Archdiocese of Washington: Always OK to Receive Holy Communion Unless You’re Excommunicated

On the Giving and Receiving of Holy Communion: Some norms to recall. | Archdiocese of Washington


Recently here in the Archdiocese of Washington there was an issue regarding the denial of Holy Communion to a certain individual, which caused no little debate among the faithful. I am NOT going to reopen that case here, and ask all readers to please recall that, no matter what you may think, you do not have all the facts, and I do not wish to rehearse the (partial) specifics of the whole affair.

That said, a number of us priests asked for a review of the norms of the policies of the Church and the Archdiocese in these sorts of situations, and the Archdiocese responded at a convocation of the all the priests, which discussed many matters, this one among it. (At the same convocation we also discussed the specifics of the lawsuit initiated by the Archdiocese and other Catholic groups and diocese against the Administration).

I am grateful that the Cardinal and his senior staff responded in a concise and clear manner. For, it is a fact that these sorts of situations, wherein, Communion must be withheld, are both delicate and complicated. It is always helpful to know the norms, and review them frequently since there are times when a priest must deal quickly with situations that arise, and having command of the norms is immensely helpful.

Frankly, we do not always get every situation right. Being human, our judgment is sometimes flawed. But to the degree that we have reviewed and pondered the collected wisdom of the Church, and have a grasp of the basic policies, we stand the chance of avoiding mistakes either of excess or defect.

All that said, here are some norms and policies that were presented to us from a variety of sources.

From the Sacramental Norms of the Archdiocese (promulgated 1/25/2010; 6.41.1-6.41.6) (I have included a few remarks of my own in red) :

  1. Any baptized person, not prohibited by law, can and must be admitted to Holy Communion (cf Canon # 912).
  2. Full participation in the Eucharist takes place when the faithful receive Holy Communion. Yet care must be taken, lest they conclude that the mere fact of being present during the liturgy gives them a right or obligation to receive Communion. Even when it is not possible to receive Communion, participation at Mass remains necessary, important, meaningful and fruitful. (cf Pope Benedict Sacramentum Caritatis # 55)
  3. A person who is to receive Holy Eucharist, is to abstain for at least one hour before Holy Communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine (cf Canon 919.1)

From the USCCB Guidelines (also referenced in ADW Liturgical norms and policies):

  1. Those who receive Holy Communion should not be conscious of grave sin.
  2. Should have fasted for one hour.
  3. And, if there is no reasonable opportunity for confession, the person should make and act of perfect contrition, which thereby includes the intention of confessing to the priest as soon as possible. (For it sometimes happens that, in current circumstances where most receive Holy Communion, that to abstain would raise difficult questions and possibly result in a person announcing publicly that they are in mortal sin. To avoid this, the Church does allow this act of perfect contrition, which obviously includes the intent to seek the Sacrament of Confession to be valid).

The recipient of Holy Communion also makes declarations by presenting himself for Holy Communion:

  1. That he or she is a Catholic.
  2. That he or she accepts the teaching of the Catholic Church in toto and is not consciously or intentional dissenting from known doctrines or dogmas, from whatever the Church professes and believes to be revealed by God. (For Communion means cum (with) + unio (union), and thereby is more than a “me and Jesus” thing, it involves a union with the Church his Body and Bride. Dissenters and those in schism who cannot make this declaration of union, thus should not claim communion when there is a significant lack of union either by dissent or schism).
  3. That he or she is not conscious or gave or serious sin.

Therefore a strong responsibility falls on the one coming forward to receive Holy Communion. Since priests and deacons cannot know the state of each person in most circumstances, the fundamental responsibility is on the one who comes forward to receive. For, as St Paul says, Therefore, 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. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:27-29). Note that Paul and Scripture place the responsibility primarily on the communicant, rather than an (non-omniscient) clergy.

Therefore, the minister of Holy Communion is to:

  1. Presume the integrity of the persons presenting themselves for Holy Communion.
  2. Trust in this fact is to be presumed unless proven clearly, otherwise.
  3. It may be the case that one, whom the Minister (priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister), sees come forward has in fact been to confession, and/or renounced previous sinful practices. I was once told of a situation wherein a person who had been in an invalid marriage, in fact, had the marriage validated. Yet, on coming forward was told by the priest to stand aside. Though the couple was reconciled to the Church, the minister of Communion presumed their incapacity and dismissed them. This caused embarrassment and anger.  When in doubtful situations, however, the priest ought to give Communion and perhaps seek counsel, and to counsel the person later.

On the prohibition of Holy Communion to Public Sinners.

  1. 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 (Canon # 915).
  2. Thus, if a person has been publicly excommunicated (rare today!) They are to be denied Holy Communion if they come forward. There are other forms of excommunication (often called Latae Sententiae (or automatic) excommunications) that are more secret and unknown to the general public. For example, if one procures abortion they are automatically excommunicated. But such an excommunication is usually not publicly known and the Minister who may know of this, third hand or simply in a counseling situation, ought not deny Communion only based on that. For confidentiality is to be preserved even if it is outside the Seal of Confession (which can never be violated). In cases such as this, where an excommunication is not publicly declared, the Minster of Communion, ought not publicly deny Communion, but speak privately to the person to ensure that the Latae Sententiae excommunication is, or has been, lifted in the Confessional setting.
  3. But if one is clearly and publicly been excommunicated they should be publicly refused Holy Communion. (Rare today!)
  4. Further, if a person publicly attempts to use Holy Communion for purposes beyond the Spiritual intent, they can be denied. (For example, a troublesome group known as “Act-up” has sometimes disrupted Catholic Masses, coming forward in public ways, often wearing symbolic insignia or “stoles” and demanded Holy Communion. They are rightly refused Holy Communion for they deny its significance by their action, and politicize the reception of Communion, calling it a right rather than a privilege, and a confession of the true faith. Thereby they publicly forfeit the presumption that they approach communion worthily or with proper disposition of faith).

Canon 915:

  1. Prohibits the reception of Holy Communion to those who are excommunicated.
  2. Permits the public denial of Holy Communion to those whose sin is grave, and manifest, and in which they are obstinately persevering in the sinful state.
  3. Therefore note, as others have, three criteria must be met. For a person may be in grave sin, and the priest must  know this outside the confessional. But unless the sin is manifest, i.e. a sin the priest knows, and one which is clearly known by most of the congregants, and unless he is sure they have not repented and received absolution prior to this Holy Communion, he ought not publicly deny the Sacrament. He may wish to confer with the person discretely and confidentially later to give further counsel, but he ought not otherwise deny the Sacrament unless he is sure their sin is grave, manifest and unrepented.

As I hope you can see, the primary burden of discernment in these matters falls in the recipient of Holy Communion. As Scripture says, Let a man examine himself…..

Those looking for showdowns at the altar rail or communion station ought to realize that Church law and policies, as well as prudential judgments, frown on such things. Priests and other ministers of Holy Communion need to remember they are not omniscient, and may authentically be mistaken in their assessment of those who approach the Sacrament.

Hence, doubts are to be resolved in favor of the communicant. Where there are concerns on the part of the minister of Holy Communion (i.e. a priest or deacon), he ought to approach the communicant privately and discretely and either give counsel, or clarify the facts. If an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion has doubts they should consult with the priest or pastor. Confrontations and showdowns at the moment of Communion should be avoided, and should be very rare, if the norms are proclaimed and followed.

There are some who may wish to applaud if Communion is denied to certain people in a public way. But confrontations “at the rail” usually flow from  a failure of catechesis, and/or a failure to follow policy in more remote and discrete settings such as the confessional, the pulpit and the catechetical setting . Denials and showdowns are to be lamented not celebrated. And thought they do rarely happen, the goal is to avoid them altogether.

These norms  along with a wider appreciation of their purpose may help in avoiding errors either by the clergy or by the faithful. Ultimately the norms for the worthy reception of Holy Communion and all the Sacraments , flow from a reverence that God is Holy, that He and his Sacraments are neither to be mocked, nor to be necessarily withheld from the faithful who desperately need them.

Perhaps it is well to end with a passage from St. Paul about Holy Communion:

Therefore, 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. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.  That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions (1 Cor 11:27-35)

OK, comments are open. But let me be clear, we are not going to rehash the whole affair of a certain priest here in the Archdiocese who was in the news two months back. Let me clear that comments are not open to bishop-bashing and to pontificating about an event wherein not all the facts are even public. If you choose to mention the case too specifically I reserve my right to edit, or to refuse the comment altogether. This post is about catechesis, especially as we move forward toward the Feast of Corpus Christi. Let’s look ahead, not back.