The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops are debating whether to deny the Eucharist to President Biden, who has faithfully received the Eucharist in the churches they oversee for his entire life, over his position on abortion rights. I’m not Roman Catholic, but I am an American who has the privilege of deep intimacy with the sacrament and one of millions of my fellow citizens who depend on it for their spiritual well-being. The Eucharist is perhaps the most powerful symbol of unity the Christian faith has to offer — which is why seeing it become divisive at this tender moment in our history is so distressing. Withholding it is the nuclear option of pastoral ministry, to be reserved only in the most egregious cases of transgression.
“Eucharist,” which is the Greek word for “thanksgiving,” is also known in other Christian traditions as the Great Thanksgiving, Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. It is, among other things, a commemoration of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. The men who ate the bread and drank wine he blessed were a ragtag bunch with mixed motivations. Peter was happy to be at the meal but denied Jesus three times the next day. Judas led the Roman authorities who sought to kill Jesus right to him later that night. James and John had once demanded to sit at Jesus’ side in glory, to which Jesus rhetorically asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” That evening, Jesus gave them all his cup anyway, an act of grace to imperfect people. We flawed beings approach the altar today with thanks in the knowledge that those before us were equally imperfect.
The debate about who is or isn’t worthy to participate in the Eucharist is as old as Christianity itself, but it was the theological discord of the Reformation that still shapes our diverse Eucharistic practices today. Emerging Protestants began to question medieval Roman Eucharistic doctrine. The Council of Trent, held from 1545 to 1563, clarified Rome’s confession of the “real presence” (even the choice of whether to capitalize this term is theologically loaded) of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The council’s decisions rejected the Eucharistic theology of reformers such as Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, who in turn disagreed among themselves. An outside observer can be forgiven for not knowing what is more remarkable: that these theological differences persist in more or less the same form after half a millennium, or that each of the traditions that sprang from this schism continues to celebrate the Eucharist as reverently as it did then.
The catechism of my own Episcopal Church describes sacraments as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace,” a concept taken from the 5th century African Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo. It is an idea forged through ages of wise reflection on bitter struggle, and it is an apt description for my experience of the Eucharist. The bread and wine are there for us to see, touch and eat. As the digestive juices do their work, we can imagine and even feel in a palpable sense that our own bodies belong not just to ourselves, but, by grace, to the body of the entire human species. They remind us that we did not create ourselves, but rather that this life, like a good meal, is here to be enjoyed but once, with companions who are just as mortal as we are. For me, this is a religious practice that grounds me in the living Body of Jesus of Nazareth. For others, it is perhaps more social or ethereal, but equally powerful. Either way, those who have been sustained on the Eucharist cannot imagine going through life deprived of such a gift.
That is precisely why denying anyone the sacrament is an extreme spiritual act. One of the most painful parts of the coronavirus shutdown for most clergy members was not being able to use the most potent spiritual tool at our disposal for the healing of God’s people in a time of crisis. It felt as though we had been forced to excommunicate our entire flocks through no fault of their own. Having never had to do so myself, I recently asked colleagues if they had ever chosen to withhold the sacrament from parishioners. In each case, faces soured and voices dropped low and soft. It is always a solemn decision, and only to be taken with the ultimate hope of reconciliation. The heart of the Eucharist’s power is its profound ability to unite with God and one another, which is why revoking it is an equally powerful sign of alienation.
Each tradition has its own standards for withholding the Eucharist. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer contains “disciplinary rubrics” for the priest to use for one “living a notoriously evil life” and is “a scandal to other members of the congregation.” The United Methodist Church in 2018 considered and rejected charges against Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the Trump administration’s child separation policy that would have removed him from the church. The debate among Roman Catholic bishops about Biden’s eligibility is a matter of interpretation of their canon law, which broadly mandates admission to the sacrament for anyone baptized in a Roman Catholic liturgy but prohibits it for those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.” What these standards mean in practice is inevitably a matter of discretion.
Of course, I have no say in the bishops’ final decision about the president. But I do share their abiding faith in the power of the Eucharist to heal divisions by an authority beyond our own. In a time when the people of this country have stopped seeing their common humanity in one another, we need this bread and this wine. I will pray for my brothers as they discern how to use most faithfully the mighty spiritual gifts entrusted to them.