The decision to refuse to admit pro-abortion politicians to Holy Communion is not just based on a centuries-old discipline of the Church. It is also an act of pastoral mercy.
Sadly, a number of priests and even bishops have sown confusion about this discipline. The current norm for the Latin Church is enshrined in canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law (canon 712 of the Eastern Code). It is a law which stretches back at least to the time of Gratian’s Decretum in the 12th century and is rooted in the teaching of Christ.
The canon is relatively simple. Those who the Latin Code used to call – and the Eastern Code still refers to as – “the publicly unworthy” must be denied Holy Communion by reason of their persisting in manifest grave sin.
What does the law mean by this? It does not mean those who have committed sins in secret, or even those who have committed a single sin. It means to prevent those who by their lives give a counter-witness to the Gospel.
In the past, this was applied to the “notoriously infamous”, such as abortionists, fortune tellers, communists and well-known adulterers. Such people may receive Holy Communion only after they have shown signs of repentance and try to repair the damage that their openly sinful lifestyle might have caused.
As the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained to the then Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in a 2004 letter, this includes those politicians who manifest their formal cooperation with assaults on innocent human life, “understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws”. We learned that McCarrick misled his brother bishops about that letter in 2004, when he wrongly told them that Cardinal Ratzinger left the choice of denying Communion to the local bishop. That mischaracterisation led the bishops to approve their watered-down 2004 statement on Communion to pro-abortion politicians.
Although McCarrick’s misrepresentations have come to light, some still insist that the decision is ultimately the bishop’s. Some have even threatened priests with penalties (or, at least, lack of support) if they deny Communion. However, the law does not permit a bishop or priest to replace the Church’s judgment with his own, no matter how pastoral he believes himself to be. As the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts insisted in its authoritative interpretation of the law in 2000, “no ecclesiastical authority may dispense the minister of Holy Communion from this obligation [ie, to deny Communion] in any case, nor may he emanate directives that contradict it.”
As the Pontifical Council’s declaration was an authoritative interpretation of the law, it has the force of law. Bishops or pastors who act otherwise act contrary to their duty of obedience not just to Church law but to God’s law.
Some prelates have argued that this discipline is impossible to enforce, as the minister of communion cannot “read the soul” of the communicant. This is to confuse two different norms. The Church has always held that those who are “conscious of grave sin” may not present themselves for Communion (see canon 916). This requires the individual to judge his own moral state and level of culpability.
No such subjective determination of culpability is necessary for the publicly unworthy. In that same 2000 declaration, the Pontifical Council held that the question of “grave sin” was to be understood “objectively” and required no judgment of “subjective imputability”. The only question is whether, objectively speaking, their action is gravely sinful, whether it is manifest, and whether they obstinately persist. To believe that this denial of Communion requires a knowledge of subjective imputability is, as the Pontifical Council held, to set oneself “against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries” and would be “clearly misleading”.
In discussing this discipline of the denial of Communion, Pope Benedict XIV wrote in 1756 that for such to receive Holy Communion would be to make them “guilty of a new and horrible crime, eating and drinking judgment on himself”. For a minister knowingly to admit a pro-abortion politician to Holy Communion would be an act of incredible cruelty. To be a true Church of mercy is to be honest with the public sinner, to encourage him to repent, and to receive him lovingly and joyfully when he does.
Fr Pius Pietrzyk OP is a canon lawyer based in California