It’s Sunday, and that means it’s time for the Sunday Catechesis. Last week’s instalment on rich and poor, and on the relationship of social justice to the deepest matters of Christian theology and doctrine proved to be a popular one. This week, in the interest of variety, I want to talk about a completely different topic altogether.
When people are angry at the Catholic Church, there are many different subjects that exercise them, get them going. Among them, and perhaps one of the most aggravating to some, is the Church’s position on the reception of Holy Communion, the so-called ‘closed communion’ rule of the Catholic Church.
How mean we are! How exclusive! How judgmental! Who do we think we are? How dare we adjudicate who may or may not receive communion? What a bunch of hypocrites! You people stink!
There – that saves my usual hate mail people from having to bother this time. Got it covered, y’all! OK, let’s talk about what this is, this awfulhorriblenogoodlousy rule of the Church’s. Why do we insist that (with certain exceptions that are a bit too nuanced to go into here) only Catholics who are practicing their faith and are free from the stain of grave sin may present themselves to receive the Eucharist in our liturgies?
I do realize that, for those who disagree, and perhaps disagree vehemently with this teaching, what I am about to say will be most likely unconvincing. So be it – I would simply ask that you at least understand that what I am about to present is in fact the Church’s mind on the matter, even if you believe that mind should change. At least understand why we teach what we do.
The whole thing hinges on what (or rather, Who) the Eucharist is, and what we believe happens to us when we receive it (er, Him). The Eucharist is, of course, Jesus substantially present in the appearance of bread and wine, the true Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Himself, who is both God and man.
The reception of communion is not, then, a ritual ceremony symbolizing our aspiration towards unity, nor is it an expression of the unity we already enjoy (whatever that may be), nor is it a ritual that heals the breaches of unity among us or between us and God. The reception of communion IS UNITY itself. It is the highest, fullest, deepest, richest, purest and most complete experience of the union of God and the human person, and in that, of the human person with all other persons partaking in that Communion, that we will have, can possibly have, this side of heaven.
The Eucharist, and our reception of it, is the consummation, the summit, the absolute peak experience of unity with Jesus (and hence, God) and with one another possible in this world. That is what it IS, simply and utterly.
Because of this, we cannot approach the Eucharist if our existing state of union with God or with neighbour is gravely deficient. You cannot attain the peak of the mountain if you are not on the mountain. You cannot be perfected in a unity that does not exist.
And so this is why the Church holds forth two possible situations that result in her asking those in those situations to not come forth for Holy Communion. First, those whose unity with God has been broken by the committing of a grave, or mortal, sin that has not been absolved in the sacrament of confession. Mortal sin destroys our communion with God, and until that union is restored (please note that Christ through the Church readily provides the means by which that can be done), the person cannot—must not, for their own good—receive the sacrament of Eucharist. Don’t lie to yourself: if you are not in union with God, you cannot enter the consummation of that union.
Now, only you can know if you are in such a state—nobody else can possibly tell you this. The Church can only tell you what sorts of actions might deliver us to such a state if we have performed them with full freedom and knowledge. But really, only you and God know if you are approaching the sacrament unworthily due to mortal sin.
Second, our interior union with God perfected by Communion is also an exterior act that perfects our union with the community of faith, and this community of faith is the Catholic Church. And so the Church asks that those who have exteriorly separated themselves from unity with the Church should not receive communion.
A person may not be in a state of sin, but may well be separated from the Church, and the reception of communion is a perfection of that union as well as the first union with God. Again – don’t lie to yourself. If you are estranged from the Catholic Church, how can you be in communion with the Catholic Church? And if you are not in communion with the Catholic Church, why are you receiving communion in the Catholic Church?
There are many ways in which a person can exteriorly (that is, publicly and visibly) separate themselves from the Church. Belonging to another church, for one. Publicly entering into a conjugal living situation that is not sanctioned by the Church, (e.g. cohabitation, ‘remarriage’ after a civil divorce, being in a same-sex relationship), belonging to a group that has publicly expressed its opposition to the Church, belonging to the Mafia, publicly advocating for social policies and laws that contravene the moral law as the Church teaches it (politicians, take note!).
None of these are necessarily matters of personal sin (although they certainly might be), but of public dissent and schism from the Catholic Church. And so these two situations—interior division from God due to grave sin, exterior division from God’s Church due to public dissent—are the two reasons that exclude us from receiving the Eucharist.
And that is the reason why the Church has a policy of ‘closed communion’. It is a painful teaching—nobody likes not being in union—but it comes from a deep apprehension of what the Eucharist is and what our reception of it achieves, of the painful reality of human division and alienation, and not from any hostility or judgment of any human being.
And that’s quite enough for one day’s blog post. Sorry for writing a bit longer than normal—it’s not a subject well-served by brevity. May God bless us all, and bring us at last into the unity He desires for us.