By John Sehorn
Assistant Professor of Theology at the Augustine Institute
Catholics and non-Catholics alike are often confused or offended by the Church’s “rules” about receiving Holy Communion. Why might I need to go to Confession before receiving? Why can’t Protestant Christians receive the Eucharist? Why are public figures sometimes denied Communion? These restrictions can seem judgmental, discourteous, or inappropriately “political.” Such measures in fact all stem from the Church’s basic pastoral concern for the salvation of souls. To understand them, however, we first need to rethink what the Church is.
Holy Communion and the Church as Communion
In his first letter, John writes that he proclaims Jesus Christ “so that you also may have communion with us.” What John has in mind is not just any communion (or “fellowship”), but a communion that is necessary for our salvation: “…this communion of ours is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”1 Christ shares with us his own relationship with the Father, and it is this fellowship that Christians share with one another and that makes us the Church. Because it is a sharing in the communion of God himself, the Church’s communion is not a human achievement. It is a sheer divine gift: “The Church is born primarily of Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation.”2 Amazingly, our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection grants us “entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity.”3
Members of the Church participate in the communion of the Trinity through the love of the Holy Spirit.4 Our communion in God’s love is made visible and concrete by our common confession of faith, worship, and life together under the bishops’ leadership.5 Like the divine communion that they mediate and safeguard, none of these realities is a human invention or accomplishment. Each is a gift from Christ, given to us through the Holy Spirit.
The highest expression of Christian communion is reception of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. The Mass makes truly present the sacrifice of Christ by which he founded the Church and invited us into his own communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit, so it is no coincidence that we call this Sacrament “Holy Communion.” Reception of Holy Communion is not just a symbolic gesture. It signifies and deepens our belonging both to Christ and to one another as members of Christ’s Body.6 Understanding this beautiful truth can also help us understand the circumstances in which it would be inappropriate to receive Communion.
When Should a Catholic Not Receive Communion?
If we are not in a state of grace—if we have knowingly and deliberately turned away from the Lord through a serious sin that we have not yet brought to God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation—we should refrain from receiving Communion. Pope Francis has rightly insisted that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”7 Implicit in the Holy Father’s words is the recognition that we are weak and need to walk the path of conversion. The Church has always understood the Eucharist as the feast of those who have responded to Jesus’s calling of sinners to repentance.8 St. Paul solemnly warns that those who receive Communion without the right disposition are “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord,” and they eat and drink judgment on themselves.9
Why Can’t Non-Catholics Receive Communion?
Outside of very specific, extraordinary circumstances, non-Catholics — even Christians — cannot receive Holy Communion. This is not a judgment on the state of others’ souls, but a result of our recognition that the Church is, again, a communion. Jesus seeks personal intimacy with each of us, but he offers it to us precisely in true fellowship with his Body.10 Receiving Holy Communion is never a merely individual act. Rather, it is a public declaration of fellowship with Christ’s Body the Church — a fellowship, we have seen, expressed by our common faith, worship, and life. To receive Holy Communion without sharing in that fellowship would be, in effect, to tell a lie.
Why Might the Church Prevent a Catholic from Receiving Communion?
Bishops may sometimes decide to withhold Communion from Catholics who publicly and persistently speak or act in ways that violate the Church’s communion. Once again, this is not a judgment on these individuals’ hearts, though that is understandably how it is often perceived. The purpose is not to humiliate the individual in question, but to protect God’s flock. Offering Communion to such a person can cause serious scandal by signaling that Christ’s gracious gifts of the Church’s teaching, worship, and community are unimportant or dispensable. “Scandal” does not mean shocked disapproval; it means leading others into sin. Every soul for which Jesus died is precious to him. His warnings to those who cause scandal are severe11, so it is every bishop’s duty, when possible, to protect God’s people from scandal.*
Every good gift should be handled with care, and the Eucharist — the greatest of all gifts — is no exception. Let us all seek deeper fellowship with God and one another, giving thanks for the unimaginable gift of Holy Communion.
- John 1:3
- Catechism of the Catholic Church 766
- CCC 1239
- Romans 5:5; Colossians 3:14
- CCC 815
- John 6:55–57; 1 Corinthians 10:16–17
- Evangelii gaudium 47
- Luke 5:32
- 9 1 Corinthians 11:27–31
- 10 John 17:20–23; Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 12:12–27
- Mark 9:42
*Editor’s Note: This version of this article differs slightly from the version that appears in print.