Withholding Communion – for Love of the Sinner

(I published this a while ago, but it seemed timely to reissue.)

Some advocate that Communion should be withheld from public sinners. Others argue against this. I favor the former. But let’s briefly state the positions.

Some contend that we should not withhold communion. First, we cannot judge anyone, because our Lord forbids it. Second, if we withhold it for pro-abort politicians, why not for all those who endorse military action? Or the death penalty? Or gun rights? Third, it is a political act, and the Church should only be involved in sacred acts and loving justice. Fourth, where will you draw the line? What about those who publicly acknowledge that they are having premarital sex? Or those who publicly acknowledge they are using their sexual faculties in unnatural ways, such as masturbation or unnatural acts with others? Should all these be deprived of that Blessed Gift unless or until they repent? And that brings up, Fifth, that the Eucharist alone is the source of life. Thus, if we have any hope of their conversion, we must give them the Eucharist.

Without responding point for point with regard to these considerations, I wish to present considerations for the other case. I hope that the overall argument surmounts the considerations above in terms of the general thesis of the objector. (The objector claims that it would in no case be good to withhold Communion. I hold the contradictory of this.)

First, Abortion is in every case evil. Military action is sometimes justified.

Second, Abortion takes millions of lives. Now, I grant that one can argue, quite reasonably, that the US military action of late has been unjust. That would involve another post. But the argument can indeed be made. And John Paul II made the argument. Ratzinger supported his claims. Good men are increasingly of opinion that the US foreign policy has numerous wicked elements. Now, these wars of late have taken hundreds of thousands, and perhaps a million or more lives. This is grossly evil. Not to mention the consequent poverty, familial breakdown, homelessness, political vacuum, refugee crisis, destitution, etc. etc. These evils cry out to heaven for vengeance. (As does that of abortion.) Both are horrible evils – abortion and the unjust wars. However, once again, in every case the aborted baby is innocent. It is not necessarily the case that the targeted victims of war are innocent. Some are. Some are not. Further, abortion has taken more millions. It is unequivocally the single greatest evil against life that is taking place today. (Other evils, such as blasphemy and sacrilege are another matter and of a different degree of malice.)

Third, it is not also so easy to judge a given military action or campaign.

Fourth, the death penalty is NOT per se evil. It can be justified. This is the teaching of Evangelium Vitae. See also the Catechism (CCC). The Waldensians were heretics who denied that capital punishment could be done without mortal sin. The Church rejected their thesis and gave them the following Profession of Faith: “With regard to the secular power, we affirm that it can exercise a judgment of blood without mortal sin provided that in carrying out the punishment it proceeds, not out of hatred, but judiciously, not in a precipitous manner, but with caution” (Denzinger-S, Ignatius Press, #795). The possibility that capital punishment can morally be done is the constant teaching of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium.

Now, John Paul II made two contributions to this teaching. First, he made very clear that the conditions for the just use of the death penalty are strict. In doing so, he reaffirmed that the Death Penalty is not per se evil. He added one key condition for its just use: it must be the only way to defend the common good of society. The interpretations of this “defense of the common good” are very wide ranging. I will leave that to the experts.

However, I would note that if it truly is a penalty, it must be inflicted on account of a previous wrongdoing. One cannot be “punished” who is not guilty. You can kill someone about to murder you. This is not to punish him but to defend yourself. Self-defense is not punishment.

Further, the guilty should be punished in accordance with their guilt. Thus, is it not the case that the death penalty is a state execution inflicted on account of some previous criminal action? If so, it does not seem that “self-defense” should be understood by analogy with an individual acting to defend himself from a present aggressor. If I stop a present aggressor with lethal force, I am not punishing him but defending myself. If society is punishing a criminal, this punishment is for some past wrongdoing. Well – this is a caveat. I know that solid theologians might reject what I have just said. But none can reject this: That the death penalty is not per se evil. We can argue about whether its concrete practice is just or not, racist or not, favoring the rich or not, prudentially called for or not: But we cannot argue this key principle.

John Paul II’s second contribution was a suggestion in the order of prudence. That is, he proposed a prudential judgment that today the circumstances are practically non-existent. This prudential judgment is not a doctrinal pronouncement.

Next: how many does the death penalty take these days? Hundreds per year? Thousands since its civil legalization?How does that compare to abortion?

And are those executed innocent? No; they are guilty of heinous crimes.

There is simply no comparison with abortion. Thus, to attempt to put these actions (abortion and death penalty) into one continuous cloth is to abort the pro-life movement at the very foundation, killing it, cutting off its legs, strangling it, leaving it to die along with the millions of always innocent infants. A sound went up, Rachel weeping.

Fifth, We must indeed judge “character” though we do not have competence to judge the interior soul. Character is a public manifestation of virtue or vice. If the same LORD said, “Throw your pearls not before swine,” he gave us license to judge character. Thus, the priest is in position to judge character and to determine whether or not someone is a notorious public sinner. Else, why does canon law stipulate anything?

Sixth, Another way of putting this is similar, though it may go a bit deeper. What does it mean, we cannot judge the interior? It does NOT NECESSARILY mean we have no competence in making reasonable conjecture about the general state of a soul. Of course, we are fallible judges in these matters who have only the exterior as evidence. And of course, there are those without the use of reason – teenage people with severe retardation, e.g. –who might, e.g.,  masturbate and we cannot judge them. Their actions are probably not free. But the normal teenage boy who has been instructed knows masturbation is evil. Thus, if he tells us this is what he is doing and that he is buying porn, we can make a reasonable conjecture about state of his soul. However, we can Not judge the ‘degree’ to which he is culpable. We cannot know whether or not he may have already repented. There may be some past history. Perhaps he built up a habit and continually attempts to be freed. Perhaps he was abused earlier in life. Etc. This is why our conjectural sense as to the state of the person’s soul is very tenuous. We can, and indeed we must judge character, the manifestation of virtue or vice through action, and yet we must leave judgment of the interior to God, all the while not being so foolish as to think that everybody is probably just fine, regardless of what they are doing. It is an insult to another to consider that his every act is not free. So, we might have some kind of conjectural concern that a friend shacking up with a lover is not only engaging in objectively grave sin – that we can judge with certainty – but indeed committing a mortal sin because he knows the truth and is doing this with free will. However, the degree of his guilt, whether he may have repented, etc., are totally beyond our competence. Conjectural inference that falls short of assigning to oneself authority and certainty is what the Priest is called to have in confession.

Now, Seventh, Withholding communion has to do with judgment of character, not conjectural guesses regarding the interior forum. Withholding communion is a public act, yes, regarding a public act. Those who manifest evil character unrepentantly can and should be judged in the public forum by the priest who, as do a good number of others, knows of this situation. We are talking public sinners. This act of withholding communion does not indicate a judgment of vision regarding the internal forum.

But WHY? Why withhold communion? For the following reason. It is terribly harmful for someone who is not in union with Christ to receive the sacrament of union. It is like kissing your wife if you have quarreled and not made up. It is like greeting a friend with the normal familiarity after you have betrayed him and before being reconciled. When we sin, we know in our gut something is wrong. Nor are we disposed to celebrate.

The Eucharist is a time of joy and delight, of consummation. It is not a time of mortal sorrow. One indeed is sorrowful for having committed venial sins, and for one’s past mortal sins. However, one comes forward with the joy that Christ has washed the head in baptism and the feet in confession. One thus comes to embrace the Lord.

However, whoever sins is in sorrow – necessarily. If he does not “feel” the sorrow, he is so much the more dead in heart. If he does feel sorrow he is much more likely to draw life from God in the future.

Why in sorrow? Because he is violating God’s law, and human reason. Human reason, which has a share in God’s law, rebukes him for his crime. His conscience eats away at his secrete thoughts and heart, rebuking him in his own home. He cannot flee from himself; he cannot flee from this lashing, this internal laceration, this domestic dispute. His own home is a house divided.

Further, if society has a stake in the matter – murder, greed, false “unions”, etc. – a just society (or whatever is just in society) casts shame on him by its very being. Conversely, the sinner whose sin notably concerns society scorns a just society. This is why Herodias the adulteress murdered John the Baptist. For John embodied the just society, explicitly and by name rebuking the adulteress and the adulterer Herod. This in fact was for their good. This was almighty God reaching out to them with his sufficient grace, that they might convert and so be saved. But alas – they plunged more deeply into sin and murdered him. Human respect. Hatred of justice. Pusillanimity. Sexual lust. Incest. Ruthless. Heartless. And so God gave them up to unnatural lusts.

The rebuke of conscience, too, is meant for one’s salvation. But if one fails to repent, he carries this rebuke with him, as an internal torture amidst the eternal fires. Damned sinners – their worm dies not. They are a constant rebuke to themselves. Wave upon wave of time beats upon them, ceaselessly, relentlessly. Tomorrow is only another horror. To awaken to horror, their only prospect. Their home – their own heart – always divided. Scorning and scorned – the same man. And yet, they awaken not. For they sleep not. The criminal on earth has a few hours peace each day – at night. But the criminal in life after death, who sleeps not nor slumbers, is tortured day and night without respite.

Finally, we come to the rebuke of Almighty God, who is infinitely Holy. God threatens the sinner with the fires of everlasting torment, with an eternal divorce from the human soul. For Wisdom departs an unholy spirit (Wis 1). This is a definitive end of the pilgrim’s being courted. “Never again shall I preach in your town. Depart from me, you Accursed Thief of your own soul’s life. You suicide!” Thus they descend into the raging fires of blood and hatred, with all their like, and with the unfathomable malice and power of the demons, whose slaves they have become. The divine rebuke during life is meant for the repentance of the sinner. But the sinner who repents not incurs nothing but divine wrath. The punishment in hell is only retributive, not medicinal. And their smoke goes up forever and ever.

As the English Medieval Christmas Carol pronounces, “Therefore, Repent.

If this is the prospect of those who fail to repent, what would we be doing by administering the Eucharist knowingly to public sinners? We would be making their lives on earth an objective torture. We would be muffling their cries, exiling them from the place of real weeping, whereby alone their true joy can dawn. We would be making their wedding feast a place of woe. This is to hate them, to despise them.

Instead, we must insist that they repent so that their Eucharist might be spousal, beautiful. Do we love the sinner if we speak not of his blight? He is heading over the cliff? Will we love only his respect? He is committing unnatural sexual sins. Will we only comment on the nice decor, how he is at dinner? Blind leading the blind! And both will perish.

Yes, both shall perish and more with them. And this brings up the final reason for withholding. It teaches the flock, who are hungry and weary and have needing a true and bold shepherding act of love, that sin kills the soul and incapacitates one for the wedding feast. And the common good of this flock is of greater weight than the honor of the individual who has already brought shame upon himself, in the light of a just society, by public sin.