A remarkable exchange has unfolded in the pages of The Springfield State Journal-Register newspaper.
John Freml, of Call to Action, wrote a letter to the editor, to wit:
In the wake of the recent Synod on the Family, in which bishops from around the world debated the church’s treatment of divorced and gay Catholics, I believe it is important that local Catholics are aware of some positive developments. Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago recently gave an interview to Chicago’s ABC7, in which he stated that people in “irregular” situations, who “are in good conscience, working with a spiritual director,” might come to make decisions in good conscience that are in conflict with official church teachings. This includes receiving communion, even when the church hierarchy says that they should not.
He was initially speaking in reference to divorced Catholics who are civilly remarried, but then elaborated about same sex couples who wish to receive communion, stating: “They’re human beings, too. They have a conscience. They have to follow their conscience … and we have to respect that.”
Conservative church leaders often imply that a correctly formed conscience is always in harmony with what the hierarchy teaches, but this is simply not the case. In fact, the church has a rich history of saints who have stood up to church leaders in good conscience, including St. Joan of Arc and St. Catherine of Siena. As Archbishop Cupich said, “I think that when people come for communion, it’s not up to any minister who’s distributing the Eucharist to make a decision about a person’s worthiness or lack of worthiness. That’s on the conscience of those individuals.”
I hope that local Catholics who have previously refrained from participating in communion will take to heart Jesus’ message: “Take this, all of you, and eat it.” Remember that Jesus welcomed everyone to the table without condition, even Judas.
This prompted a response, published over the weekend, from Springfield Bishop Thomas John Paprocki:
It is important to set the record straight about some incorrect statements made by John Freml in his letter to the editor (December 21, 2015). He notes that Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago has said that people in “irregular” situations, such as those who are divorced and civilly remarried and those who are in same-sex government marriages, should work with a spiritual director to come to a decision “in good conscience” about receiving Holy Communion.
Of course, those who are in “irregular situations” should talk to a qualified spiritual director or a priest in the context of sacramental confession, but forming a “good conscience” means that they will recognize and repent of their sins, resolve to reform their lives in accord with Christ’s teachings and receive absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Holy Communion.
According to the canon law of the Catholic Church, Canon 916 directs those “conscious of grave sin” to refrain from receiving Holy Communion. Individuals must form their consciences in accord with Church teaching. Conscience assesses how a person’s concrete action in a given situation accords with Church teaching — not to determine whether one agrees with or accepts Church teaching in the first place.
Canon 915, however, in contrast with Canon 916, directs ministers of Holy Communion to withhold the Sacrament, not from “sinners” per se (since no one can read the state of another person’s soul), but rather, from those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.” In Catholic tradition, attempting marriage following a civil divorce without a declaration of nullity and entering a “same-sex marriage” are examples of the kind of gravely wrong public action that require ministers not to admit to Holy Communion those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” under Canon 915.
When withholding holy Communion from those whose conduct is described in Canon 915, a minister is not assessing personal “worthiness,” but rather, is acting in accord with an age-old sacramental discipline designed to protect both the Sacrament from the risk of possible sacrilege and the faith community from the harm of scandal caused by someone’s public conduct that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Thus, when Mr. Freml says that people may receive Holy Communion in such cases “even when the church hierarchy says that they should not,” this is simply not true. It is true that Jesus welcomes everyone. But as Jesus said at the last supper, so we say in the Eucharistic prayer at Mass, Jesus poured out his blood “for you and for many,” since not everyone accepts what Christ offers, just as Judas did not accept what Christ offered him.