Whatever arguments a person may marshal for “an ‘inclusive’ Church” which welcomes everyone unconditionally, and for Holy Communion offered unconditionally to “whoever wants it,” historical and canonical precedent isn’t one of them. It’s sheer fantasy to imagine that such a church and such a practice ever existed from New Testament times to the present.
I write as one who was subjected to an unjust and uncanonically protracted suspension from priestly ministry from 1995 to 2002, a complete farce of a spiritual trial in 2001, an unjust and still largely unexplained deposal from holy orders in 2002 (all of the foregoing in the OCA), and—in a fit of hysteria on the part of two priests and their bishop—an unjust excommunication from the local ROCOR parish in Toronto and the diocese to which it belongs in 2016 after they had read the title and a few lines from A Bed Undefiled.
Yet I have never questioned, in principle, the sacred responsibility of priests, bishops, and Synods—as divinely appointed custodians of the Holy Mysteries—to discern who may and may not participate in the Church’s sacramental life, who may and may not be admitted to and continue to serve in holy orders, and the conditions under which they may or may not do so.
Historically the temporary exclusion of certain penitents from the Eucharist was incorporated into the structure of the Divine Liturgy itself. After the catechumens, the various grades of penitents (the kneelers, weepers, etc., of the canons) were likewise prayed for, blessed, and dismissed after the Scripture readings and homily—at the end of the Liturgy of the Catechumens—and before the Liturgy of the Faithful.
On a few occasions during my own priestly ministry, I found myself in the unhappy position of having to withhold Holy Communion from one or another individual for one or another reason. I was usually able to convey this pastoral decision in the context of a confession in which I had to defer absolution. In two instances that I can recall, I turned someone away at the Chalice, at the very moment when he or she expected to receive Holy Communion.
Any priest who has been properly formed by Orthodox spirituality and the prayer book knows in his heart that he himself stands before God as the first among sinners and the lowest of all men—the one most “bound by the desires and pleasures of the flesh,” most unworthy “to approach, or to draw near, or to serve the King of glory.” It can only be with a sense of extreme sorrow, gentleness, co-suffering—indeed ghastliness—that he presumes to exclude anyone even temporarily from the Chalice of the Lord’s Body and Blood.
By the same token, I once enraged a parishioner by giving Communion to a notorious sinner whom he hoped to see cast out in the presence of all.
While the high profile optics of former Vice-President and current presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s recent exclusion from the Eucharist may prove problematic on a number of levels, the popular sentiment found even among Orthodox and Catholic Facebookers and tweeters that “Holy Communion is for whoever wants it” contributes nothing to the conversation, because based on precisely nothing in Orthodox or Catholic tradition. While I have no competence to speak on the current state of Roman Catholic canon law, anyone who has given what we Orthodox call “The Canons” even a cursory study knows how exactingly they set forth the conditions for a person’s temporary removal from and readmission to the Holy Mysteries.
Yet because the canons, in our Orthodox understanding, provide a “measuring stick” by the very definition of the word, and not “laws” in any juridical or legalistic sense, they serve a therapeutic rather than punitive function. Sin is a wound to be healed, not a crime to be punished. A wise, prayerful, humble bishop or presbyter applies the canons as a caring physician, not as a harsh judge, always in the hope of restoring a penitent to the Medicine of Immortality as quickly as possible.
The ethos of the undivided Church on abortion is clear: whatever the circumstances that result in pregnancy—no matter how unintended, no matter how tragic and indeed violent in the fallen conditions of human life—conception produces a divinely created and divinely beloved human person whose earthly life abortion cuts short. We cannot reject this fundamental doctrine of Christian anthropology and call ourselves Orthodox or Catholic.
Yet, as I have argued elsewhere, “the teaching of the Church” seems considerably less clear on the appropriate political response to abortion in a modern, secular, pluralistic democracy where theocratic aspirations of any kind have no place. We as Church can find—must find—pastoral, humane, personal ways to help pregnant women who are faced with insurmountable social, economic, and emotional obstacles to carrying their child to term, while still advocating for—or at least doing nothing to obstruct—the accessibility of legal abortion performed by medical professionals. I say this so that we can save one life—the woman’s—in those cases where we cannot save two.
In Joe Biden’s case, it’s not obvious at all that his political position on abortion violates any “teaching of the Church.” Until he performs an abortion himself or has one, or unambiguously and explicitly rejects the Church’s teaching on the beginning of human life, I don’t think he should be denied Communion, especially to make a public example of him.
But this is not because I think “Communion is for whoever wants it.” I don’t.
On Facebook a few weeks ago I was mischaracterized (by a supporter, not a detractor) as “fighting for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church.” I’m not sure where anyone could get this idea from anything I’ve written. Certainly the Church doesn’t even practice “the full inclusion of straight people” in her sacramental life!
But that’s a topic for another time.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian, former priest, father of five, grandfather of two, founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. He has written for Public Orthodoxy, The Wheel, Milwaukee Independent, and the Kyiv Post. His “A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love” can be downloaded here. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College, is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, and completed the course requirements for the MDiv earlier in life at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @GiacoSanfilippo.
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