Christian Counseling Certification Program: The Church, Eucharist and the Broken
Just this week, the Synod of Bishops met in Rome to discuss pastoral care of the family, including pastoral care of broken families due to divorce. It also examined hot issues regarding the homosexual unions and adoption. Some of these issues were Catholic only issues that did not relate to Orthodox or Protestant Christian communities, but the theme of thought I think reflects upon all of Christianity. It represents what view we will have as a people of God in regards to modern problems and modern ideas.
Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner
This has been an idea in thought but so little exercised in action. Strict regulations, out dated legalisms, prohibitions and the painting of a stigma upon certain classes of people has divided the church from those who sit in the front row to those who hide in the back row in shame. Many of those pushed away from the faith have felt no choice but to flee in shame and disgrace, others have left defiantly due to the hypocrisy of the hierarchy; a hierarchy who has its own moral issues but so gladly points out the problems of the masses.
Christ came to save sinners and he expects us to pastorally care for sinners. Christ, while on earth, was not seen arguing among the sinners but arguing among the “church goers” and leaders of the Temple. The Pharisees and their hypocrisy is what incensed Christ the most. Why would today be any different? Ministers and their Mega Churches, Bishops and their lavish residences, and moral corruption among those who supposedly lead us in prayer are in the headlines. Pope Francis has seen these errors and by example has pushed a reform of simplicity for leaders, but the percentages of corruption are still far too high.
So, love the sinner, but what does that entail?
The Liberal Agenda
The liberal agenda would wish for us to believe that loving the sinner means full acceptance of their life style. This movement hopes to brand anyone who stands up against the sin itself as a bigot. Harsh words as “discrimination” are labeled upon anyone with enough integrity to set moral boundaries regarding liturgical or church worship. These individuals who set boundaries are seen as oppressors to progress.
The liberal agenda wishes to transform the faith to fit its needs. It is not about loving the sinner, but also loving the sin. This is not true pastoral care. Pastoral care pities the situation and abandons outdated legalisms, but it does not sacrifice truth and spiritual admonishment at the cost of physical comfort. While it is true Christ did embrace sinners, one must also remember, he also told them to “sin no more”
So what is the best approach?
First, we need to truly and really present the ideal of loving the sinner and hating the sin. We need to speak more as a loving parent than an angry guardian to those who have fallen away from the faith. We need to be more understanding of their plight, their circumstances, their feelings and needs. We need to dispel condemnation and outdated legalisms but project mercy and forgiveness.
We also need to change, especially in the Catholic Church. Too many times, the Eucharist is seen as a trophy to be denied those who fail to comply. While protection of the Eucharist as a sacrament is critical and proper reception a prerequisite within the heart of all sinners, we still must realize the Eucharist is Christ himself. (from a Catholic perspective). If Catholics truly believe this, then we must also be open to seeing the Eucharist as a source of healing for sinners. Christ himself said let the sinners come to me! To openly forbid Christ to the masses is comparable to when the apostles tried to shield their tired master from his flock. Did Christ not rebuke them for this?
The Church needs to reform its standards on reception of the Eucharist for divorced and remarried couples. This does not mean that the Church is recognizing divorce, or re-marriage without annulment, but it is letting sinners receive the sacrament. Yes, the Church can educate the individual not to receive to one’s own damnation. The Church can teach the people that one needs the sacrament of confession in case of mortal sin and should keep their soul clean for the Eucharist, but the legalistic procedures need to be eliminated and a more pastoral approach incorporated into theology, sermons and daily life.
How many times has a person who has not gone to confession in case of mortal sin, fled the Eucharist, or laid their head low in the back of the church? The fear and scandal of their sin has pushed them away, but they are told to stay away from our Lord who can forgive them. At that moment, fear and regulation should not exist, but love and mercy; the love and mercy of the Eucharist. We must understand mortal sin exists, but death to the soul occurs when one openly rejects and hates Christ and has no room for change. An incidental action, not life style, should and does not destroy a remorse soul. True remorse exists in many re-married, divorced, homosexual or causal sinner’s lives. They should not be denied the Eucharist but should go forward, with remorse and intent of sacramental confession when time permits.
The Eucharist is for sinners. No one is perfect. Christ related the story of the Pharisee and the sinner. How many of us see ourselves as paradigms of our Christian community and boast of our accomplishments or what parish board we are on or supervise? How many of us in those capacities are infected with a nasty and petty attitude towards others? Gossip, jealousy or pride overrun many communities or parishes with such individuals. Yet, these individuals are worthy to receive and partake but the sinners in the back of the church who acknowledge their sins but due to legalistic norms, fear reception of the Eucharist are not? Did not Christ say that God heard the prayer of the man in the back of the temple before that of the Pharisee?
So the Church, without compromising the sanctity of the sacrament, must also approach reception of the Eucharist from a pastoral view as well that does not undermine sanctity but emphasizes also that the Eucharist is Christ and that Christ is love and mercy.
I am not condoning that the Eucharist should not be respected or that anyone can receive the sacred Body and Blood of Christ, (symbolic for non Catholics), but the Church must approach the many legalistic obstacles to reception and re-evaluate.
So Where to Draw the Line?
We know liberals have taken the initial write up of the synod as an open invitation to change Church doctrine on divorce and homosexual relations, but the Holy Spirit has closed these things off, even within the revisions, the Holy Spirit manifested himself. Under the guidance of Holy Spirit, Pope Francis is approaching many things more pastoral and Christ like, but there still must be a line. Understanding, mercy and forgiveness can be applied, but truth must still be guarded.
This truth lies in the fact that many remarried couples, those who co-habitate, or those who live in unnatural and homosexual relationships are not repentant. They have no intention of reforming their lives nor feel any guilt or sorrow for their past. For those who wish to advertise and promote their illicit behavior, then those should not be permitted the Eucharist. If they sadly wish to leave the confines of the Church over these illicit actions, then the Church must allow them to leave of their own free will. We can only prayer for them.
What I ask is simply to leave it to the discretion of a case by case basis to the parish priest. For those who are knowingly in cohabitation, remarried or in homosexual relationships, then allow the priest to determine the rule or norm for individual cases. Only the parish priest would know the situation and who is truly repentant or struggling with vice. He would also know those who may have no firm desire to change.
As for remarried couples, divorced and homosexual, the choice to receive should be open to them but with strong guidelines. There are so many subjective elements to why someone is divorced or why someone remarried but denial of the Eucharist should not be one of the punishments. Many individuals who remarried long ago, may now feel the guilt but the reality of their lives together with another person, while not condoned, should at least be understood. Maybe the grace of the sacrament and frequent confession would be the best thing for these individuals? Leaving them at the curb, as broken, and denying them the Eucharist is not helping their soul. Again, let the pastor determine the situation on a case by case basis.
But how do we know the true intent of people? We do not, that is why until we walk in someone’s else shoes, we cannot judge worthiness of the Eucharist for one or the other, for if we judge, then we realize none of us are worthy to receive the Eucharist but only through the friendship of Christ.
So in conclusion, we are trapped by two extremes. One of a legalistic outdated system that over emphasizes awe and a liberal indifferent system that emphasizes no respect for the Eucharist. The middle ground is respect but also pastoral common sense that views the Eucharist as God, Creator, and Omnipotent Being, but also as Father, Brother, Savior and Friend.
We cannot change the sin, but we can better love the sinner. In many ways the hierarchy has failed in these cases, and in many more cases, the liberal war drum of modernism has echoed through the halls, but we must maintain a middle ground that is faithful to the teachings of the church and also open to the ministry of Christ which is understanding, mercy and love. We as a Church must remove the Pharisaical Legalisms of the Pre-Vatican II Church and see Christ more personally in what we consider proper for reception of the Eucharist.
Whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, these issues of the modern family affect our Churches. How should we incorporate non-traditional families without condoning their sin? This is difficult. I laid a few suggestions above for the Catholic Church in eve of the Synod in Rome, but I am sure other congregations have different protocols. Whatever the protocol, I know two things. First, we cannot alter dogma for comfort, and second, we cannot allow legalistic outdated laws determine pastoral care.
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Mark Moran, MA