Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Does Canon 915 mean anything at all?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 31, 2022

If Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque is right, and it is a “misguided response” to withhold Communion from Catholic politicians who support unrestricted abortion, then the famous Canon 915 makes no sense at all.

Archbishop Jackels argues that many Catholic politicians fall short of the Church’s standards on pro-life issues. But he would not deny them Communion. He says:

Better, I think, to put the Eucharist in the hands of such Catholics in hopes that one day soon they would put their hands to work on behalf of life, in defense of all life.

The archbishop reasons:

As Jesus said, it’s the sick people who need a doctor, not the healthy, and he gave us the Eucharist as a healing remedy; don’t deny the people who need the medicine.

By that logic, it seems that no one should ever be denied—or deny himself—the Eucharist. St. Paul would disagree. He warned us:

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… For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the Body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. [1 Cor II 27, 29]

In such a case, St. Paul continues, the effect of the Eucharist is not medicinal; “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” [1 Cor II 30]

So if it is a gravely sinful matter to promote the deliberate destruction of innocent human life, then it is an act of charity to prevent the sinners from receiving the Eucharist and further endangering their own souls.

For that reason the Code of Canon Law enjoins us (#916):

Anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession…

Moreover, in the case of Catholic politicians who support abortion, the peril to the individual’s soul is not the only consideration; there is also the matter of public scandal. And because some unrepentant sinners might ignore the Church’s pastoral warning, Canon 915 gives pastors the duty of preventing public scandal:

Those…who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.

We are all sinners, in need of the spiritual healing that the Eucharist offers. But there are distinctions to be made. Most of us are ashamed of our sins. While we fall short of the Church’s high standards, we do not call press conferences to applaud gravely sinful actions. So even if we receive the Eucharist unworthily, we do not thereby scandalize our neighbors, and our priests are not complicit in our sin.

Archbishop Jackels makes the familiar argument that a true pro-life politician would not only oppose abortion—that “protecting the earth, our common home, or making food, water, shelter, education and health care accessible, or defense against gun violence… these are life issues too.” But again a few crucial distinctions should be made.

  • First, not all political issues are of equal moral importance; pollution is not as serious as the slaughter of the innocent.
  • Next, most political issues require prudential judgments, on which good people can legitimately differ. There is a broad range of opinion on how best to protect the environment, or furnish adequate nutrition to the poor, or educate children. Differences of opinion on those prudential judgments cannot be compared with rejection of fundamental moral principles, such as “Thou shalt not kill.”
  • Finally there is that important question of public scandal. There are no prominent Catholic politicians openly applauding the rape of the environment, or proposing to deny health care to the needy, or supporting gun violence. But there are prominent Catholic politicians supporting the slaughter of unborn children.

If Archbishop Jackels is right, then Canon 915 is meaningless and should be removed from the Code of Canon Law. But it is not easy to make that argument at a time when canon law is routinely ignored—even by Pope Francis, who has the power to change it.

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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  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Jun. 03, 2022 8:31 AM ET USA

    And did the prayer for a spiritual communion come about for no good reason? "But since I am unable now to receive Thee sacramentally,..." means what exactly?

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 01, 2022 9:18 AM ET USA

    There are three necessary conditions for a mortal sin: grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate complete consent. They do apply directly to each individual Catholic lawmaker in active support of abortion. However, no one sane is knowingly and deliberately acting against "protecting the earth" etc. A bishop should know that putting "other life issues" in the mix as "equally important" serve to dilute the gravity of abortion and misleads souls. He sins if he does it deliberately and knowingly.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - May. 31, 2022 6:56 PM ET USA

    Pray for Archbishop Jackels… he is another lost shepherd… and pray that he will not mislead too many of the faithful… may the majority of the USCCB repudiate his specious reasoning!

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - May. 31, 2022 5:23 PM ET USA

    Forgive me for my ignorance; I thought that the sacrament of reconciliation was the healing sacrament. Jackels most assuredly knows that abortion abettors are guilty of grave sin, even if they profess not to be "conscious" of their sin, and he therefore is guilty of a grave sin of neglect requiring him to refrain from celebrating Mass. Hopefully soon all bishops will show their stripes so the faithful can judge their theological worth. Phil, I appreciate your tenacity; excellent work.