The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore J. Cordileone, released on May 1, 2021 a pastoral letter about the worthiness required for the reception of Holy Communion in which he insisted that any Catholic cooperating with the evil of abortion should refrain from receiving the Eucharist.
“It is fundamentally a question of integrity: to receive the Blessed Sacrament in the Catholic liturgy is to espouse publicly the faith and moral teachings of the Catholic Church, and to desire to live accordingly,” wrote Cordileone. “We all fall short in various ways, but there is a great difference between struggling to live according to the teachings of the Church and rejecting those teachings.”
The letter, issued on the feast of St. Joseph the Worker and at the beginning of the month honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary, comes on the heels of growing media coverage regarding whether President Biden should be admitted to Holy Communion within the Catholic Church.
Contained within his letter was a section specifically for Catholic public officials who advocate for abortion. “You are in a position to do something concrete and decisive to stop the killing,” he said. “Please stop the killing. And please stop pretending that advocating for or practicing a grave moral evil – one that snuffs out an innocent human life, one that denies a fundamental human right – is somehow compatible with the Catholic faith. It is not. Please return home to the fullness of your Catholic faith.”
Both the Washington Post and the AP published articles earlier this week which highlighted debate about whether Biden, a staunch promoter of abortion and funding for abortion but also a Catholic, would be asked to refrain from reception of the Eucharist.
From the pastoral letter, which is titled “Before I Formed You in the Womb I Knew You”:
The Church’s teaching and discipline on worthiness to receive Holy Communion has been consistent throughout her history, going back to the very beginning. The earliest account of the Last Supper is found in the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, written within thirty years of the event itself. Immediately after describing Our Lord’s institution of the Holy Eucharist, St. Paul offers this admonition:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself [1 Cor 11:27–29].
To eat and drink “without discerning the body” means not discerning the reality of the Body of Christ. This refers both to the sacramental Body of Christ, the Eucharist, and to His mystical Body, the Church. Jesus Christ cannot be separated from His Body; to receive His Eucharistic Body and Blood while repudiating essential doctrines of His Mystical Body is to eat and drink judgment on oneself. St. Paul urged the members of his communities temporarily to exclude serious wrongdoers from their midst (e.g., 1 Cor 5:1–5), the First Letter of St. John invoked this practice (1 Jn 1:10), and Jesus Himself speaks of this in the case of those who refuse to listen to the Church (Mt 18:17). The purpose of such exclusion is medicinal: it is intended to help the wrongdoer realize that he or she has wandered from Christ’s fold by their ongoing evil behavior.
The earliest description of our Catholic Eucharistic liturgy in Rome is found in the middle of the second century. St. Justin Martyr describes the order of Sunday worship, and also explains the criteria for reception of the Eucharist: “No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes what we teach is true; unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.” To apply these ancient requirements to the present topic, those who reject the teaching of the Church on the sanctity of human life and those who do not seek to live in accordance with that teaching should not receive the Eucharist. It is fundamentally a question of integrity: to receive the Blessed Sacrament in the Catholic liturgy is to espouse publicly the faith and moral teachings of the Catholic Church, and to desire to live accordingly. We all fall short in various ways, but there is a great difference between struggling to live according to the teachings of the Church and rejecting those teachings.
It is important to state that “worthiness” in this matter does not concern the inner state of one’s soul: only God can judge that. None of us is truly worthy to receive the very Body and Blood of Christ Himself, but God in His great mercy and condescension invites us to receive and makes us worthy to do so. The Eucharist itself is a medicine and a channel of God’s forgiveness for our lesser sins. If we are conscious of grave sin, however, we must have recourse to the sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving the Gift. Confidence in God must not give way to presumption. We are a Church of sinners, and we need to avail ourselves of the many graces Christ offers us in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. Christ Himself gave us these two sacraments and we should regularly receive His forgiveness in confession.
In examining one’s conscience about being properly disposed to receive the Holy Eucharist, the definitions regarding the kind and degree of cooperation in an evil act serve as a necessary guiding principle. Most of the time this is a private matter. There are, however, circumstances in which such is not the case, occasions when those in public life violate the boundaries of justifiable cooperation. In the case of public figures who profess to be Catholic and promote abortion, we are not dealing with a sin committed in human weakness or a moral lapse: this is a matter of persistent, obdurate, and public rejection of Catholic teaching. This adds an even greater responsibility to the role of the Church’s pastors in caring for the salvation of souls.