Bishop Michael J. Sheridan Responds to His Critics
The reactions to my recent pastoral letter on the duties of Catholic politicians and voters were overwhelming in many more ways than one. I was edified by the many messages of support for what I wrote. I was distressed by those who misread and misrepresented what I wrote. I was deeply saddened by those who said that they understood very well what the Church teaches, but had chosen to disregard it. And there were those who raised thoughtful questions regarding the Church’s teaching on capital punishment and war. I will deal with these issues in my next column. For now I think it is important to clarify some misunderstandings and erroneous conclusions that have been drawn from my letter.
The most serious misrepresentation of my letter was the conclusion drawn by many that I or other ministers of Holy Communion would refuse the sacrament to people who voted in a particular way. Nowhere in the letter do I say this or even suggest it. The intent of the letter was to appeal to the consciences of Catholic people as they prepare to vote in November. I called upon Catholics to recognize that our vote, while always a private act, has public consequences for good or evil. This means that my vote must be cast with a conscience well-informed as to good and evil. This, I believe, is sound Catholic teaching and common sense.
The Church has taught from the beginning that when Catholics sin seriously they must refrain from receiving Holy Communion until they have repented and been absolved in the Sacrament of Penance (confession). In fact this teaching has been repeated in the most recent writings of the Holy Father on the relationship between the Eucharist and Penance. If a Catholic votes in bad conscience, especially in matters that have to do with the sanctity of life (e.g. abortion), how can this be anything other than a participation in that sinful act? It is at this point that the Church calls upon sinners to withhold themselves from receiving Holy Communion until they have been forgiven of their sins. This is a far cry from denying someone Communion. How, in fact, could I deny anyone Holy Communion since I would not know the condition of the communicant’s soul?
It seems that an incorrect notion of conscience is at the bottom of much of the misunderstanding. Many who registered their disagreement with my letter made it clear that, in spite of what the Church teaches about the meaning of conscience, for these people conscience would always be a matter of deeply held opinions, some of which may even conflict with Church teaching. In the end, however, it would be personal opinion that would win out over divinely revealed truth. This way of thinking effectively does away with any meaningful notion of conscience and reduces everything to personal preference. For a Catholic, the only authentic meaning of a well-informed conscience is one which relies on the truth of Jesus Christ as that truth has been received and taught by the Catholic Church. I repeat here what I quoted from the Catechism of the Catholic Church in my letter: “The Church, the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth,’ ‘has received this solemn command of Christ from the apostles to announce the saving truth’ (1 Tim 3:15). ‘To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls’” (#2032). Conscience, for the Catholic, must be informed by the teachings of the Church. In other words, conscience does not invent truth. Conscience discovers the truth that has been revealed by God.
To those, then, who said that the Church teaches that we must follow our consciences, I say TRUE. But only a well-formed and informed conscience may be followed. Put bluntly, anyone who says he has a well-formed conscience that stands opposed to the most fundamental moral teachings of our Church simply does NOT have a well-formed conscience. And let’s not appeal to Vatican II to pretend that we do.
Having attempted these clarifications, I would like to answer some of the important questions that were raised by those who read my letter:
Won’t your letter be the cause of some people leaving the Church?
I hope not. That certainly was not the intent. However, some people have said that they will leave the Church. They will leave because they will not abide a bishop “telling them what to do”. Let’s be clear and honest. I have done nothing more than explain the teaching of the Church, which is the truth. If the truth causes people to abandon the greatest gift they will ever receive, viz., membership in Christ’s Body the Church, I feel deeply sorry for them.
I cannot help but think of Jesus’ teaching His followers the truth of the Eucharist (cf. John 6). He told them in no uncertain terms that He would give them His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. St. John tells us that this teaching was unacceptable to some of Jesus’ followers: “This sort of talk is hard to endure! How can anyone take it seriously?” And “from that time on, many of his disciples broke away and would not remain in his company any longer.”
The truth of God can be divisive. Jesus foretold this. Truth is especially divisive when it challenges opinions that we hold dear. Jesus wanted his followers to accept His truth rather than their own opinions. Some did and some did not. But Jesus never stopped teaching the truth. And the Church will never stop teaching the truth.
Should the Eucharist be used as a weapon to force certain behaviors or punish others?
Of course not. But this is how my letter has been misrepresented. In hearing from some Catholics I learned that there is a certain way of thinking that suggests that the Eucharist has little or no relationship to the way we live our lives in the world. It seemed beyond comprehension to them that anything should ever separate them from the Eucharist. This way of thinking comes as no surprise if we simply take note of the fact that everyone receives Holy Communion on Sunday and almost no one goes to confession.
Turning to Sacred Scripture once again, we recall St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians in which the apostle expresses his concern that some in the Corinthian community were receiving the Eucharist unworthily. He had heard of behavior in the community that was so contrary to Christian teaching that he told the Corinthians to examine their consciences well. He did not hesitate to write that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). The Church has always held that a Catholic must approach Holy Communion in the state of grace. Anything less is a sacrilege.
This, of course, is where the disagreement occurs. Some people have written to me and said that nothing or no one outside of themselves can determine the moral significance of their actions. They alone would decide what is right and what is wrong. This stance, claimed as Catholic, ignores Jesus’ constitution of His Church and the Church’s teaching authority. Jesus said to Peter: “I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). Again, as Catholics we live under a divinely established law. It is this law that must guide our every actionl.
If you haven't already contacted Bishop Sheridan to thank him for taking his duty as a shepherd seriously, here is his e-mail address and phone number.
Most Reverend Michael J. Sheridan
Phone: 719-636-2345 and E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org