American clerics have opened a new season of debate over whom pastors should include in the Eucharist, and once again same-sex marriage is at the center of contention. Two recent America essays—one by Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, the other by Fr. Louis Cameli of Chicago—appear to argue on opposite sides of the question.
Aquila, who has a long record of remarks and policies offensive to LGBTQ Catholics, holds that priests should be “gate-keepers,” turning away all who are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” (theoretical examples might be same-gender couples, or public officials who support the national suicide hotline) to protect them from damnation. Cameli rejects both rigid “gate-keeping” and laissez-faire “pass-giving,” in which a priest “of a certain age” and with “a more liberal attitude, inclines to ‘just give’ the sacraments to people upon request.” He favors a conditional welcome: only because same-gender couples might not actually be committing the “manifest grave sin” of having sex, they can be admitted to the Eucharist.
Putting aside the terrible timing of his essay—many of us have fasted involuntarily from the Eucharist for over a year!—Cameli seems to intend his proposal to be good news. Yet he makes the same devastating errors as Aquila pastorally, with respect to the most basic Eucharistic theology, and with regard to same-gender couples.
Since they are both clerics, perhaps it is natural for both Aquila and Cameli to focus on the priest’s canonical obligation, as if canon law were identical to Eucharistic theology or controlled the flow of God’s grace in the gift of the sacraments. Yet, as pastors they should begin by asking, how do we help all of our parishioners grow in grace? To be sure, both authors address this question eventually, but their first concern is their own obligation to canon law, not their roles as symbols of Christ’s welcome and as conduits of the Holy Spirit. They weight the possible scandal of admitting same-gender couples to Communion more heavily than the likely scandal of inhospitality, the sin that destroyed the biblical Sodom.
Second, as Pope Francis himself says, the Eucharist is not an invitation-only party with a bouncer. It is a public feast that heals “the diseases” of “evil and sins” and the wounds of “bitterness” with which we are all afflicted by showering us with the unconditional welcome of a lover. The Eucharist
“gives us Jesus’ love, which transformed a tomb from an end to a beginning, and in the same way can transform our lives….Every time we receive him, he reminds us that we are precious, that we are guests he has invited to his banquet, friends with whom he wants to dine. And not only because he is generous, but because he is truly in love with us. He sees and loves the beauty and goodness that we are.”
In addition to healing our wounds and sins, Francis says, Eucharist strengthens us in our vocation of growth in the love and service to which we are all called.
“The Eucharist satisfies our hunger for material things and kindles our desire to serve. It raises us from our comfortable and lazy lifestyle and reminds us that we are not only mouths to be fed, but also his hands, to be used to help feed others.”
Truly, to hold back these gifts from people who genuinely hunger for them is to block the circulation of God’s love in the world.
Finally, both Cameli and Aquila believe that sexually active same-gender couples commit “manifest grave sin.” But, Cameli argues, same-gender partners might simply be sharing a home as sexual celibates, and if so—“unless there are clear signs to the contrary”—they have a “right” to approach the Eucharist with “good and proper intentions.”
Cameli’s solution—offer Eucharist to same-gender couples who genuinely want it and don’t publicly exhibit sexual involvement—completely ignores myriad same-gender couples’ experiences of their own relationships. They too, and not just heterosexual couples, marry to enter the “freely chosen mutual belonging marked by fidelity, respect and care” that Pope Francis describes in the exhortation Amoris Laetitia. For both same-gender and heterosexual couples, “sexuality is inseparably at the service of this conjugal friendship, for it is meant to aid the fulfilment of the other.” And same-gender couples, just like heterosexual couples, try but sometimes fail to guard against the wider culture’s tendency to adopt a “use and discard” view of sex as “self-assertion and…selfish satisfaction.”
Same-gender Catholic couples don’t fail to discern the body and blood of Christ present in the Eucharist. They don’t come forward to make a political statement. They certainly don’t want to receive a wink or a “pass” to sneak into Communion on the awkward premise that they might not be (but probably are) committing “grave, unrepentant sins” at home. They want to participate whole-heartedly in the Eucharist because their relationships are just as holy and worthy of celebration—and just as fraught and imperfect and in need of redemption—as those of straight married couples. The focus should be not on pass-giving, gatekeeping, or “rights,” but on a whole-hearted welcome to the table where all sinner-saints receive the free gift of God’s grace and are empowered to do God’s work in the world.
I sense that both Aquila and Cameli genuinely want to be good pastors. Perhaps because they fear that they themselves will be excluded from the infinite mercy and grace of the Eucharist if they welcome same-gender couples to the sacrament, they cannot believe that this mercy and grace extends to all. They guard the gate rather than opening the door. Sadly, their loss is ours.
—Cristina Traina, Fordham University, April 27, 2021