Bishop Paprocki: Examining conscience before communion is essential

paprocki Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois.

Amid the debate about whether Catholic public figures who support abortion should be permitted to receive Holy Communion, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois said this week that the most important factor is a personal examination of conscience on the part of those figures. 

“I think the first issue is for the communicant himself or herself to examine their conscience and if they are conscious of grave sin, they shouldn't go to communion,” Paprocki told CNA. 

He noted that this is true not only for politicians, but for all Catholics - anyone who is conscious of grave sin should refrain from presenting himself for Holy Communion until he has gone to confession.

“I think that's something that we've kind of forgotten about, and I think, for many people, that it's just sort of automatic. Everybody gets up and goes to communion. It's kind of expected, but there first should be that examination of conscience.” 

The topic of Holy Communion for pro-abortion Catholic politicians has become especially relevant with the election of Joe Biden, the first Catholic U.S. president in six decades, who has publicly supported legal protection for abortion. 

The bishops of the United States are expected to vote in June on whether to draft a statement on the topic of “Eucharistic coherence” in the wake of Biden’s election to the presidency. 

In the meantime, Catholics who publicly and obstinately advocate for abortion, including politicians, can and should be denied communion under canon law, Paprocki said. 

“I'm not talking about judging their soul, I'm talking about their external actions. If they're living in a way or holding positions that are contrary to church teaching, then the Minister of Communion has to deny them the sacrament,” he said. 

In the case of Biden, “The correct first step is that he should not present himself. That comes before the question of denying or admitting someone to the sacrament.”

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Paprocki, a canon lawyer, gave a virtual address March 11 to the Canon Law Society of America Western Regional Conference on the topic of “Seeking Eucharistic Coherence in an Era of Incoherence.”

Coherence, in a religious context, refers to the logical connection and consistency between the faith that is professed and the actions that flow from that faith, Paprocki said.  

The Catholic Church teaches that Holy Communion, the Eucharist, is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, and as such must be received worthily. 

Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law states that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”

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The next canon, 916, states: “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession unless a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing; in this case the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible.”

The Catholic Church has always taught that abortion is a grave sin, and a politician working to expand abortion constitutes material cooperation with evil, Paprocki noted. 

A failure to consistently apply Canon 915 causes confusion, Paprocki said, and “gives rise to scandal, in that it leads to the impression that grave sins may not be so grave after all if there are no consequences for committing them.”

“It is important to remember that the ultimate goal is conversion and readmission to communion, not exclusion and permanent expulsion from the community of faith. Even when a difficult decision must be made not to admit someone to Holy Communion until there has been repentance and reconciliation, such discipline does not contradict the love by which it is motivated,” Paprocki said. 

Biden has publicly advocated for protection for abortion in law, including the codification of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision which mandated permissive abortion laws nationwide. 

On the 2021 anniversary of Roe, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris stressed their commitment to legal abortion, saying, “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to codifying Roe v. Wade and appointing judges that respect foundational precedents like Roe.”

While in the past, as a U.S. Senator from Delaware, Biden had supported some restrictions on abortion and abortion funding, he has since backed the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which bars most federal funding of abortions.

In the early days of his presidency, Biden repealed the Mexico City Policy, which bars federal funding of foreign NGOs that promote or perform abortions as a method of family planning.

While it may be difficult for a communion minister to adequately judge whether most people approaching for communion are in a state of grave sin, it’s different for a figure as public as Joe Biden, Paprocki said. 

“[T]he attendance of the President of the United States is normally preceded by Secret Service security checks and safety precautions. It is highly unlikely that a pastor would be ‘looking down the aisle to see who is coming up to Communion’ and unexpectedly discover Joe Biden in the line.”

Paprocki said putting Canon 915 into action does not constitute an attack on a person’s faith. 

“Christianity is a religion that calls for very public witness by putting one’s faith into action. Debating Biden’s policies in light of Catholic teaching has nothing to do with judging the condition of his soul,” Paprocki said.  

“By contrast, it is certainly permitted and absolutely germane to engage a public discussion of whether or not a politician’s positions on political matters reflect his or her publicly professed faith, which Biden himself has repeatedly brought to the attention of the public.”

As bishop of the state capital city in Illinois, Paprocki has often had to make a determination of whether to allow some Catholic politicians, including Sen. Dick Durbin and several state legislators, to take Holy Communion because of their voting records on abortion. 

In 2018, Paprocki said Durbin would not be admitted to Holy Communion because of his advocacy for the legal protection of abortion.

Other bishops have also spoken out on the issue.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, in an interview with EWTN Pro-Life Weekly in February, said that Communion can be withheld from someone “for the sake of their soul” but only after “private conversations to try to move the person in their conscience” have taken place.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City has said that “integrity requires that a Catholic not receive the Eucharist while acting in a manner incoherent with fundamental Catholic teaching.” He made that statement after explaining the Church’s teaching on reception of Communion as something neither “inhospitable” nor “exclusive.”

In November 2020, however, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C. told a reporter that he would not deny President Joe Biden the reception of Holy Communion, if Biden were to present himself for Communion at Mass. 

During the 2004 U.S. election year, the U.S. bishops issued a statement “Catholics in Political Life” that left to individual bishops the decision to withhold Holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians.

That same year, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had sent a letter to Theodore McCarrick, then-Archbishop of Washington, with the expectation that it be read to fellow bishops.

The letter said that pro-abortion politicians, after first being admonished by their pastor on Church teaching and warned against presenting themselves for Communion, “are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

Church law’s definition of “manifest” participation in “grave sin” applies “in the case of a Catholic politician...consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws,” said Ratzinger, who would be elected Pope Benedict XVI at the 2005 conclave.

McCarrick read some but not all of the letter to his fellow bishops at their summer 2014 meeting, omitting key parts. He said that Ratzinger had agreed with the bishops’ decision to leave the judgement about withholding Holy Communion up to each individual bishop. Ratzinger’s entire letter was reported to the public afterward.

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