Action Alert!

When bishops disagree: on withholding the Eucharist

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 31, 2009

 In the Code of Canon Law, #916 obligates the faithful to determine for themselves whether they are prepared to receive Communion (that is, in a state of grace), and act accordingly. Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington has cited Canon 916 to explain why he will not deny the Eucharist to a pro-abortion politician. The recipient himself is responsible, he argues.

Archbishop Raymond Burke, the head of the Apostolic Signatura, disagrees. He cites Canon 915 to support his argument that priests should withhold the Eucharist from those who are in manifest grave sin. It's the responsibility of the Eucharistic minister, he says.

Who's right? Canon lawyer Edward Peters acknowledges that both American prelates are citing the canons correctly. But individual provisions of the Code should not be read in isolation, he argues; one canon supports another. In this case, Peters reasons:

I suggest that, for one to argue that Communion reception by Catholics is a purely personal decision under Canon 916 is to ignore impermissibly Canon 915 and its assertion of ministerial obligations in certain cases.

In other words, it is the responsibility of the individual to refrain from approaching the Eucharist if he is not in a state of grace. But when it is evident to everyone involved that the individual has failed to meet that responsibility, the priest should take action. But Peters makes that argument more elegantly, and his analysis is definitely worth reading.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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