In a social climate where more than half of American Catholics support equal marriage rights for gay couples, yet another high-level cleric made it crystal clear that the Church will not tolerate differences of opinion in matters of human sexuality.
In a statement to the Detroit Free Press on Sunday, Archbishop Allen Vigneron condemned Catholics who support gay marriage while participating in the Eucharistic ritual at the heart of Catholic Mass:
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 behaviour would result in publicly renouncing one’s integrity and logically bring shame for a double-dealing that is not unlike perjury.
The Church’s efforts to dictate or impose its moral reasoning are nothing new. Vigneron is far from being the first bishop to encourage exclusion from the sacraments for Catholics whose moral beliefs don’t strictly conform to the Catechism. Canon lawyers differ on the matter, but some suggest that Catholic law permits priests to refuse to offer the Communion wafer to someone whose public positions betray a “poorly-formed conscience” (read: failure to conform to Catholic dogma).
But Vigneron’s chosen tactic raises the stakes for true believers by emphasizing that anyone who expresses support for marriage equality is not eligible to take Communion — a statement that, in Catholic theology, is tantamount to promising damnation for Catholics who dissent.
The idea behind withholding Communion is based largely on the assertion that the Eucharistic bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus as the ritual of Mass is enacted. (No, it’s not symbolic — not in Catholicism, at any rate.) Because the Church believes Jesus is acutely offended by human sin, it’s considered gravely impious to consume the Communion bread and wine when you’ve got serious sins dirtying up your soul. Catholics who have gravely sinned are expected to go to confession and receive absolution before they can take part in Communion again.
Small (venial) sins aren’t enough to make one ineligible for Communion. Vigneron is invoking the idea of mortal sins, the kind of sins so serious, they completely break off relationships between an individual Catholic and the deity. Catholics are taught that, if they die in a state of venial sin, they may be required to spend time in Purgatory, being purified for the small sins upon their soul. But those who die without having been absolved of their mortal sins have earned a one-way ticket straight to hell.
In that context, Vigneron’s remarks take on a particularly sinister significance. He’s not just excluding the faithful from an important Catholic ritual; he’s threatening them with eternal torment by placing support for same-sex marriage on the same moral plane as fornication, adultery, and murder. Catholics who firmly believe the Church’s narrative on salvation can either withdraw support for their LGBT friends and neighbours or face the knowledge of endless torture beyond the grave.
These threats only serve to underscore the deep disconnect between Catholic officials and the laity, a rift that the clerical hierarchy seems determined to ignore. Bridgette LaVictoire of LezGetReal suggests a way for Catholics to fight back and make their displeasure known:
Maybe what needs to happen is that Catholics in Detroit choose a day when those who support a woman’s right to choose and/or same-sex marriage should just not show up for church… Maybe if the priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals saw nothing but nearly-empty pews, they might figure out that their position is in trouble.
For many progressive-minded Catholics, it may be time for the next step: to take the Archbishop and his ilk at their word. It could be schadenfreude, but I would love to see the clergy’s heavy-handed tactics backfire as American Catholics, when told their support for same-sex marriage is incompatible with Catholicism, opt to jettison the religion in favor of a broad humanistic vision for justice and equality.
In the real world, however, leaving the faith can seem like a daunting process for the true believer, or even for those who have lost faith. It’s a hard fact that only makes the spiritually abusive threat of hellfire that much more reprehensible.