As I write this, I’m watching the seasons intersect as the colorful autumn leaves fall alongside the large snowflakes of western New York. The conflict between the seasons is playing out in my backyard as I’m preparing to travel to Baltimore for tomorrow’s USCCB Committee on Education. It’s my final meeting after three years as a consultant and am preparing for our important work to be overshadowed by the communion controversy. This week you can expect to hear about the communion document and people will be quick to denounce or celebrate the document.
Like many, I’ve grown tired as church conflicts seem to following the same beats of our political discourse—name-calling, echo chambers, and fastidious proclamations of righteousness and condemnation. There doesn’t appear to be anything spiritual about these religious arguments and there doesn’t appear to be any common ground left. People seem satisfied to align themselves with one of two camps and reduce every question to either/or.
However, I want to lean in a bit because we seem to be missing the problem. Fewer than 25 percent of self-identified Catholics are attending Mass regularly and more baptized Catholics have renounced their affiliation. More than an attendance crisis, we’re seeing a sacramental crisis. It used be a discussion of marriages happening outside of Church. But we can look at declining rates of baptism, reconciliation, and confirmation. Even Catholic funerals are becoming rarer. Read a great discussion here of the context.
As Catholics de-prioritize sacraments and religious affiliation, we can expect that Catholic schools will also suffer. So how do we spark a renewal of faith? I don’t think it’s an either-or. I don’t think the question is “Should we narrow the criteria for participation, increase the requirements, and hope rigor becomes attractive?” and I also don’t think the answer is “open the doors and make sacraments accessible to anyone, anytime.” I’m not sure how to make participation in our faith more attractive, but I know it’s not choosing one side of every debate and condemning everyone who doesn’t believe in you.
It also seems important to listen to our pope when he warns against politicizing the Eucharist and calls it “nourishment for sinners.” This is the same pope who condemns abortion, after all, so we must allow that there are more than one way to solve this problem. And then we might find there are spaces in our church for those who oppose abortion as well as environmental destruction or for those who fight clericalism and human trafficking with the same fervor. And we need to allow that there are people who might advocate for abortion services or cutting social services to the poor but still deserve a seat at the table. There are more than two ways to think about the communion controversy and there are more than two ways of being a Catholic.