Is there anyone who hasn’t felt the impulse? You’re faced with a friend, a family member, a co-worker, or just a teenager who insists on doing something stupid despite a litany of warnings fading off into infinity. “Okay, suit yourself,” you finally feel like shouting. “Just do it! And suffer the consequences!”
That was surely the impulse behind the National Catholic Reporter’s current editorial, “Why we support the bishops’ plan to deny Communion to Biden.” At their June 16-18 meeting, the bishops are apparently determined to authorize the drafting of a document that would recommend denying Communion to Catholic politicians who support pro-choice policies—such as the current president of the United States. “Just do it,” the Reporter’s editors write. “Just do it, so that if there happens to be a Catholic remaining who is not convinced that the bishops’ conference, as it stands today, has become completely irrelevant and ineffectual,” that reality will become “crystal clear.”
I sympathize with this impulse. I agree with almost every argument the NCR editors, along with many others (including some bishops), set out against this “terrible idea,” though I have some concerns about issues the editorial leaves unexamined. The “Bar Biden Initiative” is bad sacramental theology. It confuses sacramental practice with partisan culture-war politics and creates a gratuitous obstacle to addressing urgent problems of immigration, poverty, racism, global warming, and the protection of democracy. I have to admit feeling some admiration for the editorial’s provocative flair. In a day when serious editorials have to compete with viral posts by fifteen-year-olds, perhaps only dumping a bucket of ice-cold irony on the bishops will get the necessary attention.
Even so, the editorial leaves me more than a little uneasy. Irony, which conveys one meaning on its surface and another beneath, is inevitably ambiguous and evades straightforward criticism. The NCR editorial is urging the bishops to bar Biden from Communion precisely as a way of arguing that they shouldn’t. At the same time, the editorial emits a pungent whiff of rhetorical pepper spray. And, like pepper spray, its harshness spreads well beyond its immediate target.
Usually, before our exasperation at a person’s determination to pursue a stupid course of action finally boils over into “go ahead and just do it,” we do our best to hold back, at least if the person is someone we love. There is little evidence here that NCR loves the bishops.