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The Eucharist is medicine, but what kind?

The debate about “Eucharistic coherence” (i.e., determining what makes one worthy to receive the sacrament), has been framed in many outlets as a battle between those who see the Eucharist as medicine vs. those who treat it as a sacramental gold star for good behavior.

This polarization largely takes advantage of Pope Francis’ own words in Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) where he writes, “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. … Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators” (No. 47).

The Holy Father is absolutely correct. The Eucharist is not a prize. Strictly speaking, no one is worthy to receive Communion. We profess this at every Mass when we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. …” It is absolutely, unequivocally unjust to deny anyone what Ignatius of Antioch called “the medicine of immortality.”

That said, the current debate over Eucharistic coherence is not really between those who view the Eucharist as medicine and those who view it as a prize. It is a disagreement about what sort of medicine the Eucharist really is — and what conditions allow a patient to benefit from the treatment.

I have been privileged to engage with many pastors and other prominent people of faith who either oppose or struggle with the idea of Eucharistic coherence. In these discussions, it has become clear that these good people tend to see the sacraments, in general, and the Eucharist, in particular, as palliative care. The world is harsh, cruel and cold. People are suffering real pain from the effects of sin, and it’s the Church’s job to provide comfort, to offer spiritual pain relief to help people cope. The Church is ultimately meant to give people a place where they can find shelter from the storms of life and experience the comfort of being in the Lord’s presence. To deny people who are hurting the medication that could ease their pain is the height of cruelty, is it not?

While I believe this argument is incomplete, it is not illegitimate. The sacraments are meant to facilitate an encounter with Christ that provides the peace the world cannot give (cf. Jn 14:27). That said, I hope we could all agree that the sacraments are meant to do more than provide comfort. Clearly, they are meant to provide a cure for the disease of sin.

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