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Does the Eucharist matter for a secular society?

by Olivier Roy

Director Religiowest


2 November 2015

An ongoing deliberation in the Western media is to know to what extent Pope Francesco is a progressive and liberal Pope, fighting a conservative Curia. The debate inside the Church is regularly cast by the media as a fight between liberals and conservatives, between left and right. The Pope is usually seen as progressive, but regularly “disappoints” his secularist supporters by stressing the continuity of the orthodoxy, or by taking “non-progressive” positions (“I am not Charlie!”). This approach shows how difficult it is to translate a theological debate into a political stand.

The key issue of the Synod regarding the family was to define how the Church should behave towards divorced people who remarry, and in particular whether these people could receive the Eucharist. The theological issue is that Eucharist is atonement, which means renouncing sin, in this case renouncing remarriage: how could it be possible to give it to people who will not forsake a second marriage?

Of course such a theological debate is not abstract: a lot can be inferred from this debate on how the Church understands marriage, family and sexuality. The views of the Church have an impact on public policy either by shaping the vote of the believers (as was obvious in the victory of the Polish party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość [PiS] in the October parliamentary elections) or by supporting lobbying campaigns on specific issues (ban on abortion, ban on same-sex marriage, as illustrated by the “Manif pour Tous” in France). But contrary to the ban on abortion, the debate on the Eucharistic is a purely internal issue of the Church. Whichever decision is taken by the Church will impact only on believers, that is on people who voluntarily choose to follow the teachings of the Church. Just such an example was the uproar in the media when, in 2009, the archbishop of Recife excommunicated a mother for having allowed her nine year old daughter, who had been raped, to get an abortion, but did not excommunicate the rapist. The then President Lula asked the Church to suspend the excommunication.

The debate is of concern because it is seen, rightly, as an indicator of the Church’s refusal to adapt to a modern liberal society. But the paradox is that secular society expects a theological reform from a faith community, while two principles should prevent it from doing so: separation of Church and State and freedom of religion.

The Synod’s take on family illustrates the uneasy relations that our secular and liberal societies have with religion in general (the call for a “reformation” of Islam is recurrent among politicians). Far from being content with asking religions to refrain from intervening in the political scene, the secular society felt obliged to question the theological premises of the faith communities, thus blurring the line of separation. There is clearly a need to conceptually rethink the relationship between the secular and the religious spaces. 


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