Communion, Confession and Causing Scandal

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.

Many priests and bishops advise the faithful to go to confession at least once a month, and it is especially encouraged to go to confession during the season of Lent. We should refrain from receiving Holy Communion when not in a state of grace. (Photo by Josh Applegate/Unsplash)

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. 

  1. John 1:3
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church 766
  3. CCC 1239
  4. Romans 5:5; Colossians 3:14
  5. CCC 815
  6. John 6:55–57; 1 Corinthians 10:16–17
  7. Evangelii gaudium 47
  8. Luke 5:32
  9. 9 1 Corinthians 11:27–31
  10. 10 John 17:20–23; Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 12:12–27
  11. Mark 9:42

*Editor’s Note: This version of this article differs slightly from the version that appears in print.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”