Ethics & Public Policy Center

A primer on the Holy Communion controversy

Published in The Catholic Difference on July 12, 2000



The debate over the reception of Holy Communion by Catholic politicians who persistently support permissive abortion laws continues. This debate is an opportunity for authentic Catholic reform, in our sacramental practice and our public witness. To help further that reform, let me take four crucial questions and suggest answers that track with the long-established teaching and discipline of the Church.

1. Who should examine conscience during this debate?

We all should.

As the U.S. bishops said in their recent statement, “…like every Catholic generation before us, we must be guided by the words of St. Paul: ‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11.27]. This means that all must examine their consciences as to their worthiness to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. This examination includes fidelity to the moral teaching of the Church in personal and public life.”

It is an ancient (if frequently forgotten) teaching of the Church that we ought not receive Holy Communion simply because we are present at Mass. If we are not “properly disposed,” if we are not in communion with Christ and with his Body, the Church, we should refrain from receiving Holy Communion. Our own integrity requires that.

2. Does supporting permissive abortion laws damage one’s communion with the Church?

Yes, it does.

The encyclical Evangelium Vitae teaches that “there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose” intrinsically unjust laws, including laws that make abortion (and euthanasia) possible. No Catholic can simply say, “The Supreme Court has decided the issue.” The Supreme Court got it wrong in Dred Scott, when it declared Americans of African descent legal non-persons. The Supreme Court got it wrong again in Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, when it left an entire class of human beings vulnerable to lethal violence by denying them basic legal protection. As Evangelium Vitae states, “cooperation” with the grave evil of abortion – for example, by voting to uphold permissive abortion laws, or by supporting candidates who favor permissive abortion laws precisely because the candidate in question takes that position – “can never be justified, either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it.”

And, to repeat, if one is in a state of damaged communion with the Church, one’s own integrity requires that one refrain from receiving Holy Communion. Anything else is a dishonest presentation of self before Christ and the Church.

3. What are the local bishop’s responsibilities toward Catholic politicians who support permissive abortion laws?

As the bishops said in June, their first responsibility is to teach the truth of Catholic faith fully and unambiguously. This requires, they continue, “more effective…engagement with all public officials, especially Catholic public officials.” Translated into plain English, “engagement” means that every local bishop has a solemn obligation to inform Catholic politicians of the settled nature of the Church’s teaching on abortion; to challenge any suggestion by politicians that this teaching is “sectarian;” and to urge public officials to conversion of heart, mind, and behavior, if they are acting contrary to the truth that innocent human life in inviolable. If obstinate resistance continues, each local bishop has other remedies available.

4. What about the many other issues involving the sanctity of life?

Issues like capital punishment and war-and-peace certainly do touch on grave questions of the sanctity of life. The abortion question is different, however. Evangelium Vitae, the U.S. bishops’ 1998 statement on “Living the Gospel of Life,” and the 2002 “Doctrinal Note” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith all plainly teach that there is no legitimate diversity of opinion on abortion and euthanasia within the communion of the Catholic Church, because these acts always involve the willful taking of innocent human life, which is always a grave evil. Thus neither citizens nor politicians get a pass on abortion because they oppose capital punishment and support non-military solutions to international conflict.

We should welcome this debate. It could get ugly. It could also lead to a renewed Church and a reformed America.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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