Denying Communion to Someone

And More on Ashes for Non-Catholics

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ROME, MARCH 27, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What is a priest (or for that fact, a deacon or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion) supposed to do in such an instant when it is common knowledge that someone presenting themselves to receive the Body of Christ is not in a state of grace? Can a person who is in an active homosexual relationship receive Communion? If a homosexual person is living a chaste and celibate life, is that person considered in a state of grace, as long as they are church-going and partake of the sacrament of reconciliation? Can a homosexual person in an active relationship serve as an extraordinary minister or other servant of the altar? -- D.B., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 

A: Our reader mentioned that this question was inspired by a recent controversy regarding denial of Communion in the Archdiocese of Washington. Although this case has been widely commented on, I do not consider myself sufficiently informed of all the facts to add any specific statements other than to express the hope that the case will be eventually resolved and any misunderstandings clarified.

That said, I will try to address the question at hand.

First of all, it is incumbent upon each member of the faithful to assess if he or she is in a state of grace to receive Communion. In order to know this with reasonable moral certitude, the person must not be aware of having committed any grave sin that has not been confessed or of not being in a situation which would normally preclude being able to receive the sacrament such as, for example, an irregular marriage not recognized as valid by the Church.

In fulfilling his ministry the priest and even more so other ministers should habitually defer to the good faith of those who approach the sacrament.

Only God knows with absolute certainty a person's state of grace. The individual person can reach a reasonable moral certainty as to the present state of his soul. The priest usually has no knowledge as to a person's state of grace. Even if a priest knows that a certain person is a habitual sinner, he cannot know if, before coming for Communion, that person has repented, confessed and is striving to remedy his ways.

Even if the priest is practically certain that a person should not receive Communion and would be committing a sacrilege by doing so, he should not publicly refuse to administer the sacrament. No person, not even a grave sinner, should be publicly exposed for hidden faults. Everybody has a right to preserve his good name unless it is lost by the sinner's public actions or in virtue of a public penalty.

This is a very difficult situation for a priest to be in, but in this way he also shares in that same attitude which the Lord himself adopts in making himself available in the Eucharist. Only rarely will a priest be placed in such a difficult situation; the Eucharistic Lord faces it on a daily basis.

Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law indicates the principal cases in which Communion may be publicly refused. The canon says, "Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion."

The first case refers to those upon whom a canonical penalty of excommunication or interdiction has been publicly imposed for a grave canonical crime.

It does not refer to those who might have fallen under an automatic penalty (such as participating in an abortion) which is not known. Of course, people in this situation should not receive Communion until the excommunication is lifted, but the priest should not refuse the host even if he knows that the penalty exists.

The second situation, those obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin, is harder to determine and usually requires a case-by-case study. Even expert canonists disagree regarding the practical applications. But almost all are in accordance that the law should be narrowly interpreted and that all the factors -- obstinate perseverance and manifestly grave sin -- must be simultaneously present before Communion can be publicly denied.

It is difficult to determine if a grave sin is manifest. In order to be so, a sin must be known by a large part of the community, and this can also depend on the nature of the community itself. For example, it is one thing to belong to a quiet rural village where everybody knows everybody and another to be part of a large urban parish were a situation might be known only if it appears in the media.

Obstinate perseverance is also difficult to determine and usually requires that the priest has been able to converse with the sinner and has warned him to desist from receiving Communion until he ceases committing the sin.

Since both factors must be present the priest can only make this warning that Communion will be publicly refused when the sin is widely known and he has not received knowledge of it through the sacrament of reconciliation.

There might be cases when all of the factors are present by the manner in which a person approaches the altar. For example, several U.S. bishops have refused Communion to people wearing a rainbow sash. In this case the person is using a symbol that publicly defends a lifestyle that the Church holds to be gravely sinful.

There might be some other cases when a priest has to decide on the spur of the moment, for example, when a person is in an obviously altered state and is clearly not fully aware of what he is doing. Such cases have more to do with public order and respect for the Eucharistic species than making a judgment as to a person's interior state.

Another case is when a person is obviously not Catholic. Such situations most often arise at weddings and funerals. Many dioceses and parishes have prepared policies for such occasions and advise those attending regarding the conditions for receiving Communion in the Catholic Church. This serves as a reminder both to Catholics who might not be practicing their faith as well as to those who belong to other denominations and religions.

Finally, the Church distinguishes between a homosexual tendency and homosexual acts. While the tendency is disordered, it does not make the person a sinner -- provided that he or she lives a chaste life. Indeed, there is no reason why such a person cannot reach a high level of sanctity.

A person who acts on the tendency commits a grave sin. With this in mind I think it is clear that actively homosexual persons should not receive Communion. The door of sacramental reconciliation, however, is always open to them when there is sincere repentance and purpose of amendment.

Anybody who because of any grave sin should not receive Communion should not engage in a ministry. There might be exceptions to this rule when dealing with a momentary fall from grace with no opportunity to confess before Mass. But there are not exceptions in the case of those who would be habitually excluded from reception.

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Follow-up: Ashes for Children and Non-Catholics

In the March 13 piece on Ash Wednesday I commented "that most Protestants, above all evangelicals, would never dream of making use of a Catholic sacramental. Episcopalians and some others, however, who might not be near one of their own churches might decide to receive at a Catholic service."

Several readers wrote in to inform me that, in fact, there are some evangelical Christians who are adopting this tradition.

One, a permanent deacon, wrote: "I am currently appointed to two small churches in a small town. When I was first appointed I received a call from the pastor of the First Baptist Church inviting me to join their ecumenical group doing projects for the betterment of the community. Currently we have one Catholic and seven Protestant churches in the group. This Ash Wednesday a lady pastor of a Baptist church was asked to fill in for the lady pastor of the First Congregational Church in giving out ashes. She was pretty nervous, and soon discovered that lightning did not strike her, and she survived. I also have a friend that attends a Reformed outreach church. They have given ashes out for the last two years."

A priest from New York added: "A quick note -- that here in New York City, several, perhaps many, Protestant churches are now holding Ash Wednesday services, including distribution of ashes. Walking just three blocks, from the subway and past our Catholic church, I saw two Protestant churches with signs for Ash Wednesday service -- one was Disciples of Christ and the other was Presbyterian. So, the value of sacramentals is being appreciated -- a mini-ecumenical movement?!"

We also had reports of Protestants requesting ashes from a Catholic Church in Jerusalem. 

Who would have thought that this ancient tradition could become a means of bringing Christians closer together? It is certainly a sign of hope.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.