The ‘Who can receive Holy Communion?’ ultimate explainer™

A Pillar Ultimate Explainer

Since the January inauguration of Joe Biden, the second Catholic U.S. president, bishops have traded essays and comments on whether politicians supporting expanded legal protection and funding for abortion should be permitted to receive the Eucharist. The U.S. bishops’ conference is likely to vote in June on the drafting of a document on “Eucharistic coherence.”

Debate about who can — and should — receive the Eucharist is likely to continue for quite a while. And perhaps you have some questions.

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To break it down for you, The Pillar brings you the source and summit of all explainers: The ‘Who can receive Holy Communion?’ Ultimate Explainer™

What is the Eucharist?

The term Eucharist, which is derived from a Greek word that means “gratitude” or “thanksgiving,” refers both to the Eucharistic sacrifice — the Mass — and the sacramentally transformed “bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ's Body and Blood.”

“It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains.

The Catechism adds that the Mass and the Eucharistic presence of Christ are intimately connected: Catholics ordinarily receive Holy Communion during the Mass because the Mass is both “the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord's body and blood.” 

“But the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion. To receive communion is to receive Christ himself who has offered himself for us,” the Catechism adds.

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Who can ordinarily receive Holy Communion?

In the Latin Catholic Church, people may ordinarily receive Holy Communion if they are Catholic, are “properly disposed,” and if they have “sufficient knowledge and careful preparation,” in order to “understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity, and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion.”

Parents and pastors have the “duty,” according to canon law, “to take care that children who have reached the use of reason are prepared properly and, after they have made sacramental confession, are refreshed with this divine food as soon as possible.”

First communion usually takes place for kids around seven years old, although some dioceses have, in recent years, moved that back a year or two.

Catholics with intellectual disabilities may be admitted to Holy Communion if they are able to “distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture, or reverential silence rather than verbally.” 

“Cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the Catholic to receive the sacrament. The existence of a disability is not considered in and of itself as disqualifying a person from receiving Holy Communion,” the U.S. bishops’ conference teaches.

In the Eastern Catholic Church, Catholics receive the Eucharist at the time they are baptized, which is urged to take place “as soon as possible” after the birth of an infant.

After they have first received the Eucharist, Latin Catholics are obliged to receive it at least once per year, usually during the Easter season. Unless, say, a global pandemic makes it impossible to go to Mass during the Easter season, and then the obligation can be fulfilled at another time.

Eastern Catholics are obliged to receive the Eucharist when they are in danger of death, and according to the customs and laws of individual Eastern Catholic Churches, “especially at Easter time, during which Christ handed down the eucharistic mystery.”

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Who can sometimes receive Holy Communion?

In the Latin Catholic Church, children who have not yet “reached the age of reason” can receive the Eucharist if they are in danger of death, as long as they can distinguish the Eucharist from other food, and receive it reverently.

The Church’s law permits Orthodox Christians to receive the Eucharist from Catholic ministers “if they seek such on their own and are properly disposed.”

And what about Protestants?

Protestants may receive the Eucharist from Catholic ministers if they are in danger of death, or if a diocesan bishop or bishops’ conference decides there is “some other grave necessity.”

To receive the Eucharist under those circumstances, Protestants must “seek such on their own accord” and “manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments” and be “properly disposed.” In other words, in addition to being in a most grave and unusual situation, the law of the Church says that Protestants who want to receive need to believe what the Church teaches about the Eucharist — that it is the real sacramental presence of Jesus Christ, with the appearance of bread and wine.

This permission was first promulgated in 1967. Before that, the Church’s law did not permit Catholic ministers to administer the Eucharist to non-Catholic Christians under even those circumstances.

Why? Because the Eucharist is regarded as a sacrament of unity, or, well, of holy communion. The division between Protestants and Catholics, the Church’s law and doctrine says, prevents Protestants from ordinarily receiving the Eucharist.

But in recent years, bishops in Germany have spearheaded a campaign to permit Protestants to receive the Eucharist regularly, especially Protestants married to Catholics. In 2018, Pope Francis rejected this proposal directly. 

In September 2020, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith again rejected the idea of regular “intercommunion” among Protestants and Catholics.

Some German bishops have said they will continue to advocate for — or just permit — “intercommunion.” An ecumenical “Eucharistic congress” scheduled to take place in Germany this month has said participants should act according to their own consciences — German bishops have not intervened to clarify or amend that statement.

Who should not receive Holy Communion?

Because the Eucharist is a sign, symbol, and expression of communion with God, the Church has always taught that a person who is conscious of grave sin should not receive the Eucharist without first making a sacramental confession.

Grave sin, or mortal sin, “results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church says.

“Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession,” the Catechism adds.

St. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians that “whoever...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. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself."

St. Paul’s point is that to receive the Eucharist in a state of grave sin is itself a sin, which fails to respect the holiness of the Eucharistic sacrament, and the integrity of the Church’s communion. The Church tells Catholics not to receive the Eucharist in a state of grave sin not to punish or shame them, but because, if doing so is a sin as Scripture says, it aims to protect Catholics from committing that sin.

In Inferno, the poet Dante Alighieri is believed by some scholars to have included a reference to unworthy reception of Holy Communion, in the tale of Count Ugolino, who is encased in ice in the ninth circle of hell, and found by Dante eating the head of his enemy, an archbishop.

His story alludes to the immoral eating of human flesh, which some scholars believe is a reference to unworthily receiving the Eucharist.

The Church acknowledges that there are times when a person may be truly sorry for having committed sins, but is unable to go to confession. Imagine, for example, that a pandemic shut down all the confessions in an area for a while.

In that case, a person can make an act of “perfect contrition,” which “remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.”

An act of perfect contrition is made because of the desire to be unified to God, and is expressed in a prayer like this one, along with the intention to go to confession as soon as possible:

“My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You, whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.” 

And, even though it’s called “perfect contrition,” you don’t have to be perfect to pray one. Just sincerely sorry, and truly desirous of a restored relationship with God.

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Who may not receive Holy Communion?

Since the early days of Christianity, Church leaders have taught that Catholics in situations of serious and ongoing external sin would not be admitted to Holy Communion. That determination has long been reflected in Church law. 

The purpose of the norm is to convey, both to the Catholic community and to the individuals involved, that certain objective circumstances can rupture communion with God and with the Church — the very communion the Eucharist signifies and conveys.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law says that “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.”

“Excommunication” and “interdict” are canonical penalties which are formally declared or imposed by a bishop or a Church court, after a person has committed certain kinds of canonical crimes —  formally called delicts. 

A declared excommunication does not kick a person out of the Church, contrary to popular belief. Instead, it forbids a Catholic from holding certain jobs in the Church — called ecclesiastical offices — and from participating in the sacramental life of the Church, which includes the reception of the Eucharist. 

Similarly, an interdict prohibits a person from participating in the sacramental life of the Church. 

The purpose of those penalties is to convey the seriousness of a situation or action, in order to call the person to repentance and conversion, and in order to demonstrate to the entire Catholic community that certain behavior is not consonant with the Christian life. 

The other category mentioned in the canon, “others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin,” applies to situations in the news these days.

The category refers to Catholics who are known to be in situations of:

  • Grave sin - an objective situation of moral seriousness

  • Manifest - known to the parish or some other community

  • Persevering  - ongoing or habitual

  • Obstinate - continuing over a long period of time with not change of the will, or after a warning or exhortation from a pastor or other church authority.

The norm could have a variety of applications, but it has been in the news in recent years because of two particular situations: marriage (especially sex), and politics.

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Marriage:

The 1983 Code of Canon Law’s canon on the subject has been generally understood to apply to people who are divorced and subsequently remarried without an ecclesiastical annulment, and who are therefore living in a relationship of sexual union with a person whom the Church does not regard to be their spouse.

Previous Church law also indicated that people in such a situation could not be admitted to Holy Communion.

In 1981, for example, Pope St. John Paul II taught that:

“the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”

John Paul II did teach taught that such a couple could receive the Eucharist under some conditions, namely that they did not have a sexual relationship, and that there was some serious reason for them to continue living together:

“when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.’”

In 2000, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts reaffirmed those points.

In the 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitae, Pope Francis said of couples in situations of divorce and civil but invalid remarriages that: 

“Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”

In a footnote, the pope said that “in certain cases, this can include the help of the Sacraments.”

Since the publication of that document, some bishops conferences’ have issued norms suggesting that some couples in non-marital sexual relationships could be admitted to Holy Communion. Bishops in other dioceses have emphasized the Church’s longstanding practices on the matter, suggesting that Pope Francis’ footnote be interpreted through the lens of previous magisterial documents on the subject.

The issue has been a point of considerable disagreement among bishops and theologians around the world.

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Politics:

Since at least the 2004 presidential election, some U.S. Catholics have argued that politicians who promote or advocate for legal protection or government funding for abortion find themselves in situations of manifest grave sin, and should therefore not be admitted to Holy Communion.

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, agreed. He wrote to the U.S. bishops that:

Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person's formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church's teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

“When ‘these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,’ and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, ‘the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it’.”

This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgement on the person's subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person's public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.

The U.S. bishops’ conference debated in 2004 whether they would make a collective statement about the issue, but voted instead that the issue should be handled only by bishops at the local level.

The question has periodically arisen since then, usually when a Catholic politician supports some piece of abortion legislation. It has been the subject of considerable debate since President Biden took office, with some bishops arguing that any denial of communion “weaponizes” the Eucharist, and others calling it an act of pastoral charity.

At the same time, some Catholics have pointed out that bishops should consider prohibiting from the Eucharist politicians who support other immoral policy positions, while others argue that would become a recipe for disaster.

Debate and discussion over the issue has not been limited to the U.S. In 2007, an association of South and Latin American bishops’ conferences said in their well-known Aparecida document, which has been frequently praised by Pope Francis, that:

“We hope that legislators, heads of government, and health professionals, conscious of the dignity of human life and of the rootedness of the family in our peoples, will defend and protect it from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia; that is their responsibility. Hence, in response to government laws and provisions that are unjust in the light of faith and reason, conscientious objection should be encouraged. We must adhere to ‘Eucharistic coherence,’ that is, be conscious that they cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals.”

While the U.S. bishops’ conference is expected to draft its own statement on the question of “Eucharistic coherence” in the months to come, it is not clear what exactly will be the focus of that statement.