Towards the end of the 4th century, St. Ambrose took his life into his hands.
Ambrose was a man who did not want to be bishop. In fact, in the city of Milan when the previous bishop died, there was a large public debate about who should succeed him. Ambrose was a Roman official who was sent to help keep the crowded debate from turning into a riot. According to the stories, the crowd began to chant “Ambrose! Bishop!” As an official, Ambrose had a reputation for honesty and virtue. The problem was that Ambrose wasn’t even baptized yet. He was only a catechumen, in preparation to become Christian. Ambrose tried to run away but was later baptized, then forced to accept ordination to the priesthood and the role of bishop.
But Ambrose did not wallow in how his own plans were thwarted. He understood that God’s plans were not his and so he set out to be the best bishop he could be. He studied so intently and so quickly that he became (as far as I know) the first person in history to read silently. He was renowned for his holiness by the people and even the Emperor Theodosius, an Emperor who was instrumental in solidifying the Christianization of the Empire.
But then the Emperor became a murderer.
In response to an uprising, Theodosius had the people of a city locked into an arena and his soldiers indiscriminately killed over 700 people. Unlike a legitimate use of force on the battlefield or execution, no effort was made to separate the guilty from the innocent when the punishment occurred.
Ambrose, who had enjoyed the favor of he Emperor, now publicly banned Theodosius from receiving the Eucharist until he repented. As we have seen, the Emperor was not shy about using his absolute power to take the lives of those who opposed him. Ambrose risked everything.
Ambrose understood that there is nothing holier in this world than the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. His banning of Theodosius can be seen as a triple act of charity.
1. It was an act of charity for the Eucharist. As Christ’s Real Presence, Ambrose wanted to prevent the Blessed Sacrament from being desecrated.
2. It was an act of charity for Theodosius. St. Paul wrote, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment* on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). Paul is very clear that if someone is not in a state of grace and they receive the Blessed Sacrament, that there is a condemnation that falls upon them that can be fatal. Ambrose wanted to spare Theodosius this.
3. It was an act of charity for the people. Allowing Theodosius to receive Communion could give the impression to the other Christians that some forms of murder are morally allowable. This could have a terribly malignant effect on the morality fo the people.
By God’s grace, Ambrose’s action had the desired effect and Theodosius repented and was reconciled.
Why am I bringing all of this up?
It was announced that the US Catholic Bishops would be drafting a letter regarding the reception of Holy Communion. The document will reaffirm 915 and 916 of the Code of Canon Law which forbids those in a state of grave sin from receiving the Eucharist. It is said that the Bishops will re-affirm that Catholic public officials who work to increase abortion rights are cooperating with grave evil and should not receive the Eucharist.
Two important clarifying points: First, it is possible to vote for a law that allows abortion if it is an improvement on a current situation. For example, a law that made all abortion illegal except for case of sexual assault is not a perfectly pro-life law. However, a pro-life legislator could vote for it if it resulted in more unborn children being saved than the current law allows. Second, public officials who publicly support abortion are committing public sin. Private mortal sins also prevent people from receiving the Eucharist, but public sin adds an extra dimension.
The US bishops have taken a bold step to be like Ambrose. To be clear, this is not a new teaching of the Church. Canon 915 and 916 have always been in place. So some may ask “Why now?” Why is this a priority for the bishops if we’ve had Catholic politicians supporting abortion since the 1970’s.
At this point in history, the President of the United States is a Catholic who publicly supports the murder of unborn children. We have not had a Catholic president since the early 1960’s, so it makes sense that the bishops address this issue now.
Like Ambrose, they are doing so as a three-fold act of charity.