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Why the Church Restricts Access to Communion

7/16/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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According to a Professor of Sacramental Theology and Ecumenism

ROME, JULY 16, 2004 (Zenit) - That the Church normally restricts access to holy Communion to Catholics, who must fulfill certain conditions, has become a debated issue in some sectors.

Some Catholics do not even know why the Church maintains this custom, which dates back to the early Christian communities.

To answer the question, we interviewed Father Philip Goyret, professor of sacramental theology, ecclesiology and ecumenism at the University of the Holy Cross. Father Goyret is also the pontifical university's director of studies.

Q: What is the theological and ecclesiological significance of someone receiving Communion?

Father Goyret: Following biblical texts, especially St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Catholics believe in the profound existing nexus between the body of Christ, the Eucharistic body, and the ecclesial body.

The language of the New Testament manifests this reality using the same word "body" to speak either of the historical and later glorious body of the Lord, or the Eucharistic body, or the ecclesial body.

It goes beyond a mere play on words, as, by nourishing ourselves with the Eucharistic body of the Lord, which contains substantially the now glorious body of Our Lord in heaven, we are consolidated as members of his ecclesial body.

When receiving Eucharistic Communion, we receive the body and blood of the Lord, which increases in our hearts our profound union with him. And to be united to him also implies to be united with those who are united to him. Thus we attain ecclesial communion.

This is what theology expresses with the phrase "the Eucharist builds the Church." By Eucharistic Communion we enter into communion with the Lord and we are consolidated in ecclesial communion.

Looking at the "negative" side of things, it is interesting to recall the original meaning of "excommunication." Before its juridical consequences were developed, to be excommunicated meant -- and still means -- to be removed from Eucharistic Communion. Whoever is excluded from ecclesial communion cannot take part in Eucharistic Communion.

However, the Eucharist is not "automatic." The effect mentioned above will not follow if Communion is received by a Martian who has never heard about the Gospel. One must go to Communion receiving the Eucharist for what it is, namely, the body and blood of Christ, with intense faith in his real presence in the species.

To believe this takes great commitment, as it means to believe in the complete truth revealed in Christ; as it is the complete Christ who is present in the Eucharist. And the complete truth includes all that the Church proposes as revealed, including about herself.

It means, moreover, to believe as we Christians do: not only accepting specific knowledge intellectually, but also conforming our life to this knowledge. This is why we speak of "intense" faith.

Hence, "to be in order" with the Catholic Church as a condition to receive the Eucharist in a Catholic celebration is not simply a question "of regulations" -- as a tennis club that does not allow the use of its courts to those who have not paid their dues -- but an internal exigency of the sacrament, as understood by the Catholic faith.

Therefore, between Eucharistic Communion and ecclesial communion there is a relation which we could call "circular." The Eucharist consolidates us in ecclesial communion, while at the same time exacting it as a first condition. Eucharistic Communion causes ecclesial communion while at the same time signifying it.

Q: Denying Communion, whether to Catholics or in some cases even to Protestants, is criticized as being a divisive measure. What is your opinion?

Father Goyret: To understand this, suffice it to develop the foregoing last lines.

Ecclesial communion as an antecedent condition to access Eucharistic Communion consists, substantially, in the integrity of faith and absence of grave sin. From the Catholic point of view, the first includes, logically, to be a Catholic.

It also implies the absence of situations of habitual sin -- family irregularities, ideological positions that are incompatible with the Catholic faith, professional conduct opposed to Catholic morality, etc. -- in addition to occasional sins.

The moral and pastoral norm followed by priests when distributing Communion is to deny it publicly to those who are publicly known as persons who cannot receive it. To proceed otherwise would mean to cast aside the theological and ecclesiological meaning of which we spoke earlier.

For Catholics, the eventual distribution of Communion to a non-Catholic, within a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, implies a contradiction, as ...

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