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Would it be wrong to excommunicate Garry Wills?
 
Monday, March 11, 2013
by James M. Thunder
 

Maybe you heard Garry Wills espouse his theological views during the February 13 edition of the nationally broadcast Diane Rehm Show occasioned by the publication of his latest book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition. (See Diane Rehm Show here) His views certainly prompt the question, “Would it be wrong to excommunicate Garry Wills?” 

A priest wrote an essay in the past year for a parish bulletin on the subject of excommunication responding to those who supported it. Perhaps he was also responding to my article I had given him which appeared in the November 2010 issue of the New Oxford Review that recommended excommunicating officials, members, and benefactors of the Abortion Party (popularly known as the Democratic Party). He reminded his readers of Jesus’ story about the wheat and the weeds – letting them live together until the harvest -- and he cautioned that a program of excommunication once begun may not have a stopping point. 
 
Canon law sets out who is eligible for excommunication and the process for excommunication. (See Vatican website here) There is great leeway in what we would call prosecutorial discretion in choosing whether or not to commence a proceeding. A review of precedents, such as those listed here, and those of Cardinal Burke when he was archbishop of St. Louis, see The Catholic Thing and this (canonlaw website) suggest that excommunications are rare. Canon 1909 encourages the exercise of restraint: “In addition to the cases established here or in other laws, the external violation of a divine or canonical law can be punished by a just penalty only when the special gravity of the violation demands punishment and there is an urgent need to prevent or repair scandals.” Nonetheless, I submit that excommunications are all too rare and Mr. Wills’ hour on national radio proves my point.
 
In his radio hour, Wills rejected the Real Presence (that is, the Catholic belief that the body and blood of Christ, His soul and divinity, are present in every consecrated host) and rejected Holy Orders (the ordination of priests, the consecration of bishops, the papacy, and apostolic succession (the belief that the current bishops are directly descended from the Apostles). He didn’t care about the issue of women priests or married priests; he was in favor of no ordained priests. He acknowledged he goes to Catholic Mass regularly. When asked why he remained a Catholic when his views were Protestant, he responded with a relativistic point of view, namely, that the Catholic Church was like every other part of the Church of Christ.
 
Wills has a Ph.D. in the classics. He has written several volumes on theological issues, including several on St. Augustine. He is a professor at Northwestern University. I submit that when a mature individual, well educated in the Faith, publicly writes and speaks against the Real Presence (let’s focus just on that teaching in this essay), the local bishop is obliged to commence excommunication proceedings.
 
There is no spectrum on the belief about the Real Presence. It’s either true or it’s not true. 
 
There is no ambiguity in the Church’s teaching. Wills agrees that it is the Church’s clear teaching. He says the Church is wrong about it.  Wills is, to use a politically incorrect word, a heretic. And his excommunication would be justifiable under Canon 1369: “A person who in a public show or speech, in published writing, or in other uses of the instruments of social communication utters blasphemy, gravely injures good morals, expresses insults, or excites hatred or contempt against religion or the Church is to be punished with a just penalty.”
 
 
What’s the downside in exercising prudential judgment in favor of commencing proceedings? That it would bring him notoriety (more than he already has?). That the Church in general, and the bishop in particular, will be pilloried by the national and local media and by various organizations and groups for: intolerance, oppressing the person, denying the person his human and natural right of free expression, trying to take the world’s attention away from the sex abuse, intervening in politics, causing divisions, etc. Consider the reaction to the Vatican’s 2010 investigation and subsequent censure of retired Yale Professor Sister Margaret A. Farley for her 2006 book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.  New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd pointed out that the censure caused the book’s sales to explode upward. The Catholic Theological Society of America, the lay Catholic dean of Yale’s Divinity School, and Sister Farley’s religious superior all publicly defended her.    
 
What’s the upside in pursuing excommunication? In the first instance, it offers “shock therapy” to the baptized individual, telling him that his eternal salvation is in jeopardy. Some might say it would be a waste of Church resources to pursue the excommunication of Wills since he is 78 and won’t be espousing his views much longer. The response is, it is precisely because he may not have much longer to live that he needs “shock therapy.” He is running out of time to get himself ready for Judgment Day. Secondly, excommunication alerts Catholics who read or listen to the individual that he will harm their faith, their eternal salvation. It protects the flock – which bishops are obliged to do. It protects the children – which bishops are obliged to do (and how well we have been reminded of this obligation in the course of the sex abuse scandals!). It relieves the priests and lay ministers of Communion of the decision they routinely make whenever such a person presents himself for the reception of Communion. (Canon 912 states “Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion.”) (I don’t know if Wills presents himself for Communion.)
 
What it is like when a person like Wills goes to a Catholic church for Mass? When Catholics enter a Catholic church, we expect to see a tabernacle. We look for the sanctuary candle lamp. If it is lit, it is a sign that consecrated Hosts, that Jesus Himself, is in the tabernacle. And we genuflect. That is, we bend one knee to the ground. If a Host is outside the tabernacle and “exposed,” that is, open to public view in a monstrance for adoration, we bend both our knees to the ground. 
 
The Catholic Mass begins with a reference to the “sacred mysteries” about to be celebrated. The “mysteries” refer to the miracle of the consecration of the bread and wine into the Real Presence, or what Catholics call “the Blessed Sacrament” or the “Eucharist” (a Greek word for “thanksgiving”). I asked an Evangelical man who attended a Mass with me if he believed in miracles. He answered yes. I added that Catholics believe in a miracle that occurs at every Mass. I invited him to watch, listen, and pray. And told him it happens in every church every day.
 
If that miracle does not occur, then the bread and wine that are blessed by the priest are merely sacramentals, like what Catholics call “holy water” and other blessed sacred objects like crucifixes, palms on Palm Sunday, rosaries. And it would be improper, indeed idolatrous, to genuflect before, or adore, blessed bread.
 
During the Mass, just before the words of the priest’s consecration of the bread and wine, he prays, “Let [the bread and wine] become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ…” Then he states the words of consecration, words that are taken from the Gospels’ description of what Christ said at “the Last Supper” with His Apostles the night before He died: “This is My body…This is My blood.” In addition to being transmitted via the Gospels, these actions and words were also transmitted by St. Paul in one of his letters. (1 Cor. 11:23-25) After the bread is consecrated, the priest holds it up high. After the wine is consecrated the priest holds the cup high. A bit later, the priest holds them both up together. We say he “elevates” them – for the entire congregation to see and to adore. The people, looking directly at the consecrated bread and wine, proclaim: “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is Yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.”
 
Again, just before Communion is distributed to the congregation, the priest holds the consecrated Host up and proclaims, repeating the words of John the Baptist when he saw Jesus presenting Himself for John’s baptism: “This is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) The congregation responds, again looking directly at the Host, “Lord, I am not worthy to that You should enter my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” (See the centurion’s words to Jesus in Matt. 8:8; Luke 7:6.) When a person presents him or herself to receive Communion, the priest or Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist, holds the consecrated Host up and says to the person, “The Body of Christ!” and the person responds, “Amen,” meaning “Yes.”  
 
In this description of the Catholic Mass, I have shown that these particular words are not prayers spoken generally to the Triune God Who is omnipresent, but are addressed specifically to the focal point of the Mass, namely, the Person of Jesus Christ in the consecrated bread and wine before us.
 
The Mass is centered on the consecration, the adoration, and the reception of Jesus. During the consecration, the adoration, and the reception of Jesus we kneel. Kneeling is the property body posture in the presence of the Divine Person Jesus, our sovereign king. 
 
The ecumenical council, Vatican II (1962-1965), states that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life.” (Lumen Gentium (also known as the Constitution on the Church), ch. 2). Catholic life without the Eucharist is unthinkable. Consider the Holy Thursday Mass when we celebrate the institution by Christ of the sacrament of the Eucharist (and the priesthood). Consider the feast and Texas city known as “Corpus Christi” (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).
 
Consider the international Eucharistic congresses, the Eucharistic processions, 24-hour Eucharistic adoration, the Eucharistic miracles (See Eucharistic Miracles Catalogue; Eucharistic Miracles), the river, valley and capital city of California, Sacramento. One of our devotional prayers,  “The Divine Praises,” employs the following ending: “May the heart of Jesus, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, be praised, adored, and loved with grateful affection, at every moment, in all the tabernacles of the world, even to the end of time. Amen.” 
 
 
Do you know the story of St. Tarcisius? I recounted it here. Wills would have you believe he died for nothing.
 
Do you know the story of Vietnamese Cardinal Van Thuan (1928-2002) who as a prisoner, and so did the other prisoners, risk punishment in passing consecrated Hosts on a clothesline? See his sister’s address to a Eucharistic Congress here. Wills would have you believe they risked punishment for nothing.
 
Let’s turn our attention to what Catholics call “First Communion.” This is the first time that a baptized person receives Communion. Adult converts experience this, typically at the Easter Vigil the night before Easter morn. Then there are the second-graders who experience it in May of each year. Each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2) quote Jesus: “If you cause one of these little ones who trust Me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone around your neck.” Excommunication in this world is a suitable warning of hell in the next for those who would announce publicly they are Catholic but deny the Real Presence to these second-graders.  
 
It is true that there have been many polls taken showing large numbers of self-identified Catholics who don’t believe in the Real Presence. (Many of them of course do not regularly, that is, every Sunday, attend Catholic Mass as required by canon law and the Third Commandment. See Pope John Paul II’s 1998 Apostolic Letter on the Lord’s Day, Dies Domini here. The truths of the Catholic Faith are not proven or disproven by polls or majority rule. 
 
It may be that Wills’ personal belief is that God is incapable of becoming available to us under the appearances of bread and wine. Or he may personally believe that it is beneath God’s dignity to do so, and to be consumed by mere mortal man. According to the Gospel of John (6: 30-66), it was a “hard saying” that many people who heard it could not accept and they left Jesus. Likewise, there are those now and throughout the centuries who believe that God was incapable of becoming human or that it was beneath His dignity to do so and to allow Himself to be killed by mere mortal man. Catholics believe in the Real Presence, and in the Incarnation and in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  
If Wills believes what he says and writes, he never genuflects upon entering a Catholic church, he never kneels, he never utters any words that would express his belief in the Real Presence, he never adores . . . and he would never receive Communion. 
 
Wills should be barred from receiving Communion -- and from exercising the offices of acolyte (altar server), lector (reader) or Eucharistic minister, barred from being a godparent for baptism or a sponsor for Confirmation, barred from being a witness to a marriage, barred from giving a talk on Catholic property, barred from having his remains blessed in a Catholic funeral and buried in a Catholic cemetery, barred from teaching religion in a Catholic elementary school,  Sunday school, high school or college. He would be welcome to receive proper instruction in the Faith, to attend Mass and to go to Confession authorized by a bishop to hear it.
 
Would it be wrong to excommunicate Garry Wills? No, it would be wrong not to.  
 
Spero columnist James M. Thunder is an attorney-at-law who practices in the Washington DC area.
  



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