In 2004, I was an Episcopalian seminarian. During one class, I and the other students debated the merits of the rubric in the Book of Common Prayer that says a priest can deny Holy Communion to someone who is living a “notoriously evil life.” None of us felt comfortable with this authority. If someone desires Communion, shouldn’t we honor that impulse? Isn’t that what Jesus would do? To refuse someone Communion did not seem loving.
Then our professor told us a story from his boyhood. A priest in a nearby town had withheld Communion from a Ku Klux Klan leader who had refused to repent for his public racism and violence. The priest nearly lost the congregation over it, but he believed it was the right thing to do. When the professor finished this story, our privileged objections seemed silly. Fifteen years later, I am no longer Episcopalian—I am a Catholic priest—but I have never forgotten that lesson.
Since former Vice President Joe Biden was denied Communion at a Catholic church in South Carolina last week, I have heard the same objections that my fellow seminarians and I once raised: Denying Communion is cruel, it is not what Jesus would do, it is not loving. I make no claim for whether or not the denial was appropriate in this instance. The Church leaves it up to individual bishops to set policy for their clergy. But to say that it is always unloving to deny Communion is simply false. In some cases, it is the most loving thing to do.
It is not surprising that much of the criticism of what happened in South Carolina has come from Catholics. A recent Pew Survey showed that two-thirds of American Catholics do not believe that the bread and wine offered in the Mass become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, this is what the Catholic Church has always taught, in accord with the Lord’s own words in the New Testament: “This is my Body” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
The oldest written version of those words comes from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul immediately follows them with an admonition: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” Paul even suggests to the Corinthians that this “is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
The idea that receiving Communion unworthily could kill you is shocking or laughable to many today, but the Bible contains numerous examples of people being harmed or killed by coming into the presence of the Lord improperly. “You cannot see my face,” the Lord said to Moses, “For man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). God is holy and he created us to reflect that holiness, but sin and corruption have severely wounded us. The same holiness of God that beams through us when we are in a state of grace will destroy us when we are not.
The Holy Eucharist is a profound act of divine love. In the Mass, the full reality of God which became incarnate in Jesus Christ is made to fit on our tongues. That God does this for us is remarkably generous, but we must never mistake God’s humility for a watering down of his holiness. He is still God, and we are still sinners. We need to prepare ourselves to come into his presence.
It is not loving to give Communion to a person in a state of grave sin, for it may harm him more than it helps him. Like a patient who needs surgery but must first be made strong enough that the surgery does not kill him, the person in mortal sin must go to Confession before approaching the altar.
Likewise, it is not loving to the community of the faithful to allow them to witness a person who is publicly unrepentant of grave sin being given the Sacrament. It sends the message that such behavior is tolerable and reaps no moral or spiritual consequences. But this is not so. Our desire to appease the sin of one man could send thousands of souls to hell at his heels.
Denying Communion is not an easy thing to do. It probably will not win you many friends. But in the circumstances where it becomes necessary, it is the loving thing to do. As a priest, I hope that if a moment ever comes when I feel compelled to deny Communion, my desire to be loving will be greater than my desire to be popular.
Fr. Jonathan Mitchican is a Catholic priest in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. He is Chaplain of St. John XXIII College Preparatory in Katy, Texas.