There are efforts currently underway by conservative bishops to prohibit the country’s second Catholic president from receiving the Eucharist, because he supports the right to choose abortion. As a cradle Catholic, taught in Catholic schools for twelve straight years, a semi-regular Sunday Mass attendee, and a recipient of five of its seven sacraments (Holy Orders and Last Rites left to go), I find this troubling. To me, the most important sacrament is the gift of the Holy Eucharist.
When that life-imbued bread, that host, is dropped into my waiting hands and raised by those hands to my mouth, I am ready for the communion, the other name of this vital sacrament, to follow. God is about to be with me.
Sadly, the Catholic Church has tried to prevent me from receiving the Eucharist because I am considered an “adulteress.” This is not because I divorced my first husband. The Vatican annulled that marriage as non-existent shortly after the divorce papers were finalized. My fault was in falling in love with and marrying a divorced man who had once been married in the Lutheran Church. By my Church’s teaching, I would remain an “adulteress” until the day the Vatican annulled my non-Catholic husband’s first marriage as well. In a daily state of unforgiven sin (adulteress that I remain), I allegedly made myself unable to receive the Eucharist. And the fix -- declaring an existent marriage as non-existent -- was not a sane request I could make to either the man I loved, his children, or his former wife.
I am not alone in my rejection of the Church’s foolish teaching, because one of the Church’s greatest undeclared saints taught me otherwise. My aunt, Sister Ann Carolyn Blackburn, was a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. Founded in Namur, France in 1804, this religious order’s mission was to educate young, poor girls, first in France, and then worldwide. Having entered the convent on Victory over Japan Day, my aunt dedicated her sixty years of religious service to teaching young students in inner city Chicago, Columbus, and Cincinnati. She also dedicated herself to teaching me: her own personal young, poor girl in need of guidance.
At the time of my remarriage, I told my aunt that my pastor had instructed me to abstain from receiving the Eucharist until my husband’s marriage was annulled, she scoffed and then declared, “Don’t let anyone, but Jesus say you are unworthy to receive him!” She knew the truth. That would never happen. In Catholic teaching, we are all unworthy, and this is the exact reason we need Communion. Moreover, no human authority had the right to determine worthiness.
When we treat priests as God and not the unworthy humans they also are, we repeat the mistake that led to the destruction and evisceration of too many Catholic children, one of them, my own brother. For three years, our parish priest sexually abused him in our home. And even when my young brother told them the truth, my parents did not believe him. “How could God’s servant sexually assault their child?” They asked and then answered in the negative. My brother spent the next twenty years in silence. That silence nearly destroyed him.
The denial of the Eucharist is not a weapon fit for the Bishops’ use or declaration. It shouldn’t have been levied against me for daring to stay married to my second husband. Were my brother to still believe in God’s presence in the host or otherwise (the priest took that, too) it should never be levied against him. And it shouldn’t be levied against our second Catholic President for daring to have public positions, applicable to all Americans, separate from his privately held beliefs.
All this is code. President Biden is personally against abortion, but, as an elected, public servant with a duty to the United States Constitution, President Biden cannot insert the Catholic Church’s teachings into the constitutionally recognized right of privacy and its resulting impact on the legality of some, if not most, abortions. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rejections of this complexity, and its willingness to turn the Eucharist into a weapon against him says a great deal about them.
I have never met President Biden, but based on his words and actions, I do know this. When his wife and young daughter died, he needed the Eucharist. When his son Beau died, he needed the Eucharist. When his son Hunter struggled with addictions, he needed the Eucharist. Just last week, when his dog Champ died, he needed the Eucharist. And when he prays to give his best to the American people every day, he needs the Eucharist. And so, I ask, who is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to deny it?
Like me, President Biden knows the bishops will fail. Instead of declaring that eventuality, and out of respect for church leaders, he simply declares this dispute “a private matter,” one he will take up with a priest who will not deny him the Eucharist. And, like me, Pope Francis knows the same thing. “Act with humility, dear bishops” he advises. Translation, and in my beloved aunt’s words, “Don’t let anyone but Jesus say you are unworthy to receive him!” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops should know better. Worse yet, they do. And that’s what really hurts.
A day before Palm Sunday, now four years ago, I sat by my aunt’s side as she lay dying. I had traveled from my home in Anchorage, Alaska to her convent in Cincinnati, Ohio to be with her. By the time I had arrived, her speech was gone. She raised her arms in the throes of death’s delirium, but one thing stayed constant and present until shortly before her final breaths. Her gaze. It went right to me.
I can’t be certain what she was trying to tell me, but I do think it meant this. “Trust God. Trust Yourself. Don’t let anything get between the two of you.”
I hope my returning gaze said this, with a bit of her scoff thrown in, “You can rest now. You’ve taught me well. And I won’t. Nothing and no one will get between us. Not even a group of bishops.”