Eucharist is not an ace card to be dealt in debate

Opinion: Abortion is a complex and difficult issue and no stance warrants excommunication

Episcopal Ordination of Eamon Martin as Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh by Cardinal Seán Brady at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, last month. “Archbishop Martin would appear to be operating with a 19th century devotional understanding of the Eucharist that is both private and personal.” Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

Episcopal Ordination of Eamon Martin as Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh by Cardinal Seán Brady at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, last month. “Archbishop Martin would appear to be operating with a 19th century devotional understanding of the Eucharist that is both private and personal.” Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

Fri, May 24, 2013, 02:00

The Catholic primate elect, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has been putting himself about, as they say, even though he hasn’t yet taken up office. Last week ( Irish Times , Rite & Reason, May 14th), he introduced the Eucharist as the touchstone of his criticism of those supporting the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill: “How can we be in communion with the bread of life and not speak of the Gospel of Life in our daily lives, especially in these days when unborn human life is under direct attack?” he asked.

Then in the Sunday Times (May 19th), he went further. He suggested no priest should administer Communion to any politician who supported the proposed Bill, declaring this the introduction of abortion to Ireland. This claim is patently untrue. Abortion could only be introduced here by a referendum passed by the majority. Scaremongering cannot change that fact. Yet no one can predict the future, or how Irish society may change. We should trust our children.

What is disturbing about the claim, first stated by Cardinal Seán Brady, is that the virus has crossed the Atlantic, and Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston is of the same opinion it seems. No doubt his Clare Island genes stirred him to intervene, but really he has enough to be going on with, given the mess he inherited from his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law.


A threatening church
In his Sunday Times interview, Archbishop Martin declares that the erring politicians “excommunicate themselves”, and goes on to claim that the church has no desire to be threatening.

But what else is excommunication but formal exclusion from the body of Christ? No amount of liberal canonical comment can get away from that plain meaning of this term enshrined in canon law. Only a misinformed understanding of the Eucharist would link participation and this sanction.

Archbishop Martin would appear to be operating with a 19th-century devotional understanding of the Eucharist that is both private and personal, as his opening endorsement of the Apostolate of Eucharistic Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament indicates.

Without wishing to denigrate this spiritual practice, it is far removed from the early Christian understanding of the Eucharist instituted by Christ as being both social and political. This is clear from Paul’s attack on the Corinthians’ misuse of the Eucharistic meal to display their own unjust social behaviour: “The poor go hungry, while you get drunk” (1 Cor 11, 21).

At the same time Archbishop Martin, as well as Cardinals Brady and O’Malley, use the term “the Gospel of Life” exclusively in support of their strong anti-abortion stance. But we need to unpack this very nice-sounding phrase.

As descriptive of Jesus’s vision, it certainly does not apply only to the unborn, but includes all life, human, animal and plant – from womb to tomb and beyond. “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14,6). The church’s mission is to be pro all life, not just anti-abortion. Why didn’t the four bishops on the Dáil steps on budget day protest the cuts that affected the lives of the poor, rather than focusing solely on abortion?


Inclusion not rejection
One early Christian church in Syria, that which stands behind Matthew’s Gospel, produced a blueprint for community living based on its memory of Jesus, Matthew chapter 18. Here there is reference to exclusion, if an offending person refuses to be reconciled. But instead of ending on the harsh note of “excommunication”, a promise by Jesus concludes the treatment: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18, 15-20).

I respectfully suggest that in future their lordships might ponder this and other New Testament passages before reaching for the shotgun of excommunication. The Gospel of Life is gospel, that is, “good news” for all, not canonical sanction against those who disagree with them on what is a complex and difficult issue.


Se án Freyne is former professor of theology at Trinity College Dublin and author of several books on early Christianity. His most recent study, The Jesus Movement and its Expansion: Matrix, Ministry, Mission , will be published by William Eerdmans this year

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