Tag Archives: excommunication

Holy Communion: To receive or not to receive?

Mike Aquilina shows both sides of a very complex issue that many bishops face . . .

Mike Aquilina

Mike Aquilina

Sometimes we see public figures taking Communion when they seem to be violating the rules: politicians, for example, who actively support abortion or who make public statements that disagree with Church teaching.

One of the principles of canon law is that penalties are a last resort. If a Catholic is straying from the true path, the Church has the duty to use every means in her power to bring the lost sheep back to the fold.

In the case of a public figure, bishops must also consider the public effect of their own actions. What message will they be sending about the Church by how they react to such provocations? Should they make a statement correcting the public figure’s error but let him continue to take Communion, to show that the Church values mercy and forgiveness? Should they excommunicate him, to show how seriously the Church takes her teachings? It’s not an easy decision.

To some bishops, erring on the side of mercy seems like the more Christian thing to do, as well as the course most likely to convey to the world what Christian love is like. Others, however, say that the greater concern should be for the sinner’s scandalous effect on the public, who may grow confused or cynical about Catholic doctrine, devotion and discipline. Sometimes, if a bishop has met privately with public figures and failed to persuade them to change, the bishop must refuse to admit them to Communion.

In August, the bishops’ conference in Bolivia opted for the latter approach. The adjunct secretary of that body, Monsignor José Fuentes, said that government officials and others who support abortion should not receive Holy Communion.

“If as a legislator, a judge, or whatever, I support an abortion law, I am separating myself from the Church. I cannot receive Communion unless I show my repentance,” he said, according to Catholic News Agency.

As St. Paul says, we should examine ourselves before we take Communion, because we’re in a better position than anyone else on earth to know what’s lurking in our souls.

“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” (1 Cor 11:27-29).

The priest has a duty to make sure Communion is not offered to anyone who is not allowed to receive it. If he knows of an obstacle to your receiving Communion, he will usually speak with you about it, explaining what the problem is and what you can do to overcome it.

MIKE AQUILINA is the author or editor of more than 40 books on Catholic history, doctrine and devotion. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “Understanding the Mass: 100 Questions, 100 Answers” (Servant Books, Cincinnati, 2011). Information on the Bolivian bishops’ conference is from the Catholic News Agency.


Catechism 101

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.

Code of Canon Law, 915

Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 270

To hell with the excommunicated?

Does the Church damn those who are excommunicated. The answer may surprise you . . .

Karl Keating

Karl Keating

Not necessarily. Only God can condemn anyone to hell. It’s not within the Church’s power to do so. The Church’s role is to help people to heaven by teaching and sanctifying. Of course, people can ignore the teaching and reject the grace. If they do and end up in hell, they go there by their own choice.

Excommunication is a Church penalty which excludes a notorious sinner — or someone grossly disobedient to Church teaching — from the communion of the faithful. It doesn’t mean the person ceases to be a Christian. Its purpose is to warn the individual that he risks losing his soul unless he repents.

We’ve seen examples of excommunication in our own time. In 1953, some bishops in China ordained new bishops without the approval of Pope Pius XII. The ordaining bishops and those they ordained were excommunicated under a provision of canon law which stated that episcopal ordinations may be performed only with the pope’s approval. These new bishops had been ordained for the Chinese Patriotic Church, a government-controlled off shoot of the Catholic Church. Other Chinese bishops remained loyal to Rome and found themselves imprisoned — the penalty for loyalty to Church authority.

In 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained new bishops to oversee the religious society he had founded. The ordinations were done against the wishes of Pope John Paul II. Archbishop Lefebvre, another ordaining bishop, and the three new bishops were excommunicated automatically. In this case and the Chinese case, people were excommunicated not for teaching heresy, but for gross disobedience.

Excommunication is rarely used nowadays. At one time, it’s true, it was used too frequently, and the Council of Trent warned bishops to be more careful in its application. The Council said excommunication must be used sparingly. Its purpose is to bring the wayward back to the practice of the faith and to obedience. If excommunication is wielded crudely, it will lose its effectiveness and may do more harm than good.

Now to a corollary. When Paul said that anyone preaching a heretical gospel would be anathema (Gal 1:8), he didn’t condemn the person to hell. He labeled that individual a false teacher. When the Church, in an official decree at a council, accompanies its decisions with anathemas, it’s merely doing the same thing as Paul. It’s saying, “And anyone who teaches otherwise is a false teacher.” It is not condemning anyone to hell.

Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” pages 17-19 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).