Explainer: When can someone be denied the Eucharist?

By James T Keane in ‘America’, The Jesuit Review, 30 October 2019

Have the “wafer wars” returned? The recent news that former Vice President (and current presidential candidate) Joseph R. Biden was denied Communion at a Catholic church in South Carolina suggests that a neuralgic issue for Catholics has once again reared its head: When is it permissible, acceptable or prudent to deny the Eucharist to someone?

In Mr. Biden’s case, the Rev. Robert Morey, the pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Florence, S.C., decided that Mr. Biden’s public pro-choice stance was reason enough to refuse him Communion on Oct. 27. “Sadly, this past Sunday, I had to refuse Holy Communion to former Vice President Joe Biden,” the pastor wrote in a statement responding to queries from the Florence Morning News. “Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the church. Our actions should reflect that. Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of church teaching.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has traditionally given individual bishops a great deal of leeway to exercise their own prudential judgment in deciding how and when to try to apply Catholic teachings in their dealings with public officials.

Mr. Biden’s home diocese of Wilmington, Del., issued a statement on Oct. 29 that “[t]he Church’s teachings on the protection of human life from the moment of conception [are] clear and well-known. Bishop Malooly has consistently refrained from politicizing the Eucharist, and will continue to do so. His preference, as with most bishops, is to interact with politicians individually who disagree with significant church teachings.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has traditionally given individual bishops a great deal of leeway to exercise their own prudential judgment in deciding how and when to try to apply Catholic teachings in their dealings with public officials. In 2004, the U.S.C.C.B. stated:

The question has been raised as to whether the denial of Holy Communion to some Catholics in political life is necessary because of their public support for abortion on demand. Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.

In a 2004 essay released by the U.S.C.C.B. by the then-archbishop of San Francisco, Archbishop William J. Levada, asked:

Who is to judge the state of a Catholic communicant’s soul? Who may make the decision to refuse Holy Communion? Ministers of Holy Communion may find themselves in the situation where they must refuse to distribute Holy Communion to someone in rare cases, such as in cases of a declared excommunication, interdict, or an “obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin.” A classic instance is the practice of a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic who is publicly known to be in this situation and still insists on presenting himself for Holy Communion. Here the 2002 Declaration “Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics” by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts indicated that when “precautionary measures have not had their effect or…were not possible,” and the person in question still presents himself for Holy Communion with obstinate persistence, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.”

Archbishop William J. Levada, 2004: “With regard to Catholic politicians, the prudent practice for ministers of Holy Communion would be to refer any question in regard to their suitability to receive the sacrament to the bishop of the Diocese.”

With regard to Catholic politicians, the prudent practice for ministers of Holy Communion would be to refer any question in regard to their suitability to receive the sacrament to the bishop of the Diocese. Otherwise, the good reputation of the person might unnecessarily be jeopardized.

Different approaches

The incident with Mr. Biden reignited a furor that prominently figured in the 2004 presidential campaign, when the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John F. Kerry, a Catholic, was criticized for his pro-choice political stance as well as questions regarding his divorce and remarriage. The then-archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond L. Burke, told reporters that he would give Senator Kerry only a blessing if he came forward for Communion. When he was bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., then-Bishop Burke (who is also a canon lawyer) publicly notified three state legislators that they were not to receive Communion because of their pro-choice stances.

Also in 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (he was elected Pope Benedict XVI the following year), released a document, “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles.” Among its dictums was the following:

Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

However, other canonists have disagreed with the approach of Cardinal Burke or Cardinal Ratzinger. The Rev. John P. Beal argued in a 2004 article for America, “Even if a politician’s views or votes can be fairly characterized as sinful, they do not qualify as ‘manifest’ grave sin, as that word has been used in canonical tradition. For a sin to be manifest, it is not enough that it be public or even notorious; it must also be so habitual that it constitutes an objectively sinful lifestyle or occupation.”

In another 2004 article for America, John Langan, S.J., noted that “political life in a modern democracy is complex and indirect. There is seldom a straight line from a value affirmed to a policy enacted. Governments are formed by coalitions, whose members have different priorities, even when they share many of the same values.” That means that “complex tradeoffs are an inescapable part of political life,” Father Langan wrote. “Thus, a pro-life voter may be urged by a pro-life political leader to vote for a pro-choice candidate, because the pro-choice candidate is thought to have a better chance of keeping the political seat for the pro-life party.”

Further, many have argued that there is a fundamental hypocrisy at work when the only reason someone is denied Communion is over his or her views on the legality of abortion, even though many Catholic politicians hold views antithetical to Catholic teaching on a number of other issues. John Gehring, the author of The Francis Effect, this week tweeted that “[w]hether it’s against Democrats or Republicans, the Eucharist should never be turned into a political weapon. Pope John Paul II, a hero of the pro-life movement, gave Communion to pro-choice politicians at the Vatican.” (St. John Paul II gave Communion to Rome’s pro-choice mayor, Francesco Rutilli, in 2001, and to Britain’s pro-choice prime minister Tony Blair in 2003.)

“Denying Communion to politicians, Democrat or Republican, is a bad idea,” wrote America’s editor at large James Martin, S.J., in a Tuesday tweet. “If you deny the sacrament to those who support abortion, then you must also deny it to those who support the death penalty. How about those who don’t help the poor? How about ‘Laudato Si’’’? Where does it end?”

Fr. John P. Beal, 2004: “For a sin to be manifest, it is not enough that it be public or even notorious; it must also be so habitual that it constitutes an objectively sinful lifestyle or occupation.”

The relevant sections in the Catholic code of canon law are canons 912, 915 and 916. The first, canon 912, states that “Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion.” As Father Beal noted in 2004, “Exceptions to this norm are to be interpreted strictly, i.e., by giving them the narrowest construal consistent with their literal meaning (Canon 18).”

Canon 916, directed toward the individual communicant, states that “[a] person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.”

Many priests, noted Father Martin yesterday, were taught in seminary or studies to presuppose a person who presents himself or herself for Communion does so with a clear conscience and in a state of grace.

The problem often lies in the application of canon law. Mr. Biden clearly has not been prohibited by church law from receiving the Eucharist, and so it would seem that he “can and must be admitted to holy communion,” according to canon 912. However, priests like Father Morey and bishops like Cardinal Burke seem to interpret canon 915 as the controlling legislation and have concluded that pro-choice politicians like Mr. Biden are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.” In this view, canon 915’s prohibition overrides canon 912’s presumption of access to the sacrament..

However, as Father Beal noted in 2004, the denial of Communion to a Catholic suggests something more—a failure on the part of the Catholic Church to adequately convey essential truths about the sanctity of life:

Effective teaching requires something more than turning up the rhetorical volume and brandishing anathemas. Resort to disciplinary measures like refusal of Holy Communion is an implicit acknowledgment by church authorities that they have failed as teachers to convince Catholic politicians in particular and the larger society in general of the truth of the Gospel of life. Resignation to such a failure ill befits those who are charged to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, encourage with utmost patience in teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).

Giving the plus sign

Many priests, noted Father Martin in another tweet yesterday, were taught in seminary or studies to presuppose a person who presents himself or herself for Communion does so with a clear conscience and in a state of grace. “A priest has no idea what the state of a person’s soul is when the person presents himself or herself in the Communion line. As we were taught in theology studies, the person may have repented of any sins and gone to confession immediately before Mass.”

If the question of persevering in manifest grave sin involves public advocacy for immoral laws, then a priest who denies communion could argue that repentance would require a public repudiation of that advocacy. However, Father Martin noted, “as Pope Francis has said, the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’”

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