Holy Communion as a Matter of Life and Death

Canon law and the Church’s eucharistic discipline aren’t exercises in authoritarian concoction but are rooted deeply in sustained reflection on divine revelation

The reception of Holy Communion is currently a topic of great controversy in the Catholic Church. Bishops generally permit politicians who cross Catholic teaching on grave issues in their public words and actions to continue to receive the Eucharist, and Cardinal Walter Kasper has recently proposed permitting civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist as well, an idea that will be taken up at the Synod on the Family in October.

Many Catholics are concerned about these issues, as receiving the sacrament under circumstances involving public scandal and objective sin risk making a mockery of the Church’s discipline and the Eucharist itself. Others of a more latitudinarian attitude worry that withholding the Eucharist in such circumstances risks politicizing holy communion or denying the Church’s chief channel of grace to Christians, as the Eucharist the “source and summit of Christian life” (LG 11; CCC 1324).

One one hand, the Church does teach that Catholics have a general right to the sacraments. On the other hand, the Church also teaches that there are situations in which the sacraments are not to be given or received. While I am not a canon lawyer, and would defer to canonists such as Ed Peters on the canonical issues surrounding the giving and receiving of holy communion (see his excellent discussion thereof in his “Fencing the Altar”), the canonical issues seem clear enough. Canon 915 forbids admitting to communion those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin”, while Canon 916 enjoins persons “conscious of grave sin” not to receive communion without confession. Canon 915 thus addresses ministers of the sacrament, practically speaking bishops and priests, while canon 916 addresses would-be communicants. Given these canons, many (including Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura and thus the Church’s “Chief Justice,” and Pope Benedict himself) have asserted that politicians defying Church teaching on life issues ought to be denied communion, while Cardinal Kasper’s proposal to “tolerate” but not “accept” second marriages has precipitated a backlash among his fellow Cardinals, none less than Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

But in an antinomian age in which refusing anyone anything is seen as mean, adverting to canon law feels like legalism to many. And while Catholics of all Christians shouldn’t disparage or disregard canon law, or laws and rules in general (though many do), it may help to go ad fontes and think about Scripture’s witness to the nature of holy communion and its relevance for Eucharistic discipline. For canon law and the Church’s eucharistic discipline aren’t exercises in authoritarian concoction. Rather, they are rooted deeply in sustained reflection on divine revelation.

Many supporting wide distribution of communion emphasize the Eucharist’s nature as strong medicine, as a conduit of grace precisely for sinners, as faithful Catholic and thoughtful blogger Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has written:

I can’t shake off the idea that the Church’s mercy, these o so privileged avenues of mercy, which are confession and the Eucharist, shouldn’t be closed off to sinners, because we are all sinners…You will struggle, you will oscillate. You will stumble in the shadows. Part of you wants one thing, and part of you wants another. In the Ignatian phrase, spirits of consolation and desolation will dogfight in your soul. You won’t know what is up and what is down. Is this not a place where the Church should want you to receive the sacraments, which are “surely efficacious” as means of grace? […] But, particularly in these delicate and demanding aspects of sexual life and life situations, the grace of wanting to want God’s will is already very precious and important. And is it not in those phases, where we are broken down, and all we can muster the strength to pray for is to want to want, or even to want to want to want, that the Church should be most present with the succor of her sacraments?

This is not unreflective sentimentalism but deep, compassionate theological and pastoral thinking. Essentially, Gobry argues that since all of us are sinners and since “firm resolve” and “perfect contrition” always involve shades of gray, those who in their conscience honestly desire Jesus should not be denied Him in the sacrament.

I disagree with Gobry (as does Ross Douthat in a masterful and gracious response to Gobry), but Gobry is asking the right questions. Are not the sacraments for us sinners, a fact the eucharistic liturgy itself affirms throughout? Do they not communicate grace, indeed Jesus himself, so desperately needed by modern men and women? Who of us is after all worthy? Indeed, one of the most ancient and inspiring of saints, St. Ignatius of Antioch, famously called the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality,” and in the field hospital that is the Church, who doesn’t need such medicine?

Here’s the rub: Those like Gobry advocating wide distribution of communion emphasize the Eucharist’s benefits. But no one seems to be talking about the nature of the Eucharist itself, and thus no one in this discussion recognizes its dangers.

The Eucharist is indeed strong medicine, as St. Ignatius indicates. But strong medicine not only heals. It can kill. Anyone who’s been a practitioner or patient knows that the efficacy of medicine depends on the particular constitution and malady of the recipient, and that medicines—whether something as available as aspirin or tough as Temodar—can kill when given to the wrong people, in the wrong way, in the wrong amount.

So too the Eucharist. Catholics believe the Eucharist is Jesus himself and thus God himself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church therefore even speaks of the “Worship of the Eucharist” (1378), using the language of worship appropriate for God alone only because the Eucharist is God himself. In biblical tradition, God’s divine presence is deadly, and those things which communicate the divine presence can themselves be deadly. One thinks of the LORD striking Uzzah dead when he touched the ark in 2 Samuel 6, or the Jewish tradition that claims that the High Priest would have a rope tied around his leg on the Day of Atonement so that his corpse could be retrieved if he were to be struck dead in God’s presence in the holy of holies in the temple. (The realm of pop culture has depicted this conception of divine danger marvelously in the deaths that ensue at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when the ark is foolishly opened.) God can be deadly. Holy things can be deadly.

So too, then, the Eucharist. In 1 Corinthians 11, in what may be our earliest textual witness to the Last Supper, Paul gives his most sustained attention to holy communion. The Corinthians have been involved in serious sin regarding the Eucharist: there is division according to class lines at what should be the sacrament of unity, and drunkenness and gluttony at what should be the sacrament of utmost sobriety and solemnity (vv. 17-22). After reminding them that the Eucharist concerns Christ’s mortifying, unifying death by recounting the words of institution, Paul writes these words:

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. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (vv. 27-32)

For St. Paul, then, the Eucharist is not only an opportunity for participation in Christ’s body and blood and thus God’s own life, but also an opportunity for profanation and judgment. The Eucharist being Christ and thus God himself, communion is not only an opportunity to eat and drink salvation, but also an opportunity to eat and drink judgment on oneself. And for Paul these dangers are not just theoretical. He states as a matter of fact that the Corinthians’ profanation of the Eucharist has already occasioned real instances of the judgments of sickness and death among them.

Here, then, we have the Scriptural roots of the theology and practice of fencing the altar, of excommunication, of withholding communion, of refraining from partaking holy communion. And that theology and practice is in turn rooted in the thoroughly biblical idea that there are different sorts of sins, some minor, some major, some venial, some mortal. One thus communes either in a worthy or unworthy manner. Now Paul would be the first to admit that Christians are sinners—most of his extant writings deal with sins of doctrine and practice among the churches he founded—but he would also be the first to remind Christians that God is not mocked (see Galatians 6:7-8), and so like the Church he helped found Paul teaches and practices discipline in cases of serious sin.

Neither Paul nor the Church after him is being legalistic or unmerciful in exercising Eucharistic discipline. Ultimately, if encountering God directly in the Eucharist is dangerous, even deadly, withholding it should be seen as an act of charity, an act of love. It is not an act of love to give someone something that may kill them.

In our own day, love has been reduced to simply giving people what they want. But the Faith has a richer tradition of love, affirming St. Thomas’ teaching that love is “to will the good of another” (CCC 1766). For Paul, communion is a matter of life and death, and so he wills the good of the Corinthians in teaching them the necessity of Eucharistic discipline, as does the Church her members today.

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).