Serious sin a bar to receiving Communion, bishops say in new document

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service (external - login to view)

BALTIMORE (CNS) -- Emphasizing that they were addressing all Catholics, and not just politicians or any other group, the U.S. bishops Nov. 14 voted in favor of a document calling on those in a state of serious sin to refrain from receiving Communion. The vote was 201-24, with two abstentions.

An effort to amend the document to specifically name politicians as among those who need to examine their consciences before receiving the Eucharist failed on a voice vote.

Titled "'Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper': On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist," the document says that a Catholic who "knowingly and obstinately" rejects "the defined doctrines of the church" or repudiates "definitive teaching on moral issues" would not be in communion with the church and therefore should not receive Communion.

"All kinds of people don't understand their responsibilities when going to the Eucharist," said Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine. His committee prepared the document following a request in November 2004 by Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J., for a statement on how Catholics should prepare to receive the Eucharist.

Archbishop Myers' request came after a presidential campaign in which some bishops had criticized the Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and said he and other Catholic politicians who supported abortion should be refused Communion under canon law.

But a footnote to the document says that it is not intended "to provide specific guidelines" to the provision in canon law that says that Catholics "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin" should not be allowed to receive Communion.

In comments to the bishops before the Nov. 14 debate and vote, Bishop Serratelli said the document was intended as a positive message of encouragement to U.S. Catholics.

"To be a Catholic is a challenge and to be a Catholic is to adhere to the church's teachings as handed down by Christ," he said.

The document said all Catholics "should strive to receive holy Communion regularly, gratefully and worthily."

"We may find ourselves in situations, however, where an examination of conscience before God reveals to us that we should refrain from partaking of the body and blood of Christ," the bishops said.

But among the 79 amendments to the document was a warning that everyone "should be cautious when making judgments about whether or not someone else should receive holy Communion."

"In order to receive holy Communion we must be in communion with God and with the church," the document says. "If we are no longer in a state of grace because of mortal sin, we are seriously obliged to refrain from receiving holy Communion until we are reconciled with God and the church."

Among examples of such sin, the document cites "committing murder, including abortion and euthanasia; harboring deliberate hatred of others; (and) sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult, or physical or verbal abuse of others that causes grave physical or psychological harm."

Other "serious violations of the law of love of God and of neighbor" listed in the document included swearing a false oath, missing Mass on Sundays or holy days without a serious reason, "acting in serious disobedience against proper authority," sexual activity "outside the bonds of a valid marriage," stealing, slander or involvement with pornography.

The document criticized those who "give selective assent to the teachings of the church."

But Catholics who have "honest doubt and confusion" about some church teachings "are welcome to partake of holy Communion, as long as they are prayerfully and honestly striving to understand the truth of what the church professes and are taking appropriate steps to resolve their confusion and doubt," the document says.

"If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately either to reject or to doubt the defined doctrines of the church or her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the church," it added. "Reception of holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the eucharistic celebration, so he or she should refrain."

If a person who "is publicly known to have committed serious sin or to have rejected definitive church teaching and is not yet reconciled with the church" receives Communion, it "is likely to cause scandal for others," giving "further reason" for the person to refrain, the bishops said.

The document says Catholics should get ready to receive Communion through both "remote preparation" -- prayer, Scripture reading, frequent confession and other steps -- and "proximate preparation."

The bishops said elements of proximate preparation include maintaining "reverent silence" before Mass begins; refraining from food and drink for an hour before receiving Communion; dressing modestly at Mass; listening attentively to the Scripture readings and homily; and actively participating in the Mass "with our whole hearts and minds and bodies."

The bishops also urged Catholics to make "a reverent bow of the head" before receiving Communion.

"Putting these simple actions into practice will help us to enter more profoundly into the eucharistic celebration, receive holy Communion more worthily, and thus obtain more fully the grace of communion with the risen lord Jesus and with one another," the document says.

It also includes two appendices explaining church teaching on when non-Catholics can receive Communion in a Catholic church and when Catholics are permitted to take Communion at a non-Catholic service.

"When participating as guests in worship services in other Christian communities, Catholics are encouraged to join the community in the shared responses and in the singing of hymns," the document says. "It is not permitted, however, for Catholics to receive communion in other Christian ecclesial communities."

The document also reminds Catholics who join in non-Catholic services on a Sunday that "the obligation to participate in a Catholic Mass still remains."

Non-Catholics are permitted to receive Communion in a Catholic church only if they belong to churches in full communion with the Catholic Church or in cases of "grave necessity" when ministers of their own faith are not available and certain other conditions are met, the appendix says.

tough love

where's the Templars when you need them?
Dexter Sinister
Or the Inquisition, they could start that up again too. It kept a lot of people on the straight and narrow in its day.

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