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: From rare books to online resources, archdiocesan library has long history of service to students

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National Library Week, observed this year from April 4 to April 10, is the perfect occasion to highlight the essential role of libraries and library staff in strengthening our communities – and our very own Cardinal Stafford Library at the Archdiocese of Denver is no exception.  

Since 1932, the library has served as a religious, intellectual, and cultural resource for seminarians and students at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.

As the library of the seminary, we are always responsible for the four dimensions of the priestly formation of our seminarians. The library is charged with being responsible to all the divisions of the Seminary: the Lay Division (Catholic Biblical School and Catholic Catechetical School), the Permanent Deacon Formation Division, and the Priestly Formation Division, said Stephen Sweeney, Library Director. 

In addition to being one of the main resources to the seminary, the Cardinal Stafford Library serves the needs of other educational programs in the Archdiocese of Denver, including the St. Francis School for Deacons, the Biblical School, the Catechetical School and the Augustine Institute. While the library is currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was previously open to anyone, giving people access to more than 150,000 books, audios, and videos. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library was named after Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican and former Archbishop of Denver from 1986 to 1996. He was a dedicated advocate of the library and of Catholic education.

In 1932, the library was established by two seminarians, Maurice Helmann and Barry Wogan. While they were not the first seminarians to conceive the idea of establishing a library, they are considered the founders for undertaking its organization.  

Since its founding, the library has grown and compiled a fine collection of resources on Catholic theology, Church history, biblical studies, liturgy, canon law, religious art, philosophy, and literature. Special collections include over 500 rare books dating back to the early 16th century and many periodicals dating back to the 1800s. The oldest publication in the library is a book on excommunication published in 1510. The Cardinal Stafford Library is also home to various relics and holds bills personally written by some of those saints.  

Over the past few years, the library has undergone a process of beautification through various renovations that include improvements in lighting, flooring, and even furniture restoration. During these difficult times, libraries are doing their best to adapt to our changing world by expanding their digital resources to reach those who don’t have access to them from home. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library provides a community space; we subscribe to about 200 print journals and have access to literally thousands more through online resources available on campus computers, Sweeney added. “I have been the Library Director for almost 11 years. I absolutely love my work, especially participating in the intellectual formation of the faithful from all of the dioceses we serve”.  

For more information on the Cardinal Stafford Library, visit: 

Featured photo by Andrew Wright