Eucharistic Ethics

The Covid-19 Chronicles : Reflections in a Pandemic, Part 7

In my last essay, Eucharistic Fasting, I attempted to explain from Lutheran first principles the reasons for my congregation’s abstaining from the Sacrament during this time of CoV-2 quarantine. It drew considerable discussion, both positively and negatively. Some of the criticism surprised me, coming from people with whom I normally agree. It was not my intention to pass judgment on the decisions of others nor to imply that I was “right” and others were “wrong.” As I read and thought through the responses, I considered that our situation might profitably be viewed through the lens of ethics.

Broadly speaking, ethics come in two varieties – Deontological and Teleological or Consequential. Sorry for the big words. Deontological ethics deal with the morality of action – what are the right means. Teleological ethics deal with the morality of outcome – what is the desired end. Let’s call the deontological person D for short and the teleological person T. Person D approaches a situation by considering the morality of his action. Person T looks at the morality of the outcome of his actions.

First, a classic textbook example: The Fat Man and the Trolley. There is a runaway trolley with five workmen trapped on the tracks half a mile away. A fat man is on the platform large enough to stop the trolley in its tracks. (Please, no offense intended to large framed people. This is a textbook illustration.) Question: Do you push the Fat Man in front of the trolley to save the five workers?

Person D, the deontologist, would answer no. Pushing the Fat Man in front of the trolley is inherently immoral on principle. It is using a person to achieve an end and is inherently murder. Person T, the teleologist, would answer yes. The act of sacrificing one life achieves the greater good of saving five. The one for the many, so to speak. Neither D or T will necessarily feel good about his choice, but each will feel justified in making his choice out of an ethical framework, either the principles governing the action or the greater good achieved by the action.

Person D and Person T will have opinions and feelings about the others’ decision. T will consider D to be heartless and uncaring because he put principles ahead of people. He might even call D a “nazi” for blindly following the rules. D will consider T to be reckless and unprincipled, and might even call him a “socialist,” for placing the greater good over the individual. D will remind T that the end does not justify the means. T will remind D that actions have consequences, both intended and unintended. T will consider himself virtuous; D will consider himself principled. Both will feel justified.

Are you with me so far?

Now let’s apply this to the current CoV-2 crisis. The question on the table is is this: Do we push the Fat Man of the economy in front of the runaway trolley of the CoV-2 pandemic in order to save as many lives as possible? Person D would answer no, the greater good of saving as many lives as possible cannot be pursued “at all costs.” There is a finite economic cost for saving lives. Person T would answer yes, the greater good of saving as many lives as possible outweighs the economic cost, regardless of what that cost might be. T is willing to push the Fat Man of the economy in front of the CoV-2 trolley; D is not.

Who is right and who is wrong? You can watch that discussion play out in the halls of government and on social media.

Now to the question raised by Eucharistic Fasting. My position was decidedly deontological. The Eucharist is a communal meal given to the church as a whole and is not absolutely necessary for salvation; therefore, it is better to abstain than to tinker. The counter position is teleological. The Eucharist brings comfort and strength to Christians in their time of need; therefore, it should be offered by whatever means are reasonably possible.

Pastor D decides that it would be better to abstain from the Sacrament rather than to have it in some extraordinary manner, even if some people may be upset and deeply desiring to receive it. Pastor T, seeking the good of bringing the comfort and strength of the Sacrament to as many as desire it, decides to offer the Sacrament in what otherwise might be considered an extraordinary manner. Both Pastor D and Pastor T desire to be faithful. Both wholeheartedly and unreservedly confess that the Sacrament is the very Body and Blood of Christ given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. They are in complete confessional agreement. But they differ in their pastoral choices on ethical grounds.

Pastor D would remind Pastor T that the ends do not justify the means. He might point out that Pastor T, who otherwise is opposed to individual cups and small groups, is now employing these, thereby compromising his Eucharistic principles. Pastor T would reply that Christ’s love for his people overrides theological principles since “love knows no law” or as Luther put it: Not kennt kein Gebot, “Need knows no rule” (LW 40:18). Pastor D will feel the heartache of denying his people the Body and Blood of Christ in a time of great need, and he will fear that he has become hard-hearted and cold. Pastor T will question whether he has forsaken his confessional principles and will fear that he has allowed his love for his people to overshadow his theological and pastoral principles. Both will feel conflicted, as well they should.

Who is “right” and who is “wrong”? There is no answer to that question. It depends entirely on where you begin – action or outcome, principle or desired good. We all desire to do good. We all want our doing good to be God-pleasing and to build up the Body of Christ. None of us wishes to do harm. As this crisis deepens, Pastor D may need to bend in principle as he sees his people hurting and hungry. Pastor T may need to make some adjustments to his practice as he senses a loss of confessional integrity among his people.

Welcome to life under the Cross, where we are not justified by our ethics but by grace through faith for Jesus’ sake.


©2020 William M. Cwirla