Are Holy Communion rules legal?

EC505I wish I could remember the name of the op-ed page columnist who, a decade or so ago, wrote that she had a legal right to receive Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Church, even though she rejected most of its teachings. No, it wasn't Maureen Dowd. It's clear that the issue of whether Catholic leaders have a right to enforce their own doctrines is not going to go away anytime soon. Can you say "Rudy Giuliani"? I knew you could. And, as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence story showed the other day, there are going to be groups on the far lifestyle left that continue to push this button, too. For that matter, if ACT UP attacks the sacramental elements of the Mass, is that a hate crime of some kind?

Anyway, several GetReligion readers sent me links to a story by reporter Elaine Jarvik that ran the other day in the Deseret Morning News that wove together several of these themes into one piece of cloth. The headline: "Who shall partake? Churches grapple with the question of when to deny sacrament."

At the very least, this is a story inside the Catholic culture wars. But broken Communion -- in every sense of the word -- is also a major factor in the Anglican crackup. Anyway, here is the lede of that Jarvik story. This kind of newswriting is hard to pull off, in mainstream pages:

When two men dressed in whiteface and strange outfits came forward to receive Holy Communion at a San Francisco Catholic church three weeks ago, no one batted an eyelash. At least that's what it looks like on a video secretly recorded that morning and then posted on a conservative Catholic Web site.

Since then, though, that communion has caused a stir among some Catholics around the country, who think that San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer was wrong to let the two men take the wafer and wine of the Eucharist. Archbishop Niederauer, the former Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City, had celebrated Mass that Sunday morning at Most Holy Redeemer Church in San Francisco's gay-leaning Castro neighborhood.

The incident raises questions not only about whether Archbishop Niederauer realized who the two men were (members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of gay men who identify themselves as nuns), but also about the rules of communion, a ritual that is central to Christianity.

The big question, again, is how church leaders strive or ignore their own teachings. Thus:

The question that tripped up Archbishop Niederauer was not what or when or how, but who. It's a question that all Christian churches have considered, and with which some are still grappling. Do you only allow true believers? The doctrinally sound? The baptized? The members? The worthy? Anyone who wants to?

clinton communion1Or how about Baptist Bill Clinton, in a Roman Catholic Church?

The answer to this, and other questions, is suppose to depend on the teachings of the church -- or Church -- in question. Catholics are not supposed to be receiving unless they are active in the full sacraments of the Church. That includes Confession -- which is the great forgotten secret of modern Catholicism. Here is how I put that a few years ago, in a column about Great Lent:

It's time for the Catholic bishops to go to confession.

It's time for all of the Catholic priests to go to confession.

Actually, with Easter a few weeks away, this is a time when all Catholics are supposed to go to confession.

But most of America's 65 million Catholics no longer know or no longer care that their church requires them to go to confession at least once a year in order to receive Holy Communion. Confession is especially important during this season of Lent.

But what does this look like in public life? Was Tim Russert, back in 2004, supposed to ask John Kerry to name his spiritual father and cite his last trip to confession? (What if Kerry had asked Russert the same question?) But here is the real question: How about Kerry's bishop? Can a bishop ask a communicant and/or his/her priest that question? Is it an attack on them to ask if they are living out the teachings of the faith in which they are -- of their own free will -- a member?

It's hard to answer that question in a news feature. The bishops, of course, have to answer that hard question first. That's what people called bishops are supposed to do, at least, that's what bishops do in some churches.

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