CANON LAW FOR TODAY
By Rev. Francis Morrisey
Code spells out who can receive communion in the Catholic Church
Canon 912 spells out a general principle in relation to access to the eucharist: “Any baptized person who is not forbidden by law may and must be admitted to holy communion.”
We can note from the beginning, that the text refers to baptized “persons,” not exclusively to “Catholics.”
So this is a fundamental right of the baptized, subject to the limitations spelled out in the code. However, before looking at these limitations, it would be essential to keep in mind the fundamental principle of canon 18 which provides that any restriction of a right is subject to a strict interpretation. By “strict interpretation,” we do not mean “harsh” but, rather, that all the conditions spelled out in the law must be fulfilled at the same time. If one of these is missing, the restriction does not apply.
Unfortunately, in recent years, there have been a number of exaggerated opinions which hold that any politician who votes for a law that goes against Catholic principles is to be refused admission to communion. If this attitude were pushed to its limit, no Catholic could ever then be involved in politics or run for election.
We must keep in mind that the church is “in the world,” and not something outside it. This means that, at times, there has to be some form of tolerance, just as parents learn to tolerate some of the attitudes of their children, even though they do not necessarily agree with them.
Beginning with canon 913, we can read about some of the limitations found in the law. The first one concerns infants. For children in the Latin church, outside of danger of death cases, they must have sufficient knowledge of the mystery of Christ and be suitably prepared to receive the Body of the Lord with faith and devotion. It is primarily the responsibility of the parents to see to their children’s preparation; the parish priest is to see to it that the children do indeed receive adequate preparation.
Then, secondly, canon 915 is the canon which, today, causes the most difficulties in interpretation and application. It mentions two categories of persons: those who are excommunicated or interdicted; and those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.”
We note four different terms used here in the second category: 1) “obstinately” — this implies that the person in question has been duly warned not to approach communion; 2) “persists” — if the person ceases the behaviour upon receiving a warning then, obviously, he or she is to be admitted to communion; 3) manifest” — this implies that the situation is known by others and could possibly cause grave scandal; 4) “grave sin” — while some sins are objectively grave, the gravity of others could well depend on the intention of the person involved.
Since we do not know the state of other persons’ consciences, it is a prudent decision not to judge their motives.
Our role in the church is to bring people to the sacraments, not to push them away. This calls for tact and good pastoral experience, avoiding both laxity and rigidity.
The other situations that can arise in which the canon might be applied concern couples who are living together before marriage. Likewise, persons who are married outside the church. But probably the most sensitive and delicate issue concerns divorced and re-married catholics who have not obtained a declaration of nullity of their previous union.
Technically, the state of living outside of valid matrimony would fall under the canon. Yet, we have to keep in mind that, in many, many parts of the church today, there are no operating marriage tribunals and a person is unable to approach church authorities for a declaration of nullity of a previous marriage. Many people question whether these persons should be excluded for life from the sacraments because the church is unable to provide them with the services necessary.
Fortunately, in Canada, we have operating tribunals in all of the provinces and territories, so this situation usually doesn’t arise. But there is the other painful situation of those who, in conscience, are convinced of the nullity of their first union, but are unable — for a number of reasons — to bring forward proofs that would lead to a declaration of nullity.
Through the years, there have been varying responses to this pastoral dilemma. Pope Francis has indicated on a number of occasions that he wishes to look into this matter more seriously. To date, though, there has been no formal change in the official policy.
Thirdly, we saw in an previous column (when referring to canon 844) that there are also provisions for Christians who are not Catholics to approach some of the sacraments. These should not be overlooked.
Fourthly, one last canon to be noted is canon 916 which states that those who are conscious of grave sin are not to receive the Body of Christ without first having been to sacramental confession. Or, if there is no occasion to confess, then the person is to make an act of perfect contrition, and resolve to go to confession as soon as possible.
These norms have as their purpose to protect the dignity of the sacrament and should be applied carefully.
Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 16th article in a series.