Many Catholics and also non-Catholics who, while they do not embrace the Catholic faith, respect the Catholic Church for her teaching regarding faith and morals, have asked me how it is possible for Catholics to receive Holy Communion, while at the same time they publicly and obstinately promote programs, policies and legislation in direct violation of the moral law. In particular, they ask how Catholic politicians and civil officials who publicly and obstinately defend and promote the practice of abortion on demand can approach to receive Holy Communion. Their question clearly applies as well to those Catholics who publicly promote policies and laws in violation of the dignity of human life of those burdened by serious illness, special needs or advanced years, and in violation of the integrity of human sexuality, marriage and the family, and in violation of the free practice of religion.
The question merits a response, especially as it touches on the very foundations of the Church’s teaching regarding faith and morals. Most of all, it touches upon the Holy Eucharist, “[t]he sacrament of charity, … the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, thus revealing to us God’s infinite love for every man and woman…. Jesus continues, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, to love us ‘to the end,’ even to offering us his body and blood.”
It is my hope that the following points of the Church’s teaching will be helpful to those who are rightly confused and indeed frequently scandalised by the all too common public betrayal of the Church’s teaching on faith and morals by those who profess to be Catholic. I will address myself to the question of procured abortion, but the same points apply to other violations of the moral law.
Regarding the Holy Eucharist, the Church has always believed and taught that the Sacred Host is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, God-the-Son Incarnate. The faith of the Church is thus expressed by the Council of Trent: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread [cf. Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:19f; 1 Cor 11:24-26], it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy council now again declares, that, by the consecration of the bread and wine, there takes place a change of the whole substance of bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of wine into the substance of his blood” (Session 13, Chapter 4). Therefore, as Saint Paul teaches clearly in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11, 27).
The reception of Holy Communion by those who publicly and obstinately violate the moral law in its most fundamental precepts is a particularly grave form of sacrilege. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Sacrilege is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist, for in this sacrament the true Body of Christ is made substantially present for us” (no. 2120). It not only merits eternal punishment for the one who receives unworthily but constitutes a most serious scandal for others, that is, it leads them into the false belief that one can publicly and obstinately violate the moral law in a grave matter and still receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. A thoughtful person, before such a situation, must conclude that either the Sacred Host is not the Body of Christ or that the promotion of procured abortion, for instance, is not a grave sin.
Can. 915 of the Code of Canon Law, which repeats the perennial and unchanging teaching of the Church, provides: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” The denial of Holy Communion is not an ecclesiastical penalty but the recognition of the objectively unworthy state of a person to approach to receive Holy Communion. The discipline contained in can. 915 safeguards the sanctity of the most sacred reality in the Church, the Holy Eucharist, keeps the person who obstinately perseveres in grave sin from committing the additional most grievous sin of sacrilege by profaning the Body of Christ, and prevents the inevitable scandal which results from the unworthy reception of Holy Communion.
It is the duty of priests and Bishops to instruct and admonish the faithful who are in the condition described by can. 915, lest they approach to receive Holy Communion and thus commit a most grave sacrilege, redounding to their own eternal harm and, likewise, leading others into error and even sin in such a serious matter. If a person has been admonished and still perseveres in grave public sin, he or she may not be admitted to receive Holy Communion.
Clearly, no priest or Bishop can grant permission to a person who is in public and obstinate grave sin to receive Holy Communion. Neither is it a question of a discussion between the priest or Bishop and the one who is committing the sin, but a matter of admonition regarding truths of faith and morals, on the part of the priest or Bishop, and a matter of reform of an erroneous conscious, on the part of the sinner.
Pope Saint John Paul II presented the Church’s constant teaching regarding procured abortion in his Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae. Referring to the consultation of the Bishops of the universal Church in the matter by his letter of Pentecost of 1991, he declared: “Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops – who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine – I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.” He made clear that his teaching “is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”
It is sometimes argued that a Catholic politician can personally believe in the immorality of abortion, while favouring a public policy which provides for so-called “legalized” abortion. Such was the case, for instance, in the United States of America at the summit of certain Catholic moral theologians who espoused the erroneous moral theory of proportionalism or consequentialism, and Catholic politicians, held at the compound of the Kennedy Family in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1964. Pope Saint John Paul II responds clearly to such erroneous moral thinking in Evangelium Vitae: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” In his Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, Pope Saint John Paul II corrects the fundamental error of proportionalism and consequentialism.
It is sometimes said that the denial of Holy Communion to politicians who obstinately persevere in grave sin is the use of Holy Communion by the Church for political purposes. On the contrary, it is the Church’s solemn responsibility to safeguard the holiness of the Holy Eucharist, to prevent the faithful from committing sacrilege, and to prevent scandal among the faithful and other persons of good will.
It is rather the Catholic politician, who publicly and obstinately promotes what is contrary to the moral law and yet dares to receive sacrilegiously Holy Communion, who uses the Holy Eucharist for political purposes. In other words, the politician presents himself or herself as a devout Catholic, while the truth is completely otherwise.
Apart from the denial of Holy Communion to persons who publicly and obstinately violate the moral law, there is also the question of the imposition or declaration of a just ecclesiastical penalty for the sake of calling the person to conversion and of repairing the scandal which his or her actions cause.
Those who publicly and obstinately violate the moral law are, at least, in a state of apostasy, that is, they have effectively abandoned the faith by the obstinate refusal, in practice, to live in accord with fundamental truths of faith and morals (cf. can. 751). An apostate from the faith incurs automatically the penalty of excommunication (cf. can. 1364). The Bishop of such a person must verify the conditions for the declaration of the penalty of excommunication, which has been automatically incurred.
They may also be in heresy, if they obstinately deny or doubt the truth about the intrinsic evil of abortion as it “is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” (can. 751). Heresy, like apostasy, incurs automatically the penalty of excommunication (cf. can. 1364). Also, in the case of heresy, the Bishop must verify the conditions for the declaration of the penalty of excommunication, which has been automatically incurred.
In conclusion, Church discipline, beginning with the Apostle Paul, has consistently taught the necessary disposition of conscience for the reception of Holy Communion. The failure to follow the discipline results in the desecration of the most sacred reality in the Church – the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ – , constitutes the most grave sin of sacrilege, and causes most serious scandal by the failure to witness to the truth of Holy Communion and the moral truth, for example, the inviolable dignity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the family, and the freedom to worship God “in spirit and truth.”
The answer to the question so frequently posed to me is clear: a Catholic who publicly and obstinately opposes the truth regarding faith and morals may not present himself or herself to receive Holy Communion and neither may the minister of Holy Communion give him or her the Sacrament.