Matters arising : Refusal of Holy Communion

Rev. Nicholas Mary, C.SS.R.

Fr. Nicholas Mary answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

Is refusal of Holy Communion playing politics or a duty?

The recent refusal of Holy Communion to a pro-abortion U.S. politician by her bishop is criticised by some modern Catholics as “playing politics with the sacraments”. In addition, it is claimed, the teaching of Pope Francis that the Holy Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” is well backed up in Tradition. Is there any value to these views?

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is merely the most recently notorious of a long line of nominally Catholic politicians of all parties and in all countries since the conciliar era who perversely claim to be members of the Church in good standing despite their espousal of views and policies radically at odds with Catholic teaching. It is they who politicise the sacraments by receiving them in order to glean whatever slight electoral profit is still to be made out of the support of undiscerning Catholic voters.

This instrumentalisation of the sacred in the service of the profane is nothing new, of course. Shameless worldly rulers and politicians have tried to do this since the dawn of time. What is distinctive of the conciliar era, however, is the impunity with which lapsed or apostate Catholics have attempted to do so even when the most fundamental principles of the natural law are at stake. Few are the pastors of souls that enforce the discipline of the Church as Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco has done with regard to Mrs. Pelosi (and even then with great mildness and forbearance). That discipline is summed up in Canon 855 of the 1917 code :

§ 1. All those publicly unworthy are to be barred from the Eucharist, such as excommunicates, those interdicted, and those manifestly infamous, unless their penitence and emendation are shown and they have satisfied beforehand the public scandal [they caused].

§ 2. But occult [i.e. secret] sinners, if they ask secretly and the minister knows they are unrepentant, should be refused; but not, however, if they ask publicly and they cannot be passed over without scandal.1

And the 1983 code echoes this in its Canon 915:

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.2

The principles applied

Dominican Fr Nicholas Halligan explains that:

The unworthy are to be excluded from receiving Communion, i.e., public sinners such as those who are excommunicated, interdicted, notoriously infamous in law or fact, those living in concubinage or married outside the Church, members of a forbidden society, those engaged in sinful occupation, unless their repentance and amendment is publicly known and the public scandal caused by them has been previously repaired. Secret sinners who privately request Communion are to be refused if the priest knows that they have not repented; they may not be refused when they make the request publicly and the priest cannot disregard them without scandal. Communion is likewise denied to one who clearly intends to dishonour the Sacred Host, even if he is a secret sinner publicly requesting Communion.3

Similarly a non-Catholic publicly approaching Holy Communion in good faith is nonetheless to be excluded from the sacrament as charitably as possible, and this even if his or her non-Catholic status is not publicly known, as Canon E.J. Mahoney clarifies:

If the non-Catholic status of [such a person] is known, not only to the priest but to the rest of the faithful in the church, the priest must obviously refuse him Holy Communion; the circumstances are similar to the case of a public sinner publicly seeking the sacraments. The same answer must, in our view, be given, even though it is assumed, firstly, that [he] is in good faith, therefore not a public sinner; secondly, that he has not incurred the censure attached to heresy; thirdly, that his status is unknown to the faithful in the church. The accepted doctrine of all the moralists permits the administration of the sacraments to the unworthy, who are not publicly known to be such, on a principle of natural law requiring a person’s good name and reputation to be preserved. But, in these days at least, no ill-repute normally attaches to being publicly regarded as a non-Catholic; nor is the censure usually incurred by such, notwithstanding our practice of ritually absolving from excommunication when receiving them into the Church.4

To summarise, the concern that the priest must have for the good name of the communicant means that he must not refuse him or her Holy Communion publicly if his or her objective unworthiness is not publicly known. If only the priest is aware of this unworthiness, and, a fortiori, if he only knows of it through confession or some other form of professional secrecy, he is obliged to administer the Holy Eucharist regardless. In the case of public sinners, however, this right to a good name has been publicly forfeited, and Holy Communion must be refused, to avoid both the sins of sacrilege and of scandal.

Falling short of the true remedy

Shortly before his election to the papacy, Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist. ‘In those situations, however, in which these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,’ and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, ‘the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute It.’ This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.5

When it comes to notoriously sinful public figures, the matter should ideally not be addressed at the Communion rail and by the individual priest, but rather through prior public penalties imposed by the Pope or bishops that make it clear to all that such persons are no longer able to communicate. However, cases of excommunication or interdict since Vatican II are even rarer than those of Holy Communion being refused. It would be preferable if the relevant authorities were to impose sanctions and penalties for the sake of greater clarity and the salvation of souls, but as these require due process, the individual pastor of souls has to fight against the profanation of the sacred and for the avoidance of scandal when and where he can.

Reward or Medicine?

Regarding the second question, it is true that Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of 2013 writes that “the Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” and then refers the reader to the teaching of St. Ambrose and St Cyril of Alexandria.6

That the Saints see the Holy Eucharist as the means to become holy rather than a reward for holiness is perfectly sound. The Pope might likewise have quoted St. Alphonsus de’ Liguori, for example:

Some will say: ‘I do not communicate often; because I am cold in divine love.’ In answer to them, Gerson asks: ‘Will you then, because you feel cold, remove from the fire? When you are tepid you should more frequently approach this sacrament.’7

St. Bonaventure says:

Trusting in the mercy of God, though you feel tepid, approach: let him who thinks himself unworthy reflect, that the more infirm he feels himself the more he requires a physician.

And, in the Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales writes:

Two sorts of persons ought to communicate often: the perfect, to preserve perfection; and the imperfect, to arrive at perfection.

But in trying to encourage the diffident or scrupulous to approach the Sacred Banquet and not be held back by the false humility of the spirit of Jansenism, no saint ever suggested that those in a state of mortal sin should receive the Sacraments of the Living, “for he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the Body of the Lord." (1 Cor 11,29). As Fr John Hardon, SJ, explains, the so-called ‘Sacraments of the Dead’ are “those sacraments which can be validly and fruitfully received when a person is not in the state of grace. They are baptism, penance, and, if needed, anointing of the sick. These sacraments confer or restore sanctifying grace and confer actual graces when received by one who is already in God’s friendship”.8  The Sacraments of the Living, like the Holy Eucharist, may only be received when one is morally certain of being in the state of sanctifying grace.

“Be not wise in your own conceits,” warns St Paul.

The argument implicitly made by Pope FrancisThe point is more explicitly made in the Guidelines on implementing Amoris Laetitia, written by the bishops of the pastoral area of Buenos Aires, Argentina9  of which the Pope himself has said that it “completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia.” and that “there are no other interpretations”.10  that those objectively in a state of grave sin (in this particular case, those divorced persons who have attempted remarriage, whose unions cannot be rectified before God, and who are not practising continence) might benefit from the Holy Eucharist as a “powerful medicine and nourishment” was refuted long ago by St. Thomas Aquinas. Firstly the Angelic Doctor formulates the specious argument as an objection:

“This sacrament, like the others, is a spiritual medicine. But medicine is given to the sick for their recovery, according to Mt 9,12: ‘They that are in health need not a physician.’ Now they that are spiritually sick or infirm are sinners. Therefore this sacrament can be received by them without sin.”

And then he replies to it thus:

Every medicine does not suit every stage of sickness; because the tonic given to those who are recovering from fever would be hurtful to them if given while yet in their feverish condition. So likewise Baptism and Penance are as purgative medicines, given to take away the fever of sin; whereas this sacrament is a medicine given to strengthen, and it ought not to be given except to them who are quit of sin.

There is thus no way to justify the giving of Holy Communion to public sinners. To refuse them this Blessed Sacrament is to act both for the common good and their own ultimate good, for the salvation of souls is the supreme law. †

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  • 1 in English translation with extensive scholarly apparatus (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2001).
  • 2//
  • 3Fr N. Halligan, O.P., The Administration of the Sacraments (Mercier Press, Cork, 1963) p. 110.
  • 4Canon E.J. Mahoney, Questions and Answers I – The Sacraments(Burns, Oates & Washbourne, London, 1946) p. 162.
  • 5// The reference is to the 2002 document of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics, 3-4, available at
  • 6// The Pope quoted these same words of his in the infamous footnote 351 of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia in 2016.
  • 7Sermon XXXI, Second Sunday After Pentecost, 'On Holy Communion'.
  • 8As Fr John Hardon, SJ, explains, the so-called ‘Sacraments of the Dead’ are “those sacraments which can be validly and fruitfully received when a person is not in the state of grace. They are baptism, penance, and, if needed, anointing of the sick. These sacraments confer or restore sanctifying grace and confer actual graces when received by one who is already in God’s friendship” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, Bardstown, KY, 2000). The Sacraments of the Living, like the Holy Eucharist, may only be received when one is morally certain of being in the state of sanctifying grace.
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