Most Catholics will be aware of the recent, vigorous debate that has emerged the last few months on the subject of whether remarried divorcees should be admitted to Holy Communion. The debate was given impetus by the desire of German bishops to change the immemorial teaching of the Church. Following the explicit and unequivocal teaching of Christ, the Church does not recognize the possibility of divorce. Spouses can separate without any canonical consequence. Any civil divorce has only civil effect, and does not affect the sacramental bond which endures. The problem comes if a civilly-divorced spouse re-marries. It would have to be a civil wedding, naturally. In the eyes of the Church, with the original marriage bond intact, that spouse is now officially and publicly committing adultery. Adultery is a grave sin that precludes one from receiving Holy Communion.
As any sensible pastor, like our own Bishop Philip Egan, will tell you, this canonical consequence is not an act of retribution but is, in fact, medicinal. On the one hand, it reminds the erring spouse that Eucharist is the highest of gifts, and that it is a gift that can be lost by our own actions. On the other hand, scripture and Church teaching are consistent in holding that receiving the Eucharist when in a state of grave sin will have no good effect on the soul of the grave and un-absolved sinner, but in fact will only harm the sinner, as s/he will be bringing judgment down upon them. Eucharist received by grave sinners who remain un-absolved is poison to their souls, not balm. So to deny them Communion is an act of charity.
The counter argument usually rests on the purpose of the Eucharist in the lives of Christians. As medicine, it is precisely the grave sinner who needs it, the argument maintains. What is more, some divorces come about due to situations of irreconcilable difference, or even abuse. The Church already allows separation on these grounds, but cannot permit divorce because she has no power to grant a divorce. She may determine that the marriage itself was not validly contracted, and so annul what had been thought a marriage. But a valid marriage endures till death.
However, there is an underlying point in this debate that is, by and large, not being addressed, and if it were it might take the sting out of the question. The point is this: that for the vast majority of Catholics (and even non-Catholics, God help us) the reception of Communion is just another part of the ritual, an instance of their “active participation”, and indeed, a habit. St Pius X may have been right to remind the Church that receiving Holy Communion is saving food to our souls, and so we should receive it more than once a year. But frequent Communion has, in the modern Church, become regular Communion, habitual Communion, and for many, unthinking Communion. Which raises the question: how many Catholics receiving Communion every Sunday are actually free from grave sin? This question is all the more moot given the decline in recourse to the sacrament of Confession. Have Catholics really become so holy on such a widespread scale? Or are many regularly receiving the Eucharist unworthily, and not just profaning the Sacrament but poisoning their souls? Are our parishes in fact largely administering poison to a disturbing number of those who present themselves for Communion?
Those in grave sin have no right to receive Communion at all. None. At. All. Thus, remarried divorcees have no right to receive Communion, and in fact have the right to be denied Communion for their own spiritual well-being. Reception of Holy Communion must not be reduced to a mere act of belonging the local group, of exterior participation and inclusion stripped of its supernatural reality and purpose. It is primarily a spiritual event, with spiritual consequences, and eternal ones at that. It is not a sacrament of social inclusion.
Our Sunday obligation is not to receive Holy Communion. Our obligation is to attend Mass every Sunday. Have many Catholics lost sight of this fact?
Or perhaps individuals judge for themselves and decide that they can receive despite Church teaching? Perhaps they would call this an act of conscience. While we cannot read people’s consciences, we can safely say that anyone who makes a judgment against Church teaching does so without any objective authority. It is the same for priests who unilaterally decide to offer Communion to those who are impeded by means of publicly-known grave sin or who are non-Catholics. In this case, those priests are exercising an authority they do not have. This makes them dangerous men indeed from a spiritual point of view.
So the question of Communion for remarried divorcees needs to be re-focused. The burning question really is: how many who present themselves for Communion are actually in communion with Christ and His Church and not impeded by grave sin? Another question presents itself in consequence: how many see Communion merely as an act of exterior participation rather than an essentially spiritual act with effects not only for now but for eternity?
If you are in a state of grave sin, Holy Communion is not your remedy. Confession and penance: that is your remedy. Only then will Holy Communion do you any good. Only then will Holy Communion not bring you spiritual woe. What we need now is not a campaign for frequent Communion, but one for frequent Confession. Dare we say it: Holy Communion can be dangerous – it is not for the unready.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
(1 Corinthians 11:23-30 ESV)