope that legislators, heads of government, and health professionals, conscious of the dignity of human life and of the rootedness of the family in our peoples, will defend and protect it from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia; that is their responsibility…. We must adhere to “eucharistic coherence,” that is, be conscious that they [ i.e., legislators, heads of government, and health professionals] cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and the family are encouraged. 

This unambiguous teaching by the bishops of Latin America was not – and should not be – a surprise. Three years earlier, in 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent a letter to the bishops of the United States, quoting and reaffirming a 2002 declaration by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts that addressed the issue of eucharistic coherence with specific reference to Catholic public officials: 

Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his persistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

When “the precautionary measures have not had their effect or in [circumstances in] which they were not possible,” and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still present himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it”…This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.    

In 2002 as well, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life” (signed by Cardinal Ratzinger and published by order of Pope John Paul II), which complemented the Church’s ancient and settled understanding of “eucharistic coherence” with a plea for Catholic public officials to be “morally coherent:”

It would be a mistake to confuse the proper autonomy exercised by Catholics in political life with the claim of a principle that prescinds from the moral and social teaching of the Church….It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible. [As the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Lay Apostolate taught], “There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life,’ with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular life,’ that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture.”

As the Aparecida Document and the CDF Doctrinal Note demonstrate, concern for the Church’s eucharistic coherence in situations in which Catholic public officials facilitate grave evils yet insist on receiving Holy Communion is not the personal crotchet of certain American bishops; it is the universal Church’s concern, because it involves the integrity of the sacramental sources of the Church’s life. Aparecida and CDF underscore that bishops who maintain the Church’s eucharistic integrity and coherence are not acting politically or punitively; those bishops are calling the entire Church to deeper conversion while expressing appropriate, indeed necessary, concern for the spiritual well-being and moral coherence of those under their pastoral care. Both Aparecida and CDF stress that the moral gravity of the life issues is distinctive, such that appeals to Catholic officials’ positions on other contested matters of public policy (e.g., climate change, immigration policy) are unwarranted. 

Serious Catholics – public officials and ordinary citizens – will understand these things and conduct themselves accordingly in the challenging months ahead. 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!