How Sally Quinn Made Me a Better Catholic

The strange Tim-Russert-funeral, communion-blogging controversy.

For years, Catholics have been arguing about who is and is not supposed to receive Communion. Until now, these were family fights, always over abortion, and nearly always involving elected officials. After pro-choice presidential candidate John Kerry received the Eucharist at my parish in 2004, for instance, the priest was so excited, he announced the big news at a subsequent Mass, and got a standing ovation. (I know, right? Oy.) While at the other end of the spectrum, some cowboy in vestments recently refused to serve the conservative pro-life jurist Doug Kmiec, for the supposed sin of having smiled at Barack Obama. (OK, he endorsed him, in Slate.)

But then non-Catholic Sally Quinn took Communion at Tim Russert’s funeral—and blogged about the body and blood in the Washington Post-Newsweek religion site “On Faith.”

Last Wednesday at Tim’s funeral mass at [Holy]Trinity Church in Georgetown (Jack Kennedy’s church), communion was offered. I had only taken communion once in my life, at an evangelical church. It was soon after I had started “On Faith” and I wanted to see what it was like. Oddly I had a slightly nauseated sensation after I took it, knowing that in some way it represented the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Last Wednesday I was determined to take it for Tim, transubstantiation notwithstanding. I’m so glad I did. It made me feel closer to him. And it was worth it just to imagine how he would have loved it. After I began “On Faith,” Tim started calling me “Sister Sal” instead of “Miss Sal.”

This reads a little too much like a restaurant review for my comfort; Christ Almighty: Tangy Yet Nauseating? And good as he was, we don’t really take Communion to feel closer to Tim Russert.

Not surprisingly, Quinn inflamed conservative Catholics. William Donohue’s Catholic League responded with the usual outrage: “Just reading what Sally Quinn said is enough to give any Christian, especially Catholics, more than a ‘slightly nauseating sensation.’ In her privileged world, life is all about experiences and feelings. … Moreover, Quinn’s statement not only reeks of narcissism, it shows a profound disrespect for Catholics and the beliefs they hold dear.”

Well, yes, but she’s also brought progressive and conservative Catholics together for a minute; as a left-leaning Catholic writer I know said in an e-mail this morning, “For the first time ever, I may agree with Bill Donohue!” At America, Jesuit writer James Martin distanced himself from the Catholic League but gave Quinn a (gentler) lecture:

Catholics believe in the “real presence,” the actual presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist: the bread and the wine. It is a central element of our faith, and reception of Communion is something that a Catholic does not do lightly. Which is something of an understatement. … [I]t is probably not too much to expect that the co-founder of a prestigious online blog about religion run by two of the nation’s premier journals would understand something about the most basic practices of the Catholic church. Most intelligent people know a few facts about the Catholic church: this is one of them. And even if one doesn’t know this, one would know to act with great care when in the midst of a worshiping community not your own.

Alas, when the New Republic reached Quinn for comment, she made things worse for herself by asking What Would Jesus Do, lecturing that real Christians wouldn’t turn anyone away and confusing her situation with that of Catholic pro-choice politicians. “Sally Quinn’s comments on her decision to take communion was one of those moments that makes professionals on the religion beat cringe,” said David Gibson, a longtime religion journalist and former member of the board of the Religion Newswriters Association, the organization for those covering religion in the secular media. “Her explanation displayed such ignorance of the most fundamental tenets of a major faith as well as the basic proprieties of how journalists—and other guests—should conduct themselves at the services of a faith not their own.”

Still, I have to give Quinn credit for bringing me, for one, into line: I’d always been squishy on who should receive Communion, and never really saw the harm in setting a few extra places at the family dinner. But thanks to “Sister Sal,” oh Lord, now I do.