Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles

08-16-2020Weekly Reflection

Based on Cardinal Ratzinger’s talk to the American Bishops before becoming Pope Benedict XVI

1. Presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion should be a conscious decision, based on a reasoned judgment regarding one’s worthiness to do so, according to the Church’s objective criteria, asking such questions as: “Am I in full communion with the Catholic Church? Am I guilty of grave sin? Have I incurred a penalty (e.g. excommunication, interdict) that forbids me to receive Holy Communion? Have I prepared myself by fasting for at least an hour?” The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected (cf. Instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum,” nos. 81, 83).

2. The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin. The Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, with reference to judicial decisions or civil laws that authorize or promote abortion or euthanasia, states that there is a “grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. [...] In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law or vote for it’” (no. 73). Christians have a “grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. [...] This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it” (no. 74).

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.

Pope Francis is completely against capital punishment and proclaimed its use “inadmissible.” This is similar to St. John Paul II’s statement that the need to use capital punishment to protect the populace is virtually non-existent. Catholic teaching never was that you MUST use capital punishment but rather Sacred Scripture and Tradition provide for the use of capital punishment. There is no doubt that the state of opinion in the Church is against the use of capital punishment. Nevertheless all Catholics including the Popes are bound by the Word of God and Sacred Tradition*. The prudential judgments of Popes about the use of capital punishment or waging war are not by that fact alone doctrine and they may not contradict teaching in Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Hence there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia both of which are intrinsically evil.

4. Apart from an individuals’ judgment about his worthiness to present himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute Holy Communion to someone, such as in cases of a declared excommunication, a declared interdict, or an obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin (cf. can. 915).

5. Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him/her, instructing him/her about the Church’s teaching, informing him/her that he/she is not to present himself/herself for Holy Communion until he/she brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him/her that he/she will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

6. When “these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,” and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it” (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts Declaration “Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics” [2002], nos. 3-4). This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.

7. The “I confess: at Mass is not sacramental confession. It does NOT take away mortal sin. The prayer at Mass “say but the word and my soul shall be healed” does NOT take away mortal sin. Catholics may not go to Communion in a state of mortal sin which would be another mortal sin of sacrilege. Sadly one of the most frequent mortal sins is the deliberate missing of Mass on Sunday when not prevented by illness or some other impossibility like the inability to leave a sick person for which you are responsible or taking care of small children or the COVID epidemic.

Leaving Mass early “the quick getaway” after receiving Communion is disrespectful to the Lord just received hence sinful absent a serious reason like an emergency or illness; and if a substantial part of the Mass is missed than the obligation to worship God on Sunday/Saturday evening has not been fulfilled.

[N.B. A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia.


*** formal cooperation in evil means that you share the intention of another person in the evil decision.

*** material cooperation in evil means that, while not sharing the intention of another person in an evil decision, you are providing assistance in that evil decision taking place. This cooperation can be remote or proximate.

*** The true “rule of faith”—as expressed in the Bible itself—is Scripture plus apostolic tradition, as manifested in the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church, to which were entrusted the oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles, along with the authority to interpret Scripture correctly. John 21:25 There is much else besides that Jesus did; if all of it were put in writing, I do not think the world itself would contain the books which would have to be written.

In the Second Vatican Council’s document on divine revelation, Dei Verbum (Latin: “The Word of God”), the relationship between Tradition and Scripture is explained: “Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit. To the successors of the apostles, sacred Tradition hands on in its full purity God’s word, which was entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.

“Thus, by the light of the Spirit of truth, these successors can in their preaching preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same devotion and reverence.” The sources of Sacred Tradition are found in the liturgy, the Fathers of the Church, the constant teaching of the Church. It has been the constant teaching of the Church throughout the centuries that the use of capital punishment is permissible. It is the judgment of the Pope and most churchmen today that the use of capital punishment should not be chosen.