Who Can Receive? Part Two

Last week, I addressed the question, “Can Catholics receive communion in a Protestant Church or vice versa?” In a word, the answer was “no.”

Turning now to the second question: What would prohibit a Catholic from receiving Holy Communion at Mass? A Catholic must be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion. Anyone aware of being in a state of mortal sin must first receive absolution in the Sacrament of Penance (Catechism, No. 1415). For instance, a non-practicing Catholic who has negligently not attended Mass or who has abandoned the teachings of the Church is not in a state of grace due to mortal sin and therefore cannot receive Holy Communion. Or simply, a practicing Catholic who has committed a mortal sin cannot receive Holy Communion until after making a good confession and receiving absolution.

A Catholic burdened with a mortal sin who receives Holy Communion commits the sin of sacrilege– the abuse of a sacrament– and causes scandal among the faithful. St. Paul reminded the Corinthians: “Every time, then, you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes! This means that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the Body and Blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first; only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor 11:26-28).

Would this prohibition apply then to a politician who actively promotes laws which preserve this heinous act of abortion? Would it apply to a politician who has the attitude, “I am personally opposed, but…”? Pope John Paul II taught in Christifideles Laici: “There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in the family, at work, in social relationships, in the responsibilities of public life, and in culture” (No. 59). In essence, faith must permeate one’s whole life and be reflected in one’s thought, words, and deeds.

Taking this premise to those involved in politics, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life (November, 2002) asserted, “Pope John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them” (No. 4).

The United States Bishops in their Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics (1998) taught, “We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin…. No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life” (No. 32).

Therefore, one may conclude from these teachings that to violate them is to place oneself in a state of mortal sin. Legislators who advocate abortion and consistently vote to enable the practice, even such heinous acts as partial birth abortion, are guilty of mortal sin not only for their vote, but also for causing scandal and leading others into sin. They are breaking the communion of the Church rather that fostering it. Jesus said, “It would be better for anyone who leads astray [in the original Greek, “scandalizes”] one of these little ones who believe in me to be drowned with a millstone around his neck in the depths of the sea. What terrible things will come on the world through scandal!” (Mt 18:6). For good reason then, The Code of Canon Law stipulates, “Those…who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” (No. 915).

Such a strong stance is not new. St. Justin Martyr (d. 165) wrote in his First Apology, “We call this food Eucharist: and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined.”

Note this stance is different from those politicians who are faithful to the Church’s teachings and who work to limit the evil caused by an unjust law even though they may not be able to overturn it outright. Pope John Paul II stated, “When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting that harm done by such a law and lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality” (The Gospel of Life, No. 73). Here a politician is known as opposed to abortion, not in support of abortion; here the goal is to overturn the unjust law, not preserve, strengthen, or expand it.

Let’s now consider a current situation. Archbishop Raymond Burke, Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri, has been criticized for stating that he would not give Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who have advocated and supported abortion legislation. As the former Bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, he stated, “Catholic legislators, who are members of the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse and who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion. They are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, should they present themselves, until such time as they publicly renounce their support of these most unjust practices.” Now as Archbishop of St. Louis, Archbishop Burke has taken the same stance, in particular with Senator Kerry, who identifies himself as a Catholic but has repeatedly defended and promoted abortion legislation, including that for partial birth abortion (St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

Archbishop Burke’s action reflects great courage and conviction. Of course, the spotlight should not just be on Senator Kerry, but the whole cavalcade of Catholic legislators who are of the same disposition.

While defending the faith may make some uncomfortable, true charity entails defending the faith and saving souls. At times, sanctions, like prohibiting communion, may be necessary to “shock” the errant person to rethink the position and repent. St. James taught: “My brothers, the case may arise among you of someone straying from the truth, and of another bringing him back. Remember this: the person who brings a sinner back from his way will save his soul from death and cancel a multitude of sins” (5:19-20). When the voices of the faithful leaders remain silent, not only do sinners follow the path to perdition, but also the faithful as a whole are scandalized and begin to say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe.”

As we ponder this question, I can only think of the time of Tudor England when King Henry VIII wanted to legitimize his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his adulterous union with Anne Boleyn. St. John Fisher was the only bishop in the whole realm of England who had the courage to condemn Henry’s action; he died a martyr. Likewise, St. Thomas More, Henry’s chancellor, resigned his position and was eventually condemned to death. Before the ax fell, St. Thomas More said, “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” We need to pray that the Holy Spirit will fill our Church and civil leaders with fortitude to be true witnesses of the faith and to live within full communion with the Church.

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage