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Slavery, Abortion & Eucharist

06-05-2021Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

This issue will be divisive but it has been divisive for some time. This issue will be politicized but then again it already has been politicized. A clarifying decision one way or the other has serious and troubling consequences. But much like King David, after committing adultery and murder, and was given a choice of three consequences by God, all of which were hard to swallow, there is a choice of unpalatable consequences likewise on this issue.

An internecine war is brewing among the US Bishops over the question of “should a Catholic elected official, such as a US President, who supports and promotes abortion be refused Holy Communion?” The issue has been percolating for some time with no clear direction and lots of conflicting positions between bishops. But with the election of Biden, second Catholic to become President, the Bishops are in a tight spot and really can’t kick the can down the road any further. Whether they deal with it or not, we lose. It’s just a question of short-term vs long-term loss.

The price of obfuscating on the issue, will cause, in the long term, the Church to lose credibility and greatly weaken its moral witness to the truth of human dignity and the sanctity of human life, not to mention a grave failure to help prevent someone from as St. Paul wrote, “eating and drinking the body of the Lord unto condemnation”. To provide some light on how this plays out, I will use the example of how the US Bishops dealt with slavery.

In 1435, Pope Eugene IV condemned racial slavery and then in 1839, Pope Gregory XVI called racial slavery, particularly black slavery and the slave trade “a danger to one’s spiritual welfare and a shame to the Christian name”. He also gave a summary of the teachings of his predecessors who also condemned slavery, namely Clement I, Pius II, Paul II, Benedict XIV, Urban VIII and Pius VII. Pope Gregory clearly stated: “We prohibit and strictly forbid any Ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this trade in Blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse…” Yet even with that thick body of teaching condemning the slave trade and black slavery (as well as the immorality of enslaving Native Americans) there were still US Catholics who participated in the slave trade and owned slaves. But there were also US Bishops who refused to sanction those Catholics who participated in US slavery.

In 1840 the US Bishops met at the Council of Baltimore to discuss Pope Gregory’s decree and came up with the hyper-parsed and convoluted interpretation that the Pope condemned the slave trade but didn't address the issue of domestic slavery. To be fair there were Bishops and many Catholics who were part of the Abolitionist movement but their voices did not win the day. To this very day it is an embarrassing, shameful stain on the US Church. And it’s not a case of judging yesterday’s behavior with today’s information. The teaching of the Popes was clear and unequivocal.

Bishop John England of Charleston showed what was at stake when he said, “if this document (i.e. Pope Gregory’s) condemned our domestic slavery as an unlawful and consequently immoral practice, the bishops could not have accepted it without being bound to refuse the sacraments to all who were slave holders unless they manumitted their slaves.” Except that is exactly what the Pope had said.

For their cowardice in refusing to impose sanctions, in this case a refusal of the sacraments to slave holders and supporters of the slave trade, the Bishops did lasting damage to the witness of the US Church, particularly among Blacks in the US to this very day. That’s the long-term cost of not being faithful to who we are and what we teach. And just think of all the slaves and then former slaves who remained faithful Catholics despite being treated as second class Catholics and the unwillingness of the US Bishops to uphold their dignity and worth, still they considered the Eucharist something of immense value. They understood the connection between the Eucharist and Justice. Their witness guides us still. With that history in mind, just substitute unborn children for black slaves and you see the same cowardice and fecklessness playing out.

But what about the short term? Well Bishop England was right, that to deny the sacraments to slave holders and Catholic public o!cials who condoned slavery or facilitated the slave trade, there would be consequences. In the case of southern Catholics in particular, they would be hated by their neighbors, looked upon with suspicion by local o!cials, be harassed and shut out of commerce because their Bishops took such a strong stand against slavery. But maybe if they had chattel slavery it would have ended sooner or support eroded faster. But back then the Bishops didn't want to be accused of using the Eucharist as a weapon or politicizing the sacraments.

So, we can expect if the Bishops or a Bishop tells President Biden not to present himself for Holy Communion, Catholics will be seen as divisive, subversive of the political system, hyper partisan, unpatriotic, un-Jesus like. The “No Catholics Wanted” signs will reappear. Catholics will not be hired for jobs or promoted in many companies, the banking system will blacklist Catholic organizations, harassment will come, violence will follow. The unholy alliance of Hollywood, the Media and Big Corporations will make Catholics pay a steep price.

Yet will a few generations from now look back at us and say, “Shame, what a miserable moral failure and lack of conviction”. What damage is being done to the moral witness of the Church’s teaching on human dignity, what harm is being inflicted on the integrity of the Church’s belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? How deep of a hole will we dig for future Catholics to have to climb out of to convince society of the truth of the sanctity of human life?

Or will a few generations from now look back at our stewardship of human life and our belief in the Eucharist and find inspiration from our witness? Will they say, “they were willing to suffer for their convictions and live lives of heroic virtue”? Will our witness today be a source of strength for future generations of Catholics? One of the reasons I take the seal of confession so seriously is because I know there were priests in centuries past who were imprisoned and even executed rather than violate the sacred seal.

History hangs in the balance. The faith of people yet to come hangs in the balance. The lives of the unborn hang in the balance. We best choose wisely. God help us.

Love,

Fr. John B.

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