Demanding The Catholic Church Do First Communion Your Way Is Selfish, Not Heroic

Demanding The Catholic Church Do First Communion Your Way Is Selfish, Not Heroic

A nine-year-old girl from Indiana made international news recently when she refused to respect her church’s dress code for female first communicants.
Brianna Heldt
By

The occasion of a child receiving his or her First Communion ought to be joyous, spiritually meaningful, and certainly free from politics. But that has not been the case for nine-year-old Cady Mansell.

The girl from St. John, Indiana made international news recently when she refused to respect her church’s dress code for female first communicants. In lieu of the standard white dress and veil—generally the norm for young Catholic girls receiving the sacrament—Cady insisted on wearing a white suit.

The priest and administrators at St. John the Evangelist School reportedly approached the Mansells and informed them that Cady could either wear a dress and participate in the Mass with her classmates, or wear the suit in a private ceremony. Rather than throw on a skirt, Cady and her family opted to leave, and find a “more accepting” school and parish within the same diocese.

The Mansells have—surprise, surprise—since retained a lawyer. Cady’s mom Chris Mansell (a former nun), in a Huffington Post interview says Cady was disappointed about not being permitted to receive her First Communion at her parish, because “she felt that it was one step closer to being a full member of the church, and one step closer to being an altar server.” Whether this culminates in a lawsuit remains to be seen. This sort of thing usually falls under the umbrella of Title IX, but schools controlled by religious institutions remain, for now, exempt.

How About We Focus on Jesus Instead of You?

A statement from the parish reads, “The dress code provides consistency between all students and ensures the focus of First Communion is on Jesus Christ rather than attire.” To any reasonable person, this seems fair. Dress codes are certainly not unheard of in schools, churches, and places of employment, particularly for important events and ceremonies. Can you imagine an attorney showing up to court wearing shorts and a T-shirt? Yet in a culture whose highest good is autonomy and self-expression, to suggest that a girl wear a dress is a grave offense.

Speaking as a Catholic (who, incidentally, has had the joy of witnessing two daughters and two sons receive their first Holy Communion), I am admittedly most troubled by the perception and treatment of my church as little more than a sacrament factory. You should be, too. The notion that a priest is somehow required to offer the very body and blood of Jesus on demand—and, if not, potentially face a lawsuit—is both ludicrous and terrifying. That people would demand the Catholic Church capitulate to their every whim, and give them what they want on their terms, is absurd.

We must ask if receiving communion is more about us and our expectations, or intimate union and friendship with Jesus Christ? Is belonging to the Catholic Church yet another badge to be earned or box to be checked, or is it rooted in a humble faith and love for our Lord?

The attitude demonstrated by Chris Mansell (I hardly think young Cady is running the show here) is the apogee of entitlement and presumption. It signals not only a belief that Holy Communion is there for the taking regardless of circumstances, but that it is the right, and not beloved opportunity, of every Catholic child. To see a family taking such an aggressive approach toward their parish and school of five years is shocking. How sad that what ought to have been such a special and important day for Cady has become nothing more than a political stunt.

Turning Rudeness Into Heroism

Taken with the Boy Scouts of America’s recent announcement that they will now admit girls at all levels, this story offers insight into the cultural forces threatening to diminish our country’s institutions. Cady’s experience is not merely about clothing choices, or the general merits of non-compliance (smash the patriarchy!). It encompasses both sexual identity politics and the state’s interest in religion, which are defining issues of our day. Could that be the real reason for the media’s interest in an otherwise plebeian and private dispute between a family and their school?

Of course, the tired, postmodern narrative that stodgy traditionalists are needlessly fond of rules and limits is nothing new. But the deliberate dismantling of culture, and the expectation that a school or church ought to capitulate to the whims and fancies of a nine-year-old, most certainly is.

The supposed expression of one’s “individuality” (although an earlier photograph of Cady wearing a dress in church casts doubt on whether this is even her fight) must supersede all other considerations. Out with formality, tradition, and cultural norms! Anything goes now, save for those norms. And the media is all too quick to push and advance this narrative, enshrining the Cady Mansells of the world as heroes and trailblazers, while painting her parish priest as narrow-minded and unsympathetic.

It’s Not Government’s Job to Tell Churches What to Do

Scarier still is that some wish for a legal resolution to these questions. How dare the Catholic Church expect young ladies to dress a certain way, or set any guidelines whatsoever? Could things like school uniform policies, a conservative approach to sex education, and the teaching of historic Christian truths from the Bible and Catechism one day themselves become illegal in Catholic schools and parishes?

Even those who claim no religion personally should be concerned about the potential for government overreach in this area. It was John Adams (a Unitarian) who on the one hand said, “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” yet also that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Media outlets may be describing Cady Mansell as “fashion-loving,” but her family’s story is ultimately one of a misguided, arrogant audacity. The Catholic Church is not a platform for proving a point or advancing a progressive narrative. It is, on the contrary, a 2,000-year-old institution dedicated to loving, accompanying, and shepherding souls.

Those in positions of religious authority certainly ought to be filled with compassion for small members of their respective flocks, seeking to guide them with care and charity. Ensuring that children of a certain age have access to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist ought to be a priority. But in the curious case of Cady Mansell, we see yet another predictable mountain made of a mole-hill, the pushing of a reasonable boundary to further a political agenda.

Brianna Heldt is a writer, speaker, and podcaster. She is a blogger for the National Catholic Register, exploring topics from parenthood and faith to social and cultural issues. Brianna has been a featured guest on a number of radio programs, including BBC Radio. Her personal blog is at www.briannaheldt.com. Brianna lives with her husband and nine children in Denver, Colorado.

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