My wristwatch does not have a sweep-second hand, so I am not sure how many seconds elapsed between the announcement that a pastor in South Carolina had withheld Holy Communion from Joseph Biden and the chorus of condemnations that routinely follows such exercises of pastoral sense and good order. But it could not have been more than ten.
Even occasional displays of respect for the Eucharist, not to mention for canon law, provoke speedy denunciations. Not because the reasons behind the denunciations are obvious, let alone correct, but because these denunciations are pre-packaged, well-rehearsed, and oblivious to correction.
The well-worn complaints leveled against the pastor in South Carolina include: He has turned the Communion rail (one has to imagine those things these days) into a barrier; he has politicized, nay weaponized, the Eucharist; he presumed to judge the soul of another human being; and so on. Most of the “arguments” raised against withholding Holy Communion are actually slogans (which, like most slogans, are designed to arrest thought, not to facilitate it), and every single one has been answered many times over the centuries of the Church and many times over the last ten years alone. But I am not beyond trying again.
What we could call “the Communion event” actually consists of two different agents performing two different acts informed by two different canons. Canon 916 directs the examination of conscience that a would-be recipient should conduct before approaching the sacrament, while Canon 915 informs the assessment of certain factors that a minister must make concerning administration of Holy Communion to someone seeking it. The chronic failure to recognize that the Communion event involves two parties (one seeking the sacrament, one administering it), making two evaluations (worthiness to approach and eligibility to receive), controlled by two different laws (Canons 916 and 915), underlies nearly all of the controversies that regularly erupt over administering Holy Communion.
One cannot determine the percentage of would-be recipients of Holy Communion who have actually performed an adequate examination of conscience and found themselves free of conscious grave sin (one hopes most have, one fears many have not). Sound pastoral practice nevertheless allows ministers to presume the eligibility of would-be recipients and to administer the sacrament accordingly. This is what one sees every Sunday at every Mass in America.
But according to Canon 915, the pastoral presumption of a would-be communicant's eligibility for the sacrament must yield to a minister's recognition of certain objective and publicly observable conditions in a would-be recipient that render him ineligible for reception. Conditions include “imposed excommunication or interdict” (rare to the point of vanishing) or, as in the South Carolina case, one's “obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin.”
Unless one views ministers as little more than human vending machines, dispensing sacraments to anyone who approaches them, one must concede that the Church directs ministers to administer or not administer sacraments according to the Church's law and tradition. That law and tradition often takes some effort to set out, but it is there. Of course, in a day that openly disdains canon law and is largely ignorant of sacramental tradition, one must expect pastoral decisions that run contrary to popular preferences to provoke chastisement and downright outrage.
Especially bizarre, however, are complaints that by withholding Holy Communion from Joe Biden, the Church has inserted herself into politics. How, pray, does a Catholic minister, making a decision on a Catholic sacrament, in regard to a Catholic layman, insert himself into secular politics? To ask the question is, I suggest, to demonstrate its absurdity.
The next time a pastor withholds Holy Communion from a prominent pro-abortion Catholic politician—and there will be a next time, if not many next times—the same tired slogans-qua-objections will be unleashed on him and replied to yet again. But make no mistake: Damage is being done. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life and strong medicine for the weak, but is spiritually dangerous if taken unworthily. Erosion of respect for the difficult tasks of priests and for the soundness of the Church's discipline in regard to her sacraments takes a little more hold each time a faithful priest is attacked for doing the right thing.
And who knows? Maybe that's the point.
Edward Peters teaches canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.