Too sacred–for you anyway

A Minnesota Public Radio Headline from Oct. 6, 2010 read:

“Archdiocese: Communion too sacred to be used as protest”

The article goes on to describe how Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Twin Cities denied communion to over 20 individuals including students, nuns, and a priest who wore rainbow buttons or ribbons to Mass in support of LGBTQIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Questioning) church members.  The Archbishop and the Diocese made a two-fold argument for denying the group a central sacrament in the Catholic Church.

Part 1: Church is no place for politics.

Part 2: (as the article title suggests) The sacrament of communion is too sacred to be used as a site of protest.

What the archdiocese seemed to leave out of their argument is the implicit Part 3 of their argument: Parts 1 and 2 hold true only when those initiating the action are a subordinated group in the Church. In order to see the dependency of Parts 1 & 2 on part 3, let’s look a bit closer at these two arguments.

Part 1: Church is no place for politics

The Diocese asserts that the group was denied communion because they wore items expressing a political view to the table.  Since politics and the church should remain separate they were rightfully denied the sacrament.  However, the Catholic Church has a long and rich history of moral theology in which Catholic Theologians take on some of the most difficult political issues of the times.  From understandings of human dignity, to solidarity with workers, to the very role of government, Catholic Social Teaching is a central part of the Catholic tradition.[2] Arguably, this aspect of the tradition may or may not have day-to-day impact on the people in the pews.

Granting this last point, let’s look at a point Diocese’s spokesperson himself conceded: were the political statements anti-abortion pins they would have probably been served communion.  Granted this is a “what if” type of argument.  We ca not know for sure that those wearing symbols in support of the anti-abortion movement would have been served communion.  What we can know, however, is that it is who defines what is political matters.  The difference between the LGBTQIQ supporters and anti-abortionists is that, according to the Diocese spokesperson, the Catholic Church does not define abortion as a political issues.  In other words, if it is the orthodox stance of the Church it is not political; if it is the heterodox stance of a minority group it is.

Part 2: The sacrament of communion is too sacred to be used as a site of protest.

Again on the note of the power of definition: the rainbow-wearing group did not define what they were doing as a protest. They framed their action as a statement of support for gay and lesbian church members. It was the Diocese who claimed the group was inappropriately using communion as “a vehicle for protest.”  But what’s the big deal?  It’s just communion, right?

Wrong.  Communion has historically been one of the many powerful tools in the Catholic Church’s arsenal of symbolic violence.  According to Pierre Bourdieu one of religion’s biggest impact on society is its ability to consecrate, legitimate, and make people view the world in a certain way (to inculcate worldviews).[3] The role of those in power in the church is to pass on those worldviews and to protect the power they have that allows them to do so. The sacrament of communion has enormous symbolic capital. The ability to give or deny communion is an exercise of power the Catholic Church can and does use as a source of what Bourdieu calls symbolic violence, which simply means those in power imposing a worldview.

While Bourdieu’s work is fairly cynical of religion the point is that the Diocese could easily name the rainbow-wearing group’s action as using communion as a vehicle for protest because they recognize that communion is a source of power—theologically and sociologically.  This is a power recognized by both the rainbow-wearing group as well as the Diocese.  The difference is, only the Church’s use of this symbol as a site of power is legitimate.

Which, to sum up, brings us back to Part 3:

Parts 1 and 2 hold true only when those initiating the action are a subordinated group in the Church.

Because the group who sought participation to a central symbol of the Catholic Church did so while displaying other symbols of solidarity with an oppressed group within the same Church their act was considered political and inappropriate.  Yet, while communion is too sacred to be a site of protest its sacredness is precisely what gives it the power to be a tool, some would argue a weapon, for reprimanding those whose conscious has led them to critique the Church.


[2] For an excellent site on Catholic Social Teaching (ironically published by the Twin Cities Diocese) see: http://www.osjspm.org/major_themes.aspx

[3] Terry Rey, Bourdieu on Religion: Imposing Faith and Legitimacy (Oakville, CT: Equinox Press, 2007), 85.

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