The denial of Communion is a supremely grave matter which raises a host of tricky questions
Over the weekend, my attention was drawn to a news item from two years ago: a 2014 LifeSiteNews interview with Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth.
In it, he suggested that “people [who] are not in communion with the Catholic Church” on core teachings – he specifically cites here politicians voting in favour of abortion or same-sex marriage – “shouldn’t be receiving Holy Communion”. In such cases, moreover, actively denying Communion would be “an act of mercy”, done in the “hope that… it would encourage someone to come back to seek communion with the Lord, with the truth, and say I’m sorry I got lost.”
When and why old stories suddenly resurface on social media is an interesting question in itself. Regardless, since it seems to be doing the rounds again, now is as a good a time as any to share some observations on the understandably sensitive issue of who should or should not receive (or, relatedly, be offered) Communion. It is, after all, not an issue that is likely to go away.
The first is simply this. In general terms, Bishop Egan was – and I assume still is, though I’ve not asked after his present stance – on very firm scriptural, patristic, and scholastic ground.
Paul’s strictures against those who “eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Corinthians 11.29) are, of course, well known. Partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood is no casual affair – “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup” (11.28) – and it is far better not to receive, than to receive unworthily.
Evidently, this point applies to everyone, and not just to elected officials. It also, note well, applies to many more matters than voting for abortion or same-sex marriage (serious matters though they indeed are).
St John Chrysostom, for instance, warns those who neglect Christ’s real presence in beggars “perishing outside, freezing and uncovered” (cf. Matthew 25.44-6) not to dare approaching him at the altar: at least, that is, if they wish to avoid the “abyss” (Homilies on Matthew 50). More broadly still, St Cyril of Jerusalem urges new communicants: “deprive not yourselves, by the pollution of sins, of these Holy and Spiritual Mysteries” (Catechetical Lectures 5).
St Thomas rather bluntly explains the reason for such cautions: “if anyone, while in mortal sin, receives this sacrament, he purchases damnation” (Summa Theologiae, 3a, q. 80, a. 4). It would indeed be an “act of mercy”, and a very pastoral one, for this to be more often spelled out.
(By the bye, one can understand why divorced-and-married Catholics might feel unjustly singled out when only they are ever told to refrain from Communion. When was the last time you heard a sermon suggesting, in even the gentlest terms, that unconfessed tax cheats, expenses fiddlers, contraceptors, extorting landlords, cohabitees, despisers of foreigners, widows, or orphans, and many, many more – “there is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3.10) – ought perhaps to think twice before automatically trooping up? It is no wonder the remarried feel self-conscious and marginalised while everyone else climbs over them on the way up for the Communion.)
So much for the general point. However, it is one thing to suggest people think carefully before presenting themselves for Communion. It is quite another for a bishop or priest publicly to ask a person not to present themselves – or indeed, actively to refuse them Communion if they do.
Yet once again, there are solid patristic precedents. In 390, St Ambrose – the Philip Egan of fourth-century Milan – excommunicated the Christian Emperor Theodosius for committing war crimes during civil unrest in Thessalonica. Personally barring him from Milan Cathedral, Ambrose publicly demanded:
How will you stretch forth your hands still dripping with the blood of unjust slaughter? How in such hands will you receive the all holy Body of the Lord? How will you who in your rage unrighteously poured forth so much blood lift to your lips the precious Blood? (Theodoret of Cyrus, Ecclesiastical History, 5, 17)
Underlining the merciful intent of this extreme (not to mention brave) censure, Ambrose pointedly added: “Attempt not to add another crime to that which you have committed.” Accordingly, eight months later, a weeping and contrite Theodosius returned, indeed “to seek communion with the Lord, with the truth”.
Now, a single precedent is not, in itself, a sufficient argument. Denial of Communion is, at all times and for any reason, a supremely grave matter. It raises, moreover, a host of tricky and sensitive issues (though, predictably, the Angelic Doctor has got there first: ST, 3a, q. 80, a. 6). In any case, Bishop Egan’s suggestion of two years ago was not – undoubtedly for very good reasons – ratified by England and Wales’ other Successors of the Apostles. Nevertheless, two quotations from Ambrose’s letter to Theodosius, sent in the thick of the controversy, are perhaps worth sharing (since they apply as much to the general point, as to the specific one).
Firstly, “If the priest speak not to him that erreth, he who errs shall die in his sin, and the priest shall be liable to the penalty because he warned not the erring.” And finally, “Blame for what had been done would have been heaped more and more on me, had no one said that your reconciliation to our God was necessary” (Letter 51).
Dr Stephen Bullivant directs the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society (@BXVICentre) at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and is a consulting editor of The Catholic Herald