Catholic Discussion Ping!
On April 24, I was surprised to see a picture of Sen. John Kerry receiving communion at an AME Church [African Methodist Episcopal Church] in Boston. I thought Catholics were not supposed to receive communion in other churches. But then again, knowing his pro-abortion stance, should he receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church? Any comment? A reader in Arlington
Many readers have asked these questions in the past few weeks. Before addressing the questions, we need to first provide the foundation for the answers.
The Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church described the Mass "the Eucharistic sacrifice" as "the source and summit of the Christian life" (No. 11). As Catholics, we truly believe that the Sacrifice of the Mass, transcending the limits of time and space, sacramentally makes present anew the sacrifice of the Lord: "The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the Cross is perpetuated, and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lords body and blood" (Catechism, No. 1382). By the will of the Heavenly Father, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the priesthood of Jesus Christ, which is entrusted through the Sacrament of Holy Orders to His priest who acts in His person, bread and wine truly become (i.e. are transubstantiated into) the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord.
One of the great fruits of Holy Communion, according to the Catechism (No. 1396), is that the Holy Eucharist makes the Church: "Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it, Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body the Church. Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens this incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism." Therefore, the reception of Holy Communion truly unites in communion the Catholic faithful who share the same faith, doctrinal teachings, traditions, sacraments, and leadership.
Given this foundation, we can address the first question: Can Catholics receive communion in a Protestant Church or vice versa? Vatican Council II recognized that the Protestant Churches "have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic Mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the Sacrament of Holy Orders" (Decree on Ecumenism, No. 22). For this very reason, the sharing of Holy Communion between Protestants and Catholics is not possible (Catechism, No. 1400). This statement does not suggest that Protestant Churches do not commemorate the Lord's death and resurrection in their communion service or believe that it signifies a communion with Christ. Nevertheless, Protestant theology differs with Catholic theology concerning the Holy Eucharist over the real presence of Christ, transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the Mass, and the nature of the priesthood. For this reason, Protestants, although perhaps upright Christians, may not receive Holy Communion at Mass, and Catholics may not receive communion at a Protestant service.
Our Holy Father in his beautiful encyclical, The Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church (Ecclesia de Eucharistia) taught, "The Catholic faithful, while respecting the religious convictions of these separated brethren, must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their celebrations, so as not to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and, consequently, to fail in their duty to bear clear witness to the truth. This would result in slowing the progress being made towards full visible unity. Similarly, it is unthinkable to substitute for Sunday Mass ecumenical celebrations of the word or services of common prayer with Christians from the aforementioned Ecclesial Communities, or even participation in their own liturgical services. Such celebrations and services, however praiseworthy in certain situations, prepare for the goal of full communion, including Eucharistic communion, but they cannot replace it" (No. 30). Objectively speaking, to knowingly violate these precepts by receiving communion in a Protestant Church or neglecting to worship at Mass constitutes a mortal sin.
Therefore, until the differences between Catholics and Protestants are healed, a real "intercommunion" cannot take place. Moreover, out of respect for the differences in belief, a Catholic is obliged to refrain from receiving communion at a Protestant service, and likewise, Protestants, at a Catholic Mass. I remember once I participated at the funeral of a friend at a Protestant church, which included a communion service. The minister invited everyone to receive communion. I refrained out of respect for their beliefs and my own: I did not fully accept all the beliefs or practices of their particular denomination, nor did those members accept all that the Roman Catholic Church believed. Therefore, to receive communion would be to state, "I am in communion with them," when I was not. Worse yet, had I partaken, I would have received something sacred which should bind me as part of their communion at least from a Catholic perspective when in fact I have never participated in one of their services since then.
We must remember that to receive communion does not depend simply on what a person individually believes. To receive communion aligns a person to a church, identifies him as a member of that church, and binds him to what that church teaches. By observing the Churchs regulations concerning receiving Holy Communion, we will better appreciate the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, respect each other's beliefs, and work towards unity here is true charity. Ignoring these regulations will only build a false sense of communion and a shallow expression of love, which is really a great act against charity.
Next week we will address the second question, "What would prohibit a Catholic from receiving Holy Communion at Mass?"
On Saturday, April 24, I was surprised to see a picture of Senator John Kerry receiving communion at an AME Church [African Methodist Episcopal Church] in Boston. I thought Catholics were not supposed to receive communion in other churches. But then again, knowing his pro-abortion stance, should he receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church? Any comment? A reader in Arlington
Last week, "Straight Answers" 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 ones whole life and be reflected in ones 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 Churchs 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.
Lets 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 Burkes 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 doesnt 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 Henrys action; he died a martyr. Likewise, St. Thomas More, Henrys chancellor resigned his position and was eventually condemned to death; before the ax fell, St. Thomas More said, "I am the Kings good servant, but Gods 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.
Please note: 100 articles of this column have been compiled in a book, Straight Answers, and another 100 articles in Straight Answers II. These books are available through the Notre Dame Graduate School (703-658-4304) or may be purchased through the Daughters of St. Paul, the Catholic Shop, the Paschal Lamb and other religious book stores. All proceeds benefit the building fund of Our Lady of Hope Church.