Did Detroit’s Archbishop Allen Vigneron tell Catholics who support marriage equality that they could not receive communion? Well, he said, they should not, but not that they could not. Is that distinction important? Yes, because it means that the ultimate authority about whether to receive or not rests with individual communicants, not with the archbishop. And that distinction, as I discuss later, is a critical one which reflects on how Catholics view the importance of their own consciences.
But, first, let’s look at what was actually said and by whom. The Detroit Free Press, which broke the story, reported Vigneron’s comments about communion as supplement to Detroit canon lawyer Edward Peters’ comments on the matter. Peters, indeed, did say that Catholics who support abortion rights or marriage equality should not present themselves for communion, but even he did not issue a rule (which, by the way, he has no authority to do). The Free Press quotes his recent comments on his personal blog:
“In a post on his blog last week, Peters said that Catholic teachings make it clear that marriage is between one man and one woman. And so, ‘Catholics who promote “same-sex marriage” act contrary to’ Catholic law ‘and should not approach for holy Communion,’ he wrote. ‘They also risk having holy Communion withheld from them … being rebuked and/or being sanctioned.’ “
Peters did urge pro-marriage equality Catholics not to receive communion. He even went further than that: he threatened that communion may possibly be withheld from them. But Peters did not forbid them from doing so. He has no power to do so.
Archbishop Vigneron, similarly, did not issue a rule about communion, but made remarks similar to Peters. Important to note is that he made these comments in response to a question by a reporter, not in the context of a directive that he was issuing. The Free Press reports:
“Asked by the Free Press about Catholics who publicly advocate for gay marriage and receive Communion, Vigneron said Sunday: ‘For a Catholic to receive holy Communion and still deny the revelation Christ entrusted to the church is to try to say two contradictory things at once: “I believe the church offers the saving truth of Jesus, and I reject what the church teaches.” In effect, they would contradict themselves. This sort of behavior would result in publicly renouncing one’s integrity and logically bring shame for a double-dealing that is not unlike perjury.’
“Vigneron said the church wants to help Catholics ‘avoid this personal disaster.’ “
Again, Vigneron did not forbid anyone from receiving communion, though he certainly discouraged certain people from doing so. He did not direct priests to withhold communion.
Let me be clear: I am making this distinction because I think it is important to be accurate about what Peters and Vigneron said–especially Vigneron, who holds canonical authority. But I am not making this distinction to exonerate them in any way. In fact, I believe that their remarks are very dangerous, not because they supposedly forbid people to receive communion, but because they confuse people by making it seem as if they did forbid them.
Moreover, Vigneron’s reasoning that equates receiving communion with acceptance of church teaching is bad theology. Communion is about a spiritual reality, not an ecclesiological one. Disagreeing with church teaching on civil marriage does not sever one from being in communion with the church or with God.
As the Free Press notes, Peters’ and Vigneron’s opinions are in the minority among Catholic leaders:
” ‘Most American bishops do not favor denying either politicians or voters Communion because of their positions on controversial issues,’ said Thomas Reese, a Catholic priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Reese said that Peters’ views are ‘in a minority among American canon lawyers.’ “
The real danger in this case is that Catholics might indeed follow Vigneron’s suggestion and exclude themselves from communion. That would be a terrible tragedy for many reasons, not least of all because these Catholics would be ignoring the authority of their own consciences. They would be acceding to an external authority instead of listening to the voice of God in their souls. The ultimate authority of what they should do rests inside themselves.
Since Vigneron did not direct priests to withhold communion, the only people who could enact his suggestion would be potential communion recipients themselves. If the Catholic Church is to be a truly Vatican II church, Catholics must start trusting their consciences, and not the confusing, ill-thought reflections of a canon lawyer and a bishop. Catholics need to take responsibility to decide if they are disposed to go to communion.
Vigneron owes Catholics in his diocese an apology for creating such confusion.
For an excellent analysis and commentary on this case, I suggest a blog post by National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters entitled “+Vigneron, Same Sex Marriage & Communion.” My favorite line from it:
“Peters is one of those canonists who recognizes every commandment except the Great Commandment.”
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry