Why the Church Restricts Access to Communion

According to a Professor of Sacramental Theology and Ecumenism

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ROME, JULY 15, 2004 (Zenit.org).- That the Church normally restricts access to holy Communion to Catholics, who must fulfill certain conditions, has become a debated issue in some sectors.

Some Catholics do not even know why the Church maintains this custom, which dates back to the early Christian communities.

To answer the question, ZENIT interviewed Father Philip Goyret, professor of sacramental theology, ecclesiology and ecumenism at the University of the Holy Cross. Father Goyret is also the pontifical university’s director of studies.

Q: What is the theological and ecclesiological significance of someone receiving Communion?

Father Goyret: Following biblical texts, especially St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Catholics believe in the profound existing nexus between the body of Christ, the Eucharistic body, and the ecclesial body.

The language of the New Testament manifests this reality using the same word «body» to speak either of the historical and later glorious body of the Lord, or the Eucharistic body, or the ecclesial body.

It goes beyond a mere play on words, as, by nourishing ourselves with the Eucharistic body of the Lord, which contains substantially the now glorious body of Our Lord in heaven, we are consolidated as members of his ecclesial body.

When receiving Eucharistic Communion, we receive the body and blood of the Lord, which increases in our hearts our profound union with him. And to be united to him also implies to be united with those who are united to him. Thus we attain ecclesial communion.

This is what theology expresses with the phrase «the Eucharist builds the Church.» By Eucharistic Communion we enter into communion with the Lord and we are consolidated in ecclesial communion.

Looking at the «negative» side of things, it is interesting to recall the original meaning of «excommunication.» Before its juridical consequences were developed, to be excommunicated meant — and still means — to be removed from Eucharistic Communion. Whoever is excluded from ecclesial communion cannot take part in Eucharistic Communion.

However, the Eucharist is not «automatic.» The effect mentioned above will not follow if Communion is received by a Martian who has never heard about the Gospel. One must go to Communion receiving the Eucharist for what it is, namely, the body and blood of Christ, with intense faith in his real presence in the species.

To believe this takes great commitment, as it means to believe in the complete truth revealed in Christ; as it is the complete Christ who is present in the Eucharist. And the complete truth includes all that the Church proposes as revealed, including about herself.

It means, moreover, to believe as we Christians do: not only accepting specific knowledge intellectually, but also conforming our life to this knowledge. This is why we speak of «intense» faith.

Hence, «to be in order» with the Catholic Church as a condition to receive the Eucharist in a Catholic celebration is not simply a question «of regulations» — as a tennis club that does not allow the use of its courts to those who have not paid their dues — but an internal exigency of the sacrament, as understood by the Catholic faith.

Therefore, between Eucharistic Communion and ecclesial communion there is a relation which we could call «circular.» The Eucharist consolidates us in ecclesial communion, while at the same time exacting it as a first condition. Eucharistic Communion causes ecclesial communion while at the same time signifying it.

Q: Denying Communion, whether to Catholics or in some cases even to Protestants, is criticized as being a divisive measure. What is your opinion?

Father Goyret: To understand this, suffice it to develop the foregoing last lines.

Ecclesial communion as an antecedent condition to access Eucharistic Communion consists, substantially, in the integrity of faith and absence of grave sin. From the Catholic point of view, the first includes, logically, to be a Catholic.

It also implies the absence of situations of habitual sin — family irregularities, ideological positions that are incompatible with the Catholic faith, professional conduct opposed to Catholic morality, etc. — in addition to occasional sins.

The moral and pastoral norm followed by priests when distributing Communion is to deny it publicly to those who are publicly known as persons who cannot receive it. To proceed otherwise would mean to cast aside the theological and ecclesiological meaning of which we spoke earlier.

For Catholics, the eventual distribution of Communion to a non-Catholic, within a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, implies a contradiction, as it would imply an ecclesial communion that does not exist in its fullness. Something similar occurs in the case of the eventual Communion of a public sinner.

Obviously, these ideas presuppose a strong affirmation in faith in the Eucharist — not as a mere external manifestation of a generic feeling of Christian fraternity, but as the sacrament that truly contains the whole Christ, with his body, blood, soul and divinity.

It is important to see that the necessity of full unity of the faith among the participants in the Eucharist is something exacted by the specific content of this sacrament, namely the substantial reality of the body of Christ — because in it is necessarily implied faith in everything that Christ has revealed and that the Church teaches.

Therefore, Eucharistic Communion and communion in truth cannot be separated. In this line, the Catholic Church denies Eucharistic Communion to those who do not participate fully of its ecclesial communion, as they cannot participate in the sign of full unity who do not possess it wholly.

In short, according to the Catholic point of view, access to Eucharistic Communion without full ecclesial communion is, first of all, an absurd action, as it does not realize the significant aspect characteristic of the sacramental dynamics; and by not signifying this, it does not cause it either.

It must be added that the desire and spiritual need to receive Communion is something profoundly personal, but never a «private» event, precisely because we are before an ecclesial good — ecclesial par excellence — of which we are not the owners.

Not to respect this discipline is not only a contradiction in the one who goes to Communion, but also in the whole ecclesial community.

Q: What are the key considerations that bishops are grappling with regarding the debates? What is the bishops’ primary concern over the Communion debate?

Father Goyret: I cannot say exactly; each episcopal conference has its battles.

I would dare to say, however, that the key concern is to make it understood that the denial of Eucharistic Communion — either of Catholics in «public» situations that impede it, or of non-Catholics — is not due to an indolent attitude or to lack of understanding, but is simply consistent with our faith in the Eucharist.

If we go deeper, it is deficient formation in the faith that does not make it easy to understand this matter, aggravated by the loss of the sense of sin and of its consequences.

Just as it is very difficult to explain Pythagoras’ theorem to those who do not know the multiplication tables, the same can be said of our subject in regard to those who are far from God.

We can conclude these considerations with an example, more didactic than theological, which in its simplicity indicates a useful moral.

I am referring to the feeling of corporal pain and to our reaction to it. When we experience it, it is telling us that something is not functioning properly in our body, that something is not in harmony. It is the alarm bell that leads us to medical care and eventually to treatment.

The simple elimination of pain does not produce healing per se. It can
entail only a certain relief, but it could also make us forget the need for serious medical treatment. Pain, in short, has the positive function of alerting us to a disharmony that must be cured.

The application of the moral to our case is obvious. The impossibility of celebrating the Eucharist together among different confessions is, certainly, a painful situation. But the intense ardor of wanting to do something together does not always mean that that is what is most appropriate. The elimination of pain in the face of division, without the elimination of its causes, only makes things worse.

It is necessary not to lose sight of the fact that the discipline of the Church that prohibits intercommunion is not the cause of division, but its consequence.

The causes are discovered and removed through the dialogue of truth: a process that is certainly longer and more exhausting, but which carried out with patience and perseverance promises more certain results.

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