The archbishop of Santa Fe, NM, Michael Sheehan, published a letter last month addressing unmarried Catholic couples who are living together, which by definition also includes divorced and remarried Catholics and those in civil unions. Noting the Church’s teaching that only two lifestyles are possible, either as a single person living chastely or in marriage between man and woman, Sheehan states that cohabiting couples are in a state of mortal sin and therefore may not receive communion. Essentially, then, they are not considered practicing Catholics so neither may they serve as Eucharistic ministers or sponsor someone in baptism or confirmation. Whether they may participate in parish activities is left to the pastors, but Sheehan cautions that “Prudence is needed, avoiding all occasions of scandal.”
I became intrigued by the word “scandal,” a term regularly used by the bishops. The Church’s concept of scandal has a more particular meaning than simply to describe behavior that is shocking. In the Catholic sense, it has to do with leading others into sin by your actions or words. The Catechism says “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.” (2284)
The bishops’ manner of teaching is far greater cause for scandal than the issues and situations that they attempt to counter. The harsh tone of Sheehan’s letter stands in ironic contrast to its title, “The Pastoral Care of Persons Who Are Cohabitating.” His message conveys concern only for the rules, not a care of persons at all. I am especially scandalized by the wielding of the Eucharist as a weapon, as if it were a private possession to be doled out to well-behaved children as a reward and not the body of Christ broken for all. The bishops’ authoritarian style becomes a more profound source of scandal against the backdrop of their hypocrisy, deception and complete insensitivity in response to decades of sexual abuse of children by priests.
Their behavior leads the Church to division and polarization. Certainly they have damaged the integrity and virtue of the institution, perhaps even drawn it into spiritual death. As role models, their example tempts us to judge one another harshly, to shame those we believe to be in error and to value principles over people and relationships. Worst of all is the temptation to close ourselves off in the upper room of anger and alienation. Our deepest hope and need is to hear the voice of Jesus –“Peace be with you!”
Copyright Peg Conway 2011