Eucharist

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Eucharist (also commonly known as "the Lord's Supper" or "Communion") is one of two central sacraments in the Christian faith, the other being baptism. It is so central, in fact, that one way of defining Christians is as those people who participate in the sacrament.

Eucharist comes from a Greek word meaning "with joyful thanksgiving". The practice has many meanings, but among the central themes are a thankful celebration of God's work, particularly in Jesus Christ, a remembering of Christ and his sacrificial death, reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins.

One of the most important themes, however, is the unity established in the body of Christ through eucharistic celebration. "To be in communion" in the sacrament means to be united with the gathered church around the world and through time in the "mystical body." For many Christians, this communion is understood as the principle means through which Christ's presence continues in the world.

This principle of unity is so important that it appears in Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church, one of the earliest Christian documents, where he scolds the church for allowing divisive practices to take place while the eucharist is being celebrated:

...I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord's supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! (I Cor. 11:18-22, NRSV)

The recent controversy over the question of pro-choice Roman Catholic politicians receiving eucharist has therefore been particularly painful for Catholics and many other Christians. Briefly stated, the issue arose when certain Catholic bishops stated their belief that pro-choice politicians were not in accord with the teachings of the church, and therefore should not receive the eucharist. Bishop Michael(?) Sheridan of Colorado Springs went further in saying that not only would he refuse communion to John Kerry or other pro-choice candidates, but that members of his diocese who voted for such politicians should not present themselves for the eucharist. Similar statements have been made of Catholic politicians in New Jersey and Indiana, though to this date, no other church leader has gone as far as Bishop Sheridan in his instructions to lay members.

The controversy around this issue centered on two points: first, that the threats of refusal were directed exclusively at Democratic political figures, while Republicans who may have disagreed with the church on abortion or other issues such as the death penalty were ignored by the leadership. Second, that the coverage of the issue was mishandled by the mainstream media. Reporters, it was alleged, often concentrated their attention on whether or not John Kerry received communion at his home church in Boston, but failed to ask questions about whether or not any Republican politicians with views similar to Kerry had received communion the same day. In at least one instance the media seemed to buy into conservative spin about the issue by conducting supposedly neutral samples that turned out to be made up entirely of right-wing partisans.

A combination of outcry and distraction has tamped down this story for the moment. Catholic politicians, both Democratic and Republican, have expressed their misgivings about using eucharist as a dividing line, and enough criticism of the mainstream press has filtered up that it has begun to give the issue less coverage, if not necessarily more balanced consideration. Even so conservative a church leader as Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has urged caution on the part of US bishops, perhaps fearing a backlash from American lay members. Recent events in Iraq have also served to turn attention from this dispute.

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