Cardinal Ladaria’s Letter on Reception of Communion: An Explainer

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prefect’s May 7 letter offers guidance for the discussion the U.S. bishops intend to have on the issue in June and counsels caution on several grounds.

The U.S. bishops are examining reception of the Body and Blood of Christ by those who oppose Church teaching, and the CDF has weighed in.
The U.S. bishops are examining reception of the Body and Blood of Christ by those who oppose Church teaching, and the CDF has weighed in. (photo: Unsplash)

As divisions heightened along the Pacific Coast Highway about pro-abortion Catholic politicians — President Joe Biden first among them — being denied Holy Communion, a bucket of water from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) arrived to cool things off.

In recent weeks, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego have publicly taken opposing positions on whether the bishops of the United States ought to adopt a national policy on the matter. No one disputes that a bishop has the authority to take measures in his own diocese. 

In the middle — geographically at least — is Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who wrote to the CDF in March explaining that the U.S. bishops were examining the matter and were considering a possible statement. The entire matter is expected to be discussed at the bishops’ June meeting.

The May 7 response from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect of the CDF, to Archbishop Gomez offered guidance for the discussion the U.S. bishops intend to have. It counseled caution on six grounds: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s 2004 intervention; the authority of episcopal conferences; relevant moral evils; unity among the bishops; general worthiness to receive Holy Communion; and the experience of bishops in other countries. 

The exchange of letters addresses an issue that already caused public division last year, when Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia accused Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., of undermining the process set in place by Archbishop Gomez concerning Biden.


Ratzinger’s Memorandum

In 2004, when the U.S. bishops were debating the question in light of the presidential candidacy of John Kerry, a Catholic in favor of the abortion license, a committee was struck. It was headed by then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the then-CDF prefect, wrote a memorandum to McCarrick on general principles to be observed. It argued that if, despite repeated corrections from his bishop, a politician “obstinately persisted” in promoting abortion or euthanasia, then he should be denied Holy Communion.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s memorandum outlined how the provisions of Canon 915 might be practically applied. Canon 915 reads: “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” (emphasis added).

The 2004 Ratzinger memorandum argued that political officials promoting abortion was that type of “manifest grave sin.” It did not mandate a national policy or a public statement of any kind.

That memorandum was not fully shared by Cardinal McCarrick with his brother bishops; evidently he thought it undermined his own position. The memorandum was subsequently leaked. So while publicly known, it was not a public document.

Since then, the personal 2004 memorandum has often been invoked to argue that there is Vatican support for a stricter national policy on denying Holy Communion. Indeed, as recently as last December, Archbishop Chaput suggested, “to my knowledge, that statement remains in effect.”

The CDF letter explains that the personal memorandum is not “in effect,” if it ever was in the way often claimed. The CDF makes clear that the 2004 Ratzinger memorandum was advice on how to proceed, but not a governing directive.

In 2002, as CDF prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger had issued, with the approval of Pope St. John Paul II, a “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” That note did not address the Holy Communion issue, but clarified the obligation of Catholic politicians to uphold the sanctity of life.

The 2004 “personal communication,” Cardinal Ladaria makes clear, should not take precedence over the official, papally-approved “Doctrinal Note.”


Authority of Bishops’ Conferences

Cardinal Ladaria’s letter explains that any national policy must respect the authority of local bishops. It refers to Apostolos Suos, the 1998 apostolic letter of St. John Paul II, which laid out norms for the functioning of bishops’ conferences. That document explicitly said that national conferences cannot teach authoritatively on the basis of a consensus; there has to be unanimity or approval from the Holy See. 

At the time, it was widely seen as a limitation on national conferences adopting more “progressive” positions through a simple majority vote. In this case, it would limit the USCCB from adopting a more “conservative” position on the Holy Communion question. The principle, evidently, cuts both ways.

Cardinal Ladaria also makes clear, by reference to Apostolos Suos, that any binding national policy would require the approval of the Holy See.


Relevant Moral Evils

The original letter of Archbishop Gomez informed the CDF that the “bishops of the United States are preparing to address the situation of Catholics in public office who support legislation allowing abortion, euthanasia, or other moral evils.”

That being said, the debate to date has focused almost exclusively on abortion. “Other moral evils” have not been explicitly mentioned. The CDF letter explicitly warns against that approach, noting that “other moral evils” ought to be taken into account: "It would be misleading if such a statement were to give the impression that abortion and euthanasia alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability on the part of Catholics."

The 2002 “Doctrinal Note” explicitly includes, alongside abortion and euthanasia: protection for the human embryo, monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, divorce, cohabitation, education of children, protection of minors, trafficking and prostitution, religious freedom, economic justice and peace. It warns against taking a single issue apart from the whole:

“The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine” (4).


Unity Among the Bishops

Since 2004 there has not been a consensus among the U.S. bishops. In anything, positions have hardened in opposite directions. The CDF letter makes it clear that episcopal conferences can only proceed when there is a clear consensus and that, on “possibly contentious” issues, the risk of “discord” mandates that there be an “extensive and serene” dialogue among the bishops first. 

As the Pacific Coast Highway dispute highlights, the discord is evident, and the dialogue is not serene, with Bishop McElroy making accusations of a political agenda at work. While the CDF letter does not say so explicitly, the gist is clear: Better not to proceed further if the result will be more divisions — divisions already seen in the dispute between Cardinal Gregory and Archbishop Chaput last year.


General Worthiness for Holy Communion

A standard concern raised about addressing political officeholders is that the problem of unworthy reception of Holy Communion is far wider than that, including Catholics who frequently do not keep the Sunday obligation, or who are in invalid marital or cohabiting relationships. 

The CDF takes that view, rejecting the argument that political officeholders are to be uniquely held to a “Eucharistic coherence” of worthiness:

“Any statement of the Conference regarding Catholic political leaders would best be framed within the broad context for worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful, rather than only one category of Catholics.” 


Experience of the Universal Church

The CDF letter concludes with an invitation for U.S. bishops to consult with other episcopal conferences, to “preserve unity in the Universal Church.” As is well known, this debate is only a live issue in the United States. No other episcopal conference has taken up the question of denying Holy Communion to political leaders.

It may be that the CDF is pointing the Americans toward the experience of the Latin American bishops — the single largest assembly of bishops anywhere the world. At their 2007 plenary at Aparecida, the Latin American bishops explicitly addressed the question of “Eucharistic coherence”: 

“We hope that legislators, heads of government, and health professionals, conscious of the dignity of human life and of the rootedness of the family in our peoples, will defend and protect it from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia; that is their responsibility. Hence, in response to government laws and provisions that are unjust in the light of faith and reason, conscientious objection should be encouraged.

“We must adhere to ‘Eucharistic coherence,’ that is, be conscious that they cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals” (436).

The Aparecida statement of 2007 explains that Catholics in such situations should not receive Holy Communion. It therefore relies on clarity about Canon 916, which speaks about Catholics not presenting themselves for Holy Communion, rather than Canon 915, which speaks about the minister denying Holy Communion. 

The Latin American bishops at Aparecida issued one of the clearest statements on Holy Communion and political leaders. They also included health-care professionals who actually commit the sinful acts, an odd omission from the American approach. Aparecida may be the desired CDF off-ramp from the disputatious Pacific Coast Highway.