The article below was submitted to Homiletic & Pastoral Review for publication. I was given the understanding that it would appear before the upcoming USCCB General Assembly (starting Monday, November 15) during which the bishops plan to develop a statement on the Eucharist, The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church. Since it has not been published (yet?), I thought it important to post it now in anticipation of the bishops’ gathering (if HPR does run it, I will post the link).
Since writing this piece over three months ago, I have certainly heard more about the concern over sacrilege in this matter (most notably from Cardinal Burke), but I still strongly believe this message cannot be over-emphasized or too often repeated. Thus this contribution.
Much has been written about the political implications of the current controversy regarding the reception of Holy Communion by public figures who are outspoken in their advocacy of abortion. Of particular note in this area have been politicians — most prominently, the President of the United States. There has been serious concern, as well, regarding the scandal to the faithful that would be caused by allowing such persons to receive the Eucharist. The political implications should be irrelevant. Giving scandal, on the other hand, is not at all irrelevant – it is a real worry for the Church. But both these matters deal with the horizontal dimension of faith, that is, with human persons; vitally important, to be sure, but not the whole story — by a long shot.
Precious little attention has been explicitly placed on the vertical dimension of the Blessed Sacrament, that is, what unworthy reception of Holy Communion means to God. Let us attempt to provide a little balance here by taking this aspect of Eucharistic theology into account.
Now, I do not mean to say that there has not been wide acknowledgement of what (or better, Who) the Eucharist actually is. Certainly, a significant point has been raised concerning the lack of belief among many Catholics in regard to Church doctrine on the Eucharist, which tells us that it is “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained” therein (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1374, italics in the original). This deficit of belief, or at least of understanding, among Catholics should be a grave concern to orthodox believers and needs to be addressed, to be sure.
Rather, I mean to focus here, not on any concern about offense given to politicians, or the very real concern of offense given to the faithful, but on offense given to God. Why this has been widely neglected, or at best given short shrift, by Catholics is puzzling. The primary reason that this whole matter is so important is because of what the Church declares about the nature of the Eucharist, explained above.
Receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin is a grave offense against God. Scripture is clear on this matter: “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29).
Regarding the implications of unworthy reception of Holy Communion, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear, as well: “Sacrilege consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God. Sacrilege is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist, for in this sacrament the true Body of Christ is made substantially present for us” (2120, italics mine).
Jesus was willing to lose all His followers for the sake of the Eucharist (see Jn 6:22-71). Confecting the Eucharist was the last act of His ministry, coming immediately prior to His Passion and death (see Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:14-20; 1 Cor 11:23-25). The post-Resurrection episode given the longest treatment in the Gospels, commonly referred to as “The Road to Emmaus,” ends with Jesus once again confecting the Eucharist (see Lk 24:13-35). Is it any wonder that the Church calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11 as cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324)?
So, if our blessed Lord was willing to do all this to give us Himself, really present, “whole and entire” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1377), in this august Sacrament of Sacraments, promising to “be with [us] always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20), what hesitation could the bishops, the shepherds of the Church, possibly have in ensuring, to the best of their ability, that He not be profaned by unworthy reception of the Eucharist?
This should be a wake-up call to all believers. Unrepentant public grave sinners and those who are outspoken in their defiance of core doctrines of the faith they profess to hold by advocating for, or even advancing the cause of evil, of course should not approach the minister of Communion; but neither should anyone conscious of committing grave sin. All such persons “must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1385). And they must publicly renounce positions they have espoused that are contrary to the most central doctrines of the Faith.
Is it not enough that the God-Man took on all the sins of the world for all time, suffering and dying so that we might have the opportunity for eternal life? Must insult be added to injury by defiant reception of this same Person in Holy Communion by those who have cut themselves off from the life of grace or who have been openly hostile to Church authority on these matters?
When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane all His closest collaborators quickly abandoned Him. Let us not repeat this shameful behavior today. May we have the courage and strength to defend the Lord against all those in our day who are willing to heap blows upon Him once again through defying His body, the Church, through pride and arrogance, while embracing, promoting, and even legislating, all manner of wickedness.