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Analysis
At its most basic, the canonical tradition recognizes two types of sinners (private and public) and two types of Communion distribution (private and public).
(us.fotolia.com / stefania57)

The debates over admission of divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion in the wake of Amoris have focused almost exclusively on what is just one canonical problem: the public reception of holy Communion by public sinners. But there are other, canonically distinct, manners of receiving Communion and other, canonically distinct, types of would-be, if problematic, communicants. These lesser known scenarios are, however, at risk of being forgotten in the debates concerning public reception of Communion by public sinners, even though these lesser known rules might shed some light on some issues raised by Amoris.

At its most basic, the canonical tradition recognizes two types of sinners (private and public) and two types of Communion distribution (private and public). Based on what canon law means by terms such as “public”, “private”, “sinner”, and so on, the rules here are: 

SINNER         REQUEST                MINISTER

Private            Private                      Refuses per Canon 843

Private            Public                        Admits per Canon 915

Public             Private                       Refuses per Canon 843

Public             Public                         Refuses per Canon 915

What might impede understanding of this simple construct is:

(1) ‘private Communion’ (not “spiritual Communion”!) has all but disappeared from devotional life and so, today, the vast majority of receptions of holy Communion are ‘public’, meaning that most faithful have no idea that the rules for ‘private Communion’ even exist, let alone that they might differ from the rules for public administration of the sacrament; and,

(2) canon law does not regard most would-be communicants as ‘sinners’ in the first place (whether public or private), so most faithful have little or no experience of actually seeing someone not being admitted to holy Communion.

In any case, we must be clear: public sinners (as the Church has always regarded divorced-and-remarried Catholics) requesting privateholy Communion are always to be turned away. Consider, even: “Occult sinners who approach the Sacrament privately and are known, by the minister, to be unrepentant must be excluded from this Sacrament…” Davis, Moral and Pastoral III: 206; “Secret sinners who privately request Communion are to be refused if the priest knows that they have not repented….” Halligan, Administration 110. See also, e.g., Abbo & Hannan, Sacred Canons I: 854, and Dom Augustine, Commentary IV: 229.

Note a key point about private and public sinners insofar as admission to ‘private Communion’ is concerned: a minister’s personal conclusion that an individual has unrepented grave matter on his/her conscience suffices for withholding the sacrament requested privately! That point alone helps us understand why Canon 915, which operates in the face of public sin actually increases the number of faithful eligible for holy Communion within the norms governing any reception of holy Communion.

The above being understood, now, one may ask, especially of those offering the most extreme interpretations of Amoris (e.g., the Maltese), do they, in line with (as far as I can tell, an exceptionless) canonical interpretation, support the withholding of holy Communion from public sinners who might, however rarely, ask for that sacramentprivately? If not, why not?

Or is this small but important line of thought, too, simply being abandoned in the wake of Amoris?

 
About the Author
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Edward N. Peters 

Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.
 
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