On Worthiness to Receive Communion

A reading from the first letter to the Corinthians from the apostle Paul:

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you assemble as a Church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the Church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the chalice, after supper, saying, “This chalice is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the chalice, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

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. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if any one is hungry, let him eat at home—lest you come together to be condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come. (1 Co 11:17–34)

There’s a lot of talk among the Greatest Catholics of All Time these days about barring people from communion. The Creme de la Creme in the MAGA wing of the Church have very definite ideas about who needs to kept from contact with grace and often tend to treat the Eucharist as a prize for perfection, not as medicine for the sick.

But in the one and only discussion of “worthiness to receive communion” in the New Testament, Paul basically tells rich spoiled people in Corinth not to use the Mass to humiliate their weaker brethren and urges them to examine themselves lest they eat and drink judgment on themselves by not recognizing the Body of Christ.

In this passage, there are two notable things:

First, Paul sounds a heckuva lot like James, who likewise takes what the Church after Vatican II will call a “preferential option for the poor”:

My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name by which you are called? (Jas 2:1–7)

And, in fact, both are taking after their Master, who likewise took a decidedly preferential position in defense of the poor from the predations of the rich in that version of the Beatitudes comfy Americans dislike hearing and are quick to downplay, dismiss, minimize, and ignore:

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
“Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
‖“But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
“Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Lk 6:20–26).

If it were anybody but Jesus saying this, it would be dismissed loudly as “cultural Marxism” and “Liberation theology”. But since it is Jesus, it is dismissed quietly and a hasty retreat is beaten to “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “The love of money is the root of all evil”, with accompanying assurances that there is nothing especially holy about the poor (whoarelazyandifamanwillnotworkheshallnoteat) and there is nothing specially the matter with the rich whoworkhardandareasblessedbyGodasanybodyifnotmoreso).

As Chesterton observed:

I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest — if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this — that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor.

And so we return to Paul and his frank and simple rejection of the standard MAGA boilerplate that tries to make Both Sides the problem in the Corinthian Church by spreading the blame around equally between the Oppressor and the Oppressed. But Paul will have none of that garbage. At the Agape (the “love feast”) that preceded the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the early Church) the guilty parties in Corinth “despise the Church of God and humiliate those who have nothing”. That’s the core of the trouble. The rich and powerful oppress the poor and weak. His remedy: “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.”

This brings us to our second major point: Does Paul mean we should discern the body of Jesus in the Eucharist or in the ecclesial body of Christ?

I think this is a question like “Which blade on the scissors does the cutting?” Precisely what Paul does in 1 Corinthians is seamlessly segue from discussion of the Eucharistic Body of Christ (which, as with the deity of Jesus, he simply takes for granted along with his audience) to discussion of the ecclesial Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 10-12). The two things are one thing. The Church is the Body of Christ because were baptized into the One Body that partakes of the One Body in the Eucharist. The idea of separating them, much less of pitting them against one another would be insane to Paul and has been the core of the mystery he has been trying to penetrate ever since Jesus appeared him on the Damascus Road and said “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me” (not “persecuting my followers”). His conviction is identical with St. Joan of Arc’s who, when asked her views on the nature of the Church (in a trial conducted, by the way, by a deeply corrupt bishop), replied, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing.” Paul is no more ignorant of the reality of sin in the members of the Church than Joan. Neither were pollyanna idiots. But they knew what Jesus had told them and saw the Church through that lens of revelation and not with the eyes of human beings.

The key thing here though is that Paul, when talking about worthiness to receive does not encourage Holiness Police to patrol the Liturgy, squinting at everybody around them and judging them fit to approach the Eucharist. He tell us to judge ourselves.

Meanwhile, the Greatest Catholics of All Time, who love humiliating the poor (such as at the Amazon Synod, when desperately poor indigenous people from the Amazon Basin came to Rome seeking the sacraments, only to be called “pagan idolators” by white supremacists who threw their statue of Our Lady of the Amazon in the Tiber), somehow turn Paul’s counsel into a demand that they be allowed to examine everybody but themselves and bar whoever they dislike from communion. And if the Pope won’t comply, they hunger to bar him from the Eucharist.

Worst. Eisegesis. Ever.

Sacraments are intended to be sure encounters with the love of God, not reducing valves for barring as many people as possible from grace.

I pray God they learn from and do not fulfill the grave warning of Jesus:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in. (Mt 23:13)

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11 Responses

  1. I had this very discussion with my mom a couple of weeks ago. My mom is not Catholic, though she is not particularly anti-Catholic. She is a die-hard Republican who admits she can’t help but like Joe Biden, and she asked Catholic me if I thought Biden should be denied communion. I told her that as I understand it, it is Joe Biden’s job to examine his own conscience, and if need be, refrain from Communion until he has gone to confession. But it is certainly NOT the job of his bishop, his pastor, the media, or anyone else to decide if Joe Biden or anyone else is worthy of communion. And the same is true me and everyone else.

    I am no theologian. But I think I’m right on this one.

  2. Mark your writing just gets worse and worse, lazier and lazier. As a matter of fact, Catholic tradition has a lot to say about this. The “MAGA” Catholics as you call them, are drawing on centuries of tradition and practice which has been quite clear on the matter, even as it is variously applied. “Worthiness” is a concept and a category. Catholic practice has laid out pretty clear directives on who should and should not receive Communion based on far more than a person’s inner sense. It’s not a nothing issue, and never has been. Other writers are doing much more serious work on this matter.

    1. And yet, oddly, Pope Francis has spoken and acted in direct contradiction to the Greatest Catholics of All Time when it comes to weaponizing the Eucharist against all those they hate. I know this is a breathtaking idea, but it *could* be that the heir of Peter and not some Inquisitors in a combox is a wiser judge in such matters. I’m not saying there is no such thing as unworthiness to receive the Eucharist. I’m saying that a pack of politicized jackals who believe there is no god but Trump and Arroyo is his prophet are. ‘ow you say, unworthy to act as prophets.

  3. I think you put your finger on it, Mark. I saw it with the hysteria when Fratelli Tutti came out last year… Many conservative commentators claiming he advocated for socialism, attacking property rights, etc.. including my brother, who tweeted back at the Pope at the time (I was pretty embarrassed). I told him it seemed to me the Pope was speaking the the words of the Gospel, not advocating for this or that economic system.

    Those of us in the EWTN set are so damn afraid the Pope might suggest that we care for our neighbors, we instantly brand these things as socialism and attack the messenger.

    Here’s something not really related, just an anecdote I need to share, more race related: This summer, we hiked what was called “Harney Peak” but now called Black Elk Peak, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, recently renamed after Nicholas Black Elk. Black Elk is also called “servant of God” by the Church, due to his life of holiness. Near the beginning of our climb, we met a late middle aged white man, who informed us that Harney Peak had been “cancelled”, it’s now called Black Elk Peak, and mumbled something about being persecuted or something… My wife and I were startled by his impromptu attempt at evangelism, and simply responded, “we’re good with that”. I’m sure he wouldn’t have realized we’re both lifelong SD residents…. In reflection though, just a couple years ago, I was in his camp.

    Fear of loss of wealth, privilege, power drives most of this.

    1. “…he advocated for socialism…”

      In my experience, most people railing against socialism and cheering capitalism don’t really understand either.

  4. ‘I’m not saying there’s no such thing as unworthiness to receive the Eucharist. I’m saying that a pack of politicised jackals who believe there is no god but Trump and Arroyo is his prophet are – ‘ow you say – unworthy to act as prophets.’

    Truer words have never been spoken. In point of fact, using the principle laid down by Our Blessed Lord – ‘For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged and the measure you give will be the measure you get’ – a Catholic MAGA Republican would quickly find himself in the same boat as the Catholic Democrat he so despises. Actually, he’d be even WORSE off.

    To take just the most pertinent example, a MAGA Catholic may not support legal abortion, but he certainly won’t lift a finger to lower the demand for it by means of universal healthcare, paid maternity/paternity leave, economic aid for young married couples just starting out, or any other means that might lower the G.D.P. Add to that his blithe dismissal of Church teaching on unjust war, unjust use of capital punishment (if any use of it CAN be considered just these days), torture, and other violations of basic human rights, and you’ve got a murderer par excellence! He can bleat all he wants about ‘prudential judgement’, but it should immediately be pointed out to him that, if prudential judgement leads one to go against the plain words of Church teaching – e.g., ‘Don’t kill anyone if you don’t have to’ – it’s really just a sneakier form of the cafeteria Catholicism he abhors when it comes from Catholic Democrats.

    Do the Democrats pursue policies that contradict Church teaching? Yes, they do, and I would certainly hold them accountable for it if I were a priest. But if that’s the measure a MAGA Catholic insists on using when it comes to worthy reception of Holy Communion, he would do well to avoid Mass at my parish, or else discover that he is NOT in fact the Greatest Catholic of All Time.

  5. @Mark Shea:
    This video on the subject, as it relates to Biden, just popped up in my recommendations:
    Conservative Heads EXPLODE Over Pope’s Decision

    One thing that always kind of bothered me since I first started hearing about the whole denial of communion thing, is the kind of people who are most likely to be targeted for it, and the ones who are not. Regardless of intentions, the way it seems to have worked out is that Catholics from whom I might feel any measure of respect are far more likely to be denied communion than the most die-hard MAGA cultist.

    For example, I think someone like yourself, is far more likely to be admonished or denied communion, just because you made the prudential choice to vote for Democrats, than someone like, lets say, Steve Bannon. This is simply not the type of thing that ever keeps people like him up at night.

    Its gotten to the point where for those on the outside looking in, getting denied communion or even excommunicated by the Catholic Church, is almost like a badge of honor of sorts. Yet, I feel that when you look at the totality of where the Church stands on most issues, it really shouldn’t be that way, you know?

    1. There is no move to deny anybody who voted Democrat communion, nor will there ever be such a move. There was a push by a minority to deny Biden communion, but it failed, as it was certain to do. In the end, his bishop decides who can receive communion and his bishop has made clear he is welcome at the table. This is how deliberative bodies work. Dumb people can make dumb suggestions and get voted down, just like in any other body. This was a push by a minority of right wing fanatics. It came to nothing, as is fitting it should.

      1. The reason why this happens is because MAGA Catholics are aware that such moves to deny communion are bound to fail and it’s been that way since John Kerry.

        They know full well that they will get a lot of people behind the idea, address it to a bishop they dislike, he does not deny communion, and they can use this to fuel the narrative that that bishop is not true to church teaching.

        You should write a letter to bishop Strickland. It would be extremely unlikely that even he would deny communion to Biden and you could use this example to show that this isn’t about bishops personally. Even if nobody believes that, at least Strickland would lose a lot of clout and would have to defend his position publicly.

  6. @Mark Shea:
    I think it would be hard to set up a systemic denial of communion for Democrats as part of some kind of quasi-formal organized movement. But informally?

    In the video I linked, it mentions that Nancy Pelosi has to be careful about which parish she visits. Of Dick Durbin it says that he’s been unable to receive communion for the past 17 years at his home diocese in Springfield, Ill. I also remember a while back reading an account of a Catholic who was denied communion in front of everyone present, just because he made the prudential decision to vote for Obama.

    And sure, you could probably trace a lot of this to priests going rogue in some way or another, but can you at least acknowledge how this creates an optics problem for the Church?

    Do you remember Melinda, your former colleague at Patheos Catholic? I remember that shortly before or soon after she walked away from the Catholic Church, and eventually Christianity altogether, someone left a comment in her blog about how the fact that someone like her felt unsafe and unwelcome in the Church, while full blown MAGA Catholics felt both vindicated and emboldened by that same institution, should be deeply troubling.

    These political games some priests are playing with the communion might be a (relatively) small thing, all things considered, but these small things can add up, until they become too heavy to bear. This is especially true, when these rogue priests have gone on unchecked for so long, as it appears to have been the case.

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