Denying Communion 1

Certainly I’ve followed this issue as it has played out in previous election cycles, in discussions with my colleagues and parishioners, through interactions on the internet, and in personal reading. It’s not an issue in which I believe I possess a particular competence. But I do have an opinion. People have challenged me to defend or justify that opinion. I can also read canon law, and I can read the essays of others schooled in canon law. So here goes.

Archbishop Burke’s recent essay is available. One of the top Googled web pages for it is AMDG, which offers the link to the essay here.

The canon in question reads:

Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

Here are the issues involved, as Archbishop Burke summarizes them:

1. The Church’s history of dealing with public sinners is clear. The minister may give Communion only to persons who, externally, are “properly disposed.” The minister may not give to those who obstinately persist in public grave sin.

2. The archbishop appeals to the invisible bond which unites individuals, the believing community, and God. Grave public sinners are presumed to lack this bond. The minister is required to take this into account.

3. Denying Communion preserves the objective sanctity of the Sacrament and prevents other believers from falling into error.

4. Any gravely sinful public conduct is cause to deny Communion.

5. There is a series of requirements that must take effect. First, the public sinner must be cautioned not to come forward to receive. The archbishop commends the use of a conversation. Once this is done, the minister of Communion is obliged to deny Communion if the public sinner still presents herself or himself.

6. Avoidance of scandal and confusion requires this stance. The archbishop gives the specific example of the legal support of the procurement of an abortion.

The archbishop doesn’t get explicit about politics. His essay is focused on eleven sections of history. These illustrate an approach ranging from apostolic times to recent documentation from the USCCB and Rome. The matter is phrased entirely within the bounds listed in his conclusion: the holiness of the sacrament, the situation of the sinner, and the responsibilities of both pastors and Communion ministers. It’s important to read the piece, and I’d encourage anyone to do so.

Rather than get into a marathon post, I’d like to explore different aspects of the issue in future posts. To conclude tonight’s thoughts, I’d like to offer a corrective to an earlier statement John challenged. In the comboxes, I wrote:

And I distrust Archbishop Burke’s approach. Denying Communion is a private matter. It’s not intended to give hope and cause for cheer among pro-lifers. When it does, I believe a sacrilege has been committed, regardless of the good intention of the bishop in question.

Then John asked:

By the way, if you disagree with Burke’s approach, it’s one thing…to say that you “distrust” it is to call him a liar, is it not? Why would you do that?

Having read Archbishop Burke’s essay, let me offer an amended response. I believe the man is acting from a sense of personal conviction and his own studied approach to canon law and church history. Church teaching would oblige me to accept his public teaching in the best possible light.

Let me clarify that in the arena of the sanctity of Holy Communion, he and I are in agreement: the celebration of the Eucharist is not a locus for the “precipitous” denial of the Sacrament. I also don’t deny the objective need for a Communion minister to deny the Sacrament to a public sinner.

As a political tool, I don’t trust the effectiveness of denying Communion. The fact that it only seems to appear during an election cycle, and not connected with the legislative calendar, leads me to believe that the publicity factor has intruded on the other conclusions Archbishop Burke has offered. I’d say that given the political realities of the US, confronting politicians in this way during a campaign is likely to backfire in many ways, including the reinforcement of obstinacy, the misunderstanding of the secular press, and the perception that bishops are intruding into an area reserved for the laity.

The archbishop explicitly mentions the situations of campaigning and legislating. I have a sense of “wonderment” that the public conversation on denying Communion has lain mostly fallow for the past three years.

That said, I agree with Archbishop Burke that pastors have a responsibility to confront public sinners in their care. He commends the notion of a “conversation,” which my friend John has termed a “joke.”

I also agree with the archbishop on the objective value of the Eucharist as a celebration of holiness and dignity. The use of the Sacrament as a political tool is unseemly. Where the Eucharist is concerned, politically inclined Catholics might be better placed to cheer for the repentant sinner rather than the defeat or the embarassment of the political candidate.

That’s enough for now.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to Denying Communion 1

  1. Dustin says:

    I suppose I had some misunderstandings of my own about your thoughts on this. I generally don’t think that combox conversation is the best place for these things to be explained. That said, I look forward to your reflections. What you’ve provided here is certainly helpful. Good work.

  2. Tony says:

    As a political tool, I don’t trust the effectiveness of denying Communion.

    I tend to agree with you. This, I believe, is a razor thin line you’ve drawn, and I’d like to be very clear in my opinions on this.

    The Eucharist should not be politicized. This means that Archbishop Burke is within his rights to say that Communion should not be given to those politicians who are in grave sin. He can even single out politicians as a class.

    What he shouldn’t do is hold a press conference and state that Rudy Guiliani should not present himself for communion. If he has an individual under this sort of interdict, he should address the individual privately, and send a letter to each of his parishes making his wishes known.

    If one of the letters is “leaked” to the press, oh well. The leaker should be punished. If the politician presents himself for communion with a bank of cameras after he’s been warned, then he is politicizing the Eucharist.

    This applies to any document which is leaked to the press. The Abp can’t be responsible for the actions of the secular press.

  3. Liam says:


    As I had raised in my comment on Reasonable Expectations the tethering of this issue by certain bishops to election and news cycles, I very much agree that it raises a serious prudential problem for bishops who do so.

    Moreover, in recent years, it has seemed there arere those who wanted to link it to the question of candidates’ eligibility to receive the votes of Catholics in good conscience. Any attempt to link the two issues should be strained to be avoided if bishops actually want to be heeded rather than merely fulfill their “duty”, as it were.

    And I say that as someone who could not in good conscience vote for either Bush or Kerry in 2004.

    The issue of prelatial culture remains the Achilles’ heel for bishops. Pretending it doesn’t exist or that oneself is exempt from it is not a great place to start.

    Americans may be often suckers for fantasies, but many often have pretty good BS smoke detectors. It’s a most interesting cultural combination – you never know which one is going to be dominant at any given context. Proceed therefore with caution.

  4. Mike says:

    This discussion seems to be based on the notion that withholding Holy Communion from someone who is publicly in a state of mortal sin is “punishment” for the unrepentant sinner. A careful reading of the Archbishop’s document would show that this is not the case at all.

    As St. Paul wrote and as Catholics are obliged to believe, one who partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily is guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ. No minister of Holy Communion, whether ordained or lay, can, in good conscience, knowingly help someone commit such a grave sin.

    The issue isn’t politics, it’s about saving souls, which I believe is the Archbishop’s duty and obligation. Our duty and obligation as Catholics is to help him do that, not to second-guess him.

  5. Todd says:

    Thanks for commenting Mike. I don’t believe I said the archbishop sees this as punishment. I do think many political Catholics enjoy seeing punishment meted out.

    If this were about saving souls, then bishops would be working overtime to deal with politicians and make their case.

    Would I be helping Archbishop Burke by letting him continue a public forum in which he doesn’t seem to be convincing anyone of anything?

  6. Mike says:

    “Would I be helping Archbishop Burke by letting him continue a public forum in which he doesn’t seem to be convincing anyone of anything?”

    I suggest you wait until after the Bishop’s meeting next month to see if he’s convincing anyone or not.

  7. Todd says:

    Mike, I was thinking more the politicians, the people, presumably, in need of salvation from their immoral views. We’re getting dangerously close to a three-stage removal from people who actually get abortions. Are bishops to blame because they don’t hammer politicians, who in turn don’t criminalize, which it turn discourages people from performing or choosing abortions? If we’re getting that deep, we might as well condemn Archbishop Burke for paying taxes that support a society that considers abortion a right.

  8. Mike says:

    The Canon says that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” The only question is what constitutes manifest grave sin?

    The Holy Father recently said that the killing of an unborn child isn’t compatible with receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. This statement was in response to the Mexican Bishop’s threat to excommunicate politicians who voted for a new abortion law.

    There is no ambiguity here, except in the minds of some bishops and others. Archbishop Burke’s recent document is heavily referenced (91 endnotes from St. Paul to Benedict XVI). He’s done his homework and knows what he’s talking about.

    With all the other problems in the world, and within the Church, it will be a great tragedy if the rest of the US bishops fail to see the truth and continue to undermine Christ’s and the Church’s teachings.

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