The Public Consequences of Our Eucharistic Faith
A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: The Eucharist draws us into the life of God and pushes us to engage with the world, presenting opportunities — and tensions — with civil authorities.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated.
As anyone who has visited the EWTN headquarters in Irondale, Alabama, knows, the chapel is the center of the campus. Our Lord in the Eucharist has always been the spiritual and physical heart of EWTN since the Network was founded by Mother Angelica.
Over the years, EWTN has expanded across the globe, but the Eucharist and adoration are still at the core, our offices and international bureaus jutting outward from this hub like the spokes of a wheel.
Spending time with our Eucharistic Lord in the Mass, in thanksgiving after Communion and prayerful adoration should be the center of our lives, drawing us in to the life of God. But for the vast majority of Catholics, we don’t — and can’t — remain in that space alone. Fed, sustained and strengthened by the Eucharist, we then extend out to all the corners of the world.
Catholics have never had a private faith separated from the public. Just as Jesus was incarnate, dwelled among us and remains physically present in the Eucharist, we, too, take up space and want the Church to be able to act freely in the public square.
This gives rise to a natural tension. Public and political manifestations of our Eucharistic faith can sometimes cause the world to respond with confusion, other times praise and still other times hostility.
Take Eucharistic processions, which I discussed in my last publisher’s note. Most non-Catholics aren’t sure how to interpret them. They wonder if it’s a parade or a religious ceremony or why people are kneeling in the street in front of what looks like a thin wafer of bread. But Eucharistic processions aren’t just a way for us to honor Jesus publicly while our neighbors look on confused. We know that whether others understand what’s going on or not, everything and everyone benefits from being exposed to the transformative reality of Our Lord’s physical presence.
Sometimes, the public can see that benefit easily and welcomes Catholic influence. The Church feeds the hungry, defends the most vulnerable, houses the poor, cares for migrants and relieves suffering. On any given day, more than one in seven patients in America are cared for at a Catholic hospital. Even secular people appreciate how much Catholics strive to help others. Our two-millennia-long history of service, often working alongside civil authorities, speaks for itself.
Yet even in fields like medical care, where Catholics selflessly serve those in need, the Church is facing increasing hostility. For years, attorneys general have filed lawsuits attempting to force nuns to provide and pay for contraceptives and abortifacients in their health-insurance plans contrary to the moral teachings of the Church so clearly expressed in Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.
Such lawsuits aren’t small nuisances. They are signs of the government’s increasingly aggressive attempts to meddle with the affairs of the Church. And this meddling is only getting worse.
Brewing nationwide is the ongoing debate over transgenderism and “gender transition” procedures that triggered a directive from the U.S. bishops’ conference’s doctrine committee, aiming to preserve in Catholic hospitals medical care that’s in accord with the truth of the human person. Recently, “gender ideology” accreditation requirements have been proposed that would force Catholic schools to violate their mission and purpose.
The latest outrage is legislation advancing in three states — Delaware, Vermont and Utah — that would require priests to report certain crimes, like child abuse or neglect, to civil authorities even if they are told of it in the confessional. Only 33 states explicitly exempt priests in the confessional from mandatory reporting requirements, meaning in 17 states a priest could be prosecuted for following one of the most sacred laws of the Church.
If something as essential as the merciful meeting between an individual and Christ — a meeting that prepares the penitent to worthily receive Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament — can be regulated by the government, then nothing is off limits.
Yet, like the Eucharist, confession isn’t merely a private sacrament between God and man. It is a public act, healing a sinner’s outward relationship with the community. As the U.S. bishops put it in a post on the seal of the confessional earlier this year, “Sins are injustices against self, family, community, and Church, as well as against God. The Sacrament of Reconciliation, sometimes called Confession or Penance, brings healing to these damaged relationships.”
The bishops make another good point — that laws violating the seal of confession also don’t work practically: “If priests were required to report crimes heard during confessions, penitents would likely stop confessing them,” they said. “The opportunity that the sacrament presents for healing — not just of the penitent’s soul, but of the wounds that the penitent’s sin has inflicted on others — would be lost.”
Ironically, when the government attempts to intrude into the affairs of the Church “for the greater good,” it actually undermines the greater good.
Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, made it clear how strongly Catholics feel about the stakes of this debate: “Priests and bishops,” he declared, “will go to jail rather than break the seal of confession.”
Again and again in each of these public debates we can see the impact of the inward and outward movement of our Eucharistic faith. Our desire to worthily receive Christ in the Eucharist pushes us to reconciliation with others and partnership with secular authorities. When the state infringes on the rights of the Church, such as by attacking the seal of confession, it disrupts that stream of healing and grace, doing more harm than good. To the contrary, when the Church invites secular authorities to work in partnership toward a shared purpose, such as providing medical care and protecting vulnerable youth, both Church and state manifest the healing power of Christ’s presence and genuinely advance the common good.
Like Mother Angelica, when we keep the fullness of the Eucharist at the center of our lives, we can navigate complex political tensions all while fulfilling Our Lord’s prayer to the Father at the Last Supper in John 17: To be in the world but not of the world, consecrated in truth and sent by Christ to help redeem the world.
God bless you!