Who should be denied Communion under Canon 915?

UPDATED — Any baptized Catholic who has committed the sin of apostasy, or formal heresy, or formal schism is thereby automatically excommunicated, and many not receive holy Communion, nor any of the other Sacraments (except Confession, if the sinner is repentant).

Canon 1364, n. 1: “an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”

Can. 915 “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

There are a very large number of Catholics in the world today who are in a state of automatic excommunication due to formal heresy. They have knowingly and deliberately chosen to reject one or more definitive infallible teachings of the Magisterium, such as the teachings on contraception, on abortion, on same-sex marriage, on various sexual sins, and on the male-only priesthood. All such persons are prohibited from reception of holy Communion by the first portion of Canon 915 (and by the eternal moral law) due to the sin of formal heresy. This is true regardless of whether the heresy is manifest (public) or not, due to the penalty of automatic excommunication.

Persons who are not automatically excommunicated, might be excommunicated by a brought judgment (‘ferendae sententiae’), usually by a Bishop. An interdict is a lesser penalty, prohibiting reception of Communion, but short of outright excommunication.

But the last part of Canon 915 considers who might be denied Communion in addition to those who were excommunicated or under an interdict.

The recent controversy about a lesbian, Barbara Johnson, who presented herself for Communion at the funeral of her mother, has been discussed a great deal online. My previous comments are here:
The lesbian communion incident: Canon law versus the Eternal Moral Law
The lesbian at a Catholic funeral incident
“The woman in question brought her lesbian partner into the vesting sacristy just before the funeral Mass and made sure to introduce her partner to Fr. Marcel, introducing her as her ‘lover’. He told her then that she should not present herself for Communion.” [Source]

Canon law is clear on this topic: those persons who are in fact, objectively, “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” may not be admitted to Communion. The wording is very plain. The grave sin must be manifest. However, the text does not say that the obstinate persistence in that manifest grave sin needs to be manifest. The obstinate persistence simply needs to be a fact known to the person distributing Communion.

The proper interpretation of Canon 915 is reflected in the parallel Canon (712) in the Eastern Code, which uses the phrase: “publicly unworthy”:

Can. 712 Arcendi sunt a susceptione Divinae Eucharistiae publice indigni.
my translation: The publicly unworthy are to be kept from reception of the Divine Eucharist.

How can we explain the difference in wording of the two Codes? These are simply two different expressions of the same requirement of the eternal moral law:

“The prohibition found in the cited canon [Can. 915], by its nature, is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church. The scriptural text on which the ecclesial tradition has always relied is that of St. Paul: ‘This means that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup. He who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks a judgment on himself.’ ” (PCLT)

In other words, this Canon is an expression of Divine law (the eternal moral law) and so this prohibition would still exist, even if Canon law did not exist. Neither does Canon law have any ability to contradict or change the eternal moral law on this or any other point. It is a teaching of Sacred Scripture that those who are unworthy are not to receive Communion. And this is why Canon 916 [Eastern Code 711] tells persons not to receive if they are conscious of grave sin, and why 915 [712] forbids giving Communion to persons who are publicly unworthy.

To the inevitable argument that the Eastern Code does not apply in the West, I reply that both Codes on this particular point are expressing Divine law, and so both Codes give us insight into that Divine law. No legislative change can change the eternal moral law on this point about worthy reception of Communion.

However, Canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters has interpreted the term ‘manifest’ so as to require “a substantial majority of the community in question” to be aware of the grave sin; in other words, the sin must be “widely known in the community” [here and here]. The Canon itself says no such thing. There is nothing in Canon law or the eternal moral law that requires a ‘majority rules’ approach to this or any similar question. As long as the grave sin is public knowledge, not private or secret, then the manifest condition is met.

The proof on this point is found in the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts’ declaration on Canon 915, which states: “In effect, the reception of the Body of Christ when one is publicly unworthy constitutes an objective harm to the ecclesial communion: it is a behavior that affects the rights of the Church and of all the faithful to live in accord with the exigencies of that communion.” (PCLT) So the phrase “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” is sufficiently represented by the phrase “publicly unworthy.”

The claim that ‘manifest’ or ‘public’ must include the knowledge of the sin by a “substantial majority” is not found in the Code of law of East or West, nor is it found in the Scripture text that is the basis for those laws. And the example given by the PCLT, that of the divorced and remarried, clearly refutes the idea that manifest or public sin requires the knowledge of a “substantial majority”.

“In the concrete case of the admission to Holy Communion of faithful who are divorced and remarried, the scandal, understood as an action that prompts others towards wrongdoing, affects at the same time both the sacrament of the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage.”

In most cases when a person is divorced and remarried, the vast majority of members of a parish and of the faithful present at a particular Mass, would not know the individual and his or her situation. And yet the PCLT states that the divorced and remarried are to be denied Communion. This proves that the terms manifest and public are not to be interpreted as requiring “a substantial majority of the community in question” to be aware of the grave sin (as Dr. Peters continues to claim).

The grave sin of being divorced and remarried (without an annulment) is essentially the sin of living with an illicit lover; it is the sin of fornication because the ‘remarriage’ is not valid. This type of grave sin is manifest, in other words, it is public, because they are living together openly; it is not a secret love affair (which of course would still be gravely immoral, but not manifest). There is no requirement that a majority of persons in the community know about the marriage. Even an invalid marriage is a public contract; it is a public type of act because the two persons are living in the same domicile openly.

So the same would apply to homosexual couples, whether or not they have a ‘civil union’ or a ‘same-sex marriage’. Their choice to live together openly makes their grave sin manifest or public, in the same way that divorce and remarriage makes the sin manifest or public. In fact, these two types of sins have much in common; both are the choice to live with an illicit lover, without a valid marriage, and both are public types of sins.

Dr. Peters proposes [here and here] that Communion must be given unless a majority know why it is denied, so that they will not be scandalized by wondering why it was denied. But the PCLT says that the scandal concerns the Sacrament of the Eucharist, by publicly unworthy reception and the scandal concerning whatever grave sin is involved. Scripture is concerned with the harm to the person receiving unworthily (he “eats and drinks a judgment on himself”), and so is Canon law. It is an objective mortal sin for anyone to receive Communion unworthily, due to unrepentant grave sin. So the Church of course prohibits this unworthy reception. But in Peters’ view, the sin of unworthy reception must be permitted, despite all of the scandal, simply because some persons would not know why Communion was denied.

I see persons at Mass every Sunday who do not receive Communion. I do not know why they refrain from receiving, but I don’t assume anything. I simply do not know. The mere lack of knowledge is not scandal. What is a scandal is when persons at Mass know that a person is publicly unworthy, and yet they see that person receiving Communion none the less. This bad example makes it seem as if the public grave sin is not so grave, or not a sin. And it seems as if receiving Communion is not so important as to require worthiness of the recipient.

As an example of the proper application of Canon 915, Dr. Peters offers the example of U.S. representative Nancy Pelosi, whose views on abortion are publicly known to be contrary to Catholic teaching. He assumes that everyone at Mass would understand why she would be denied Communion. His point is that this knowledge avoids the scandal to the faithful that would occur if someone was denied Communion and most persons did not know why. But Canon law and Scripture make no such requirement.

What if another Catholic legislator, one much less known than Pelosi, has the same public position on abortion? I think that most persons at Mass do not know who their representative is, and would not recognize him or her at Mass. So Peters is proposing a double standard, whereby the Mass media would essentially control whether a public type of sin, such as voting for abortion, would be well-known by enough persons (a substantial majority) to deny the person Communion. Even if two legislators both vote for the same abortion bill, if one is more well-known by the public through the Mass media, and the other is not, then according to Peters’ standard, one may be given Communion and the other should be denied Communion.

This type of double standard is avoided by the simple understanding that a sin can be manifest or public without consideration as to the percentage of persons in the community who are aware of that sin. Otherwise, how is the humble priest, deacon, or emhC to judge whether the proper threshold of “a substantial majority” is met? It seems as if Pelosi’s public would be well-known enough for a substantial majority, but perhaps not. Must we conduct a poll? Not at all. As long as the sin is manifest to the public, such as voting for abortion or living with an illicit lover, and as long as the minister dispensing Communion also knows of the grave sin, then the manifest condition is met.

When Barbara Johnson attended her mother’s funeral, her sin of living with her lesbian lover was certainly known to the family members present at that Mass. It was public knowledge because these two women were openly living together, just as a divorced and remarried couple are openly living together. Then she went so far as to enter the sacristy before Mass and introduce her partner to the priest as her “lover”, thereby making the sin manifest to the priest. She deliberately made her grave sin manifest to the priest, and it was manifest to family members at the Mass, and it is the type of sin that is publicly known, just as in the case of the divorced and remarried. Therefore, her grave sin was manifest.

Since Canon 915 is primarily an expression of the eternal moral law, it is not to be interpreted in any way that would contradict the moral law. In particular, it cannot be interpreted so that a priest must cause grave scandal by giving Communion to the publicly unworthy. The eternal moral law never requires anyone to sin. And Canon law, nor any interpretation of Canon law, can contradict the eternal moral law.

Edited to Add:

The phrase “and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” is clear and must be understood in a manner that does not distort its sense so as to render the norm inapplicable. The three required conditions are:

a) grave sin, understood objectively, being that the minister of Communion would not be able to judge from subjective imputability;

b) obstinate persistence, which means the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church.

c) the manifest character of the situation of grave habitual sin. (PCLT)

The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts’ declaration on Canon 915 plainly states that the condition that the sin be manifest is simply “the manifest character of the situation of grave habitual sin” — not that a majority of persons in the community knows about the sin, not that the sin be widely known in the community, not that the reason for denial of communion would be understood by other persons, as Dr. Peters claims.

Note also that the PCLT lists only THREE conditions, whereas Dr. Peters inflates the meaning of the text into FIVE conditions. The Code of law for the East says only “publicly unworthy”, so the manifest condition is there expressed as the public character of the situation of grave habitual sin, not by how widely known the sin might be. As long as the grave sin is public, then the manifest condition is met.

Obstinate Persistence

The PCLT describes this condition (one condition, not two as Peters claims) as follows:

b) obstinate persistence, which means the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church.

The sin in question is an objective mortal sin; there is no judgment necessary as to whether it is actual mortal sin. This is a judgment of the exterior forum only. So there is also no judgment needed as to whether the person has an attitude of defiance, or whether there was a prior warning. All that is necessary for this condition is “the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end”. Living with an illicit lover is a persistent or habitual type of sin. The two persons have decided to “live in sin” on a continuing basis. The objectively immoral situation endures in time, and could be brought to an end by the will of the member of the faithful in question, but is not.

This condition was certainly met by the lesbian who approached for Communion after informing the priest of her objective situation of living with an illicit lover. In fact, according to the PCLT’s interpretation of Canon 915, all three conditions were obviously met. Therefore, Fr. Marcel licitly and morally denied Communion to Barbara Johnson. And the interpretation of Canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters is not in agreement with the official declaration of the meaning of Canon 915 by the PCLT.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic moral theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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