Father Michael Sheridan, Bishop of Colorado, has raised the role of faith in politics to a new level of complexity. He announced recently that Catholics who vote for candidates who support issues such as abortion rights, stem-cell research, gay marriage and euthanasia should be barred from receiving Holy Communion.
A few Catholic Bishops around the country had previously announced that they would withhold communion from politicians who break with the church’s teaching on these issues. But Bishop Sheridan’s declaration moves the debate from the campaign trail to the voting booth.
It’s important to realize just how significant this is. Holy Communion occupies a singular place of importance for Catholics. Receiving the bread and wine is not merely a ritual for commemorating Jesus’ death, as it is in many Protestant traditions. Holy Communion is the portal through which Catholics believe they enter into the salvation of God. Worshippers who are barred from Holy Communion are effectively cut off from the church and from God.
It would be interesting to find out how Bishop Sheridan plans to enforce his declaration. Unless the bishop has some special arrangement with either God or the company that makes the voting machines he is going to be hard pressed to prove anything. Voting in this country is a private matter. However, apart from the absurdity of trying to enforce such nonsense, the political implications are pretty ominous.
Think about it: Bishops take it upon themselves to dictate to their congregations how they should vote under penalty of losing access to God’s grace. No wonder Michael Merrifield, a Democratic state lawmaker who is not Catholic but represents part of the heavily religious Colorado Springs, is upset. He said: “I think it is an outrageous intrusion into what is supposed to be the separation of church and state. It is frightening. It goes against everything that we believe is important to democracy since we founded this country.”
We need to be careful at this juncture. There is a fine line to be observed. When Baptists in Alabama rallied members against a state lottery, or when other faith groups called for tax reform, they were clearly trying to affect the outcome of an election. The line, of course, is the difference between persuasion and coercion. No one in Baptist life was told they would not go to heaven if they failed to oppose gambling.
What is both ironic and tragic, from a theological standpoint, is for this all to take place over the Communion table. In the Sermon on the Mount, and other places as well, the New Testament makes it pretty clear that “all have sinned.” In another place it even states that “there are none righteous, no not one.” That includes bishops, both official and unofficial, as well as all ordinary believers.
The table of Communion has traditionally served as a reminder of how our sin problem is resolved. The bread and the wine point to Jesus’ suffering for and because of our sins. We come to the table not as saints celebrating our holiness, but as sinners in need of forgiveness. The table does not render us sinless; in fact just the opposite is true. Our regular presence at the table is a reminder of our ongoing rebellion against what we know God wants from us. And yet, at the table, we discover that God has chosen to deal with us not by law or condemnation, but with grace and loving acceptance.
If only we could do that in our politics.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.