Question of Faith: In what cases can someone be denied communion?
I have heard it is possible for someone who wishes to receive communion at Mass to be denied. In what cases can someone be denied communion? Is this different from being “excommunicated”?
When Catholics approach to receive communion, it is presumed that they are in a proper state to receive. A person can be denied, however, because they are known to be in grave sin or have placed themselves outside of the Church.
The Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus, and its reception is a sign of communion with Christ and His Church. Sin separates us from God. Receiving the Eucharist heals minor transgressions, but serious sin so separates one from God that the person should not receive.
According to Church law, a person “conscious of grave sin” is asked not to receive communion without previous sacramental confession, (Canon 916) since the person risks, as a St. Paul says, “eating and drinking judgment on himself ” (1 Cor 11:27-29). Since it is difficult to know the state of another’s soul, the persons themselves are best able to discern their reception.
The Church teaches that someone who “obstinately perseveres in manifest grave sin” should be denied communion (Canon 915). Grave sin is rarely known publicly, but in some cases, it is public. In this case, every effort should be made to help the person embrace the Christian life, including repentance through sacramental reconciliation. If the person cannot be reconciled to the Church, the Eucharist could be denied, but because of the delicate nature of denying communion and concern for the person’s reputation, this decision should be left to the pastor or bishop, not an individual minister.
The denial of the sacrament has occurred in rare cases, and not always consistently, for those who act contrary to Church teachings, including membership in organizations that support racism, abortion or euthanasia. The Church recognizes that such support is often public. Out of concern for public scandal, withholding communion can be exercised.
Denial of the Eucharist is not the same as excommunication, though the two are related. Rarely does the Church issue formal excommunications. When enacted, they are for the most serious of public sins. In New Orleans during the Civil Rights era, for instance, the archbishop excommunicated three pro-segregationist Catholics, two of whom eventually returned to the Church.
Most excommunications are forms of self-excommunication in which a person places oneself outside of the Church, though without any formal decree. Often these situations can be resolved. A person who contracts marriage outside of the Church, for instance, and later has their union convalidated, may again receive the Eucharist. In most cases, the status of someone who may not receive is not known to the minister, but, like the person who is aware of grave sin, the person should refrain until he or she has been reconciled.
In whatever form it may take, denial of communion is a call to conversion. It is not meant to be a punishment, but a remedy. As the Catechism explains, excommunication does not “restrict the scope of mercy” but “makes clear the [sin’s] gravity” (2272). It is not a permanent state, but highlights the path to reconciliation and peace. Absence from receiving the Eucharist can be a reminder of the treasures of the sacramental life, which point to the life of heaven.
FATHER DAVID ENDRES is associate professor of Church history and historical theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.
This story originally appeared in the September 2020 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.