Holy Communion, Conscience, and the Christian Life

Who should be barred from Holy Communion? That’s a much-debated question lately, especially regarding so-called “second unions” and “homosexual marriages.” The emphasis has been on Canon Law and the subjective guilt of individuals. These are important considerations, of course. But it’s also necessary to examine the underlying ecclesial meaning of Holy Communion, conscience, and Christian life – if we want to understand the intrinsic reason why certain persons ought to refrain voluntarily from receiving Holy Communion, as well as the true pastoral nature of the Church’s canonical and moral prohibitions.

Many preachers and theologians have noted that the Creed’s affirmation of the “communion of saints” (communio sanctorum) can refer to both the communion of the “holy ones” and of the “holy things.” In other words, our communion with the Trinity and redeemed humanity in Jesus is also our communion in the life of the Church through sharing the sacraments, the Apostolic teachings, and daily Christian life. (Act 2:42)

Receiving the Body of Christ in Holy Communion, therefore, is the personal and ecclesial act of someone who lives as a member of the body of Christ rather than merely as a private individual. This reception does not establish communion, but fosters the communion the person has already entered through Baptism and perseverance in the life of Christ.

Hence one who receives Holy Communion must be baptized, be truly penitent for all sin, and accept the faith and moral practice of the Church. Otherwise, regardless of intention, something is amiss – because the external, objective act of receiving Holy Communion does not correspond to the internal, subjective reality of the person’s relation to Christ and his Church.

In the Catholic understanding, conscience, too, is both a personal and ecclesial reality rather than a merely individualistic one. The origin of the word (con-scientia) means “to know within” oneself and to “to know with” others. For Christians, this is a sharing of the mind of Christ within the Church through obedience, which directs us to do or to avoid a specific action; and to make judgments according to God’s standards rather than man’s.

All this, so that we might become holy as he is holy. Everyone’s conscience is fallible and sin can further damage its judgments, to the point that repeated or unrepented sin can blind the conscience to the truth. (1 Tim 4:2)

The Last Communion of St. Jerome by Botticelli, 1495 [Metropolitan Museum, New York]
The Last Communion of St. Jerome by Botticelli, 1495 [Metropolitan Museum, New York]

Thus, innocent error or a history of sin may lead Christians to embrace behaviors that are not worthy of the human person, without recognizing the evil of their actions. Inasmuch as their actions are in fact harmful and contrary to the mind of Christ (because objectively wrong), they deviate from the Gospel life and bear an objectively false witness within the Church and before the world.

For those with an innocently mistaken conscience, the reception of Holy Communion remains a means of grace, although there is a discrepancy that needs to be remedied to free them as children of God from the damage and constraint of disordered behaviors. For those guilty of unrepented sin, even if unrecognized due to a seared conscience, reception would be false, sacrilegious, and dangerous. (1 Cor. 11:27-32)

A rightly formed conscience is founded on the objective reality of the person of Christ and his teachings, not the subjective opinions, feelings, or criteria of an individual. Christians who substitute, knowingly or not, other criteria as the basis for moral judgments are not living according to the Gospel and are therefore bringing harm to themselves, others, and the Church.

Such people need to encounter the Gospel truth and to receive it obediently as proclaimed by the Church so as to conform their lives more deeply to Christ. Although imperfect and sinful, through this grace of conversion, they will be able worthily to approach Holy Communion as members of his body.

To the contrary, receiving Holy Communion while knowingly rejecting the faith and life of the Church, even with an otherwise innocent but incorrect subjective conscience, would mean pretending to profess a way of life such persons actually reject. If they wish to believe and live differently than the Church, they should simply not receive. Even less “receive” on their own terms. Holy Communion is not a private entitlement; it is nourishment and medicine for those who acknowledge their sins and errors while intending to live the life of Christ within the Church.

The case of so-called “second unions” deserves particular attention. Whether a prior marriage is evaluated through an annulment or another approved method, a decision of nullity requires a “moral certitude” founded on the criteria of the Church (such as lack of freedom, knowledge, or intent when the vows were exchanged) rather than the “instinct” or “opinion” of a spouse or priest. The passage of time or the presence of children in a second relationship cannot serve as criteria since these do not remove the capacity or obligation to be faithful to the first spouse. Living as “brother and sister” may be a solution.

Recent appeals to “extenuating circumstances” that allegedly would open a path to Holy Communion in these cases by reducing subjective guilt to venial sin are similarly useless because reception requires the intention to avoid all sins, venial or mortal. This means whether mortally or venially sinful, the parties would have to intend never to have sexual relations again.

“Homosexual marriages,” like “second unions,” entail extra-marital sexual activity. Thus, entering either type of sexual relationship or asserting their morality contradicts the Gospel and places one objectively outside the faith and practice of the Church. Refraining from reception of Holy Communion is then merely an act of integrity since these relationships deny in belief and practice what reception affirms.

Pastoral clarity on the ecclesial nature of Holy Communion, conscience, and Christian life would assist in resolving these cases and reveal the Church’s canonical and moral assessments as merciful, liberating remedies rather than – as some regard them – harsh, pharisaical judgments.

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek, STD has been a priest of the Diocese of Austin since 1985 and is currently pastor of Assumption parish in the city of West. His studies were in Dogmatics with a focus on Ecclesiology, Apostolic Ministry, Newman, and Ecumenism. His new book is As I Have Loved You: Rediscovering Our Salvation in Christ (Emmaus Road Publishing). Click here to watch Scott Hahn interview Fr. Vaverek about about the book.