September 16, 2005


Eucharist and mortal sin

Ever since last year’s election campaigns, there have been debates over whether or not it is wise to forbid certain people from receiving Holy Communion. At that time, it was about those who supported abortion rights. Later, the issue concerned members of the Rainbow Sash, people who wear such a sash to indicate their disagreement with the Church’s teaching about the immorality of homosexual acts.

The issue is not going to go away. It will be discussed at the Synod of Bishops on Oct. 2-23 when the theme will be the Eucharist. The working document for the synod notes the need for better catechesis on who may—and who may not—receive Communion. Sadly, with nearly everyone now receiving Communion routinely at Mass, many Catholics have gotten the idea that anyone may receive.

The coming synod’s working document says, “Some Catholics do not understand why it might be a sin to support a political candidate who is openly in favor of abortion or other serious acts against life, justice and peace.” And it says, “Some receive Communion while denying the teachings of the Church, or publicly supporting immoral choices in life, such as abortion, without thinking that they are committing an act of grave personal dishonesty and causing scandal.”

From the time of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the Church has taught that people may not receive Communion “unworthily,” which it has defined as being in the state of mortal sin. It’s a sacrilege to do so. The late Pope John Paul II reminded Catholics of that teaching last March 12 when he released a message that said, “Only one who has a sincere awareness of not having committed a mortal sin can receive the body of Christ.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly teaches, “Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharist Communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive Communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance” (#1415). This is hardly new teaching.

Perhaps Catholics are no longer aware of what mortal sin is. The catechism again: “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (#1857). Again, the same thing the Church has always taught.

Presumably, there’s no debate about this. The debate is over whether or not active and public protest against the Church’s teachings is grave matter and, if so, whether or not the person doing it is aware that it is grave matter and therefore in the state of mortal sin. (There seems to be no question that they are doing it deliberately.)

But does anyone have a right to, in effect, accuse someone else of being in the state of mortal sin by denying that person the Eucharist? Apparently, the U.S. bishops are divided on that question. At least they were divided last year over the issue of denying Communion to those who actively support abortion rights.

Unfortunately, many Catholics seem to have rejected the whole concept of what comprises grave matter and therefore is mortal sin. The Church still teaches that all sexual activity (not just homosexual acts) outside of marriage is gravely sinful. So is deliberately missing Mass on weekends. The Church still teaches that “those who deliberately fail in this obligation [to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation] commit a grave sin” (catechism #2181). People who do these things, without receiving absolution in the sacrament of penance, should know that they may not receive Communion.

However, we question whether anyone has a right to refuse them Communion. Whether or not someone is in the state of grace should be decided only by that individual. On the other hand, it seems logical to deny someone Communion when he or she is purposely using the Eucharist as a demonstration against a Catholic doctrine.

What we require is a better effort to teach Catholics what the Church teaches about the Eucharist and why it teaches it. We’re confident that that will be the view of the coming synod, too.

— John F. Fink 


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