An Application of Canon 915: Obligation to Deny Holy Communion to
Those in Obstinate and Manifest Grave Sin.
Recently, the national broadsheets carried an emotional story─that ran for several days─of a tug-of-war regarding the threat of excommunication to the proponents of the Reproductive Health Bill. In the end, the issue died down with the CBCP clarifying that there was no such threat. I remember that in the course of the U.S. electoral campaign of 2004, a similar crisis arose with the case of Catholic politicians who publicly, after admonition, continued to support legislation favouring procured abortion and other measures contrary to natural moral law─e.g., harvesting stem cells by the destruction of cloned human embryo, redefining marriage to include a relationship between persons of the same sex. The application of c.915 of the Code of Canon Law─to deny Holy Communion to those persons obstinate in manifest grave sin─generated quite a bit of discussion. Can that norm be applied to the case of the proponents of the RH Bill?
CARDINAL Raymond L. Burke, presently the Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Signatura Apostolica─like the Supreme Court of the Catholic Church─wrote a lengthy article about this issue, from which we can quote heavily. In effect, the discussion among the Bishops uncovered a fair amount of serious confusion regarding the norm of c.915. Specifically─Burke pointed out─the denial of Holy Communion was repeatedly characterized as the imposition of a canonical penalty, which of course shouldn’t be done in such summary fashion by the sacred minister, without a due process─whether judicial or administrative.
In fact─he continued to pointed out─c.915 “only articulates the responsibility of the minister of Holy Communion─ whether ordinary or extraordinary─to deny Holy Communion to those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin.”
In effect, the denial of Holy Communion can be the result of the imposition or declaration of the canonical penalties of Excommunication and Interdict (cf. cc.1331, §1, 2º; and 1332). However, there are other cases in which Holy Communion must be denied: (1) to respect the holiness of the Sacrament, (2) to safeguard the salvation of the soul of the party presenting himself to receive Holy Communion, and (3) to avoid scandal.
THE DOCTRINE OF 1 COR 11,27-29 AND ECCLESIA DE EUCHARISTIA
The canonical discipline in question has its source in Sacred Scripture. St.Paul admonished the Christians of Corinth to examine their consciences before approaching to receive Holy Communion: 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 any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself (1Cor 11,27-29).
“The emphasis is on self-examination, in order to discover preparedness to receive the Sacrament or not. If one is not prepared, for example, because of serious sin which is unremitted, then he simply is not to approach to receive Holy Communion. However, if the lack of right disposition is serious and public, and the person, nevertheless, approaches to receive the Sacrament, then he is to be admonished and denied Holy Communion. In other words, the Church cannot remain silent and indifferent to a public offense against the Body and Blood of Christ.”
This doctrine is summarized by Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, "On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church," issued on Holy Thursday, 17.IV. 2003. In Chapter Four of the Encyclical Letter, "The Eucharist and Ecclesial Communion," Pope John Paul declared, among other things:
(1) The celebration of the Eucharist cannot be the starting point for communion; it presupposes that communion already exists, a communion which it seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection.
(2) John Paul II reminded us of the requirement that we be in the state of grace in order to receive Holy Communion. Making reference to 1Cor 11,28, he declared that whoever desires to participate in Holy Communion must be about the daily work of growing in holiness of life, that is, in the practice of the virtues of faith, hope and love. Noting the teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n.1385) and following the rule of the Council of Trent, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed that, in order to receive Holy Communion worthily, one must have confessed and been absolved of any mortal sin of which he is guilty.
(3) The judgment of one's state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one's conscience. However, in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved. With the words, “cannot fail to feel directly involved”, the Roman Pontiff clarified the obligation, on the part of the Church, to take action, when a person who remains in grievous and public sin approaches to receive Holy Communion.
THE NORM OF C. 915 OF THE 1983 CODE OF CANON LAW
The canon reads: Those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.
As Card. Burke points out, “the text makes it clear that the Church has the responsibility to deny Holy Communion to those who are known to be under the imposed or declared penalties of excommunication and interdict, and to those who are known to persist obstinately in manifest grave sin. Although the text does not state so explicitly, it is clear that the Church's responsibility is carried out by the minister of Holy Communion.”
It stands to reason that it would be necessary to know that indeed the persons concerned obstinately persist in manifest grave sin─i.e., that his pastor has informed him about the grave and public sinfulness of what he is doing and has cautioned him to refrain from approaching Holy Communion.
THE DECLARATION OF THE PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR LEGISLATIVE TEXTS
On June 24, 2000, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, “in agreement with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments”, issued a declaration making it clear that c.915 applies to the faithful who are divorced and remarried. Referring to the text of 1Cor 11,27, 29, the Declaration expresses the theological and canonical reasons of c.915:
“In effect, the reception of the Body of Christ when one is publicly unworthy constitutes an objective harm to the ecclesial communion: it is a behavior that affects the rights of the Church and of all the faithful to live in accord with the exigencies of that communion. In the concrete case of the admission to Holy Communion of faithful who are divorced and remarried, the scandal, understood as an action that prompts others towards wrongdoing, affects at the same time both the sacrament of the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage.
The long-standing discipline of the Church requires that the minister of Holy Communion exercise discretion regarding the distribution of Holy Communion to those who persist in manifest and grievous sin. The exercise of such discretion is not a judgment on the subjective state of the soul of the person approaching to receive Holy Communion, but a judgment regarding the objective condition of serious sin in a person who, after due admonition from his pastor, persists in cooperating formally with intrinsically evil acts like procured abortion.”
Card. Raymond Burke draws the following conclusions from the aforementioned review of the history of the canonical discipline of denying Holy Communion to those who obstinately persist in public grave sin?
(1) The consistent canonical discipline permits the administering of the Sacrament of Holy Communion only to those who are properly disposed externally, and forbids it to those who are not so disposed, prescinding from the question of their internal disposition, which cannot be known with certainty.
(2) The discipline is required by the invisible bond of communion which unites us to God and to one another. The person who obstinately remains in public and grievous sin is appropriately presumed by the Church to lack the interior bond of communion, the state of grace, required to approach worthily the reception of the Holy Eucharist.
(3) The discipline is not penal but has to do with the safeguarding of the objective and supreme sanctity of the Holy Eucharist and with caring for the faithful who would sin gravely against the Body and Blood of Christ, and for the faithful who would be led into error by such sinful reception of Holy Communion.
(4) The discipline applies to any public conduct which is gravely sinful, that is, which violates the law of God in a serious matter. Certainly, the public support of policies and laws which, in the teaching of the Magisterium, are in grave violation of the natural moral law falls under the discipline.
(5) The discipline requires the minister of Holy Communion to forbid the Sacrament to those who are publicly unworthy. Such action must not be precipitous. The person who sins gravely and publicly must, first, be cautioned not to approach to receive Holy Communion. This, in fact, is done effectively in a pastoral conversation with the person, so that the person knows that he is not to approach to receive Holy Communion and, therefore, the distribution of Holy Communion does not become an occasion of conflict. It must also be recalled that “no ecclesiastical authority may dispense the minister of Holy Communion from this obligation in any case, nor may he emanate directives that contradict it”.
(6) Finally, the discipline must be applied in order to avoid serious scandal, for example, the erroneous acceptance of procured abortion against the constant teaching of the moral law. No matter how often a Bishop or priest repeats the teaching of the Church regarding procured abortion, if he stands by and does nothing to discipline a Catholic who publicly supports legislation permitting the gravest of injustices and, at the same time, presents himself to receive Holy Communion, then his teaching rings hollow. To remain silent is to permit serious confusion regarding a fundamental truth of the moral law. Confusion, of course, is one of the most insidious fruits of scandalous behavior.
It would be interesting to study the possibility of applying this norm to the case of those who persist in publicly promoting the RH Bill in its present form, which the Bishops have collectively classified as contrary to the natural moral law.