Placing particular emphasis on the gay marriage issue, John J. Myers, the Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, maintained in a pastoral letter here that Catholics who cannot assent to the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family “must in all honesty and humility refrain from receiving Holy Communion until they can do so with integrity.” Many reacted to the letter as if it were unprecedented, but I do not believe it is.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2006 here insisted that “If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.” In context, as I read it, a Catholic is obstinately rejecting doctrines of the Church if he or she has given up trying to believe that the Church’s moral teaching is correct. What distinguishes the letter of Myers from the statement of the Bishops is that Myers identifies the failure to assent to a specific moral teaching as bringing about separation from the Church. If Myers is right about this, it seems to me that the overwhelming majority of American Catholics should not be receiving Communion. To reject the Church’s teaching on contraception is to reject the teaching authority of the Church, and the overwhelming majority of American Catholics do exactly that. My guess is that relatively few of American Catholics who reject the contraception teaching are still trying to accept Church teaching on the issue.
It is not surprising that the Conference of Bishops is more circumspect about what causes separation from the Church than Archbishop Myers. Nonetheless, the same day the Bishops stated that the failure to accept the teaching of the Church on moral issues should cause one to refrain from receiving Communion, the Bishops in separate documents reaffirmed their teachings on contraception and same sex relations. There is already a crisis in the teaching authority of the Bishops. If they follow the lead of Archbishop Myers in being specific about which moral teachings cannot be rejected while continuing to receive communion, Catholics will either leave the Church or contumaciously receive Communion anyway. In other words, the Emperor will lose whatever clothes are left.