Cardinal Burke Publishes Book on Greater Reverence for the Eucharist
Widespread reception of Communion with insufficient worthiness ‘concerns me greatly,’ says the prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura.
VATICAN CITY — Denial of sin and ignorance of confession due to poor catechesis are leading many Catholics to make sacrilegious Communions that threaten their eternal salvation, Cardinal Raymond Burke has warned.
In a recent interview with the Register to discuss his new book, Respecting the Body and Blood of the Lord: When Holy Communion Should Be Denied, the prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura said it concerns him profoundly that so many Catholics receive Holy Communion with insufficient worthiness, putting their eternal salvation at risk.
He also believes that “without a healthy sense of sin” and the recognition of the need for regular confession, cases of mental illness are increasing, as people believe they “can just go sailing along” in a direction of unrepented sin until they find themselves “in a terrible situation.”
In his new book, the American cardinal unpacks the history and significance of the Catholic Church’s long-held teaching regarding who is sufficiently worthy, and who is not, to receive Holy Communion, especially with regards to public life. He also recalls how the Church's teaching on the proper reception of the Eucharist is an act of pastoral charity for the faithful, individually and for one’s neighbor.
Your Eminence, why did you write this book?
Because I had seen a number of Catholic politicians, who presented themselves and wanted to present themselves as Catholics, promote legislative programs contrary to the Church’s teaching and do this publicly. And yet they were approaching to receive Holy Communion. This concerned me greatly. Sen. John Kerry, when he was running for president, was very open in his support of abortion, and I simply informed him that, if he came to the Archdiocese of St. Louis, where I was the bishop, he should not approach to receive Communion. This caused some bit of a kerfuffle, as they say.
But it was obvious I wasn’t taking some kind of extreme position. And in fact, when he came to St. Louis on a Sunday, he spoke in a Baptist church. Some bishops were concerned about what I had done, and some of them said, “Well, you can’t do these things.” So simply, it was clear to me that this is what the Church had always practiced, beginning with St. Paul, the 11th chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians. So I said to myself, “I’m going to sit down and I’m going to study the whole canonical tradition, and, obviously, with attention, too, to the example of the saints and the teachings in Scripture.”
Of course, St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, says that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord” and that “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Are you concerned that too few Catholics, not just in politics but universally, are aware of this?
Yes, people have developed — and I saw this as a young priest — the idea that, well, if you’re at Mass, you go to Communion, even when sometimes people were in serious sin. And when you would teach that they were in a state of grave serious sin, they were surprised.
I think there has been a genuine loss of respect for the Blessed Sacrament because it’s not understood that this is the Body of Christ. For instance, if a person is in the state of mortal sin, say they’ve committed adultery, that’s not a public, obstinate sin, at least normally it wouldn’t be, but it is a mortal sin. So Canon 915 [those obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion] doesn’t apply to them directly, but Canon 916 does [a person who is conscious of grave sin is not to receive Holy Communion without having been to confession]. They should realize that this is a grievous sin and not receive Communion until they’ve confessed it and been absolved, and, of course, that includes a firm purpose of amendment.
How can the faithful best prepare to receive Holy Communion? What sorts of questions should they ask themselves?
Basically, the preparation to receive Holy Communion is a daily examination of conscience before going to bed and an act of contrition. That’s the normal Christian practice. But how do we examine our conscience? There are a lot of very helpful prayer books that have good instruction on the examination of conscience, but, fundamentally, it’s a question of the Ten Commandments, so this is how a person is as prepared as he can be to receive Holy Communion. In a certain sense, none of us is worthy to approach Our Lord.
I remember years ago, it was the Jubilee Year 2000, and I was bishop and going around visiting various works in the diocese. One time, I visited a chaplaincy at a university center. There was a question-and-answer period with the students, and one of the students said to me, “Bishop, I don’t get that prayer that we say before Holy Communion: ‘Lord, I am not worthy.’”
And I said, “Well, what don’t you get about it?” He said, “Well, I’m worthy.”
I said, “Well, I’m sorry to tell you, but none of us are worthy to appear before the Lord.” But he was shocked by that, and I think it’s due to poor catechesis that is always making people feel good about themselves and so forth. Granted, we are not out to torture people, to make people feel bad, but, rather, to be honest about ourselves and say, “Well, I’m a sinful man.” If we’ve examined our conscience and any serious sins that we’ve committed, if we’ve confessed them, we’re on the road to conversion of life. But how do we foster that in ourselves? We do that through a daily examination of conscience, active contrition and confession. The general suggestion is monthly confession, but I even like to suggest to people every two weeks because it’s just the way life is.
So although we’re never actually worthy to receive Holy Communion, we can be sufficiently worthy?
That’s the correct language. We’re unworthy in ourselves because we’re sinful people, but by striving to give our lives over more and more to Our Lord, then we are worthy in that sense; sufficiently worthy is a good way to put it. Then we can approach Our Lord honestly. And, obviously, we say before Holy Communion, “Lord, I’m not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” and so we are confident in God’s forgiveness.
And confession isn’t just for mortal sins.
No, that is wrong, because to be negligent about venial sins is the way to get involved in more serious sin. And in any case, it’s a form of selfishness, in the sense that there’s some aspect of our lives that we don’t give over to Our Lord — habits of bad language or whatever — which may not be mortal sins, but at the same time, they do not reflect our life in Christ. They don’t give witness to Christ. In fact, it’s a counterwitness.
Was the teaching on the importance of avoiding all sin much more prominent in the past, because even little sins alienate us from God and from others? What happened to that teaching? And why is it hardly emphasized now?
When I was growing up, it was emphasized. We were very conscious of the fact, and we had these very good examinations of conscience. It was in our consciousness that because of the fall of our first parents, man has a tendency to sin. Man has a tendency to fall into sin, but in later years, there developed this idea that all of the Church is obsessed with sin, and people are really all good; and in moral theology, they developed this notion of the fundamental option [theory], and then proportionalism and so forth.
I remember a professor of moral theology telling us that as long as there’s this fundamental option, as long as you’re tending toward the good, you can’t commit a mortal sin. Well, a lot of people are tending toward the good, and then they fall into mortal sins, and so that’s what happened. I think it was in high school or maybe college, but a secular man, a psychologist, published a book called Whatever Happened to Sin? or something like that, and he said, “One of the principal sources of the psychological problems of people is the loss of the notion of sin.”
I’ve had psychiatrists and psychologists tell me that confession, rightly understood and practiced, is one of the best helps to mental health — for spiritual health, obviously, first of all — but also mental health.
You hear a lot about the rise in mental illness these days, and so are you saying there’s a correlation between the decline of the faith, an increase in sin, and by implication, a rise in mental illness?
Sure, and it lessens their resistance to temptations against the Sixth Commandment, but there’s also a problem with drugs, with alcohol abuse, and so forth. Without a healthy sense of sin, one can just go sailing along in that direction until he finds himself in a terrible situation.
Do you think people subconsciously know that, even though they’re not sufficiently worthy to receive Communion, that it’s still subconsciously there that they shouldn’t be receiving, and so they feel a great fear of death?
I believe so, because I think that if we’re reasonably conscious individuals, we know when we’ve sinned, even if we’re trying to lie to ourselves and say, “Well, it’s not a sin.” We wouldn’t approach Our Lord to receive Holy Communion if we knew we had sinned, and so this does torture people’s souls. And when people finally admit and confess a grave sin, in these kinds of circumstances, they’re also very prompt in confessing with great sorrow all of the sacrilegious Communions that they’ve committed. Communion itself is a pledge of eternal life. When we receive Holy Communion, we should have a strong sense that this is a food that prepares us for eternal life. “He who eats my bread and drinks my blood will never die,” and so to receive Communion when one is not sufficiently worthy, one realizes also that one’s denying eternal life.
What are your overall hopes for the book?
I hope it’ll be very helpful to increase people’s knowledge of the whole Eucharist, and therefore, their signs of respect for the Most Blessed Sacrament. That it is real. It is real, not just an idea.
Have you also found that not only is sin overlooked, which, as you say, can lead to mental health problems in this life, but also ignored is that sin threatens the salvation of the soul in the next, and that that’s hardly ever really discussed?
Yes, and this concerns me greatly. I fear there are many who no longer believe in eternal life. They think that this life is all that there is, and that’s simply not true. After I was very sick and I was on the verge of death, when I got well, some people told me that I was dying and [asked] whether I understood that. People said, “Weren’t you terrorized?” And I said, “Well, no, not really. For 48 years, I’ve been helping people at death, assisting them at death, and faith teaches us that death is a passing over from this life to the life which is to come. I simply thought, “Well, now it’s my time to make that journey.” But terrorized? No.