Pope Francis teaches that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” This is in harmony with Augustine and Aquinas alike. From the height of the altar flows the sacrifice of salvation for sinners. Who would not want to receive this purifying principle? Who would not long to ingest so great a medicine?
God stirs up our desire for the Eucharist. We do not come to the altar merely of our own accord. If we are willing, the Lord helps us in our weakness to receive the Lord worthily by giving us the help of the Holy Spirit to illumine our conscience, and help us to confess our sins. Confession is a holy preparation for us to enter into the inner sanctuary, the tabernacle of God’s presence. Like our ancient Jewish forebears, we know that God’s presence is a divine fire which can purify and unite us to those properly disposed, but also bring judgment upon those who are not.
This is precisely how St. Thomas Aquinas treats the question of who should be denied the Eucharist. Surely if the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, then can we say that anyone should ever be denied this powerful medicine? As you might guess, St. Thomas answers by making a distinction which allows him to answer the question in two ways. What’s interesting is that he uses a private-public distinction to underscore a more fundamental distinction between the Eucharist as either purifying fire or judgment.
Aquinas writes, in keeping with Pope Francis and the whole tradition, that “private sinners should not be denied.” In fact, he states it more strongly. He says that the baptized have a right to receive the Eucharist by virtue of their baptism, “except for some open cause.” Priests shouldn’t deny private sinners the Eucharist. If a priest has some knowledge of a communicant’s private sins, then Aquinas says they should either receive private warning and counsel, or, as he seems to prefer, warn all the faithful publicly that they should not approach the altar “until they have repented of their sins and have been reconciled to the Church.” This public warning he thinks guards all sides without denying anyone the Eucharist, and it teaches the faithful to have the proper reverence for the divine presence.
Yet the exception to this rule here is powerful: “except for some open cause.” St. Thomas very explicitly teaches that the Eucharist must be denied to public sinners. He writes, “Holy Communion ought not to be given to open sinners when they ask for it.” He teaches that the Eucharist was “instituted as a means of salvation,” yet when pastors allow public sinners to receive the Eucharist unworthily, they allow the sinner to drink judgment upon themselves, not salvation. So to allow public sinners to receive the Eucharist is not to withhold judgment, but is, in fact, knowingly heaping burning coals of judgment upon a soul. And it is better that the person experiences a little bit of infamy or shame than to be judged.
This is what Fr. Robert Morey did at St. Anthony’s Parish in Florence, South Carolina when Democratic presidential candidate and abortion advocate Joseph Biden presented himself for Communion earlier this week. Fr. Morey did the just and merciful thing that St. Thomas teaches a priest must do for a public sinner who obstinately and unrepentantly persists in the gravest of public sins, killing innocent human life in the womb.
Thankfully Fr. Morey enjoyed the full support of his bishop, but there were some pastors who chose not to see the scandal of abortion judging an eternal soul before the Lord, but instead drive daggers into a brother priest. A well-known Jesuit priest who enjoys the consolations of secular approval decided to punch down, proudly insisting that he was taught in seminary that “a priest has no idea what the state of a person’s soul is when the person presents himself or herself in the Communion line.” Either he had very bad seminary teachers, or he was not a very good student. No one thinks that Ministers of Holy Communion are judges of souls, but they do have care of souls. And this is why St. Thomas teaches in the way that he does. God judges souls, but it’s the job of a good shepherd to love, protect and guard eternal souls from spiritual danger, just as natural fathers guard their children from physical dangers.
In a 2004 letter to bishops concerning the proper reception of the Eucharist, then Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger agreed with the teaching of St. Thomas. He wrote that while there are some matters of legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics, such as the evils of war and the death penalty, formal cooperation with abortion and euthanasia — such as “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws — are objective, public sins evident to all people. Ratzinger suggests that in such a situation of public sin, the pastor should inform the public sinner of the Church’s teaching, and give warning that without repentance and reconciliation, the Eucharist will be denied. But Ratzinger also says that such private warnings are not always possible, and in such cases “the Minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.”
Ratzinger notes that this denial is not a canonical sanction or penalty. The pastor is, in fact, making no judgment about the person’s subjective guilt. He is responding to an issue of “public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin” as a shepherd who is responsible to God for the souls in his care.
I agree that what is holy should never be used as a political weapon. Fr. Morey was not excluding someone because of their political party. He was not seeking scandal or infamy. He was caring for an eternal soul, guarding a man from bringing judgment upon himself, and encouraging him to respond to God’s presence by way of repentance. The pastor of St. Anthony’s parish rightly believes the Church’s teaching, that mortal sin separates us from God, that to receive the Eucharist tied to mortal sin is harmful to us, and that shepherds must keep watch. On the other hand, the secular chaplains who so badly maligned him believe mortal sin is a subjective term that’s never publicly knowable, and never an impediment to communion.
Such chaplains critical of Fr. Morey seem to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Eucharist as divine fire which can either purify or judge us. They also put what is political before what is holy, and so disorder the world. False humility and agnosticism about public sin, as well as false mercy, heaps burning coals upon soul and city alike. By contrast, what Fr. Morey did was guard an eternal soul, and by guarding souls, cities and whole nations can be raised up too. We need more fathers like him.
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