In an essay certain to have an impact on American politics, Archbishop Raymond Burke of the Archdiocese of St. Louis has criticized lax attitudes concerning the reception of the Holy Eucharist. His words continue a long-standing debate about whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should receive communion.
Archbishop Burke's essay, titled "The Discipline Regarding the Denial of Holy Communion to Those Obstinately Persevering in Manifest Grave Sin," appeared in Periodica De Re Canonica, a publication of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In it, the archbishop counseled that pastors should actively intervene to ensure that communicants receive Holy Communion worthily, basing his reasons on a detailed interpretation and analysis of canon law.
Canon law is composed of the rules and regulations governing the Catholic Church. It outlines the rights and duties of the faithful of all orders of church life: laity, vowed religious, clergy, and bishops. Canon law is also the inspiration for much of the democratic legal system that exists today.
Response to the USCCB
The archbishop writes in response to a statement of the United States' Conference of Catholic Bishops, "Catholics in Political Life", which was adopted in June of 2004. The statement was written to answer questions about the proper disposition of Catholics in political office who supported immoral public policies, especially the legalization of unlimited abortion. The bishops' conference document, while stressing the importance of worthy reception of Holy Communion, refrained from creating general guidelines. It said: "such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action."
To this, Archbishop Burke responded: "the question regarding the objective state of Catholic politicians who knowingly and willingly hold opinions contrary to the natural moral law would hardly seem to change from place to place."
Archbishop Burke argued that the American discussion had overemphasized Canon 916, which concerns the duty of Catholics to practice honest self-examination so that they should receive Holy Communion in a state free from mortal sin. This overemphasis worked to the detriment of the observation of Canon 915, which concerns the duty of the minister of the Sacrament to ensure that those who recieve Holy Communion are properly disposed.
Proper disposition for Holy Communion requires the communicant to be in a state of grace, that is, free from unrepented mortal sin.
Refusal of Communion is not excommunication
The archbishop also clarified that the denial of Holy Communion was not necessarily an act of excommunication, but the exercise of a moral duty on the part of the minister "to respect the holiness of the Sacrament, to safeguard the salvation of the soul of the party presenting himself to receive Holy Communion, and to avoid scandal."
Such action, he said, must take place with deliberation and prudence. Grave and public sinners "must be cautioned not to approach to receive Holy Communion." The archbishop advises pastoral conversation with such persons "so that the person knows that he is not to approach to receive Holy Communion and, therefore, the distribution of Holy Communion does not become an occasion of conflict."
Politicians accept great responsibility
Though such action does not concern only notorious sinners who are politicians, Archbishop Burke underlined public officials' unique duties: "Catholics in public office bear an especially heavy burden of responsibility to uphold the moral law in the exercise of their office which is exercised for the common good, especially the good of the innocent and defenseless."
Archbishop Burke closed his essay by admonishing priests and bishops to fulfill their difficult duty: "No matter how often a bishop or priest repeats the teaching of the Church regarding procured abortion, if he stands by and does nothing to discipline a Catholic who publicly supports legislation permitting the gravest of injustices and, at the same time, presents himself to receive Holy Communion, then his teaching rings hollow. To remain silent is to permit serious confusion regarding a fundamental truth of the moral law."