|Sandro Botticelli, The Last Communion of St. Jerome (1495) (detail)|
Imagine a kid who has a severe peanut allergy, but wants a peanut butter cookie. Peanut allergy is one of the worst of the food allergies, since it can be triggered by even trace amounts of peanuts (even 1/1000th of a peanut), and it can be deadly. But to a little kid, that risk might seem too abstract. All they know is that they want that cookie, and their dad is telling them that they can’t have it. It seems unfair and mean, and they’re likely hurt by it.
That’s the image that came to me in considering this question of giving Communion to someone who is divorced and remarried. The Eucharist is beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful gift that God has ever given us. For anyone to be unable to receive the Blessed Sacrament is an enormous tragedy, and it’s wonderful that there are “remarried” people who ache for it, because the Eucharist is worth aching for. I wish more Catholics felt this, actually: that more of us pined for receiving the Eucharist on the days that we aren’t at Mass, or can’t receive at Mass for some reason.
So I can completely sympathize with why someone would want to receive Our Lord at Communion despite knowing that they’re not eligible to present themselves. Now that almost everyone presents themselves for Communion, it’s also embarrassing to be the only person left seated, particularly if you’ve got a pushy usher by your pew, trying to force you to get into line. Moreover, the difference between divorce and annulments strikes some people as too academic and abstract: they just see someone else they consider divorced-and-remarried in line for Communion, while they’re told not to present themselves. Given all this, it’s not hard to see why so many people think it’s merciful to encourage them to go ahead and receive Communion anyways – or even, to try to get the Church to change her teaching in this regard.
But here’s the thing. Encouraging those not in right relationship with God to receive Communion as if they are is a false mercy, just as it would be a false mercy to let your allergic kid eat a peanut butter cookie. To receive Communion unworthily risks your life as surely as eating a peanut butter cookie allergically. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
In other words, if you’re receiving Communion while you’re not in right relationship with Jesus, you’re poisoning your own soul, a sort of spiritual suicide caused by committing mortal sin. And the person who is divorced and remarried is objectively not in right relationship with Jesus, because they’re in a state of adultery (Mark 10:11-12 says this outright). In other words, even if your priest tells you it’s okay to present yourself for Communion, just like it wouldn’t be okay to steal a car if your priest tells you. In both case, there’s a higher Law at place, one that none of us here below can change.
These are some strong words, but they’re what the Gospel tells us. And stepping back, there’s a certain logic to what Paul is saying about receiving the Eucharist unworthily. After all, the Eucharist is Holy Communion, Communion with Jesus Christ Himself. And communion always requires a certain intimacy and right relationship. If you don’t have that, because you’ve chosen some sin or sinful attachment (like being in an adulterous relationship) over that relationship with Him, it’s not right to behave like you do. We recognize this in other contexts as well, obviously: in the right context and right relationship, the sexual act is a beautiful God-given expression of love and communion; in the wrong context, it’s rape, or adultery, or fornication, and it’s horribly wrong.
So it’s precisely because of the beauty and intimacy of this gift of Communion with Jesus Christ that we need to search our souls (all of us, not just those who are divorced and civilly “remarried”) to make sure that we’re receiving Him worthily.
Fortunately, there’s always, always, always a way out, this side of eternity. If you’re not in the spiritual state you need to be, because of marital issues or any other reason, there’s an easy cure. Repent, go to confession, gets washed clean in the Blood of Christ, and receive that outpouring of graces. Choose Christ at all costs, choose Christ over all earthly loves and pleasures, and do whatever it takes to be able to receive Him wholly and completely, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. When you do that, you’ll know what true mercy feels like.