This past week, there have been reports in the news about Joe Biden, former Vice-President and current Democratic presidential candidate, being denied Communion at a Catholic Church in South Carolina. Biden is a Catholic and active supporter of permissive abortion laws, which was the stated reason for the pastor of the parish not giving him Holy Communion. I am not writing to comment directly on this incident, but rather to respond to questions several students have asked me since this has happened — can a person be denied Holy Communion? And if so, why?
A Catholic being refused Communion at Mass is not something most students have experienced. But it can happen for certain reasons. Knowing these reasons can help us to understand better just what the Catholic Church believes about the Eucharist. So let’s dig into it a little…
Eucharist vs. Communion
We often use the words Communion and Eucharist as if they were interchangeable. But they aren’t exact synonyms. Eucharist (which literally means “thanksgiving”) refers to the bread and wine that have been substantially changed into the Body and Blood of Christ through the priest’s prayer of thanksgiving offered at Mass. We use this term to refer to the Sacrament itself.
Communion sometimes also refers to the Sacrament itself, but more properly refers to the act of receiving the Sacrament. To receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist is to unite with (come into union or commune with) both Jesus’s Body in the Eucharist and the Church which is His Body on earth. When you receive Communion you are doing more than passively receiving something. You are not receiving a prize. Nor are you receiving your own little personal share of Jesus. You are receiving the whole Christ and actively professing unity with Him and with His Church.
Who Can Receive Communion?
So before we get into the circumstances in which someone might be denied Communion, we should ask who can receive Communion?
First of all, one has to be baptized. Baptism is the gateway into the life of the sacraments. It is baptism that first initiates us into God’s sanctifying grace. Without baptism, one may “go through the motions” of the other sacraments, but they will not have any spiritual effect. It would be like attempting to drive a car with no gas in the tank.
It is also necessary for one to be in communion with the Catholic Church (i.e., not a Protestant Christian). Otherwise the act of receiving Communion becomes a dishonest act — you are effectively saying with your actions “I am in communion with the Church” when you are in fact not in communion with the Church.
But receiving Communion is not simply a matter of being a baptized Catholic. Even a practicing Catholic needs to be properly disposed to receive Communion. Canon Law (which is the legal code of the Catholic Church) lays out some ground rules as to how to determine whether we are properly disposed. And in general, Canon Law is strongly prejudiced toward giving someone Holy Communion.
Canon Law states, “Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion” (Can. 912).
Who Can’t Receive Communion?
So who would be prohibited by law? The next few canons deal with this. They include those who have been excommunicated (Can. 915). This means they have literally been declared outside of communion with the Church. It is a penalty imposed for very serious matters, such as apostasy, desecrating the Eucharist, or physically attacking the Pope (you can read more here). Most of us will never have to worry about being excommunicated.
Other people Canon Law states should not receive the Eucharist include those conscious of grave (serious) sin who have not confessed that sin (Can. 916), anyone who has already received Communion twice that day (Can. 917), and those who haven’t abstained from food and drink (except water and medicine) for one hour before Communion (Can. 919).
Fasting for an hour before receiving Communion isn’t that hard to do, considering Communion takes place towards the end of Mass, which on a Sunday is generally an hour long. Most Catholics don’t generally have the opportunity to receive Communion more than twice on any given day (an exception is made for priests celebrating more than two Masses). That rule is there to prevent people from abusing the Eucharist by thinking of it in a quantitative way (the more Eucharist I get, the more Jesus I get, which is not how it works — you get the entire Christ in even the smallest particle of Eucharist). So the one that concerns most people is receiving Communion in a state of mortal sin.
Mortal Sin & the Eucharist
Mortal sin places us outside of communion with God and the Church. That’s why we call it mortal. It is incompatible to the life of grace. Just what constitutes a mortal sin is outside the scope of this article, but to be guilty of mortal sin requires three elements:
- Grave matter (the thing you are doing must be seriously sinful)
- Sufficient knowledge (you have to know it’s sinful)
- Sufficient freedom of will (you have to freely chose it)
Lack of knowledge of the seriousness of the sin or a lack of freedom in choosing it can diminish the culpability for the sin. If you are concerned that you may have committed a mortal sin, it’s always best to simply go to confession. A priest can help you to determine the seriousness of your sin and grant you absolution for both venial (less serious) and mortal (serious) sins.
Venial sins are the lesser shortcomings and failures to love properly that each of us commit on a regular basis. While venial sins are imperfections, they do not separate us from the life of grace. They are forgiven by sincere prayers of repentance, such as the ones which are included in the Penitential Rite at the beginning of every Mass.
Because mortal sin involves action that is incompatible with God’s grace, they substantially remove us from communion with God and the Church, and therefore require a more substantial reconciliation with God and the Church before we receive Communion.
Why Does It Matter if We Receive Communion in a State of Sin?
If we freely choose to do something that is incompatible with God’s love, then we are removing ourselves from communion with God. But we don’t need to despair. God wants us to return to communion with Him, so He has given us a specific remedy for this — the Sacrament of Confession, which is also called Reconciliation because it reconciles us with God and the Church.
The Eucharist is not what unites us to the Church. It’s the sign that we are in union. Baptism is what unites us to the Body of Christ, and Confession/Reconciliation re-unites us if that union gets broken. But if we receive Communion while not in union, then we have taken what should be the most holy act of intimacy with Our Lord and turned it into a dishonest act. In other words, we’ve desecrated something very holy.
The holier something is, the more serious is the desecration of that thing. A cup of coffee is good, but if I pour it down the sewer it’s not that big of a deal. A chalice filled with the Sacred Blood of Christ is extremely good, and therefore if I poured it down the sewer I would be guilty of a most serious sin — in fact I would be excommunicated for desecrating the Eucharist in this way. (As an aside, this is why all sexual sins are serious, because the human body is something that is very holy).
Receiving Communion while not actually in Communion with Christ and the Church is therefore something that can cause serious spiritual harm to a person. This is why the Church forbids it — not to punish those not in communion with the Church, but for their own spiritual good.
St. Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians. He is correcting certain problems and abuses in the Church in Corinth, among which are a lack of respect for the liturgy and internal division and disagreement within the Church. He writes:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgement on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.1 Cor 11:27-30
A Person Should Examine Himself
Note St. Paul says, “a person should examine himself.” The decision whether or not to receive Communion largely falls on the conscience of the individual to determine whether or not they are properly disposed.
This is because, as a minister of Holy Communion, I can’t see whether person has fasted for an hour. I can’t see whether they have received Communion twice that day. And I can’t see whether they are guilty of mortal sin. Unless there are obvious signs otherwise, I have to assume the person is a practicing Catholic and properly disposed to receive Communion.
I would only be justified in denying them Communion if the reason they should not receive is manifest, or publicly apparent. For example, if they had food (including gum) in their mouth as they come up to receive, they obviously have not fasted. But what about if someone is in a state of mortal sin?
Mortal Sin and Canon 915
In general, a minister of Holy Communion isn’t going to know whether a person is in a state of sin. There is no flashing sign on their foreheads. Besides, it is not the job of the minister or anyone else to judge the state of a person’s soul. Even if I knew that person had committed a gravely sinful act, I wouldn’t know whether they had repented and been to confession or not.
But are their any circumstances where a person would be denied Communion for being in a state of moral sin? Yes. Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law states that Communion should be denied to people who are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” (Can. 915).
Let’s break that down. This would apply if the sin in question is:
- Grave (meaning a mortal sin)
- Manifest (meaning it is publicly known)
- Obstinate (meaning they have been corrected but refuse to repent)
- Persevering (meaning they continue to do it)
Then, and only then, would a minister of Holy Communion deny someone the sacrament. The reason for this is both for the good of the person in question (we don’t want anyone to do themselves spiritual harm by receiving Communion while not in a state of grace) and also for the good of the Church.
Because the sin in question is publicly known (not just known to the minister), to admit such a person to Communion without repentance on their part would give scandal to the faithful. It would send the signal either that the sin in question is not serious, or that the Church really doesn’t believe what she says she believes about the Eucharist. Either can be harmful to the faith of the people of God.
The case of Joe Biden is not a matter of him being refused Communion as punishment because he disagrees with the Church on policy issues. It is a clear and well-known teaching of the Church that human life is sacred and worthy of protection at all stages. It is a grave sin to intentionally end a human life. Biden is not just a casual abortion-supporter, but an influential politician who has used his influence actively to promote permissive abortion laws and to make sure abortion providers are funded. He is outspoken about this involvement. His actions in support of abortion are publicly known. He has been admonished on this issue many times by Catholic authorities and has refused to change his position or repent of his past support for abortion. This constitutes a public, persistent, and obstinate participation in a mortal sin — textbook Canon 915.
Even so, the choice to deny someone Communion – especially a public figure likely to garner a lot of media attention – is not one that any priest or deacon would make lightly. This is why some dioceses have particular policies on this matter as pastoral directives, including the Diocese of Charleston where this incident took place.
According to a Catholic News Agency article, a 2004 decree signed by the bishops of Charleston, Charlotte, and Antlanta states:
Catholic public officials who consistently support abortion on demand are cooperating with evil in a public manner. By supporting pro-abortion legislation they participate in manifest grave sin, a condition which excludes them from admission to Holy Communion as long as they persist in the pro-abortion stance… We declare that Catholics serving in public life espousing positions contrary to the teaching of the Church on the sanctity and inviolability of human life, especially those running for or elected to public office, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in any Catholic church within our jurisdictions: the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Dioceses of Charleston and Charlotte.Worthy to Receive the Lamb: Catholics in Political Life and Reception of Holy Communion
A Precious Gift
What lessons should we take from this? Well, no one should worry about having Communion denied to them for no reason. But nor should we take our reception of Holy Communion for granted. The fact that there are things we can do that can put us out of communion with the Church should serve as a reminder to all Catholics that the sacraments are a gift.
The Holy Eucharist is not a product that we purchase by spending our time at Mass, nor is it a prize that we win by being holy enough. It is a gift given to us by our Savior — the gift of his own Divine Body and Blood. We have been invited to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. We ought to make sure we have on our proper wedding garments (see Mt 22:1-14).
Most of us will never have the experience — thank God — of being in a state of sin that is obstinate and publicly manifest. But this does not relieve us from the serious obligation to examine our own conscience before we receive Holy Communion and repent from anything that would place us outside of Communion with Our Lord and His Church.