The Worthy Reception of the Eucharist Neglected at the Synod


November 13, 2015

The 2015 October Synod on the Family has ended.   So, what came out of it?

A final document was handed to Pope Francis that was a fine academic treatise on the family. But media reports say that Cardinals, archbishops and theologians are still wrestling over whether the Synod opened a way for “some” divorced and irregularly married couples to be able to receive communion.

But this question pales in significance compared to another fact, namely, that the Synod omitted any discussion of Canons 915 and 916 of the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983 by John Paul II.

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It’s important to say, first of all, that the Code of Canon Law isn’t some stuffy collection of “do’s and don’ts.” Since Christ established the Church, she has been collecting rules and directions of right conduct under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For centuries these directives have been collected and codified in an orderly way, using the principles of both civil and ecclesiastical law to express divine truths. Therefore, the Code of Canon Law is no less than the “road map” established by the Holy Spirit to guide the Church!

How would Canons 915 and 916 have been relevant to the work of the Synod? It’s no secret today that everywhere people are coming to communion indiscriminately—including manifest sinners—which is a sacrilege. Canons 915 and 916 point out the duty of the pastors to prevent these abuses of the Eucharist.

This widespread ignorance, or indifference, to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is one of the greatest scandals of our age. But, this “abuse scandal” is one that few Catholics notice and most pastors seem either unconcerned or wish would go away. How did it begin? Why does it persist?

I believe we can trace this fundamental offense to God—the practice of indiscriminate communions, and receiving the Eucharist indifferently—to one source: Many, if not most, bishops are not enforcing Canons 915 and 916 of the Code of Canon Law.

If they did, the conversation at the Synod would have been very different. For example, bishops who argued for opening communion to some couples in irregular marriages would have been required to hold their ideas up to the light of Canons 915 and 916. In other words, their standards would have to include discussions of the sacredness of the Eucharist and the necessity to make good confessions and avoid “grave sin.” But these fundamental ideas were not the focus of the Synod’s discussion. Rather the concern seem to be—how do people feel and what do people want?

I believe this omission reveals, not only a Church struggling to be honest, but also a Church where many appear to be languishing in doubt about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and doubts about the possibility of eternal punishment.

The Church Struggles to be Honest
First of all, what does Canons 915 and 916 of the Code of Canon Law say? Canon 915 states that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.” Canon 916 states that “a person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession.”

However, it is obvious that Canon 916 also requires an action on the part of the pastor, for it is his responsibility to inform parishioners about Canon 916 and specifically when they can or cannot come up to receive communion. For example, parishioners need to be told frequently through homilies, etc., that they cannot come to communion if they are living in fornication, adultery, or using contraceptives without changing their lifestyle and receiving sacramental absolution.

As for Canon 915, its importance was made especially clear for the Church when John Paul II affirmed it in his 2003 encyclical letter, “The Eucharist and the Church.” And, on June 24, 2000 the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts spelled out the way Canon 915 is to be applied when it insisted that in those cases in which dialogue and explanations do not help “the minister of communion must refuse to distribute it to those who are publicly unworthy.”

Finally, the Vatican issued its document Redemptionis Sacramentum on March 25, 2004, which pointed out those who are responsible for stopping people from coming to communion “indiscriminately” and abusing the Eucharist. The Vatican stated: “It pertains to the Pastors prudently and firmly to correct such an abuse (# 81- 83).

So Canons 915 and 916 were designed to stop not only the many divorced and irregularly “remarried” already receiving communion, but also other people engaged in morally irregular lifestyles, such as politicians who support abortion and same-sex “marriage,” and who, as we all know, continue to receive communion with seemingly clear consciences.

However, neither Canon 915 nor Canon 916 has been used effectively. It’s common knowledge that politicians and other public figures, who are known for their anti-life policy positions, receive communion without any challenge. Many people, well known and not, receive communion indiscriminately at weddings, funerals, and holidays—whenever circumstances “force” them into a Catholic church.

We also know Canon 915 is not having its effect because a number of cardinals and bishops have stated time and time again that they have no intention of barring anyone from communion, even pro-abortion politicians. Given their mindset, it’s highly unlikely these same leaders would be regularly reminding their congregations about Canon 916 and cautioning them that they cannot receive the Eucharist if, for example, they are using contraception or living in an adulterous relationship.

Serious Questions Must be Asked
Given these facts about the universal indiscriminate reception of communion by people living immorally and especially at this disturbing point in the Church’s history, we must ask some key fundamental questions to Synod participants:

The first question is to those in favor of giving communion to “some” of the divorced and civilly remarried in special circumstances: Why the great concern over a small subset of divorced and remarried Catholics who are not able to receive communion licitly, when bishops everywhere are allowing virtually anyone to come to communion anyway?

The second question goes to the conservatives who disapprove of giving communion to “some” divorced and civilly remarried under specified conditions: Why quarrel over permitting a few divorced and civilly remarried couples from receiving communion in certain situations, and at the same time ignore the countless numbers of people who are offending Our Lord through sacrilegious communions?

And both sides had this in common: Neither side spoke up to discuss Canons 915 and 916! As far as I can determine, there is not one mention of either canon in the entire final document of the Synod.

Again, we must wonder: Why was this most scandalous and irregular situation (cardinals and archbishops everywhere ignoring Canons 915 and 916) not even an issue at the Synod? This is outrageous. The pope and the Synod should have addressed the troubling truth that bishops have turned their backs on Canons 915 and 916 and have decided to give communion to anyone and everyone who comes—no matter what state their private or public moral life.

But the Trouble Goes Deeper
Equally troubling, of course, is that the participants at the Synod had to struggle at all over the idea of giving communion to divorced and irregularly married couples.

Can it be that some Church leaders believe that receiving communion while irregularly married is a “sacrilege” while others do not? But the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Sacrilege is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist.” So were some Church leaders at the Synod responding to the teaching in the Catechism while others were ignoring it?

Throughout history, the Church has taught that receiving communion while in grave sin attacks Jesus Christ’s high priestly prayer of unity for the Church at the Last Supper, which states “that they may be one” (Jn. 17:21). An irregularly married couple receiving the Eucharist works against “communion” by splitting the Body of Christ into factions, and puts them in danger of being judged with Judas, who Jesus himself said was “lost,” after “Satan entered his heart,” following his reception of the morsel at the Last Supper (Jn. 13:27, 17:12).

Do these cardinals and archbishops not realize that in the drama of the Agony in the Garden those who fit the character of Judas—who handed Jesus over to be crucified—are those in the position of distributing communion today to unworthy receivers—Is there no fear here?

Don’t they realize that pastors distributing communion to unworthy receivers just to keep them coming to Church, and their church bank accounts filled with euros, Swiss franks, or dollars, resembles too closely Judas handing Jesus over for “thirty pieces of silver” (Mt. 27:1-10)? While not judging them, shouldn’t pastors avoid even the appearance of such things?

The fact that we could even consider such questions reveals a more serious problem that goes even deeper than the failure to consider Canons 915 and 916.

There is a deterioration in the Church’s belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the possibility of eternal punishment.

Many know that seeds of “doubt” have been regularly sown in these wheat fields of the Church. This was primarily the work of theologians teaching in the past fifty years that Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist was merely “symbolic” and that it is not certain that anyone is ever “lost” or damned for the sin of sacrilege against the Eucharist or any other sin—not even Judas. 

If we firmly believed, as Paul VI taught in Mysterium Fidei, that, after the consecration of the Mass, the Eucharistic Host is the “physical reality” of Jesus Christ who is truly, “substantially” and “bodily present”—and if we believed that this Divine Person is being abused by countless numbers in the Eucharist regularly, and that those who receive unworthily are on the path to being “lost”—we would at least try to stop these sacrileges by calling for a discussion of Canons 915 and 916.

The relationship between the family and the Church in the life of the Catholic Christian is both paramount and mysterious. St. Paul speaks of marriage (and by extension, family) as “a great foreshadowing, I mean that it refers to Christ and His Church” (Eph. 5:32). This means as the Church goes, so goes the family.

Until Canons 915 and 916 are taken seriously, we will not be able to resolve these deep-seated divisions in the Church and family. In other words, before we can straighten out the problems in marriage and the family, we must first straighten out the problems between Christ and his Church—in other words, we must straighten out the problems between the Eucharist, and us.


  • Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap

    Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M.Cap., is spiritual director and chaplain for Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity in Denver, as well as being one of the spiritual directors for the Missionaries of Charity in the western United States. He was director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, from 1999 to 2010; a chaplain for Missionaries of Charity at their now-closed AIDS hospice, Seton House, and at Gift of Mary homeless shelter for women in Denver from 1989 to 2008. His articles have been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Faith, Soul Magazine, Pastoral Life, and The Priest. He has also made three series for Mother Angelica’s EWTN: “Crucial Questions,” “Catholic Answers,” and “What Did Vatican II Really Teach?”

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