On Allowing the Unworthy Reception of the Eucharist

Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor accused Christ of insufficiently loving the “weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man.” Christ, he declared, cared only for those “great and strong” souls who would freely obey him for the sake of the bread of Heaven.

So the Grand Inquisitor would “care for the weak too”—the “millions” who are too “sinful and rebellious” to follow Christ’s law out of love for the Eucharist. He would leave Christ’s “proud” followers and go “back to the humble, for the happiness of the humble.”

He would, in a mercy exceeding Christ’s, “allow them even sin.”

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Today, instead of being accused of cold exclusionism, Christ is supposed to have exonerated himself by mercifully permitting what he once called serious sin. Discussing the recent papal letter lauding Eucharistic access for certain divorced and remarried persons who aren’t celibate, Ross Douthat notes the effective division between an unchanged magisterial rule and a parallel “Francis position” that could ultimately “signal approval to any stable relationship.”

The Argentine bishops praised by Pope Francis say it’s “possible to propose” continence to the remarried but some need the Eucharist first to “continue maturing and growing.” It’s as if the “proud” and “strong” are still allowed their elite spiritual athletics, while the “humble” are finally nourished by their formerly frigid, derelict Mother Church.

Many have strongly lamented the Pope’s letter and its ramifications for orthodoxy and unity and reiterated the legitimacy and necessity of opposing its “permission” for grave sins.

“The Eucharist, of course, is the greatest treasure that Christ gave the Church; it must be safeguarded, and we cannot say that adultery is not a mortal sin or it’s not a public offense against God’s order,” said Fr. Gerald Murray.

And now we increasingly wonder: will this updated, more “merciful” Christ rest while he can still be accused of restricting his Sacrament of Love? Robert Royal senses, with trepidation, a “new vision of the Eucharist,” a looming confirmation of reports that Pope Francis wants to extend the Eucharist to all, Catholic or not.

The Grand Inquisitor claimed that a flock divided by Christ’s stern moral commands could “come together again” through “permission” to sin and universal bread. Such bread, he said, would fulfill humanity’s “everlasting craving” for comfortable “common worship.”

He said that men would cry out against Christ: “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!”

He spoke of earthly bread before virtue—but what if, in the name of mercy, we feed the masses heavenly bread instead?

We’ve been warned before that, if we don’t enforce the canons on worthy reception of the Eucharist, we’ll proliferate grave sins of sacrilege and betray a “deterioration in the Church’s belief in the Real Presence” and Hell. We’ll subvert true oneness; we’ll risk the same stark moral divisions present at the Last Supper.

We’ve been warned that if Eucharistic access becomes a “matter of justice”—if we insist that Christ’s “real intention” is to remove all stigmas and impediments—the Church becomes a mere “promoter of group solidarity and social action,” a trite “dispenser of personal comfort and consolation.”

The Grand Inquisitor would let men trade the “anxiety and terrible agony” of free choice for an “answer” they’d readily “believe” about “the most painful secrets of their conscience.” They’d become “happy babes,” he boasted, with their great “permission” to sin.

So, if today’s priest can “answer” that there’s a “permission slip” for serious sin because of a prospective assessment of ignorance, is he forming upright consciences or just “happy babes”?

Ah, but the unfeeling Christ, the Grand Inquisitor cried, respected man too much, asking “far too much from him.” St. Augustine was for a great time in what we now call an “irregular situation”—or, perhaps, a “real marriage,” cohabitating faithfully with the mother of his son. Today, it is said, we finally grasp that the Church’s “romantic” ideal of marriage is probably akin to an imaginary Platonic Form, that the “heroism” of celibacy is not for “the average Christian” in irregular situations, and that sexual relations in illicit unions may be necessary for the “good” of children.

But poor Augustine of Hippo couldn’t benefit from postmodernity’s superior knowledge of “subjective” states and “concrete” situations.

Instead of being mercifully, inclusively fed with the Eucharist as he was accompanied to an ethereal moral ideal, Augustine had to subsist largely on the tears of his mother, St. Monica. Though profuse, those prayerful tears were probably just so many proud Pharisaical stones “hurled” in judgment against his “difficult” case and “wounded” family.  

Likely under the influence of this fundamentalist who believed in “absolute truth,” this Promethean Pelagian who felt “superior” by observing “certain rules” and “inspecting” others, the unaccompanied Augustine melodramatically castigated himself for delaying repentance. He wept because he “ran wild in the shadowy jungle of erotic adventures,” yet no one “imposed restraint on [his] disorder” by exhorting marriage. He wept because he “postponed ‘from day to day’ finding life” in God even as he “did not postpone” daily “dying” within himself through sin.

He wept because, while others were doing austere penance for their unchaste sins, he feebly prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” He wept because he had been “afraid” that God would “too rapidly heal” him of a lust that he “preferred to satisfy rather than suppress.”

He wept especially because, as a “eunuch” for God, he could have been “happier finding fulfillment” in divine “embraces.”

Today we deduce that our all-merciful God darkens the sinner’s intellect so that mortal sins become little “venial sins” that hardly hinder Eucharistic union. But angsty Augustine groaned that, with his grossly confused and abused freedom, with his love for “self-destruction,” he was a guilty, miserable prodigal son:

I traveled much further away from you into more and more sterile things productive of unhappiness, proud in my self-pity, incapable of rest in my exhaustion… I exceeded all the bounds set by your law, and did not escape your chastisement—indeed, no mortal can do so. For you were always with me, mercifully punishing me, touching with a bitter taste all my illicit pleasures…

You beat me with heavy punishments, but not the equivalent of my guilt; O my God, my great mercy, my refuge from the terrible dangers in which I was wandering.

Such superfluous soul-drama and sin talk and fear—when Augustine could have reposed, danger-free, in patient accompaniment and tender Eucharistic nourishment! The Grand Inquisitor, in his excessive mercy, would have short-circuited such terrible confessional drama.

Thus poor Augustine, many would say, was never properly catechized on the mercy of God. Oh, yes, he spoke incessantly of God’s mercy with the most poetic, Psalmic cries. “You had pity on [my heart] when it was at the bottom of the abyss.” “I attribute to your grace and mercy that you have melted my sins away like ice.”

But, against today’s great permission to persist in the intent to sin, Augustine the eventual Pelagian—oh, irony!—took the faith “so seriously,” observed it so “rigidly,” that he exchanged joyful “freedom” for gloomy “mourning.”

He taught: “After sin, hope for mercy; before sin, fear justice.” “Woe to him who hopes, so that he may sin: ‘Woe to that perverse hope.’” “He who offends God hoping to be pardoned is a derider, and not a penitent.”

In his new life of sanctity, Augustine preached and practiced the deepest penance. According to his Vita:

[Augustine in his final illness] ordered the four psalms of David that deal with penance to be copied out. From his sick-bed he could see these sheets of paper every day, hanging on his walls, and would read them, crying constantly and deeply. And, lest his attention be distracted from this in any way, almost ten days before his death, he asked … that none should come in to see him…

Augustine’s former mistress had long ago adopted penitential continence, “vowing that she would never go with another man.”

“I swear,” the Grand Inquisitor cried to Christ, “man is weaker and baser by nature than Thou hast believed him! … Respecting him less, Thou wouldst have asked less of him. That would have been more like love.”

As God of old once vindicated Job, Christ could have pointed to the weeping Augustine and his former mistress and every hidden, anonymous Augustine among us who forswears sin out of love for Christ crucified and his Most Holy Eucharist.

And this new Augustine, in turn, would have pointed to the Cross and defended Christ against the accusation that he coldly demands too much from man. Augustine would have cried, with St. John Vianney, that “sin is the executioner of the good God, and the assassin of the soul.” As the Grand Inquisitor scoffed that renouncing sin is for the “proud” and “strong” alone, Augustine would have wept with the Curé of Ars because the Cross “is what it cost my Savior to repair the injury my sins have done to God.”

Then, trembling that so loving a Savior could be threatened with sins of sacrilege, he would have pointed to the Sacrament of Love and preached, with the saintly priest:

If we understood the value of Holy Communion, we should avoid the least faults… We should keep our souls always pure in the eyes of God… Neither can you offend the good God tomorrow [when you receive Holy Communion]; your soul will be all embalmed with the precious Blood of Our Lord.


  • Julia Meloni

    Julia Meloni writes from the Pacific Northwest. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale and a master’s degree in English from Harvard.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...