I am concerned that the debate over whether or not Joe Biden and other Catholic politicians who support abortion should receive Holy Communion is inspiring some bad Eucharistic theology.
Father Joe Ciccone was my pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Knoxville, TN for a few years when my family worshipped there, until we moved to west Knoxville about ten years ago. He’s a good man. I thought he was a fine pastor, and one of things I can say about him is that, while we sometimes disagreed, he was very gracious in listening to my concerns about how the parish was being led and in acting on them when he appreciated that I had genuine reasons for being concerned. One example of this is that the person in charge of the books the parish sold in the vestibule of the church had included a book by Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit whose theology was condemned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for, among other things, denying the divinity of Christ. I pointed out the contradiction of worshipping Jesus Christ as God at the Mass celebrated on the altar of the parish while selling a book in the vestibule of the parish by a theologian who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. The book was quickly removed.
Father Joe was the celebrant at the Mass at St. Patrick’s Church in Rome when the Bidens attended during the president’s recent visit to the Eternal City. Naturally, Joe Biden received Holy Communion. After all, didn’t Pope Francis himself tell him that he should continue to do so? I don’t know, honestly. I wouldn’t put it past Biden to lie about it. He knows that would be putting the pope and the Vatican in the very awkward position of refuting something said by the President of the United States. Biden has proven himself in the past as one who is quite comfortable fudging the truth when it serves him politically. At the same time, Biden has also proven himself as playing with less than a full deck mentally. He forgets things. Big things. Like the words of the Declaration of Independence, or the name of his Defense Secretary. He also speaks off the cuff in a way that can’t be trusted, like when he said U. S. troops would stay in Afghanistan until all Americans who wanted to leave were out. Or, it’s quite possible Francis said something that Biden misconstrued or even that Biden remembered something that never happened, like his encounter with “Angelo” on Amtrak. Biden isn’t exactly a trustworthy source for what happens or what is said by anyone, including himself. So, I’ll take a pass on whether or not it’s true that Pope Francis told Biden to keep receiving Holy Communion. In point of fact, whether or not any individual Catholic chooses to present him or herself to receive Holy Communion is entirely based on that individual Catholic’s discernment of the state of his or her soul, which the pope cannot judge. Certainly, the pope knows this. So, it would be a bit odd for the pope, or any priest, to recommend that someone receive Holy Communion, because the decision to present one’s self for Holy Communion is entirely a matter of personal discernment.
In any case, that’s not really the point of this post. The point of this post is to address something that Father Joe said to the press after the Mass at St. Patrick’s where Biden received Holy Communion. According to the article in the Associated Press:
“Ciccone’s homily was a meditation on love that he said he had composed days ago, before he knew the Bidens would be attending. He said it was an honor to have them in the parish, and that Biden’s position on abortion and whether to administer Communion was not an issue for him or the parish. ‘Communion is what brings us together in the Lord. None of us are pure and perfect. We struggle through life. We’re all saints and sinners,’ Ciccone told The Associated Press after the service.”
Respectfully, Father Joe, this is bad Eucharistic theology. Unfortunately, it’s becoming very popular. What’s so wrong with it? Let’s break it apart.
“Communion is what brings us together in the Lord.” Well, yes. Properly speaking, the sacrament of Baptism is what unites all Christians in the Lord. While Holy Communion certainly creates union among Christians and strengthens the bond among us, Baptism is the sacrament that creates that bond. Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says (all emphases in these excerpts from the CCC are in the original text):
1323 At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet “in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.” (the quote is from Sacrosanctum concilium, the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” from Vatican II).
1325 “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and the unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being. It is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.” (here, the CCC is quoting Eucharistic mysterium, instruction by the Congregation of Rites).
Clearly, then, the Eucharist is a sign of a unity that is already there, and not the means by which a unity comes into existence. Now, Father Joe is correct in saying that Communion is what brings us together. But, it brings together those who already share a unity in Christ. Consider the analogy of the wedding and the sharing of marital intimacy. It is the wedding that brings about the unity in Christ between the husband and wife. The sharing of marital intimacy (yes, I mean sex, but not only sex) is a sign of a unity that already exists. No one would say that sharing marital intimacy does not also create unity between the spouses. In fact, that’s one of its purposes. Yet, the existence of the union created by the sacrament of Matrimony prior to engaging in marital intimacy is necessary for the marital intimacy to create the kind of union for which it was created. Without the sacrament prior to the sharing of marital intimacy, that intimacy is saying that something is there between the man and the woman that, in reality, is not yet there. So, it is a lie.
It is Baptism that creates the union with Christ that is already there, and that the reception of Holy Communion then causes and strengthens “that communion in divine life and the unity of the People of God.” Father Joe’s claim, and that of others, that Communion is what brings us together can be misconstrued, and often is I think, as creating a union that isn’t there yet, which would mean that Holy Communion would and ought to be open to any and everyone, regardless of one’s relationship with Christ and His Church and regardless of one’s worthiness.
Okay. Fine. So, there are no obstacles to someone who is baptized from receiving Holy Communion, right? All who are baptized are worthy to receive Holy Communion, right? But, wait. What if that union is broken? What if the husband or the wife decide to share intimacies with others outside of the marital bond in Christ exclusive to marriage? Or, what if they divorce? Then that marital bond is broken and, before they can once again share marital intimacies, there must be a reconciliation.
The Church addresses this broken relationship regarding the reception of Holy Communion:
1384 The Lord addresses an invitation to us, urging us to receive him in the sacrament of the Eucharist: “Truly, I say to you, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53).
1385 To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: “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 Corinthians 11:27-29]. Anyone conscious of grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion.
Considering St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, if there are conditions by which one may receive the Lord unworthily, there must be conditions by which one may receive the Lord worthily. So, the idea that reception of the Eucharist is for everyone who is baptized, regardless of the state of one’s soul or the objective actions of the one presenting him or herself for Holy Communion, is clearly contrary to the practice of the Church.
1394 As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins …
1395 By the same charity that enkindles us, the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins. The more we share in the life of Christ and progress in his friendship, the more difficult it is to break away from him by mortal sin. The Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins — that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church.
Now, things are becoming clear. There are conditions for receiving the Eucharist worthily. Those conditions include being in a state of grace (not being in mortal sin) and being in full communion with the Church. Let’s consider the condition of not being in mortal sin. How can the Church, or any particular priest, know if a person is in a state of mortal sin? No one can, except the person him or herself and, of course, God. Even still, this does not leave the Church in a lurch when it comes to protecting the Eucharist from profanation by one receiving unworthily, or from protecting the faithful from scandal, or from protecting the integrity of the soul of the one who may be tempted to receive unworthily. Canon 915 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law states: “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
What does this mean? It means that in order for a priest or Eucharistic minister to deny Holy Communion to someone, that someone must be excommunicated, under interdict, or engaged in an activity that is a grave sin in the eyes of the Church (not necessarily in the eyes of the individual Catholic), that is a sin that is manifest (or well-known by those in the community), and that is a sin obstinately persevered in (he or she continues the activity in spite of their knowing that it is a grave sin in the eyes of the Church). I hope there’s no question in anyone’s mind that the Catholic Church, from her earliest centuries, has regarded abortion and support for abortion as grave moral evil. It’s important, too, to point out that, according to canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), personal guilt of the particular Catholic is not required. In other words, even if the Catholic is acting in some way so that he or she is not personally guilty for the scandal they have caused within the Church, he or she still should not be admitted to Holy Communion, if the action is one that is “seriously disruptive of ecclesiastical or moral order.”
What all of this means is that Father Joe’s contention that Biden’s position on abortion is of no concern to him or the parish regarding his being admitted to Holy Communion because, “None of us are pure and perfect. We struggle through life. We’re all saints and sinners” misses the point entirely. Purity and perfection have never been conditions of worthiness to receive Holy Communion. Manifest personal sanctity has never been a condition of worthiness to receive Holy Communion. Indeed, as the Church teaches, even if one is acting in a way where personal guilt is not involved, one may still be denied Holy Communion of one’s actions cause serious disruption to the Church and moral order. So, personal sin that no one knows about has nothing to do with the matter of denying a particular Catholic admission to Holy Communion. It’s about grave sin that is manifest and in which one persists. Why? Because it has the potential to profane the Eucharist, it has the potential to cause scandal among the faithful, that is, to lower the bar toward which we strive in faithfulness, which is perfection (Matthew 5:48 – please note that I said toward which we strive, not what we have accomplished), and it has the potential to stain the soul of the one receiving unworthily.
This also counters the claim that no one can deny another Holy Communion because no one can discern another’s standing before God or the state of another’s soul. Again, this misses the point entirely. Not admitting another to Holy Communion is not making any judgments about their standing before God or the state of their soul. It is making a judgment about their actions, specifically whether or not those actions objectively constitute action that is “seriously disruptive of ecclesiastical or moral order” because such action constitutes manifest, persistent grave sin, even if personal guilt is not involved.
So, that takes care of the “not being in mortal sin” condition for worthily receiving Holy Communion. The one denying a particular Catholic Holy Communion is not making a personal judgment on whether or not the Catholic denied is in mortal sin. No one can make that judgment except God and the individual Catholic. It is making an objective judgment on an action that constitutes manifest, persistent grave sin. We must be able to judge actions as gravely immoral. Are we not going to say that murder is grave sin, that exploitation is grave sin, that slavery is grave sin, that rape is grave sin? Are we not in a position to judge any action as objectively, gravely immoral? Of course we are! If that grave sin is manifest in the life of a Catholic, and if it is persistent in the life of that Catholic, then that Catholic may not be admitted to Holy Communion. I don’t think any priest or pundit would hesitate one moment in denying Holy Communion to a Catholic in manifest and persistent grave sin if the sin we were talking about were slavery or human trafficking. In that sense, I think the debate is more about abortion than it is about Holy Communion.
Now, what about the “being in full communion with the Church” condition for worthily receiving Holy Communion? What does it mean to be in full communion with the Church? The CCC quotes St. Justin’s First Apology, written in the middle of the second century AD as a defense of Christians. St. Justin was a philosopher who wanted to convince the emperor that Christians were not a threat to the empire, so he composed a dialogue between a Christian and a non-Christian concerning the life of Christians and the Church. The CCC quotes what he wrote of the Eucharist:
1327 Because this bread and wine have been made Eucharist (‘eucharisted,’ according to an ancient expression), “We call this food Eucharist, and no one may take part in it unless he believes what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ has taught.”
These conditions still stand as parameters for what it means to be in full communion with the Church.
- to believe what the Church teaches is true
- to have been baptized, and
- to live in keeping with what Christ taught (this also includes what the Church teaches, because the Church is the Body of Christ and the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ: Ephesians 3:8-11)
If one does not believe what the Church teaches and has not been baptized, one ought not present oneself for Holy Communion. There is no provision, so far as I know, of a priest or Eucharistic minister denying someone Holy Communion under the condition of a baptized Catholic not believing what the Church teaches. Perhaps this is because, as far as I can tell, it would be difficult to have a situation where an individual not believing a particular teaching of the Church being manifest to others present. Now, this certainly would apply to non-Catholics who approach to receive Holy Communion, or for a child who has not yet received his or her first Eucharist. Even in these situations, though, pastoral concerns may recommend administering the Eucharist to such a person rather than to cause humiliation. I recall Ronald Reagan receiving Holy Communion at a Catholic Mass once. The presumption, of course, was that he hadn’t been informed of the prohibition, and there was no reason to humiliate him publicly. The same was true for Brother Roger of the Taize community at the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II. The same is not true, however, for priests or Eucharistic ministers to approach a person they know is not in full communion with the Catholic Church and offering them Holy Communion, such as at a wedding. If the person approaches to receive out of ignorance, that’s one thing. If the priest extends an invitation to them to receive the Eucharist out of some misguided attempt to be ecumenical, or welcoming, or “pastoral” (the ultimate justification for bad priestly behavior), that’s something else entirely.
However, there is more firm guidance on the question of one who is not living in keeping with what Christ and His Church teach. Again, it’s not simply a matter of the priest or a handful of people who know the person well being aware of the Catholic being in grave sin (such as persisting in the use of contraception, or of having been sterilized in order to avoid having more children, or being married outside the Church). It must be a matter of grave, persistent sin that is manifest to others. The person must, therefore, be sufficiently well-known and their persistent, grave sin must be well-known. Catholics who persist in manifest grave sin are not in full communion with the Church, and the Eucharist is reserved for Catholics who are in full communion with the Church.
The debate over admitting to Holy Communion Catholic politicians who support abortion has given rise to a number of Catholics, not to mention secular pundits, recommending what I call bad Eucharistic theology. It is a theology that suggests that Holy Communion ought, essentially, be open to any and all because we are all sinners. It ought not matter what any particular person believes about Christ or His Church or the moral life. It ought not matter how any particular person acts publicly, even whether or not they support or actively participate in horrible sins and crimes against God and humanity. The Eucharist ought to be available to all, they insist. I exaggerate a bit because, again, not one of those proposing this bad theology would hesitate to refuse the Eucharist to a well-known human trafficking pimp. Knowing that this is really more a debate about abortion than it is about worthiness to receive Holy Communion sheds a new light on the whole matter. Catholics who publicly support abortion are given a pass by many (really, most) bishops and priests and laypersons because so many nice people support abortion, and the debate about abortion is not settled in our society, whereas there is no debate about the horrors and sinfulness of human trafficking. Rather than take the moral lead on the question, most bishops and priests have decided to allow society to settle the matter, and to accommodate Catholics who have taken the pro-abortion side because, well, we don’t want to be impolite or be seen as unmercifully rigid. This is a shame and a scandal, because the Church is not called to accommodate the world, but to transform it according to the gospel of Jesus Christ. These bishops, priests, and lay Catholics who are unwilling to call a sin a sin are willing to allow the Church to be transformed according to the vacillating moral tide of the secular culture.
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8b).
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.