Saturday, May 20, 2006

Why Everyone Cannot Receive Holy Communion

Holy Communion
When you love someone so much that you just wanna eat 'em.


(The following thoughts are a collaborated effort between myself and my friend Mattias Caro.)

Often I assume-probably incorrectly-that everyone knows that only Catholics are allowed to receive communion at Catholic mass. I think it would be really important for me to explain why the Church holds firmly to teachings such as forbidding non-Catholics to receive Communion at Catholic Mass. Here it goes . . .

The Catholic Church allows only practicing Catholics and Orthodox to receive Holy Communion at Catholic Mass. Interestingly, the Orthodox Church does not give her members permission to receive at Catholic Mass. The reason the Catholic Church has an exception for Orthodox Christians is that, even though they do not esteem the Bishop of Rome as their top authority, they do retain all 7 sacraments from the time they split from (what is now known as) the Catholic Church. Their priests also retain legitimate apostolic succession. The Orthodox Church claims to follow "only the authority of 'Christ and the seven Ecumenical Synods' (from Nicaea I in 325, to Nicaea II in 787)" ( Catholic Encyclopedia). You can read more about the Eastern Schism at the New Advent website. On this site it is explained that there has "never been a hopeless disagreement about the Faith" between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. It is a case rather of "pure schism, of a breach of intercommunion caused by anger and bad feeling, not by a rival theology." The Orthodox split from the Roman Church. The Eastern rites (which are often Orthodox) have "equally legitimate ways of celebrating the same mysteries." The Orthodox do at least continue to recognize the Bishop of Rome as the first Patriarch of Christendom as he is the successor of the see of Saint Peter the Apostle (the first Pope).

Well, that's sort of a side note, but important foundational information nonetheless. Moving on . . .

The Catholic Church also holds that one must not receive Communion if they have any unconfessed mortal sin. Mortal sin refers to any grave sin which a person commits willfully with full knowledge that such an action is indeed a grave sin. Mortal sins actually cut us off from God's grace and communion with Him by our own doing, by our free choosing. In Confession the penitent person is absolved of his confessed mortal sins by the priest. The priest forgives sins by the authority Christ gave Him that was handed-down through apostolic succession. (See John 20:22-23.) Through Confession and absolution the penitent is restored to a state of grace and communion with God. Of course, only those who are Catholic or Orthodox go to Confession - at least with a priest who has the apostolic authority to absolve sins.

I personally do not like the separation that exists among Christians in that we cannot all eat from one table and drink from one cup. However, this is the reality of things due to the Reformation. Most Protestants do not believe that which the Catholic Church has always taught and defended regarding Holy Communion, namely that Christ is made present - body, blood, soul, and divinity - in the bread and wine during the consecration by the priest. Although some Anglican, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and even charismatic Protestants claim a belief in mystical transubstantiation, this is not what the Church has held up through the centuries.

"Mystical transubstantiation" refers to the belief that the faith of the one receiving Communion is what causes the bread and wine to become the actual body and blood of our Lord. I am curious to know what passages of Holy Scripture a Bible-only, Protestant Christian would use to support this notion. The Church holds that transubstantiation takes place because of the legitimate apostolic authority of her priests at the consecration of the elements. Even if a priest is a wicked man personally, if he has been given the apostolic authority bestowed through the Sacrament of Ordination, then his priestly act of consecrating the host is still valid. (His priestly act of absolution of sins is still valid towards those who receive it from him, even if he is on the path to hell himself.)

This is the sort of faith that Catholics exercise. We do not simply have faith in faith. After all, I could have faith that God will give me a sex-change overnight, but what good would that faith be because it is based on no legitimate rationale. As a Catholic, I have faith that Christ gave His authority to His Apostles at the Last Supper to consecrate bread and wine so that His body and blood would become present in the elements. Not only did He give them that authority, but He commanded them to do it - often. (See Luke 22:19-20 and I Cor. 11:23-26). Those disciples then passed on this authority from Christ to their successors through the Sacrament of Ordination. As a Catholic Christian, this requires much faith on my part; however, this faith is based on something which Christ Himself instituted, not something that a Protestant pastor 1,700 years after-the-fact decided was the right interpretation of a passage from the New Testament - a Catholic book, might I add. ;-D

And I want to take a moment here to explain also that the Catholic Church does not invent truths and dogmas (i.e. the papacy, Sacrament of Confession, Immaculate Conception, Trinity, etc . . . ) Rather the Church is the steward of the truth; she teaches only that which was given to her from Christ in the "deposit of faith" and was taught by His Apostles. The Church comes to fuller understandings of truths as time progresses, but she does not change any of the truths which have already been revealed. For instance, the case of the Immaculate Conception of Mary; just because this doctrine was not defined until recent centuries, does not mean that the Church did not believe and teach it during the prior centuries. The Church often defines doctrine and dogmas only as heresies and conflicts arise that necessitate such definitions.

Okay, back to the original point. . .
As a Catholic, I firmly believe that a priest must have legitimate apostolic authority in order for the bread and wine he consecrates to be transubstantiated. I would venture to say that many Protestants would be repulsed if I said the prayer of consecration over a saltine cracker and then tried to distribute it to them as if it were the actual body of our Lord. Maybe they would find it ridiculous that I would even think that Christ would humble Himself to become a cracker (actually vice-versa) and be eaten by people. But also, they would think, "Who the hell are you?!" By what authority could I do such a thing even if it were possible? If all that is necessary for transubstantion is faith and not any sort of legitimate authority, then why can't I consecrate bread and wine and give it out to other Christians at a home-made Communion?

If someone does not believe that the bread and wine consecrated by a priest at Catholic Mass become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, then it would be a sacrilege for them to receive communion. It would be a sacrilege on two accounts: 1. to eat and drink without discerning the Lord's real presence is to eat and drink condemnation on oneself (I Cor. 11: 27-32), and 2. the person receiving Communion while disbelieving that it is what the Church says it is is violating his own conscience and acting contrary to his own beliefs. He should be committing a sacrilege according to his own belief system.

Sometimes a person accepts that a Catholic (or Orthodox) priest has legitimate authority to consecrate the elements and that Christ is transubstantiated in them, but this person is not officially in communion with the Church and does not desire to be so. He is not allowed to receive Communion at a Catholic Mass even though he assents to the Church's teaching that Christ is literally made present in the Eucharist by the apostolic authority of the priest. Why not? Well, it is simply because he is not in full communion with the Church. That's the way it is. It is not that the Church desires to deny this person the real body and blood or our Lord in the Eucharist, but he has simply not taken the steps necessary to be in the position to receive our Lord at Mass.

The Church opens her arms to any and everyone to enter into full communion with her, but this requires a time of being catechised, making a first Confession, and then being Confirmed. The Church wants to make sure the catechumen or candidate is fully aware of what the Church teaches and that he in turn assents to these truths. That makes sense, right? If someone doesn't believe all that the Church holds, then they are not Catholic; therefore they do not participate in Catholic Sacraments. I'm not sure I understand why someone would want to participate in the Sacraments anyway if they do not accept the Church's authority and teachings as legitimate. It is analogous to a man wanting to communion sexually with a woman, yet he does not want to make her his bride. There are just certain things that must come first in order to protect the sacred!

If I am playing softball and I'm on 3rd base, I have to run home and cross the plate in order to score a run, right? What if I decide that I want to score a run by running straight to first base from third? Well, not only will I not score a run, but I will also have screwed up the game and pissed off my entire team. I certainly have no such authority as to change the rules to fit my fancy; neither does my team or our coach have such authority. There is probably some overarching National Softball Federation that determines the rules of all softball games. If you want to play in the real deal you have to play by the rules. The analogy, of course, breaks down at this point, because the Church is not like a softball federation which can alter doctrines and dogmas of her own accord, rather the Church preserves, protects, and promotes the truths she has been given from our Lord and His Apostles.

Similarly, let's say that a man is raised Catholic and leaves the Church because he doesn't accept many of her teachings or her authority. However, this man wants to still receive Communion at Catholic Mass because he feels it is his right, and he believes that it is a legitimate Sacrament - despite the other supposed failings and falsehoods the Church practices and promotes. This is akin to a man leaving his wife because he does not like her any longer, and he does not want the sacrifice and commitment required to remain in their marriage. However, he feels he has the right to come and have sexual intercourse with her when he so desires it. What gives him that right? Either he wants to be with her or he doesn't? In behaving this way he is abusing his wife; he is unwilling to commit to her and live out that commitment, but he wants to keep one perk - the one that he finds most beneficial to him personally. He wants what he wants, and he wants it on his own terms.

Such a man is not willing to lay down his life for his wife, but rather only to take from her. This is selfish and abusive in a human relationship, and it also applies in the situation regarding Communion. It is inordinate and presumptuous, an abuse of the Church and Her Sacraments to receive Communion at Catholic Mass without being committed to the Church and embracing her as a whole, for all that she is and all that she has to offer.

For a Catholic, receiving communion at Mass is affirming a belief that the bread and wine one is receiving is no longer bread and wine-except in appearance-but the actual body and blood of Christ. Our "amen" just prior to receiving "the body of Christ" on our tongues from the priest or Eucharistic minister is an affirmation that we accept not only the truth that Christ is present in the Eucharist but also that we uphold all of the teachings of the Catholic Church, the bride of Christ and by extension His body here on earth. Who doesn't want to be a man of his word? In walking the aisle, saying "Amen", and receiving our Lord's body in Communion, we are saying with our actions (and our word) that we are in full communion with the Church, have been cleansed from mortal sin beforehand, and believe that we are receiving the very body and blood of Jesus. If these things are not true, the person receiving Communion is (perhaps inadvertently) lying; he is saying one thing with his actions and his word, but his reality and his beliefs are contrary.

Because I honor and love my Church and firmly believe in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I wanted to take the time to explain these things to any who were unaware. Anyone who has ever illicitly received Communion at a Catholic Mass out of ignorance is not fully culpable for the sin that it is. From now on, this person should not receive Communion at Mass. If this offends that person, then at the very least they can consider refraining simply as an act of respect for the "customs" of the Catholics at Mass, seeking not to offend them or cause controversy. (That's akin to what we Catholics call imperfect contrition. ;-D) Should I walk into a Jewish Synagogue and demand to read before the Congregation from the Torah? No. Why not? The Torah is a Christian book isn't it? It's the first part of my Bible. Well, I'm just not allowed to do that. It's not going to help my Catholic witness to Jewish people if I walk all over their customs and in their own house of worship.

As for Protestants abstaining from Communion, inversely, I follow the same principle when at a Lutheran service or an Episcopalian service; I don't receive there because I would thus be giving witness to a belief that simply is not mine, namely that Christ is not present in the Eucharist or even that He is although the "priest" has no legitimate authority to consecrate the elements for transubstantiation. Even though Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants have much in common in Lewis's sense of a mere Christianity, it is simply a fact that we do not all believe the same things about Holy Communion.


Tommy B. Stoffel Jr. said...

Hey, just wanna say good work and that I read your blog. I even linked you on mine.

Anonymous said...

Very well said. One slight correction, which I'm sure is totally Mattias' fault, only the priest is actually an Eucharistic Minister for the others they are supposed to be called Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist.


Bruce said...

Well I don't know about you, but at my local Catholic Church, the priest messes up the Mass. And really anybody could line up and take Communion. There is no interrogation.

Lawrence Gage said...

It's now known as the Catholic Church, but has always been known as the catholic Church, as we say in the Nicene Creed. Those not catholic Christians are sectarian Christians.

Natalie said...

Check out the entry at Bonfire of the Vanities on this issue...