Today is Holy Thursday, the day when Christians throughout the world celebrate Jesus Christ’s institution of the Eucharist, commonly referred to as the Lord’s supper or Holy Communion. Nearly two thousand years ago, Christ first distributed the bread and the wine to His apostles just hours before He was arrested and crucified. The Eucharist has received international attention in the last week, not so much for what Christ did in Jerusalem, but for what President Clinton did in South Africa: illicitly receive communion in direct contradiction to Catholic Canon Law.
President Clinton, a Southern Baptist, and Mrs. Clinton, a Methodist, both received the Eucharist at a Catholic Church in South Africa—this much we know. Beyond this, however, the story—like far too many stories involving this administration—is a muddled finger pointing mess. The White House claims that its advance team received an invitation from the parish priest for the President to receive communion, and further asserts that the South African Catholic Bishop’s Conference have a policy allowing all baptized Christians to participate in communion. The South African Catholic Bishops countered with a press release reiterating the universal Catholic teaching that the Eucharist may not be given to non-Catholics except in the most extreme of circumstances—a direct refutation of the White House’s open communion allegation. The press release also suggests that the priest’s “invitation” was more likely reluctant acquiesce, stating that the priest agreed (without the knowledge of the bishop) to the Presidential staff request that Mr. and Mrs. Clinton be allowed to partake in communion because “it would have been rude to turn the President away.”
Before going further, it is useful to understand why a Protestant receiving Catholic communion is such a grave issue. It is an unhappy reality of the Catholic-Protestant divide that differences in belief concerning the meaning and practice of the Lord’s supper prevent Eucharistic sharing, or the receiving of communion across Catholic-Protestant lines.
Catholics believe in transubstantiation, whereby the bread and wine, while maintaining their ordinary physical qualities, are substantively transformed in the Eucharist into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. Greatly simplified, the Eucharistic host (or wafer) is no longer actually bread but is Christ.
For Protestants, two major schools of thought exist: consubstantiation and symbolic communion. In consubstantiation, the view expressed by Hillary Clinton’s United Methodist Church in its 1996 “Book of Discipline,” the bread and wine and Christ’s presence exist simultaneously (i.e., the bread is actually both bread and Christ). Alternatively, in symbolic communion, the view expressed by Bill Clinton’s Southern Baptist Church in its 1963 Convention, the Lord’s supper is received as a symbolic remembrance of Christ’s death and in anticipation of His second coming.
Because of these vast differences and the lack of unity, the Catholic Church prohibits non-Catholics from receiving communion except where there is the danger of death or grave and pressing need, an example of which would be a person in prison. Even under these rare circumstances, the individual must ask spontaneously for the Eucharist, be unable to approach a minister of their own community, demonstrate a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist (i.e., transubstantiation), and be properly disposed, or free from mortal sin (for Catholics, unless one has never committed a mortal sin—a status that the President fails to meet by admission of his own deposition testimony—confession to a Catholic priest is required to become properly disposed). This is canon law, and legitimately cannot be changed by a priest, a bishop, or a conference of bishops. Objectively, the President did not meet any of these requirements, with the possible exception of spontaneous petition, and therefore should not have received communion.
So far, the Eucharistic error is grave, but appears unintentional. Yes, the President should have sought counsel on this issue and should have not placed a parish priest in the position far too many have faced during this administration: that of saying no to the President. And yes, the priest should have known better than to allow the President’s political status to blind him to clear Catholic law. But to this point the error seems innocent enough. Enter the White House spin crew.
Responding to a question about John Cardinal O’Connor’s Palm Sunday homily, which denounced the South African priest’s actions as “legally and doctrinally wrong in the eyes of the Catholic Church,” White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry offered that “Cardinal O’Connor may not be familiar with the doctrinal attitude towards [sic] the Holy Eucharist [sic] that the conference of bishops in South Africa brings to that question.”
Mr. McCurry’s audacity is only matched by his inaccuracy. As previously noted, a Bishop’s Conference can’t change Canon Law, and the South African Conference doesn’t claim to have tried. Mr. McCurry’s statement reveals the White House approach that everything—including Church dogma—is open to interpretation, an approach with which nearly a billion “unenlightened” souls disagree.
The press then asked Mr. McCurry whether the President regretted having taken communion. This would have been a fine opportunity to offer a dignified apology for an unintentional misdeed. Instead, the White House showed once again that mea culpa is as foreign to the President as a Latin Mass by remarking that the President had no regret and was, to the contrary, happy he did it. So much for Catholic contrition.
Religion is far too important to be relegated to a mere gesture. As potentially uncomfortable as it may have been for the priest and the President, the priest should not have offered, and the President should not have received communion. All Christians hope, as I’m sure the President does, that Protestants and Christians will one day be united on this important question. Until then, if the President is in a Catholic Church and finds himself unsure of whether or not to receive the Eucharist, he should follow the advice of this fellow Southern Baptist, and reverently have a seat.
Robert Alt is an Adjunct Fellow at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.
The White House Responds to Communion Confusion
The Washington Times
April 11, 1998
Two thoughtful commentaries on the issue of President Clinton’s participation in a Communion Mass in South Africa deserve a response, especially because some of the confusion comes from remarks made by me (“President Clinton gets religion… and a time for Christian unity,” Op-Ed, April 9).
First, the facts: When the president and members of his delegation visited the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto, we were all given a program drawn up by White House staff people on location that said: “Father Makobane (the parish priest) has stated that due to recent rulings from the South African Conference of Bishops, non-Catholics may take Catholic Communion. He has invited all non- Catholics present that wish to receive Communion [to] do so.”
The president, the first lady and others traveling with them (including this Protestant) appreciated the ecumenical spirit in which the invitation to Christ’s table was extended; indeed, the feel of the vibrant and moving service was such that many of us believe we would have been considered rude if we had not participated.
Days after the service, courtesy of the New York Times, we learn that the directive on ecumenism from the South African bishops (evidently the “ruling” that the White House advance staff referenced) suggests that non-Catholics attending a Eucharist for a “special feast or event” may find that sharing Communion could be “both meaningful and desirable, expressing the degree of unity that the participating Christians already have with each other.”
Cardinal John O’Connor replied to the concerns of his congregation by suggesting that the action of the local priest, however well-intentioned, was legally and doctrinally wrong in the eyes of church law. Cardinal O’Connor, to understate the obvious, knows canon law a lot better than a White House press secretary. When I gently suggested that perhaps the cardinal was not aware of the directive of ecumenism issued by the South African bishops, I in no way meant to challenge his understanding of church law.
Catholics in the United States and their bishops welcome all Christians as brothers and sisters to their celebrations of the Eucharist. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops in its own guidelines for Communion suggests that it is time to “dispel the sad divisions which separate” Catholic and non- Catholic. Even though non-Catholics cannot be admitted to Holy Communion under the law and doctrine of the Catholic Church, there is surely some hope that we all feel a oneness in Christ on occasions when we celebrate together his passion on the cross and his victory through resurrection.
The president, the first lady and other Protestants at Regina Mundi Church that day were filled with exactly that spirit, and I believe we acted in good faith, based on the information we were given. I dare say most of us were also inspired by the history of that church, the determination of its congregation and the spiritual significance of Soweto’s struggle against persecution and its triumph over adversity. Communion that day for us was certainly a feast and an event quite special, even if we were mistaken in the eyes of the Catholic Church for receiving it.