Friday, December 17, 2010

Theological Reflections on Who Owns the Sacraments: Bishops' Claim to Exclusive Ownership Contravenes Tradition

If readers can stand yet another reflection (again, from one of my journals of the past) on the mandate of Jesus to his followers to wash one another's feet, here's yet another bit of commentary.  Though I wrote these comments in my journal on 23 May 2004, they do seem relevant to me today, as Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted threatens to remove the Catholic designation of a hospital in his diocese that has, he maintains, been disobedient to him as the definer of what it means to be Catholic in his neck of the woods.  For background to the Phoenix story, see here and here.

And here's what I wrote in May 2004: On who owns the sacraments: the recent move of some bishops to deny the Eucharist to Catholics whose political views they judge to be illicit--as if sacraments are candy the father-bishop hands out to good children--raises a profound theological question: who owns the sacraments?

It's clear the bishops think they do.  It's also abundantly clear from longstanding and rich Catholic tradition that the sacraments "belong" to the entire church, to the people of God.  In the name of defending tradition, bishops using the sacraments as a political tool are undermining Catholic tradition.

A case illustrating the point: those bishops like former Bishop John Donoghue of Charlotte, who, in the name of strict fidelity to papal teaching, excluded women from the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday.  The first message Donoghue and others want to give by their unjustifiable in-your-face act is, it's their liturgy.  It's their church, and they'll do with it as they please.  They define the meaning of sacramental symbols, and the laity's role is to receive that meaning passively and gratefully.

Donoghue et al. refused to allow women's feet to be washed because--they claim--the Holy Thursday washing of feet is about the institution of the priesthood.  Allowing women's feet to be washed sends a signal to women that they might one day expect to be ordained.

To the contrary, the Holy Thursday foot washing has, in church tradition at its fullest and richest, never had much to do with a priesthood that, after all, grew up only gradually in the early centuries of Christianity.  It has always been understood primarily (and properly) to refer to Jesus's call to his followers--all of his followers, male and female alike--to pour themselves out in humble service for the sake of the reign of God.

This is how the vast majority of layfolks read the symbol.  This is what they hear as the gospel is proclaimed at the Holy Thursday service.

If the foot washing is in any way about the priesthood, it's about the calling of those who exercise the pastoral office in the church to be servants first and foremost, not masters.  It's about the Master who got on his knees before his followers and washed their dirty feet, something lowly servants did in his culture.

Bishop Donoghue, other esteemed men of the cloth, you do not own the sacraments.  We, the people of God, do.  You can tell us till you're blue in the face that you alone define the meaning of the sacramental symbols.  We're not listening.

The sacraments are ours as much as they are yours.  The Spirit dwells in us, as in you.  We carry our church tradition just as you do.

And what the Spirit and tradition say to us is that you are wrong: your attempt to claim exclusive ownership of the sacraments, and to use them as political weapons in your power struggles that have little to do with the gospel or the reign of God, is a deplorable departure from longstanding Catholic tradition.  It's also a sacrilegious attempt to play God that will, in the long run, bring shame to the church you claim to be protecting and promoting. 

Perhaps when your house is in order, we'll be better prepared to listen, to split fine theological hairs with you.  But not now, thank you very much--not until you've dealt honestly, forthrightly , and with full accountability with the abuse scandal.

The illustration is from the venerable Baltimore Catechism.  Note its formulation of who is the source of the sacraments, and how the sacraments reach the faithful--a formulation in which the bishop plays no role at all.

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