Who is Qualified to Become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion?

Q: Can openly married homosexuals become extraordinary ministers of communion?

This happened in our parish.  I sent an email to the bishop regarding church policy on this and I was directed to meet with the priest who allowed this.  I met with the priest and he was in a controlled rage the whole meeting.  He scorned me for not following protocol by speaking with him first. He lectured me about divine law and the guidelines for becoming an extraordinary minister.  He never told me his exact position or what he intended to do…. What do you think?  I know we are all sinners but… –Kent

A:  Every so often, a question is sent in that is so absurd, so patently over-the-top, that it’s quite obvious it was written by a prankster as a joke.  Initially Kent’s question sounded like it must be one of them.  After all, what Catholic cleric out there is unaware of the objectively grave moral evil involved in homosexual activity—and would knowingly permit someone to distribute the Holy Eucharist after he has, by “marrying” another man, openly proclaimed to the world that he is engaging in that very activity?

Amazingly, however, Kent’s question does reflect a real situation.  So for the benefit of those obliged to deal with such scandal, let’s take a look at the Church’s teaching on homosexual activity—and since this priest referenced “divine law” in support of his position, we can also look at what God Himself has directly taught mankind on the subject.  Next, we’ll see what the Church’s criteria are for becoming an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.  And finally, we can look at the procedure for dealing with such an incredible situation.

Catholics should be well aware of what the Church has always taught about homosexuality, since it has never changed.  But for the record, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that

[b]asing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.  (CCC 2357)

The phrase in quotation marks, by the way, was taken from the Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics Persona Humana, promulgated in 1975 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It’s worth noting at this point that in the Church’s eyes, there is morally a big difference between struggling with an attraction to persons of the same sex, and actually engaging in homosexual activity.  The Church certainly sympathizes with people who are trying to deal with homosexual tendencies:

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible.  This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.  They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. (CCC 2358)

As a matter of fact the statement in the Catechism entry cited above, that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” was originally made by the CDF in the context of asserting compassion for persons who are struggling with homosexuality.  Here’s the full passage:

In the pastoral field, these homosexuals must certainly be treated with understanding and sustained in the hope of overcoming their personal difficulties and their inability to fit into society. Their culpability will be judged with prudence. But no pastoral method can be employed which would give moral justification to these acts on the grounds that they would be consonant with the condition of such people. For according to the objective moral order, homosexual relations are acts which lack an essential and indispensable finality. In Sacred Scripture they are condemned as a serious depravity and even presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God. This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved of. (Persona Humana VIII)

Note the reference to Sacred Scripture—which, as the above passage correctly observes, has condemned homosexual activity “as a serious depravity.”  One of the most unambiguous Scriptural passages on this subject is found in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, where Paul describes it as a result of man’s turning away from God:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.  Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.  (Rom. 1:26-28)

Paul wasn’t inventing anything new here.  A highly educated Jew, he was well versed in the Jewish Scriptures, and thus was of course familiar with this text from Leviticus: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22).  Paul could also situate this verse in its proper context: in the verse preceding it, God forbids the Jewish people from sacrificing their children to the pagan god Molech; and in the verse immediately following, He prohibits them from engaging in sex with animals.  If that’s not clear enough, the command is repeated again in Lev. 20:13, where this activity is also declared to be punishable by death.  One thus gets the pretty distinct impression that God does not regard homosexual sex as a trivial crime against Him.

There are many today who claim that these were moral norms that may have been appropriate centuries ago, but are no longer relevant today.  But as already seen above, the Catholic Church does not agree.  On the contrary, God’s statements in Leviticus forbidding homosexual sex are regarded as divine law—and just in case anybody would be tempted to suggest that these were Old Testament restrictions that do not apply to Christians, Saint Paul has reiterated them for us in a plainly Christian context.  As was seen in “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” there is no one on earth who has the authority to change a divine law—not even the Pope himself.

Armed with this information, let’s now see what the Church requires of those laypersons who are, as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, allowed the immense privilege of assisting in the distribution of the Eucharist at Mass on some occasions.  As was discussed in detail back in “Questions about Eucharistic Ministers,” the laity are only to assist the clergy in this way when there is a genuine need in a truly extraordinary situation; the role is not to be taken lightly.

The Code of Canon Law does not explicitly lay out the qualifications necessary for an extraordinary minister.  Instead, these are addressed in the 2004 Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, On Certain Matters to be Observed or to be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist.  This document was issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which (as its name indicates) has responsibility for matters pertaining to Mass and the sacraments.  And the Instruction couldn’t be clearer:

The lay Christian faithful called to give assistance at liturgical celebrations should be well instructed and must be those whose Christian life, morals, and fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium recommend them.  It is fitting that such a one should have received a liturgical formation in accordance with his or her age, condition, state of life, and religious culture.  No one should be selected whose designation could cause consternation for the faithful. (RS 46)

Observe that this paragraph of the document simultaneously addresses two separate concerns.  On the one hand, when choosing laypeople to assist the clergy at Mass in any capacity—e.g., as lector, cantor, extraordinary minister—care should be taken that their moral lives are as blameless as possible, as is only fitting for the worship of God.

But on the other hand, it is simultaneously important to avoid public scandal.  Let’s think realistically: it’s quite conceivable that a layperson might in fact have once been a public sinner (a prostitute, let’s say, or a drug-dealer), but has subsequently repented  and amended his/her life.  Such persons are always welcome in the Church—but not necessarily in highly visible roles during Mass and other liturgical celebrations.  Imagine that your former next-door neighbor was well known to the entire town for exchanging sex for money in years gone by… and one Sunday you attend Mass and see her leading the congregation in singing.  Even worse, imagine that your teenaged children are likewise aware of her reputation and attend Mass with you.  How could you all not be scandalized?  Yes, it may very well be that she has turned her life around and is now a model Catholic—but you wouldn’t necessarily know that.  We can all wish such a person well and applaud her for courageously breaking with her sinful past; but that break with the past doesn’t ipso facto qualify her for a public role in the liturgical life of the parish.

This example, of course, involves a person who once engaged in morally objectionable activity which has now ceased.  (Incidentally, it was exactly this type of situation which prompted Pope Francis’ now famous comment, “Who am I to judge?” which the secular media has subsequently twisted beyond all recognition.)  How much less should a layperson be permitted to assist in any liturgical ministry if he is still known publicly to be involved in homosexual activity to this very day!  This is a textbook-case of public scandal, which couldn’t be any more clear-cut.

Procedurally speaking, faced with this situation at his parish, what should Kent have done?  In a nutshell, exactly what he did do.  If you see a priest openly allowing something which clearly constitutes an abuse, you simply go to his superior.  If that superior wasn’t aware of the problem, and is a responsible person, he will naturally share your concern and do something about it (whether he chooses to tell you what that “something” is or not).  This is not rocket-science.

But in this case, rather than deal responsibly with the situation—as befits the dignity of the Most Blessed Sacrament, and with a pastoral concern about the scandal given to the faithful in this situation—it appears that Kent’s bishop (or whoever reads the bishop’s mail!) merely passed the buck, sending Kent’s letter on to the priest who created this whole problem in the first place.  And instead of appreciating the need to correct this scandalous situation, the priest’s response only added insult to injury.  For starters, as was just explained, he is flat-out wrong about Kent needing to talk to him first.  (One can only wonder what sort of “protocol” this priest is referring to—it certainly has no basis in procedural law.)  And if he cares to cite divine law, we have already seen the black-and-white conclusions which God’s own words, given to us in the Scriptures, will lead any reasonable Catholic to reach.

On top of this, the priest cited “guidelines” for becoming an extraordinary minister, but failed to explain what they actually are.  Even if this diocese has its own rules about how to choose laypeople for this task, they cannot contradict the Vatican directives cited above, which are grounded in Catholic moral theology.

Given the failure to correct this problem at both the parish and the diocesan level, Kent’s next step should be to contact the Vatican directly, and explain the facts of the situation.  It’s difficult to imagine that corrective action of some sort will not be taken immediately!

Readers might at this point be feeling bad for the homosexual man in this scenario, and not without justification.  He is not to blame for this problem, as the responsibility for wrongly permitting him to serve in this public liturgical capacity rests entirely with the pastor of the parish who allowed it, and with the bishop who does nothing about it.  We have no way of knowing his spiritual state: he may in reality be struggling with his sexual inclinations, wanting to do what God has told us is morally right.  In that case, the last thing he needs to hear is a moral affirmation of his “marriage” to another man, coming obliquely in the form of  approval by his Catholic pastor to serve the parish as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion!

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, one occasionally hears of individuals suggesting that somehow it’s “merciful” to tell someone committing acts which the Church teaches are objectively immoral that it’s okay.  This is unquestionably a distortion of the concept of mercy, by those who wrongly think that mercy is the opposite of justice.  In point of fact, the opposite of justice is not mercy—it’s injustice.  It’s fairly easy to see a proper application of mercy in this case; and it will be just too, to the Church, to the other parishioners, and to this man himself: the parish priest can, when he explains to this man the reasons why he may not serve as an extraordinary minister, also explain as charitably and diplomatically as possible the Church’s reasons why.  It can at times be awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s entirely possible to treat a person with dignity and respect—and to encourage him to continue to practice his faith—while clarifying for him Catholic moral teaching on sexuality. This is true mercy, entirely compatible with true justice.

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