In yesterday’s post we examined some fundamental principles related to Holy Communion: that it is not akin to the “table fellowship” Jesus had with sinners but is rooted in the “family meal” of the Passover Celebration, and that it must be received worthily and authentically based on what Scripture and Tradition have set forth. Our “Amen” is more than an affirmation of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, it is an “Amen” to all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.
Today I would like to discuss some related issues.
- What is mortal sin?
- Why are the divorced and remarried asked to refrain from Communion?
- What should be done about Catholics who prominently and publicly dissent from the faith?
- Is there a way forward in restoring proper discipline in the reception of the Holy Eucharist?
I. What is mortal sin? – It is one thing to hear that we must confess all serious or mortal sins prior to receiving Holy Communion. As we saw in yesterday’s post, Scripture teaches that those who receive the Eucharist in an unworthy state (i.e., while in serious sin) do not obtain a blessing, but rather a condemnation.
But is there a simple list to be consulted to determine what serious or mortal sin is? No. But surely there is some guidance to be found. Common sense also tells us that certain acts are more or less serious depending on circumstances, not simply by declaration. For example, lying can range from being a very serious matter to a lighter one: there are serious lies that can ruin reputations and gravely mislead people, and then there are little polite lies (“white lies”) meant to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Other sins such as lust can range from rape to impure thoughts. Anger can range from physical assault to angry thoughts.
Thus a simple “list” approach to mortal sin will not suffice. However, we usually know that there are more serious sins in our life and less serious ones. With some degree of certainty we can also know what is more serious from what is less serious. We are asked to counsel with our own conscience, to allow it to be properly formed based on God’s teaching and to make honest judgments regarding ourselves.
Here are some parameters for mortal sin from the Catechism and Scripture:
1. When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object … whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery. … But when the sinner’s will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial. … If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back (Catechism of the Catholic Church #s 1856, 1861).
2. 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” (Catechism # 1857).
3. Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.” The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger (Catechism # 1858).
4. One area, because it causes frequent trouble for many, especially younger men, receives special mention in the Catechism in terms of assessing culpability: By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.” To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability. (Catechism 2352). However, since no one is a judge in his own case, if this area is a struggle one ought to confer with a confessor in order to set forth a regular schedule for confession that is reasonable and assists the penitent in staying faithful also to Holy Communion.
5. By extension, there are other scriptural lists of sins that can exclude one from the Kingdom of Heaven:
1 Cor 6:9-10 – Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were.
Gal 5:19-2:1 – The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Eph 5:3-6 – But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No sexually immoral, impure, or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
Rev. 22:12-16 – Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.
Matt 25:41-46 – Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
And therefore we do well to examine ourselves and discern any serious sins we have committed and should confess them. And while we should avoid overly scrupulous fears, we also must not casually dismiss our sins with empty excuses. If we are faithful, God the Holy Spirit will bestow on us a Godly sorrow for sins, rather than a “worldly sorrow” that is deadly and discouraging (cf 2 Cor 7:10).
II. Why are the divorce and remarried asked to refrain from communion? – This matter became quite prominent at the extraordinary Synod in Rome last year. The odd thing is that there are already very generous possibilities offered in the Church to accommodate those in such situations. Some are so generous in fact that many wonder if we grant too many annulments for less-than-clear reasons (that is not a matter for this post, however).
But why is there an obstacle to such individuals receiving Holy Communion? Is this “another example” of an overly strict Church? No! The issue was set forth by Jesus himself, who was quite “restrictive” in offering divorce and remarriage to His disciples. He was asked if such a practice was to be allowed, as Moses had allowed it. The answer from Jesus was a strong “no,” with very little exception. Consider for example this rather typical answer of Jesus to the question of divorce:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt 19:3-9).
There are numerous other places in Scripture where Jesus and the Apostles make similar pronuncements and set strict limits against divorce and remarriage.
Now the Lord uses the word “adultery” to describe divorcing one and marrying another. This is His word. And He teaches in many places using this word. So we cannot simply say he had a “bad day” or that this is just an unusual saying of the Lord. It was His consistent teaching. The teaching was unpopular and considered irksome even when the Lord gave it. (See Matthew 19:10.)
As an Apostle of the Lord, St. Paul echoed the same stance:
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Cor 7:10-11).
Thus one in the state of being divorced and married to another is in an ongoing situation of what the Lord calls adultery, and cannot present himself for Holy Communion unless and until the objective conditions are changed. To those who consider this unkind or too strict we can only refer them to the Lord Himself, who unambiguously asserted it. In today’s “divorce culture,” we do well to ask ourselves who is wrong. Clearly, it is the culture that is wrong, not Jesus.
There are options and possible solutions. We can investigate prior bonds for the possibility of annulment and then grant annulments when possible and appropriate. In the meantime (or if an annulment cannot be reasonably obtained), the couple in the second marriage can live as “brother and sister.” Some scoff at this as being unrealistic. But some of the same scoffers see the denial of Holy Communion as so odious as to deny them essential graces. If they see Holy Communion as so essential (a good thing), then why are they not willing to make this sacrifice? Sex is not the only thing in life.
If they cannot obtain an annulment, and cannot live as brother and sister (for the reason of not wishing to deny their current spouse jus in corporis, (i.e., the expected recourse to marital intimacy)), then they must refrain from Holy Communion until the death of the current or former spouse or until they cease sexual intimacy with the current spouse.
Otherwise, we are dealing with a case of ongoing adultery (Jesus’ description, not mine). Adultery is objectively a serious violation of the 6th Commandment, even if there are subjective factors involved that some or all parties think mitigate the situation. No one is a judge in his own case and even the Church cannot blithely set aside the teaching of Jesus.
People in this situation who cannot reasonably attain an annulment (and that is rare today) or live as brother and sister should continue attending Mass for the other blessings available, such as the prayers, blessings, the proclaimed Word, the fellowship, the praise, and so forth. God, too, may be able to understand and offer them blessings that the Church, given our limits, cannot.
The fact is that many good people are caught in situations that often stretch back years before a conversion. Some of these situations are bound to occur in a culture as broken and dysfunctional as ours. But the Church can only do so much. God knows the heart, and the faithful in these situations should be taught to reach out to God and allow Him to care for them in other ways, unless and until the Church, which has some necessary limits, can readmit them to Holy Communion.
The Church cannot simply regard the needs of the individual but must also concern herself with the common good, the need to heed Jesus’ words and insist on the permanence of marriage. But God’s mercies are not exhausted and His compassion is not spent.
III. What should be done about Catholics who prominently and publicly dissent from the faith?– More and more Catholics in the public eye today dissent from the faith. Some of those even support things like abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex unions.
Canon 915 speaks rather explicitly to this situation:
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.
Cardinal Ratizinger, in a 2004 Memo to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, applied Canon 915 rather insistently. Here are some excerpts:
The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin … there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. […] In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law or vote for it … Christians have a grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. …
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. …
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. [***]
And thus there is a clear teaching regarding what is to be done in such cases. That many bishops have declined to enforce Canon 915 and apply the norm as set forth by the congregation is irksome to many. Refraining from judging them or claiming to know their motives, it seems likely that a way forward needs to include a broad teaching by all the bishops to all of God’s people about the need to receive Communion worthily and in a way wherein their “Amen” includes not only a recognition of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, but also a union with his whole body, the Church (as we saw in yesterday’s post). This would avoid, to some degree, the charge that politicians of a certain party were being singled out. Fair or not, the charge would surely come in the current political environment in this country, in which popularity and power are more important than right and wrong. In such an environment, moral teaching and instruction is often misconstrued as mere politics. It is not a fair charge, but realistically there is little chance that a focused teaching of this sort will be heard through the static of the political filter.
IV. Is there a way forward in restoring proper discipline in the reception of the Holy Eucharist? – A broad initiative by all the bishops that includes all Catholics may be the best approach. On any given Sunday, there are many Catholics who should not approach Holy Communion for any number of reasons. Many of these reasons can be dealt with through the Sacrament of Confession. Other situations are more ongoing such as with those in invalid marriages and must be addressed in greater detail. Those who are in significant, obstinate, and often public dissent from one or many Church teachings need to work through their doubts and decide more clearly for the faith. Some who merely struggle to understand Church teaching might not need to stay away from Holy Communion. But we need to be clearer for all Catholics that our “Amen” confesses both the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and our belief in all the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and professes to be revealed by God.
Collectively speaking, it is clear that we in the Church, especially bishops and pastors, have not had proper balance in teaching on the worthy reception of the Eucharist. We have rightly sought to encourage frequent reception of Holy Communion, but often have not balanced that encouragement with instruction on the need for worthy reception. It is a Church-wide problem that affects far more than just Catholic politicians. Clear but charitable instruction must be more ardently offered in parishes and from the bishops to all the faithful. This post is my own humble attempt to do so.
It should go without saying that Confession must be more readily available, both prior to Masses and at other times, to assist those who can to confess and thus receive Communion frequently.