In light of Sunday’s Feast of Corpus Christi, I would like to recall the need for the reverent and worthy reception of Holy Communion and to develop an explanation for the Church’s practice of what some call “closed Communion.” Not everyone who uses this terminology means it pejoratively, although some do. But to some extent it is fair to say that we do have “closed Communion.” For the Catholic Church, Holy Communion is not a “come one, come all” event. It is reserved for those who, by grace, preserve union with the Church through adherence to all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. Our response of “Amen” at Holy Communion signifies our communion with these realities and our faith in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Many today have reduced Holy Communion to a mere sign of hospitality, such that if the Church does not extend it to all we are considered unkind. There is often a mistaken notion about the nature of the Last Supper (and the Eucharist that proceeds from it) that lurks behind this misconception. Many years ago, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger articulated the misunderstanding well. I summarize the description here from his Collected Works, Vol 11, Ignatius Press pp 273-274:
Nowadays [some] New Testament scholars … say that the Eucharist … is the continuation of the meals with sinners that Jesus had held … a notion with far-reaching consequences. It would mean that the Eucharist is the sinners’ banquet, where Jesus sits at the table; [that] the Eucharist is the public gesture by which we invite everyone without exception. The logic of this is expressed in a far-reaching criticism of the Church’s Eucharist, since it implies that the Eucharist cannot be conditional on anything, not depending on denomination or even on baptism. It is necessarily an open table to which all may come to encounter the universal God …
However tempting the idea may be, it contradicts what we find in the Bible. Jesus’ Last Supper was not one of those meals he held with “publicans and sinners”. He made it subject to the basic form of the Passover, which implies that the meal was held in a family setting. Thus he kept it with his new family, with the Twelve; with those whose feet he washed, whom he had prepared by his Word and by this cleansing of absolution (John 13:10) to receive a blood relationship with him, to become one body with him.
The Eucharist is not itself the sacrament of reconciliation, but in fact it presupposes that sacrament. It is the sacrament of the reconciled, to which the Lord invites all those who have become one with him; who certainly still remain weak sinners, but yet have given their hand to him and have become part of his family.
That is why, from the beginning, the Eucharist has been preceded by a discernment … (I Corinthians 11:27 ff). The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles [the Didache] is one of the oldest writings outside the New Testament, from the beginning of the Second Century, it takes up this apostolic tradition and has the priest, just before distributing the sacrament saying: “Whoever is holy, let him approach, whoever is not, let him do penance” (Didache 10).
Thanks to Pope Benedict’s writing prior to his papacy, we can see the root of the problem: the failure to see the Eucharist for what it truly is—a sacred banquet wherein those who enjoy communion with the Lord (by His grace) partake of the sign and sacrament of that communion. Holy Communion serves to celebrate and deepen the communion already operative through the other sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Confession.
If you want to call this communion “closed,” fine, but at its heart it is more positively called a “sacrum convivium,” a sacred meal of those who share a life together (con = with or together + vivium = life). This is not a “come one, come all” meal; it is a Holy Banquet for those who wear the wedding garment. The garment is righteousness and those who refuse to wear it are cast out (cf: Matt 22:11-12 & Rev 19:8).
Many moderns surely would prefer a “no questions asked” invitation to all who wish to come; they love this notion of unity. But to a large degree it is a contrived unity that overlooks truth (the opposite of which is falsehood, not just a different viewpoint). Yes, it overlooks the truth necessary for honest, real, and substantive unity. Such a notion of communion is shallow at best and a lie at worst. How can people approach the Eucharist, the sacrament of Holy Communion and unity, and say “Amen” when they differ with the Church over essentials such as that baptism is necessary; that there are seven sacraments; that the Pope is the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ on Earth; that homosexual acts, fornication, and adultery are gravely sinful; that women cannot be admitted to Holy Orders; that there is in fact a priesthood; that Scripture must be read in the light of the Magisterium; and on and on? Saying that there is communion in such a case is either a contrivance or a lie, but in either case it does not suffice for the “Amen” that is required at the moment of reception of Holy Communion.
Such divisions do not make for a family meal or a “sacrum convivium.” Hence, to share Holy Communion with Protestants, dissenters, and others who do not live in communion with the Church is incoherent. To paraphrase Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict), the Eucharist is not a table fellowship with publicans and other “sinners”; it is a family meal that presupposes grace and shared faith.
This, then, leads us to a second point: the need to approach the Sacrament of Holy Communion free from serious and unrepentant sin. Let’s consider some texts to show that the Church’s desire that her sons and daughters receive Holy Communion in a state free from serious sin is not only a proper requirement but a loving one. Each quote is followed by some of my own commentary in plain red text.
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world (1 Cor 11:27-32).
St. Paul teaches that examining oneself is a prerequisite for worthy reception of the Eucharist. If not, Holy Communion has the opposite of the desired effect of union with our Lord, bringing condemnation rather than blessing. So, out of respect for Christ and for our own good, the Church requires us to be in a state of grace when we receive. We are required to abstain only when there is mortal sin. Confessions of devotion, however, are highly recommended.
[At the Last Supper the disciples asked]: “Lord, who is it [who will betray you]?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night (Jn 13:21-30).
It is unclear and debatable whether or not the “morsel” taken by Judas was Holy Communion (why would Jesus have dipped it?). But still, there is something of a picture of what unworthy (sacrilegious) reception of Holy Communion might cause in an extreme case.
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny (Mat 5:21-26).
Note the use of the simple word “first.” Jesus teaches that we cannot approach the altar if we are filled with hate or injustice toward our brethren. Reconciliation and the restoration of unity are required prior to approaching the Sacrament of Holy Communion, lest our “Amen” be incoherent or a lie.
A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession unless a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing; in this case the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible (Code of Canon Law # 916).
Note that the use of the Act of Contrition mentioned here is an exception requiring moral or physical impossibility to go to Confession beforehand and the necessity of receiving Communion immediately (such as a priest who must celebrate Mass). There are some pastoral notes that can be added here later for those who struggle with certain habitual sins that are possibly grave (e.g., masturbation). The Catechism has some notes to review that a confessor can apply to a penitent in such cases. But no Catholic should simply take it upon himself to use the exception described in Canon 916. A confessor must be consulted.
To respond to this invitation, we must prepare ourselves for so great and so 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. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion (Catechism # 1385).
If anyone is holy, let him approach; if anyone is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen. … But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Didache 10, 9).
Note that the Didache was written sometime between 90 and 110 AD. Hence very early on there was an understanding that the Eucharist was not a mere “table fellowship with sinners” but rather a sacral meal that presupposed grace and communion with the Church.
Presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion should be a conscious decision, based on a reasoned judgment regarding one’s worthiness to do so, according to the Church’s objective criteria, asking such questions as: “Am I in full communion with the Catholic Church? Am I guilty of grave sin? Have I incurred a penalty (e.g., excommunication, interdict) that forbids me to receive Holy Communion? Have I prepared myself by fasting for at least an hour?” The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected (Ratzinger Memo to Cardinal McCarrick, # 1). Clear enough!
In all these quotes we see a tradition that is Scriptural, ancient, and clear: the Eucharist is a sacred meal that requires of us something more than just “showing up.” Indeed, there are warnings against irreverent reception, in which the Eucharist is regarded as ordinary or is treated casually.
Is the Church merely being “fussy” about Holy Communion? No more so than were St. Paul and the Holy Spirit, who inspired him to write and warn us against unworthy reception of the Eucharist. The Church is charitably exhorting us to receive the Eucharist, but also charitably warning those who are unprepared to refrain from reception. Indeed, Scripture warns that the unworthy reception of Holy Communion brings not a blessing but a condemnation. This is God’s teaching, not mine.
Perhaps an analogy can be found by noting that some people are allergic to penicillin. For them, a drug that has saved many lives can threaten their own. They are simply not able to receive it, though it is good in itself. Similarly, sinners, not by accident of birth or genetics but by choice, will find that the Eucharist, though life-giving to many, is problematic for them. In charity, the Church teaches that individuals unprepared to receive Communion should refrain from doing so until the problem can be resolved. This is charity, not cruelty or a lack of hospitality.
I have written more extensively (here) on some pastoral issues and solutions related to the Church’s stance. Questions do arise as to what is meant by mortal sin and how to handle the current problem of dissenters, those in serious sin, and those in invalid marriages or other irregular situations. Such questions and issues must be handled charitably and equitably by the Church, but not in a way that violates the principles given by Scripture and Tradition on the need for worthy reception of Holy Communion. This fundamental stance of the Church deserves to be reiterated and needs to be better taught and applied with clarity and charity:
The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 2004).