The recent controversy over the withholding of communion by Fr. Guarnizo has sparked numerous canonical and pastoral discussions in the Catholic blogosphere. Dr. Ed Peters (to my mind) has summed up well the canonical questions in numerous articles [here] – though, to be sure, some questions still remain as to what constitutes a “public” sinner [here].
However, rather than entering immediately into the debated case of Fr. Guarnizo and Ms. Johnson, it may be good to step back and consider the question of unworthy communion in general and then turn to the first case of sacrilegious communion which occurred when Judas took the Eucharist at the Last Supper.
Is sacrilegious communion the worst sin?
In the most blessed Sacrament is a twofold reality: One which is both signified and contained, namely, the Christ himself; and another which is signified but not contained, namely, Christ’s mystical body, which is the Church.
Now, for this reason, only those who are incorporated into the members of Christ and are one with him through a living faith (that is, faith united to charity) may receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. Thus, whoever receives communion while in mortal sin is guilty of lying to the blessed Sacrament and of a grave sacrilege. Hence, such a man sins mortally.
To receive communion unworthily (i.e. in the state of mortal sin) is in the third class of most grave sins. The worst sins of all are those by which we offend the Godhead directly, as unbelief and blasphemy. Then are those sins which are directed immediately against the sacred Humanity of our Savior, as when the soldiers beat our Lord. And, in the third place of gravity, are those sins against the sacraments – and among these, sacrileges against the Eucharist seem to be the worst of all.
Did Judas receive communion at the Last Supper?
The vast tradition on this point is that Jesus did give the Eucharist to Judas at the Last Supper. While it is true that St. Hilary (commenting on Matthew 26:17) does not believe that our Savior gave Judas his Body and Blood, Sts. Dionysius (Eccl. Hier. iii) and Augustine (Tract. lxii in Joan.) affirm that Judas did indeed receive communion (sacrilegiously) from our Lord. Further this is the opinion of St. Thomas, together with Origen, Cyril, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Leo, Cyprian, Bede the Venerable, Robanus, Suarez and also Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide.
We can see that Judas did indeed receive communion (in an unworthy manner) at the Last Supper since St. Matthew states that all twelve of the Apostles sat with our Savior at the supper. This is why our Lord said to them, while they were eating: Amen I say to you, that one of you is about to betray me. (Matthew 26:21) Hence, it is clear that Judas the betrayer was yet present among them as they consumed the Eucharist.
Further, St. Luke also adds that, after the consecration of the chalice, Christ said But yet behold, the hand that betrayeth me is with me on the table. (Luke 21:21) From this it is clear that Judas was present and did indeed receive the sacred Eucharist at the Last Supper.
Finally, we point out that “without any doubt Judas did not receive Christ’s body in the dipped bread; he received mere bread [at that time].” (St. Thomas, ST III,q.81, a.2, ad 3) In other words, the bread which Jesus dipped and gave to Judas was most certainly not the Eucharist – Judas had already made his sacrilegious communion under both species, and upon receive this morsel went out immediately.
When denying communion to a public sinner, the priest is attempting to avoid scandal not sacrilege
Now, many who have been discussing the case of Fr. Guarnizo have considered the question almost entirely within the context of sacrilege. This is most especially prominent in the comment boxes of various blogs.
I maintain, however, that even in those cases when a priest must refuse communion to a public sinner, this is done not so much for the protection of the Eucharist from sacrilege, nor even for the spiritual benefit of the sinner, but rather for the sake of the community.
It is clear that the priest does not have an obligation (nor even a right) to protect the Eucharist from sacrilegious communions. Christ our Savior did not deny the Eucharist to Judas, even though he knew that this would be a terrible sacrilege. Judas’ sin was yet hidden, and so our Lord did not reveal the sin by refusing him communion. So too, priests must not reveal hidden sins through the denial of communion.
From this, it should be quite clear that the priest has not the authority to protect the Eucharist from sacrilegious communions made by hidden sinners. Even if a priest knows that a person is in mortal sin, if this sin is not public, he must not deny the sinner communion. Obviously, priests have a duty to explain to the people that communion is only to be received by those in the state of grace and united to the Catholic Church – but this is to be done through preaching, confession, and individual counseling.
Now, the Church requires that the priest refuse to distribute communion to public and manifest sinners. However, in doing so, the priest is clearly not acting primarily for the purpose of protecting the Eucharist from sacrilege, but rather in order to protect those present at the Mass from scandal.
If the priest did have a duty to protect the Eucharist from sacrilegious communions by denying communion to all those whom he knows to be obstinate in grave sin, then our Savior would have acted wrongly in giving Judas communion at the Last Supper. However, the priest does not (and must not) refuse communion to a sinner as a means (primarily) of protecting the Eucharist from sacrilege.
Rather, in those cases where a priest must refuse communion to a public sinner, the priest acts so as to protect the community from the scandal which would ensue should one who is obviously not united to the Church make a mockery of communion and lie to both the Blessed Sacrament and the Church by receiving the sacrament of unity while obviously divided from the mystical body of Christ.
An observation regarding the case of Fr. Guarnizo and Ms. Johnson
I notice that many of those who are defending Fr. Guarnizo speak primarily about how he protected the Eucharist from sacrilege. In this, they err. Fr. Guarnizo (if he did act rightly) acted so as to defend the community at the funeral Mass from scandal. It was not, at that moment, Father’s duty or prerogative to prevent a sacrilegious communion – thus, assuming the most charitable attitude toward Fr. Guarnizo, one must presume that he acted so as to prevent public scandal (and I do indeed presume his good intention, though I think he erred in his judgment that Ms. Johnson’s sin was canonically “manifest”).
However, let us consider the fact that Ms. Johnson did indeed receive communion at that Mass. It has, after all, been reported numerous times that she received communion from another immediately after being denied by Fr. Guarnizo.
Given that Ms. Johnson’s sin is now quite public and manifest (whether or not it was at the time, it certainly is now), it seems quite clear that the level of public scandal which has ensued from the denial of communion followed by the subsequent reception of the Sacrament from an extraordinary minister of communion is much greater than whatever the scandal would have been had Ms. Johnson not been refused communion in the first place.
In other words, the Christian faithful, whom Fr. Guarnizo must protect from the scandal of publicly sacrilegious communions, have been more scandalized and harmed in this case than if Ms. Johnson had simply been allowed to receive communion quietly.
Thus, it seems that either: 1) Fr. Guarnizo acted wrongly in denying Ms. Johnson communion, because her sin was not yet truly “manifest” (this is the position of Dr. Peters’, as I understand it).
Or, 2) Fr. Guarnizo acted rightly in denying Ms. Johnson communion, but then immediately failed in his duty when he allowed her to receive the Eucharist from an extraordinary minister, since this increased the scandal greatly (now, not only is the community present at the funeral scandalized, but also the much wider body of Catholics who heard of the incident in the news).
In other words, if Fr. Guarnizo was right to have denied communion to Ms. Johnson in the first place, it is clear that he must have erred gravely in permitting her to receive from an extraordinary minister.
If, on the other hand, Ms. Johnson was (at the time of the Mass) a hidden sinner and the communion would not have been a “public” sacrilege, then Fr. Guarnizo erred in refusing her communion.
In any case, those priests who refuse communion to public sinners must not do so primarily as a means of protecting the Eucharist from sacrilege. Rather, the priest must consider the Christian community and strive to protect the faithful from scandal.