St. Paul can be wrong

In the wake of the news that the archbishop of San Francisco will bar Nancy Pelosi from receiving communion in his archdiocese I’ve been thinking about canon law, the catechism of the Catholic church, St. Paul, and what Jesus’ take on the issue might be.

What follows here is not a response to the church’s stance on abortion but rather a reflection upon the idea of withholding communion due to mortal sins, where that comes from, and whether it is in keeping with what we see in Jesus teaching.

Catechism & Canon Law

Let’s start by reviewing what the official Church documents have to say on the matter:

Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition) ¶ 1861 - Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It 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. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.

First, we see established that a mortal sin creates a barrier from grace and that it the act of the human being in choosing this barrier through their actions by means of their free will.

Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition) ¶ 1382 - … 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.

Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition) ¶ 1395 - The Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins — that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church

And here we establish that the purpose of Communion is not the same as Confession.

Code of Canon Law 916 - A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.

And here, a person who is in this state knowingly is not to receive communion until it has been resolved.


But why? For that we need to start with St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.

1 Cor. 11:28-29 - 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.

Here Paul asserts that to partake in the Eucharist without acknowledging and accepting it as the true presence of Christ (transubstantiation) is in itself a sin.

Or is that what he said?

Others would later argue (and indeed many Protestant faiths would assert) that he is speaking of grace, not transubstantiation. To accept communion without the state of grace is a sin. That is the axiom. That is the cornerstone of the argument in the catechism and in canon law.

But is it correct?

Paul is a Pharisee

According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is a Pharisee. He was not just a passive member of that community, either. He was actively persecuting early Christians, including approving the execution of St. Stephen. He was one of the Pharisees, infamously legalistic, with insistence on the binding force of oral tradition. Upon his conversion his tenets of faith were changed, but not his approach to it. He continued to be legalistic in his interpretations and edicts on how Christians should live. In his letter to the Corinthians we see it in full force.

But therein lies the problem. This may be how Paul writes his letters and encourages the church to act, but it is not in accord with how Jesus taught. We see early and often Jesus attacking the Pharisee view of faith because their legalism was blinding them from God.

Matthew 23:4 - They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them

Matthew 23:13 - Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to”

Mathew 23:23–26 - Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

And earlier, and in general still applying to the same issues.

Matthew 15.7-9 - You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”

Jesus is about compassion

Mark 2:17 - When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have not come to call those who are righteous, but those who are sinners.”

Jesus’ message throughout the Gospels is one of redemption and compassion. He has come for the sinners. He sits with them, welcomes them. He seeks to heal them through his presence.

Why, then, would Jesus want his true presence in the Eucharist kept from sinners? Why would his ongoing gift given to all peoples for the rest of time somehow preclude the very group he came to call?

I mean, really, I should stop the article here. That alone is the entire rebuttal. But I digress.

Paul is fallible

Jesus Christ lived a sinless life, but his followers did not. We see in the gospels repeated stories of the apostles falling short, making mistakes and failures. When the holy spirit descended upon the disciples and made them witnesses, they were not granted infallibility. No more were the apostles, who became their leaders.

In the scriptures we see the apostles rebuke each other! We see mistakes first-hand. These were men, not divine. And while the Bible has divine inspiration we see clearly that mistakes are made. Yes, mistakes! Misunderstandings of the authors about the nature of customs, disputes as to family trees, and plenty more. Inspired, but written by men.

Paul persecuted Christians before his conversion. He was capable of being wrong.


So where does that leave us? I would suggest that the basis for the doctrine preventing communion due to mortal sin is flatly incorrect. It was legalism applied where it needn’t and at the direct contradiction to Jesus’ will. Moreover, it ignores our warning time and time again to not be judges ourselves but to leave that to God.

Pope Francis wrote in his apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitae, about couples in situations of divorce or those in civil but invalid remarriages:

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.

And in a footnote added:

in certain cases, this can include the help of the Sacraments.

Here we are dealing with the subject of divorced and remarried Catholics, which by the Code of Canon Law have been therefore living in a relationship of sexual union with a person whom the Church does not regard to be their spouse. This has qualified as a state of mortal sin and precluded them from communion in the past.

Pope John Paul II wrote in his apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, quite the opposite:

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.

Here we find disagreement from the very top of the Church, and that split is echoed in the conferences of bishops around the world. Some take the traditional view of JP2, others suggest we interpret Francis through those older documents, while some embrace the charity of Francis’ words.

This fascinating idea he presents, that the situation can be objectively sinful, but not subjectively culpable, is a very deep channel of ethics to explore. I could argue specific examples to try and illustrate what that might look like, but it is irrelevant. The mere possibility itself is enough here to remind us of a key sentence in CCC ¶ 1861: “However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.”

Do we judge? Do we determine legalistically like the Pharisees that another human being is unworthy of communion with the Lord? Do we forgo charity and faith and imagine that God’s power is somehow not strong enough to work through communion if a person is stained by sin? Do we somehow imagine that communion with the Lord could make things worse somehow?

Punitive measures

No, the truth is not that at all. This is a punitive measure, despite doctrinal warnings against that, despite bishops repeatedly saying that these are “medicinal” measures, not punitive. But that simply cannot be. They are used as symbols to warn the masses and demonstrate just action. They are not actions taken in private for the benefit of the soul of the individual, but public shaming to herd the flock with a whip instead of a call.

This is not the way of Christ. The Eucharist should not be withheld from anyone willing to take it.

This page is cryptographically signed with my public key.