Will Terri Again be Denied Communion?

I found the news disturbing. Fr. Rob Johansen had just gotten off the phone with Bob and Mary Schindler, who most of us know as the parents of Terri Schiavo.

The culture of death can hardly wait. Come March 18th, the Florida woman must be executed! And she will not be comforted by the Holy Eucharist — known as Viaticum when shared with the dying — as she faces a slow and horrible death by starvation and dehydration.

“Without hearing arguments or evidence,” Fr. Johansen shared, “Judge Greer denied the Schindlers' request that Terri be allowed to receive Viaticum by mouth. Judge Greer ruled that if Terri is to be given Communion, it must be done via her feeding tube.” But how is the Eucharist to be administered via Terri's feeding tube when in a previous decision, Judge Greer ordered it removed?

“Besides being cruel and bizarre,” Fr. Johansen noted on his blog, “[since] only the tiniest fraction of the Host or the tiniest drop of the Precious Blood need be placed on her tongue, [this order] serves to preserve Michael Schiavo and George Felos's contention that Terri cannot receive anything by mouth.” It also represents a gross violation of one of Terri's most fundamental rights as a Catholic. And although I am not expert in civil law, it would also seem to violate Terri's civil right to freely practice her religion.

In November of 2003, I penned an editorial for Catholic Exchange and the Wanderer under the headline “Why Was Terri Denied Holy Communion?” At the time I hoped it would never become necessary to revisit this issue. But the culture of death has dictated otherwise. For the culture of death has no respect for the Eucharist — which is the Real Presence of He who authored the Culture of Life. And the only Catholics whom the culture of death wishes to receive Holy Communion are pro-abortion politicians.

Yet all Catholics enjoy certain rights under canon law. Among the most fundamental is the right of every baptized Catholic to the sacraments. Canon 213 is clear: “Christ's faithful have the right to be assisted by their Pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the word of God and the sacraments.” There are very few limitations of this right, and canon 223 requires that such exceptions pertain to the common good while canon 18 requires that they be restricted to as few cases as possible. Neither applies in the Terri Schindler-Schiavo situation.

Reception of the Holy Eucharist is not merely just another spiritual practice of the Catholic faith. Rather, following the Church's sacred Tradition, the 1983 Code of Canon Law establishes the centrality of the Holy Eucharist to the spiritual life of Christ's faithful. This is found in canon 897 which states:

The most august sacrament is the Blessed Eucharist, in which Christ the Lord Himself is contained, offered and received, and by which the Church continually lives and grows. The Eucharistic Sacrifice, the memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, in which the Sacrifice of the cross is forever perpetuated, is the summit and the source of all worship and Christian life. By means of it the unity of God's people is signified and brought about, and the building up of the body of Christ is perfected. The other sacraments and all the ecclesiastical works of the apostolate are bound up with, and directed to, the Blessed Eucharist.

In short, the Eucharist is both the source and the summit of our spiritual life as Catholics. All our actions should flow from the Holy Eucharist, and all our actions should ultimately be directed toward the Holy Eucharist.

When the Holy Eucharist is administered to a dying person, this is known as Viaticum or “food for the journey.” Canon 921 §1 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law establishes the basis for seeking Viaticum as follows: “Christ's faithful who are in danger of death, from whatever cause, are to be strengthened by Holy Communion as Viaticum.” Under canon 864 §1 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Catholic faithful were bound by ecclesiastical precept to seek Viaticum when the danger of death presented itself.

Although the 1917 Code of Canon Law no longer binds under precept, it is clear that Christ's faithful remain bound in spirit to seek Viaticum when the danger of death arises. This is in keeping with the canonical principle of canon 21, which states that “[L]ater laws are to be related to earlier ones and, as far as possible, harmonized with them.” Additionally, when interpreting any canon it is important to follow the canonical principles of canon 17. One of these principles is “recourse to parallel places, if there be any….” In the case of administering Viaticum, canon 708 from the Code of Canons of the Eastern [Catholic] Churches speaks of “the obligation of receiving the Divine Eucharist in danger of death…” [italics added]. Thus the reception of Viaticum is both an essential right and an essential obligation of all Catholics in danger of death.

Viaticum is not food for the body but food for the soul. And as such, every Catholic who faces death enjoys the right to receive our Lord as food for the journey. Denying the Holy Eucharist is a gross violation of Terri's civil and religious liberties.

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Pete Vere is a doctoral student with the Faculty of Canon Law at Saint Paul University. He recently co-authored Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law (Servant Books) with Michael Trueman and More Catholic Than the Pope (Our Sunday Visitor) with Patrick Madrid. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Ottawa, Canada.

Pete Vere


Pete Vere is a canon lawyer, author, and Byzantine Catholic from Northern Ontario, Canada. He and his wife Sonya have six children. In his few spare moments, when he is not cooking or camping with his family, he enjoys hunting, reading, video games and scotch.

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