Twenty Sixth Ordinary Sunday Year B
Two weeks ago, our nation celebrated Malaysia Day, a day which symbolises the ideals of national integration, harmony and unity between ethnicities and cultures. As a commitment to these same ideals, Christians from various Protestant denominations, hailing from both mainline and Evangelical streams, gathered at a nearby stadium in Shah Alam to offer prayers in common for the country. Catholics, both clergy and laity, join the ranks to make the event truly ecumenical, at least by appearance.
But for some, the joy and excitement of this visible celebration of Christian unity was marred by a written advisory issued by Archbishop Murphy Pakiam to the Catholics of this archdiocese, cautioning and reminding them of the Catholic Church’s position with regards to inter-communion. Catholics were reminded that it was ‘illicit’ for them to receive such communion with other Christians because of differences in sacramental and ecclesial theology. The Archbishop was merely reiterating the Catholic Church's teaching and canonical law (Canon 844#1). For some, the action of the Archbishop was viewed as another foot-in-the-mouth blooper, one which showed a lack of hospitality and charity. In fact, it sparked off an open letter of protest and criticism against the Archbishop.
Was the Archbishop or his critics right? Today’s readings may help us out of this conundrum. A simple layman’s cursory reading could lead to this conclusion: that no person, or institution can have a monopoly over the distribution of God’s graces. The readings seem to suggest a broader rather than narrower approach in accepting the ministry of others who do not share a visible communion with us. In other words, the readings imply that there is a place for churches and Christians with different preferences, spirituality, experience, emphases and even theology, so long as we can all unite under the banner of Jesus Christ. This presents a popular picture of Jesus as someone broad-minded, non- judgmental, unconditionally inclusive, whose constant refrain is “All are Welcome”, one who would have no issues with inter-communion. In the words of the anonymous Catholic who wrote the protest letter against the advisory of the Archbishop, “I don't think in all fairness Jesus himself would have said this "Only Catholics can receive Holy Communion … all others are forbidden...”
The issue of communion is actually secondary. The real issue is ecclesiological – how do we understand ‘Church’? Was Jesus actually advocating a ‘Love Boat’ kind of church ‘without borders’, a church that would admit all kinds of beliefs, even contradictory ones, as long as one carried the name ‘Christian’? If this was the case, then the Church’s condemnation of ‘heresy’ in defence of the faith was misplaced, if not pointless. Excommunication, which is the denial of communion to those who break communion with the Church’s belief, laws and sacraments, would be unnecessary and even irrelevant. A more careful and nuanced reading of scripture would reveal a very different conclusion. The second half of the gospel clarifies that Charity must be at the service of Truth and that communion must be predicated on both Charity and Truth. The metaphor of self-mutilation seems severe but it challenges Christian communities to excommunicate members (seen as cutting off body parts which are a danger to the rest) who may be a cause of scandal for the whole community. In other words, communion implies communion of belief and practice, and most certainly worship.
I’ve spoken extensively on relativism in the past two weeks. It refers to the belief that all statements are mere opinions, which are neither absolutely true nor absolutely false. Applied to the situation of the Eucharist, if Catholics maintain that Jesus Christ is truly, really and substantially present in the communion species after consecration and if Methodists merely believe in a symbolic presence, then both are correct as far as opinions are concerned. Simple logic will inform you that one statement excludes the other, you can’t have both! Indifferentism, on the other hand, holds the position that there are no substantial differences between one view and the other. In other words, when applied to churches and denominations, would imply that there is no difference between one and the other. This begs the question, why the divisions? Was the Protestant Reformation necessary if there is no difference between Catholicism and Protestantism? The liberals may answer by arguing that the differences are man-made and immaterial. ‘We need to just focus on the essentials.’ But in the pursuit of a common denominator, it would be a wonder if there is anything left over which can be called essential when one has gotten rid of all the differences.
Like all heresies, indifferentism and relativism are distortions and exaggerations of the Truth. In the name of Eucharistic hospitality, one forgoes the need to make distinctions between fact and fiction, truth and lies, essential and non-essential, sin and virtue. When we choose to forget our differences, it is ultimately a decision to abandon the Truth. Lies or avoiding the Truth can make us amicable bed-partners, but it would not be a true marriage of minds and hearts, it would just be co-habitation, a promiscuous kind of union. There can be no true Love, if love is not rooted in the Truth. These egalitarian heresies ultimately transform our faith into an amorphous puddle of mush, darken our minds, impoverish our souls, and blind our eyes to reality. Difference is not the cause of conflict but the failure to recognise differences is. Chaos, it has been said, is the lack of all distinction. As a popular slogan emblazoned on the front of T-shirts of promiscuous teens boldly propose: “NO LIMITS!”
Ultimately, the issue of communion hinges upon our Catholic understanding of Church. Thus Eucharistic communion is inseparably linked to full Ecclesial communion and its visible expression. The Catholic Church sees itself as one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, founded by Christ himself. This is not a triumphalistic expression of hubris. It is based on our understanding of the mission and plan of God and of Jesus Christ. Christ intended ONE church and it would be utter foolishness to presume that he would also have wanted division for division sake. For Catholics, communion is not just an act of worship but also an ecclesiological act. Our reception of communion is ontological – we receive communion because we are in communion. Full communion involves completeness of "those bonds of communion – faith, sacraments and pastoral governance – traditionally known as Creed, Cult and Code. For Catholics to participate in such communion without establishing these bonds would be self-deception and hypocritical. It trivialises the very act of receiving communion and reduces it to a purely symbolic and instrumental ritual. For example, someone who notoriously lives in serious sin would be excluded because his moral life is not in communion with the laws of God and the Church. Receiving communion would be a lie!
I would think that it would be most appropriate to close off this homily with an excerpt taken from an interview given by a good friend of mine, Revd Deacon Sherman Kuek, whom many of you know was a former Protestant theologian before his conversion to Catholicism.
“… it is necessary to recognise that dialogue can be fruitful only when it is at the service of truth — not opinions or personal dispositions on specific issues — but truth. Unity is indeed important to the Catholic Church, and it remains her priority. However, it is a unity in the service of truth that she seeks, not unity for the sake of itself. For this reason, the Catholic Church does not — she cannot — sacrifice truth at the altar of unity…
This does not mean that the Church would exclude any other groups of Christians who have different ideas of truth. The position of the Catholic Church is always inclusive, but being inclusive does not mean being pluralistic. The principle of inclusion enables the Church to make space for others and to recognise the good in others without having to compromise our self-understanding... Unity based on a whitewashing of differences, according to Pope Benedict, is a facade and only stalls fruitful dialogue … Pretending that there are no differences and relating to one another as a “fully united body” by resting on the lowest common denominator of the faith is to pander to false and promiscuous union.”