Here I want to turn my attention to the other half of the issue: why is Holy Communion the focal point for this debate?
On the one hand, it is easy to see why those who find themselves in irregular relationships may want to receive Holy Communion. There are several reasons, many of which may obtain in any individual case:
- The desire for union with Christ
- The desire for union with the Church, the Body of Christ
- The desire to obey Christ's command to take and eat
- The desire to participate in the same way as everybody else at Mass
- The knowledge that many others who receive are not following the Church's teaching
- The belief that the second union is a genuine marriage (and a wish to have that validated)
- The belief that a merciful God would not wish to exclude them from Communion
- An uneasy feeling of guilt, and a wish to have that removed
- The belief that the Church is going to change its teaching on this, so the teaching must be wrong.
Whilst any or all of these may be genuine, they are all, of course, founded in error. The fault lies at least in part with those charged with teaching the Faith who have allowed such error to become so common.
But given the possible sincerity of someone in such a situation, why does the Church, rightly, exclude them from Communion?
There are several reasons, all inter-related, that are centred on the reality of what Holy Communion is, and the truth of what it means to receive Holy Communion.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite clear on this:
§1355 In the communion, preceded by the Lord's prayer and the breaking of the bread, the faithful receive "the bread of heaven" and "the cup of salvation," the body and blood of Christ who offered himself "for the life of the world":Likewise:
Because this bread and wine have been made Eucharist ("eucharisted," according to an ancient expression), "we call this food Eucharist, and no one may take part in it unless he believes that what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ taught." (St. Justin, Apol. 1, 66,1-2: PG 6, 428)
§1385 To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: "Whoever, therefore, 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." (1 Cor 11:27-29.) Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.And again, in summary:
§1415 Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance.What we conclude then is that to receive Holy Communion without the right dispositions is highly dangerous (spiritually) as St Paul makes clear.
The right dispositions include believing, and living in keeping with, what the Church teaches, as St Justin makes clear; and availing ourselves of Confession with a resolution to amend our lives each time we fall short of that high standard.
The strong desire of those in irregular situations to receive Holy Communion is (at its best) actually a desire to be reconciled to the Church: to repent and believe the Gospel. Indeed, the very pain they experience is a motive force towards true reconciliation, as the Catechism makes clear in the context of those Christians separated from the Church:
§1398 (...) The more painful the experience of the divisions in the Church which break the common participation in the table of the Lord, the more urgent are our prayers to the Lord that the time of complete unity among all who believe in him may return.The last consideration I wish to address is the feeling of people who are 're-married' that they are being unjustly singled out. I have huge sympathy with this objection.
But the remedy lies in our bishops and priests teaching their congregations about the implications of the Catechism as quoted above. Those living in any state that is at odds with the Church should repent and amend their lives before receiving Holy Communion: those who promote or facilitate abortions, or 'same-sex marriage;' those who use contraception in violation of their marriage vows; those who fail to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, and so on. It is hugely unjust that only one category should be admonished: but the answer is not to fail in the duty of admonishment.
So let us pray for all those in such situations, and also for our bishops that they may faithfully preserve and teach the Faith handed down from the Apostles whose successors they are.