Denying Communion to Notorious Sinners

One of the most controversial moves of US bishops in recent years has been announcing that avowedly pro-choice politicians, and anyone else who actively promotes abortion, are not permitted to receive Communion unless they have repented. Moreover, in many dioceses, bishops instructed their priests to refuse Communion to these individuals (identified by name) should they present themselves.

This sparked a nasty response from those who are more partisan than Catholic — accusing the Church, ironically, of playing politics. For example, Fr. Andrew Greeley writes in 2004 about how the Church allegedly is jettisoning some of Her beliefs to help out the US Republican Party in an article called “Church is Playing Politics”:

There is currently a discussion among some Catholic bishops about refusing the sacraments to Democratic Sen. John Kerry for not opposing abortion, thus doing the Republican National Committee’s work for it.
But the pope and the national hierarchy also have condemned the death penalty and the war in Iraq. Are these bishops willing to deny the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who support the death penalty or the Iraq war? And if not, why not?
Moreover, will they tell Catholics that it is a sin to support an unjust war and to vote for a candidate who is responsible for such a war? And, again, if not, why not?

These questions are so easy that it’s embarrassing that a priest has to ask it. If a mathematician needed help understanding that a negative times a negative was a positive, we’d be right to question his qualifications to teach mathematics. This is the moral equivalent:

  • Abortion is an intrinsic evil in the eyes of the Church: it is always and everywhere forbidden, and a Catholic may not in good conscience take a contrary view. The Catechism, in CCC 2270 to 2275, tackles the morality of abortion, decrying “the moral evil of every procured abortion” and noting that “Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law,” subject to automatic excommunication.
  • The death penalty, on the other hand, explicitly isn’t an intrinsic evil – CCC 2267 acknowledges that “the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
  • As for the Iraq War, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both expressed their opinion that the war didn’t meet the criteria for a just war (and they were almost certainly accurate in concluding so), but that’s not an official Church teaching.

So to recap: the Catholic Church considers abortion an intrinsic evil, the death penalty occasionally appropriate, and has no official teaching on the Iraq War (although She provides the tools for individuals to determine if it is a just war or not). And Fr. Greeley doesn’t understand why the Church is against Catholics supporting abortion, but not Catholics supporting the death penalty or Iraq War? This man’s qualifications to serve not only as a pastor, but as a newspaper columnist explaining the Catholic Faith, are seriously in question.

The rest of his criticism makes no more sense than his Catholicism 101 questions. Let’s start with the first sentence: “There is currently a discussion among some Catholic bishops about refusing the sacraments to Democratic Sen. John Kerry for not opposing abortion, thus doing the Republican National Committee’s work for it.” Is Fr. Greeley really of the opinion that the RNC is the appropriate body to deny the Eucharist to John Kerry? What could that possibly mean? Are we to expect RNC Chair Michael Steele to follow John Kerry to Mass and say, “None for him, thanks”? Or does Fr. Greeley mean simply that the morality of abortion is primarily a political, rather than a religious, question? That view is disturbing, not to mention directly contrary to two straight millenia of Catholic teachings from the Didache on, which viewed it very much as a moral issue on which the Catholic Church had a clear position, even what that position was unpopular with the surrounding society. It’s one thing to say that a religious body shouldn’t meddle in politics. It’s quite another to say that a religious body shouldn’t meddle in religion. And if Fr. Greeley can’t figure out which camp the Eucharist falls into, that’s disturbing.

Finally, it’s hard to take these sorts of criticisms seriously from Greeley and his ilk. Here’s part of a recap of an interview between Fr. Greeley and Bryant Gumbel:

Gumbel soon got to Greeley’s rebuke of Republicans: “Another potential divisive point, your take on politics. I’m going to read from this. You write that, your words: ‘The Republicans tend to be the party of the affluent, the self-righteous, the haters and the racists.’ And then add: ‘Is it a mortal sin to vote Republican? Probably, but most who do are probably excused because of invincible ignorance.’”
Greeley: “I said that, did I now?”
Gumbel: “Yeah, you did. You want me to show you in the book?”
Greeley: “No, I said it. I’m a Chicago Democrat, you know.”
Gumbel: “Yeah, but Father, I mean the ‘party of the self-righteous, the haters, the racists?’”
Greeley: “Have you been watching television lately Bryant? You seen some of those folks? They hate the Chinese, they hate immigrants, they hate unions. So, I don’t know.”
Gumbel: “All Republicans, Father?”
Greeley: “The people that represent the party in Congress do anyway.”

So Greeley has no problem painting an entire political party as an anti-Catholic party, even as the “party of the self-righteous, the haters, the racists.” Just not the Democratic party… because Fr. Greeley happens to be a Chicago Democrat, you know. And this partisan priest casts stones at the Catholic Church for “playing politics”? And we’re supposed to take this seriously?

But in case there’s any question, Leon Suprenant puts the entire question to rest quite capably here. He quotes St. John Chrysostom, an Early Church Father who lived from 347 to 407 A.D. Chrysostom writes:

I speak not only to the communicant, but also I say to the priest who ministers the Sacrament: Distribute this gift with much care. There is no small punishment for you, if being conscious of any wickedness in any man, you allow him to partake of the banquet of the table: ‘Shall I not now require his blood at your hand?’ (2 Sam. 4:11). If some public figure, or some wealthy person who is unworthy, presents himself to receive Holy Communion, forbid him. The authority that you have is greater than his. Consider if your task were to guard a clean spring of water for a flock, and you saw a sheep approach with mire on its mouth–you would not allow it to stoop down and pollute the stream. You are now entrusted with a spring, not of water, but of blood and of spirit. If you see someone having sin in his heart (which is far more grievous than earth and mire), coming to receive the Eucharist, are you not concerned? Do you try to prevent him? What excuse can you have, if you do not?

The saint then explains that:

You ask how you should know which individual is unworthy to receive? I am speaking here not of some unknown sinner, but of a notorious one. If someone who is not a disciple, through ignorance, comes to Communion, do not be afraid to forbid him. Fear God, not man. If you fear man, you will be scorned and laughed at even by him; but if you fear God, you will be an object of respect even to men. But if you cannot do it, bring that sinner to me, for I will not allow anyone to dare do these things. I would give up my life rather than give the Lord’s Blood to the unworthy.

He then clarifies that there’s no sin in offering the Eucharist to someone who turns out to be an unrepentant sinner, but who the priest didn’t realize was at the time. He then explains why this denial of Communion is so important, listing two reasons (neither of which, interestingly, are “to help out the Republican Party”):

I say the things above concerning only those who sin openly. For if we amend these, God will speedily reveal to us the unknown also; but if we let these flagrant abuses continue, how can we expect Him to make manifest those that are hidden? I say these things, not to repel sinners or cut them off, but I say it in order that we may being them to repentance, and bring them back, so that we may take care of them. For thus we shall both please God and lead many to receive worthily. And for our own diligence, and for our care for others, we will receive a great reward. May we attain that reward by the grace and love that God gives to man through Our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory, world without end. Amen.”

In other words, St. John Chrysostom says we need to do this for the sake of folks like John Kerry, and those who follow in his bad example in forming their opinions. The rest of Leon’s post is worth reading, as is his follow-up.

Turns out, those Bishops who deny the Eucharist to unrepentant advocates of intrinsic evil are doing exactly what the Church has prescribed from the time of the Apostles onwards to avoid the sin mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11:27 of eating the Body of the Lord unworthily. It is instead those like Fr. Greeley who want the Church to jettison Her traditional teachings, and reduce issues like abortion to the level of prudential judgments like death penalty and just war.

Edit: And just to further show how silly this notion that the Catholic Church is playing the RNC (and apparently was in the fourth century), here’s Cardinal Egan slamming Republican Rudy Giuliani for receiving the Eucharist after being instructed not to.


  1. Joe:

    Of course your theology is correct. I was hoping, however, that you would address the broader issue that Fr. Greeley’s comments (admittedly inartful) was attempting to address – the limiting (whether intentional or not) by certain bishops of the public announcement of denial communion to the specific circumstance of pro-choice politicians.

    For example, in my own parish the parish administrator is widely known (she was a public figure in an earlier job) to be continuing a long-term lesbian relationship. She attends mass and presents herself for communion. One imagines that there are any number of public figures – music, film, politics, whatever – who present themselves for communion while openly, notoriously and unrepentantly flouting the church’s teachings on marriage, sexuality and family. Where are the bishops in these occasions?

    My goodness, Joseph. We have bishops who for years engaged in homosexual relationships with adults and teenagers who apparently only repented when they were caught! It defies the laws of probability that in all instances not one of their brother bishops were unaware of their conduct.

    I don’t think it’s wrong to expect our bishops to apply the example some have set with CINO politicians across the board. Frankly, to the extent they do not, this situation looks more political than pastoral.

  2. Michael,

    While I wish that bishops would be more careful to protect all known and unrepentant sinners from invalid Communion, there are valid reasons for treating the abortion issue as more severe. There are three levels on which we should consider these sins (we’re excluding venial sins, for obvious reasons):
    (1) Incidences of mortal sins.
    (2) Ongoing mortal sins.
    (3) Excommunicable offenses.

    In the first category would be things like the bishop having sex with a teenager years ago. In the second, would be your example of living in a homosexual relationship (along with openly having a mistress, having a live-in boyfriend/girlfriend, remarrying outside the Church, etc.). Here, it isn’t like you slipped up once or twice. You’ve made a conscious decision to thumb your nose at Church teaching, and go your own way. In the third category are the sins for which you can be excommunicated. Canon law has a list, neatly summarized here, of sins which result in automatic excommunication, while other sins can result in excommunication as well (just not automatically). Abortion is one of those sins which leads to automatic excommunication, and assisting the procurement of an abortion does as well.

    In this third cases, these aren’t just mortal sins, but the antithesis of Communion. Obviously, you can’t simultaneously be excommunicated and validly Commune, and the Eucharist is a declaration of Communion with the Church, and assent to Her teachings. Pro-choice politicians, in encouraging abortion, are encouraging people, not only to kill their children, not only to enter a state of mortal sin, but to be excommunicated, to be cut off from the Body of Christ. That’s an assault upon the unity of the Church, and the Eucharist, as the highest form of that unity, becomes their enemy. So I think that there are canonical and moral reasons to treat abortion differently even from other mortal sins, because few mortal sins carry this penalty of automatic excommunication, and the we don’t have too many people openly advocating the other ones (like Eucharistic desecration or illicity consecration of bishops).

    So abortion is in a class virtually of its own. But you’re right that bishops should start treating these other sins more seriously. Considering the other two of the three groups of sins, I think they require different pastoral approaches — although obviously, not being a pastor of any kind, I’m a bit out of my depth even addressing this. For (1), if someone is known to have committed mortal sin years ago, quietly address it with them – did they do this, are they remorseful, have they sought confession? And for (2), if someone is in an apparent ongoing state of mortal sin, address this with them as well. There have been cases where what appeared as notorious sin was more innocent. The most common example is: husband and wife get married in the Church, then divorce, and one of them remarries outside of the Church, and has kids with the new partner. In a number of cases, the couple will have already repented of this sin, but may still live together in a non-sexual way for the sake of the kids. It looks like ongoing adultery to an outsider, but isn’t. Here, though, it’s usually more obvious if they’re repentant, because if they keep doing whatever it is, they’re not. So in this second one, you’re looking not only for verbal acknowledgment and remorse, but some evidence that this isn’t just lip service.

    In either case, if the person makes it clear that they’re not repentant, the bishop or priest has an obligation to refuse them Communion until they convert back.


  3. Joe:

    We do not disagree, in principle, on anything here. However, I believe there is a legal distinction between procuring an abortion, or assisting in the procuring of an abortion, and advocating for public policies that decriminalize abortion or make it legally less cumbersome to procure an abortion.

    Sister Margaret McBride’s actions – which I believe procured an abortion; although there has been disagreement on this issue – were fundamentally different than John Kerry’s actions.

    Don’t get me wrong. Both are seriously and gravely sinful. However, I do not believe that under cannon law any political position, or even voting for an immoral law, is grounds for latæ sententiæ excommunication.

    On the other hand, it is arguable that a person in public authority who obstinately denies that abortion is always gravely immoral is a heretic, and therefore for that reason the subject of latæ sententiæ excommunication.

  4. Michael,

    I absolutely agree. There are even (extremely narrow) grounds in which voting for pro-choice legislation may be morally permissible (for example, if you’re voting to enact a moderately pro-choice law to replace an extremely pro-choice law, that’s permissible).

    If the politicians directly procured or assisted in procuring an abortion, it’s a latæ sententiæ excommunication, as you said. My point was that those who use their positions of power to encourages others to incur latæ sententiæ excommunications are not themselves in good standing with the Church — not excommunicated, most likely, but not in the necessary state of grace to receive Communion, either. The pope clarified this distinction during his visit to Latin America, if memory serves.

  5. This is something I’ve always wondered about.

    A lot of protestant denominations talk about how Communion joins the believer with Christ. Not far from that, I was raised that by receiving Communion I was receiving Christ.

    Does a person who has sinned need to receive Christ, too? It would seem yeah, then more than ever. But then again, would that person need to receive Christ in a different sacrament?

    I’ve really always wondered what the Catholic Church’s position would be on that kind of question.

    Love reading, Joe.

  6. Thanks, Erin! Did that post clear it up, or do you still have questions about it?

    The short answer is that to validly receive Communion, there must be no serious impediments to you communing with Christ and the Church. So those with mortal sins on their consciences can’t commune until they’ve been to Confession, since mortal sin impedes our relationship with Christ, while those who have been excommunicated, or who aren’t Catholic can’t commune because of the barrier between them and the Church.

    Minor (venial) sins aren’t a serious obstruction, but it’s still nice to receive absolution for them ahead of time, and we ask for forgiveness in Mass to cleanse our consciences fully. In any case, receiving Communion validly and faithfully has the effect of cleansing us from venial sins.


  7. Public policy and legislation is intrinsicly complex. To make this the Church’s primary public witness at excluding Catholics from the Eucharist is bound to bring questions about playing politics. Yes, abortion is an intrinsic evil. Gun violence is an instrinsic evil. In recent debate some politicans did not deny the evil of gun violence but claimed that gun control legislation was ineffective or even counterproductive or unconstitutional as determined by the Courts. The same is said about abortion. In both cases (and even more so for abortion), I am convinced that such thinking is flawed and in most cases not even sincere. But flwed thinking or even my judgment of a lack of sincerity is not a basis to withotu sacraments.

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