Q: I am troubled by news that the bishops of the United States might ban politicians who are openly pro-abortion from receiving Holy Communion. Isn’t this politicizing the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist for one’s own ends? I thought that the Eucharist was meant to be “medicine for those who are sick.”
A: Your question is timely, since this has been in the news recently. But in other ways, this is an ancient question. Even more than that, it is an issue that is much larger than politics. Politics and politicians come and go, nations rise and nations fall. But a person’s soul is going to endure forever.
Consider this: long after the United States of America ceases to exist, every person who has ever lived will either rejoice in eternity with God or endure eternity separated from God. Because of this reality, the church has to be more preoccupied with individuals and their souls than individuals and their politics.
That being said, our decisions matter. The things we choose to say and do (and the things we choose to not say and not do) matter. In my private life, I can make decisions that violate the commandments of God (we call those decisions “sins”). And in my public life, I can make decisions that violate God’s commandments (those decisions are also called “sins”). Whether those private or public decisions occur in a political space is irrelevant to their sinfulness.
Yes, the church has an interest in justice and in the common good, which is why church leadership will often weigh in on issues of injustice and areas where the common good is being violated, but the church can never “impose” the Gospel on others. She can only “propose” the Gospel to the people in our culture. This is why the church does her best to teach on issues that affect our society, issues like the rights of workers, the unborn, those in prison, immigrants, racism, and any other dilemma we face as a people.
Still, if this is just about politics, then it is only relevant for those involved in politics — it only really matters for those who care about politics. Because of that, I want to take a step back and look at the real heart of what is going on here. This teaching is potentially more about what we believe about the Eucharist than it is about what we believe about politics or anything else.
Pope Francis is noted for having stated that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” This is incredibly encouraging. We can never forget that every time we approach the Blessed Sacrament, we are receiving a gift we do not deserve. This is one reason why we always state, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
None of us could merit to receive the Eucharist even if we lived 100 perfect lifetimes. And yet, Jesus keeps inviting us to receive him at Mass. This is the unfathomable love of God!
The question that this issue raises is: Do we believe that? Do we truly believe that we do not deserve the gift of the Eucharist, and that every time we approach our Lord in Holy Communion we are taking our lives in our hands? Are we so brazen as to think that we can do what St. Paul says is akin to murder and get away with it?
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul writes that whoever “eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” When I first encountered these words of St. Paul, the person teaching them to me noted that the term “will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord” was similar to saying that Christ’s “blood is on your hands.” St. Paul is highlighting the fact that, if someone has committed a mortal sin and receives Holy Communion without going to confession first, they are committing the serious grave sin of violating the Eucharist.
Now, this is true regardless of which mortal sin I am guilty of.
I have heard people say, “Why are the bishops focusing on pro-abortion politicians? They ought to also include those Catholics who use contraception or are divorced and remarried.” But that is the point, any mortal sin (including the two just mentioned) would need to be repented of and confessed before any person (politician or not) received Holy Communion. The Catechism states it like this: Anyone “who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion … without having first received sacramental absolution” (1457).
You might ask, “But what about the Eucharist being ‘medicine for the sick’?” Yes, the Eucharist is medicine for the sick, but it is not medicine for the dead. Mortal sin is called “mortal” because there is a real sense in which it kills the life of God in the soul. Simply praying at the beginning of Mass, “I confess to almighty God …” and “Lord, have mercy” is enough to forgive venial sins, but only confession forgives mortal sins. Receiving Holy Communion heals and strengthens those who are struggling, but it does not revive the dead.
The great enemy of the church, Voltaire, knew this well enough. Once a young man who wanted to be free of his Catholic upbringing went to Voltaire and asked him how he could no longer feel guilty about his rejection of the Faith. Voltaire recommended that he commit mortal sins and then receive the Eucharist. He advised that he do this repeatedly until he no longer felt any pang of remorse or guilt. The young man did this, and within months, his faith had been completely eradicated.
My friends, this isn’t about politics. This is about your soul and my soul. If we (not some politician somewhere in Washington) receive our Lord unworthily in Holy Communion, we are eating and drinking condemnation on ourselves. This is why St. Paul advises us, one “should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:27-28).