Normally I support any Church’s right to control its own membership and dogma, but the contents of the following article leaves a real nasty taste in my mouth. (See CP Article entitled Ontario MP, wife denied communion attached below as the link will not work without a subscription) The article outlines a parish priest’s refusal of communion to an MP and his wife because of their stand on social issues, which conflicted with church teachings.
Christ in serving his disciples did not refuse Judas. Christ leaves it to each individual to determine for himself whether or not to participate. “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup” (1 Cor. 11:28) I suspect that in denying the couple communion he is reversing an edict made by Christ.
The refusal of communion may violate Christs original intent, that is to remind the Christian of the sacrifice made for them. “This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25).
While this is more a religious issue than a political one, I believe that it has a place on this Blog. Often religion effects politics, and so it is important that if religious leaders expect politicians to define and act in accordance to their beliefs, then politicians should expect religious leaders to define and act in accordance to their beliefs as well.
Ontario MP, wife denied communion
July 5, 2005
Charlie Angus and Celina Symmonds had their lives turned upside down when they were told by their parish priests that they could no longer take communion because their stands on social issues conflicted with church teachings.
Angus, a New Democrat MP who represents a northern Ontario riding, ran afoul of the Roman Catholic church over his support for the federal government’s controversial same-sex marriage bill.
“It’s quite disturbing,” said Angus, pointing to what he called “the rising militancy of language within the church. I went to Ottawa feeling that I would be speaking as someone rooted in a faith tradition and rooted in a justice tradition.
“Then your involvement in the sacraments becomes a political pressure point. It was unacceptable.”
Prime Minister Paul Martin, also a practising Catholic, faced similar flak from a priest in his Montreal riding over the bill. Father Francis Geremia said Martin no longer deserved the sacrament of communion and “I pray that he will lose his riding” in the next election.
Symmonds, who once managed the now closed Planned Parenthood office in Medicine Hat, Alta., had to find another place to be married about a month before her wedding in September 2002 after her priest discovered from a newspaper article that she was pro-choice on abortion.
“I was shocked,” says Symmonds. “When you grow up Catholic you grow up awaiting the day where you can walk into that great big cathedral with your husband. It’s something you dream of as a little girl.
“And it got crushed within seconds.”
Angus, who represents the riding of Timmins James-Bay and lives in New Liskeard, has only attended mass a couple of times since the incident in the spring. “I haven’t accepted communion,” he said. His wife and three daughters have stayed away from mass.
“It’s something I don’t feel very comfortable discussing,” he said, his voice quavering. “So much of politics is spin … party position … (or) having some one-liners. But when it speaks to the essence of what you feel and what you believe, it’s very hard to rationalize it or to articulate it.”
Symmonds remembers well the day when the priest’s assistant phoned, and she hasn’t attended church since the incident. “It hurts that you’re told that you’re not welcome to be a part of something that was very precious in your life,” she said, her voice trembling.
“Getting the courage to go back, it’s tough because you feel ostracized as far as what you believe … You become intimidated going into a church because you don’t know, will I be welcome, will I be stared at?”
Communion, or the eucharist, is the “central core” of the Roman Catholic faith, says Thomas Reilly, general secretary of the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is celebrated daily in many Catholic churches.
The Catholic Church is the largest church in Canada with about 13 million members, according to Statistics Canada’s 2001 census. Nationally the number of members attending church weekly is about 20 per cent of total membership, figures gathered by religion pollster Reginald Bibby show.
During communion, Catholics believe “we receive the body and blood of Christ, represented by the bread and wine,” says Catherine Clifford, professor of theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.
“The reality that it signifies for us is union with Christ. But it’s also unity in the body of Christ, that is the church,” said Clifford. “Only those who are baptized may receive the eucharist,” instituted by Christ during the last supper for believers to eat and drink in remembrance of him.
The church describes the eucharist as “the source and the summit … of the whole life of the church,” said Clifford. To deny communion to a church member is “a very serious and painful thing … It’s a form of exclusion from the community.”
Reilly said it would be “quite devastating” for someone like himself, who has been a practising Catholic for about 70 years, to be denied communion. “I’d need to go and look at myself and look at the situation and discuss it with the priest.”
A priest should not exclude anyone from the eucharist, “except for grave, grave reasons,” said Clifford. It’s also a decision that belongs to a bishop, who presides over the prayer life of a local church, she said.
In the case of Angus and Symmonds, the bishops in charge of their parishes backed their priests.
The church defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others, said Reilly. On abortion, it believes that life begins at conception and continues until natural death, he said. “It should not be interfered with in the sense of ending it in between those two points.”
Denial of communion is rare in the Catholic Church, said Clifford. “Because you’re labelling someone as heretical. You’re saying they do not hold the faith of the church and are therefore excluded from the sacramental life of the church.”
Most cases of communion denial involve the many Catholics who are divorced and remarried, said Clifford. “That’s a huge pastoral problem.”
At the United Church of Canada, denial of communion “would be totally foreign to our system,” said Rev. Bruce Gregersen, who’s in charge of support to local ministries for the church, the country’s largest Protestant denomination.
“Our policy is an open table,” he said. “The language of the institution of the supper is that this is the Lord’s table. It is not our table. And so the distinction we would make is that anyone who professes to be in relationship to Jesus Christ and who loves and desires to serve Jesus is welcome to his table.”
For Symmonds, what was so upsetting was the feeling that the church had made “a blanket decision without even knowing who I was … I knew that the church was not supportive of abortion rights. However I felt that the church would be supportive of me.”
However, what she discovered was that “everyone needs to fit into a little box and if you don’t fit into that box, then maybe you don’t fit at all,” she said.
Despite being denied communion, she managed to avoid being excommunicated after “a good discussion” with the priest. He “encouraged me to come back to church. (But) I couldn’t take communion,” said Symmonds.
Clifford finds that odd “to just withhold communion and say but you’re not really excommunicated.”
“Withholding communion is excommunication … It means the person is not welcome to receive any of the sacraments … The way back for them is through the sacrament of reconciliation,” she said.
Angus says he’s “willing to live with the consequences of my decision because I’m called to do that as a parliamentarian … If the church doesn’t want me to get communion, I can live with that.”
“As a legislator, I have to represent the Catholics and the non-Catholics. I have to represent the bigger picture and I can’t be taking my orders from the pulpit … Political or religious pressure is not the basis for informing your conscience.”
Although Symmonds, who went on to marry her Baptist beau in a service club hall and now is raising four adopted children, still misses the community of a church, she hasn’t lost her faith.
“I just learned that (the Lord) was here whether or not I went into the Catholic Church. I know what I believe and I believe in it strong enough. I feel like I’m at peace with that now.”
© Canadian Press 2005