U.S. Bishops Must Clear Up This Communion Confusion

If one in a state of mortal sin — no matter what the sin — has not sacramentally confessed and been absolved, he must not receive Holy Communion. There are no exceptions.

Paolo da San Leocadio (1447-1520), “Christ With the Host”
Paolo da San Leocadio (1447-1520), “Christ With the Host” (photo: Public Domain)

Judge Sara Smolenski, Chief Judge of the 63rd District Court in Kent County, Michigan, was recently advised by her pastor, Father Scott Nolan, that she should not receive Holy Communion because she claimed to enter into a “marriage” with a woman. He did this privately, but she chose to make the matter public. You can read the full story here.

The priest’s actions were certainly proper. Judge Smolenski’s civil marriage is a public act, and because she is a public figure her actions were widely known. For the good of her own soul, as well as to avoid the scandal of apparent approval, the pastor was correct in requesting that she refrain from presenting herself to receive Holy Communion. Judge Smolenski is certainly a public dissenter from the Church’s constant teaching that marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman. There is also the reasonable public perception that she is engaged in and approves of illicit sexual union — in this case, homosexual acts.

As expected, there are charges that this action is targeting the “LGBT” community. Judge Smolenski herself says, “This feels like selective discrimination. Why choose gay people and why now?” However, the standard for worthy reception of Holy Communion applies to all. Neither heterosexuals in invalid marriages nor those cohabitating outside the bonds of marriage may licitly receive Communion. No one may simply go on living in an invalid marriage (adultery) or in cohabitation (fornication) and still be worthy to approach for Holy Communion. Fornicators, adulterers and those who engage in homosexual acts may not licitly receive Holy Communion unless (and until) they repent and receive absolution in the sacrament of Confession.

No one person is singled out, nor is any group singled out — chastity is required of all. There is no place for sexual intimacy outside of traditional marriage. There are no exceptions.

The Diocese of Grand Rapids issued a statement in support of Fr. Nolan’s actions. Included in it were these essential points:

As Pope Francis explains in Amoris Laetitia, ‘The Eucharist demands that we be members of the one body of the Church. Those who approach the Body and Blood of Christ may not wound that same Body by creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members.’ (186) Lifelong Catholics would surely be aware of this.

Inclusion and acceptance have been a hallmark of Catholic Churches in the Diocese of Grand Rapids throughout the diocese’s history. They remain so. They presume, however, a respect on the part of individuals for the teachings and practice of the wider Catholic community. No community of faith can sustain the public contradiction of its beliefs by its own members. This is especially so on matters as central to Catholic life as marriage, which the Church has always held, and continues to hold, as a sacred covenant between one man and one woman.

It is reassuring to see the diocese defend Fr. Nolan. Not every priest who has risked denying Holy Communion has been supported in this way.

As usual, Father James Martin tweeted comments that merely serve to obfuscate the matter:

…Why are parishes focusing only on issues of sexual morality? Are there no other issues in the moral life? Are those who refuse to pay a living wage to employees denied Communion? How about those who do not give to the poor? Those who do not care for the environment?

An obvious answer to why parishes may be “focusing” on sexual morality is the epidemic of sexual misbehavior in our culture.

Furthermore, Fr. Martin’s examples compare what is intrinsically grave matter and has clear parameters with what involves prudential judgment and is not of its nature mortal.

It is a fairly straightforward matter to determine that a person has entered into an invalid heterosexual marriage or a same-sex “marriage.” It is less clear what constitutes not caring for the environment, whether it is a sin, and whether it is a mortal sin. If I throw a plastic bottle into the trash rather than the recycle bin, have I committed a sin? What if I throw a thousand plastic bottles away rather than recycling them? Is that a sin? Is it a mortal sin?

As for paying a “living wage,” the Church speaks of paying “just wages” not “living wages.” And while refusing to pay a just wage is a mortal sin, determining what constitutes a just wage is not clear cut. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood … taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good” (CCC 2434). Such is also the case with giving to the poor; most people do give to the poor in some fashion, but when, how, and how much varies with circumstances.

Father Martin surely knows that his logic is faulty and that his comparisons lack parity, but he repeatedly issues such statements, making the Church’s battle against sexual confusion and misbehavior that much more difficult.

However, the wider charge that the Church singles out individuals or groups in denying Holy Communion is likely to persist unless bishops, individually and collectively, teach in a comprehensive manner of the need for the worthy reception of Holy Communion. Priests, led and supported by their bishops, must do so as well.

On any given Sunday there are likely many who should not approach for Holy Communion due to mortal sin on their soul. Such sins may involve unchastity but might also include telling lies that seriously harm the reputation of another or willfully missing Mass on Sunday. The point remains that there are many sins that rise to the level of mortal sin and which therefore must be confessed prior to receiving Holy Communion licitly.

Priests should teach this to the faithful and provide ample opportunity for Confession, including prior to Sunday Mass. If one in a state of mortal sin has not confessed and been absolved through the sacrament of Confession, he should not approach for Holy Communion.

The best response to those who say we single out persons (e.g., pro-abortion politicians) or groups (e.g., those with same-sex attraction) is to teach comprehensively on the worthy reception of Holy Communion.

It is sad that worthy reception of Holy Communion is so unevenly taught to or understood by the faithful. Many see the Holy Eucharist as an entitlement — something they are owed without the need to meet any obligations. The loud protests when anyone is denied Holy Communion bespeaks this lack of formation.

Because the problem is so widespread, it requires a national solution. The bishops of this country ought to issue a teaching, a pastoral letter of some sort, and every diocese should then implement its directives and counsels. I wrote a two-part article on the worthy reception of Holy Communion in 2018 — my own modest attempt to set forth a fuller teaching on the whys and wherefores of worthy reception. They are available here and here.

I realize that my hopes for a national initiative are unlikely to emerge from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) any time soon. They are a rather divided body these days, and it might take many years of delicate negotiation to accomplish such a task. That doesn’t mean, however, that individual bishops or regional gatherings of bishops couldn’t undertake it. The main goal is to give a comprehensive and faithful teaching rather than to engage in the current habit of rearguard action in response to public outcry whenever someone has been “denied” Holy Communion.

This is a teaching that affects all of us. We all need to internalize St. Paul’s admonition that we must never receive our Lord unworthily:

Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the Body and Blood of the Lord. Each one must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have died. Now if we judged ourselves properly, we would not come under judgment (1 Corinthians 11:27-31).