Communion and the dishonor system

November 13, 2015 § 34 Comments

[26] For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come. [27] Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. [28] But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. [29] For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord. [30] — 1 Corinthians 11:26-30

Right now, receiving Communion at Mass is de facto on what is colloquially referred to as the honor system.  There are no bouncers or turnstiles, but you are only supposed to receive the Eucharist if you are a Catholic in good standing who has not committed any mortal sin since your last Confession. Whether you do or do not actually follow this is, with extremely rare and universally unenforced exceptions, between you and God. Failing to do so can incur the consequence of eternal hellfire, but it won’t get you tossed out into the alley by Bruno and Charlie.

So I suppose we can think of proposals to change this as the dishonor system.

§ 34 Responses to Communion and the dishonor system

  • Aethelfrith says:

    I’ve found, having had a foot in all three camps (Catholic, Orthodox, (evangelical) Protestant) the communion discipline from most to least stringent goes:

    Orthodox–Evangelical Prot–Catholic.

    Orthodox maintain the (at least) out of bed-to-communion fasting standard. A lot of parishioners have breakfast beforehand and do not approach the chalice for that reason. The ROCOR Russians are more severe in that in addition to the fast, they require a communicant to go to confession, attend vigil (which is NOT a liturgy), and begin the fast from the end of vigil.

    Even though the Greek Archdiocese is known for being “liberal,” my priest once made announcement prior to serving the Eucharist that theirs is a closed communion and Catholics are excluded.

    Evangelical Prots, even though their sacramental theology is pretty much nonexistent, warn their faithful everytime when “communion” is served of that Corinthians passage.

    I was able, in a Roman parish, to receive communion prior to receiving the Holy Spirit by just looking inconspicuous.

  • Zippy says:

    I am hard pressed to grasp what ‘looking inconspicuous’ might even mean in the average suburban parish. There is, observably, no dress code either.

  • Mike T says:

    I think it means not attracting unavoidable attention to yourself. Protestant pastors that take it seriously tend to be more open to forthrightly telling a church member that they know something’s up with them. Again, no bouncers, but you are a lot more likely to face a pastor who is willing to give you that look that says “you sure do like the taste of brimstone with your wine, don’t you” as you try to take communion.

    The reason why Protestants often can’t understand why liberal Catholic politicians can act with impunity is because they are so notorious that you have to live under a rock to not know that they are openly attacking Catholic teachings in their position of authority. Therefore it seems unbelievable that a priest wouldn’t walk up to Pelosi or Biden and say “um, yeah, no, get out of the communion line” because they are unabashedly, stridently anti-Christian on issues like abortion and gay issues.

  • Zippy says:

    I don’t really see much point in debating the supposed relative merits of (certain isolated) Protestant “communion” practices, since Protestantism doesn’t have a valid Eucharist in the first place.

    An invalid Eucharist is a far greater problem – so great as to diminish all other problems to irrelevant dust – than pretty much any issue of natural moral theology. The distinction is objectively rather like the difference between cheating in a valid marriage and ‘cheating’ against a partner in fornication. Maybe he’ll think the next time before he ‘cheats’, in the words of the Prophet Underwood; but it doesn’t much matter to me. You can’t profane a sacrament that isn’t a sacrament: the non-sacrament is already profanation in itself, objectively speaking.

    Not-in-communion Orthodoxy is a different matter, since despite the schism they do have apostolic succession and valid sacraments.

  • Alex says:

    I think this is the key for sanity in the Church. The less clear and explicit it is made that the Eucharist is the actual body of Christ, the more we will suffer with unworthy priests and bishops.

    I think that it is a good thing that it was a very good thing that frequent communion was encouraged by Saint Pius X. However, take Aethelfrith’s example. I have been to a Russian Orthodox vigil and mass. It was a very beautiful thing and if there is anything we should learn from the orthodox, I think that is it. Of course, copying the practice directly would be incompatible with the frequent communion ideal. But it wouldn’t be that disturbing if the Church required us to fast and participate of a night vigil before communion at least once a year,

    About the topic at hand, I think changing the practice and giving communion to public adulterers has a much worse side to it than the one being usually discussed. So far, I have seen most people discuss it on terms of whether it is against doctrine (it is) and sometimes on whether it is a scandal. But possibly the worst part, I think, is that by muddling practice and doctrine, the Church would make it very hard for the said adulterers to understand and repent of their sins. In other words, all this talk of mercy is really about mercifully throwing these people into hell.

  • Zippy says:

    Agreed Alex. It is objectively merciful to warn people of sin and Hell, and objectively merciless to give them the impression that they are no big deal; unless we don’t actually take sin and Hell seriously.

    As with other areas I’ve been talking about recently, I think anti-realism is at work here. It is the worst sort of anti-realism, because it is directed at the sacraments.

  • Mike T says:

    It is objectively merciful to warn people of sin and Hell, and objectively merciless to give them the impression that they are no big deal; unless we don’t actually take sin and Hell seriously.

    From time to time over the last decade, I’ve seen announcements from various officials in the Catholic Church (including this Pope) that it is possible to be saved without being a Christian. Set aside hypotheticals about invincible ignorance and think about what that actually sounds like as a statement to ordinary Westerners raised in nominally Christian societies. It sounds not like a hypothetical argument, but dispensation to disregard Christ when He said “whoever rejects my words stands condemned already before my Father” because most Westerners in fact live in real rejection of even the Nicene Creed.

    It has seemed to me for a while that a lot of Catholic officials, like many mainline protestant leaders, flirt with a variety of extremely serious sins in the name of mercy and being “seeker sensitive.”

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:

    It sounds not like a hypothetical argument, but dispensation to disregard Christ when He said “whoever rejects my words stands condemned already before my Father” because most Westerners in fact live in real rejection of even the Nicene Creed.

    Well, it is just enough more than a hypothetical to provide for the classic Jesuitical opening. In order to actively reject Christ’s words one has to actually understand them, and the fog of ignorance doesn’t dispel with the mere pronouncement of words.

    As cases in point, look at our ongoing usury discussions. Look at our liberalism discussions. Overcoming ignorance really isn’t just a matter of throwing the right combination of words at people, though of course identifying where ignorance becomes vincible is fraught, unresolved, and probably unresolvable.

    The fact that those wacky robed quill-toting medieval monks actually understood not just morality but finance better than pretty much all modern people, including the supposed ‘experts’, is not something that it is easy to get across — not even to folks who are receptive to the idea, let alone people who have grown up being taught that the middle ages were a wicked tyranny that was torn down by modern enlightened heroes, and that the traditional Christian hierarchical authoritative Catholic religion is a despicable oppressive tyranny (either a distortion of ‘authentic’ more free and equal Christianity or simply per se tyranny of false religion as a way of controlling people).

    The metaphysically counterintuitive (to someone steeped in modernism) barriers are difficult to overcome, not trivial. I happened to be standing in just the right spot to see what caused the usury train wreck, but most people are not self-consciously metaphysically realist financially independent Catholic entrepreneurs and investors with a deep understanding of capital structures, financial securities, and the like.

    The jesuitical distinction between invincible and vincible ignorance doesn’t really matter though if what we are trying to do is dispel ignorance, as opposed to affirming people in their ignorance putatively to get them to accept us so we can ‘accompany’ them.

    The modern Church has fallen into the trap of thinking that it can tame the bad boy sinner by lying down with him and letting him violate her. It is a very effeminate mistake to make, but it isn’t always insincere. Belief that it is always insincere can blind you to the full horror of the actual reality.

  • Aethelfrith says:

    “Let no one communicate who is not of the disciples. Let no Judas receive, lest he suffer the fate of Judas. This multitude also is Christ’s body. Take heed, therefore, thou that ministerest at the mysteries, lest thou provoke the Lord, not purging this body. Give not a sword instead of meat. Nay, though it be from ignorance that he come to communicate, forbid him, be not afraid. Fear God, not man. If thou shouldest fear man, thou wilt be laughed to scorn even by him, but if God, thou wilt be an object of respect even to men. But if thou darest not to do it thyself, bring him to me; I will not allow any to dare do these things. I would give up my life rather than impart of the Lord’s blood to the unworthy; and will shed my own blood rather than impart of such awful blood contrary to what is meet. “

  • Alex says:


    I understand the current Catholic approach to unworthy people wanting to communicate is to not turn them away as long as they are private, not public, sinners. While my gut reaction is certainly to stand with Saint John Chrysostom, I believe the issue here, both when the Eucharist is denied and permitted to sinners, is to avoid scandal.


    Speaking of anti-realism, I was curious: are you familiar with the “War Against Being” webpage by Mr. James Larson?

  • Zippy says:


    No, I am not familiar with Mr. Larson’s writing.

  • Alex says:

    Well, I would really recommend it:

    Sorry for sounding like an adbot, but reality and unreality are really in the core of most of his writings, and he actually identifies the beginning of the current crisis with the abandonment of usury discipline in the Church. So I thought you might have read it, as you both have a few similar ideas.

  • Zippy says:

    Looks interesting, thanks.

  • Aethelfrith says:


    What we’re (including Chrysostom) trying to say here is that allowing the unworthy to communicate is many, many times worse than scandalizing them away from the chalice.

    As for the “private” sins things, if the communicant regularly goes to confession, that really shouldn’t be an issue. The issues there, then, is whether he knows enough about his own soul or hamartiology to give a full confession and how (maybe even “if”) the clergy disciplines accordingly.

    The latter is well-worn territory in this blog.

    A patient who has discomforts and pains symptomatic of cancer (or another malady) but chooses to ignore it is still at risk of death. Likewise, a doctor who finds evidence of illness in a patient but doesn’t prescribe medication or order dietary/lifestyle changes gravely errs. So it is with a unconfessing communicant or lenient pastor.

  • Zippy says:

    Superficially — very, very superficially upon a first quick reading — I probably disagree with Mr. Larson’s epistemology. Specifically he seems to project postmodernism onto Cdl. Ratzinger, as positivists and neoscholastics are wont to do.

    I’ve talked before about how Aristotleanism, at least as presented by present day Aristotleans, actually appears to have its own reductionist – and therefore anti-realist – problems. As I wrote in that post,

    Positivists make a kind of argument from incredulity to the effect that if formal completeness is not possible then definite meaning must be impossible: if it is impossible in principle to specify the essence of a thing formally and completely, it is impossible in principle to say anything definite about the essence of that thing.

    It looks to me like he is doing just that to Ratzinger’s writings.

    I doubt I’ll have time to do a more in depth reading there, but I may get to it at some point and he may well ‘bring me around’ on some of it. But offhand it looks like we have some pretty basic disagreements.

  • Bruce says:

    I went to a N.O. mass about a month ago (I’m Anglican). The Eucharistic ministers, a man and a women, say, Bob and Sue, approached us to see if we wanted communion for ourselves and the children and almost pushed it at us. They had no idea who we were or if we were even Catholic.

    I know Anglicans who walk into Catholic churches and take communion because they know they’re Catholic.

  • Alex says:


    Thanks for the reply. Like I said, my gut reaction is to agree with you. I don’t understand why private sin should be tolerated, but I understand that is how it is written into Canon Law. I think it might have to do with how Christ didn’t turn away Judas from the last supper, but I would really need to do some research to understand the exact reasoning.


    I am not sure why you would consider him a positivist. I remember two specific issues he had with Cardinal Ratzinger. One was about his comments about the Transubstantiation doesn’t affect the physical level, but rather happens in a more profound level. While the Substance here clearly is a more profound level than what can be measure with physics, it should nevertheless be clear that the physical world, too, is affected by substances. I do think this may seem like a small quibble, a simple case of not using the best words to say what you mean. However, he does provide several other examples of the Cardinal saying things that separate the material and spiritual in an unorthodox way.

    However, the other issue is far more gra

  • Alex says:

    Apologies, I posted the earlier post by mistake, it wasn’t ready. Anyway, I will continue it here:

    However, the other issue is far more grave, where Cardinal Ratzinger (I call Pope Benedict XVI so because I understand he wasn’t Pope yet when he wrote those texts) basically try to explain the idea of original sin as a damaged or imperfect relations between humans. However, this is clearly not what the early church meant when it was defined as dogma.

    I don’t know if Pope Benedict XVI has since come around this view. But he quite clearly once held unorthodox beliefs himself.

  • Zippy says:

    I’m not defending any of Ratzinger’s specific positions though. I’m noticing something about Mr. Larson’s criticism of some of them, at least on a very cursory read.

    But as I said, that’s just based on a quick flyover, and is doubtless colored by my own rejection of (some folks’ accounts of) the Aristotlean account of substances in particular. To do justice to the site and its contents would require a lot more work than I can put in right now.

  • Alex says:

    No problem. I actually would be very interested in what you are noticing. I have been trying to understand a bit of Aristotle’s and Tomas Aquinas’ philosophy lately. So if you ever feel like it, maybe write a blog post about it?

  • Zippy says:

    Well, just offhand, positivism is always in play, at least as a possible rabbit hole, when a writer fails to distinguish between formal completeness claims and claims of consistency or finitude in some actually existing thing. In the discussion of revelation for example Mr. Larson reacts to Ratzinger’s rejection of formal completeness claims as if it meant that there could be no finite and finished revelation, as a real act of God in reality, at all. But Ratzinger’s rejection of the concept of formally complete revelation just is rejection of positivism.

    For example when Ratzinger says:

    And because this is so, the receiving subject is always also a part of the concept of ‘revelation’.

    … he is just making a contra-positivism point I have made many times myself.

    As I read Mr. Larson’s article, though I do think it is interesting and worth consideration, examples of things with which I disagree – which flow from our incompatible epistemologies – accumulate. I get the cursory impression that he is a fairly conventional Aristotlean-Thomist, and I’ve registered my reservations about that kind of essentialism in any number of discussions over the years, mainly here and at W4.

    But again, just a cursory read of that front page article.

  • Zippy says:

    One way to ‘see’ the error of positivism is as a conflation of map and territory, the notion being that once we’ve included sufficient detail in our map – once it is formally complete – we will possess the territory in our intellects: we will fully absorb a part of reality into our minds. The example of Scripture, and its equation with the act of Divine Revelation through the false doctrine of sola scriptura, is the very example Ratzinger uses.

    Viewed this way, you can see that positivism — despite often representing a misguided attempt to ‘save’ metaphysical realism, since postmodern insanity is seen as its false alternative — is actually an embrace of metaphysical anti-realism. If something actual can literally be fully captured in a formal representation and thereby fully possessed in its completeness by the intellect, then what ontic role is left for the real world outside of the intellect? Reality has been absorbed into the mind, and disappears as something external to the mind. TV is Reality.

    So Ratzinger’s Bonaventurian concept of revelation as a real Divine act of logos completed at the time of the Apostles is more realist than Larson’s concept as a fixed formal body of dogmas/doctrines; not less.

  • Mike T says:

    In order to actively reject Christ’s words one has to actually understand them, and the fog of ignorance doesn’t dispel with the mere pronouncement of words.

    The thief on the cross suggests that the minimum necessary is simply recognizing who He is, submitting and repentance. That doesn’t seem to be a particularly mentally taxing starting point for understanding the barest essentials than literally even most semi-retarded people can grasp.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    From my POV, that the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ and that formal membership is obligatory is more manifest than that the divorced and remarried ought not receive Holy Communion. So I’d have to be pretty uncharitable toward my Protestant friends to take the perspicuity line you are taking.

  • Alex Abate Biral says:

    Well, the issue Mr. Larson is trying to argue, whether correct or not, is that the view of the truth of faith as mere a “symbolom” and revelation as something participated, is that it is pointing that the dogma itself is not really, really true and the Pope can interpret what the words mean however he sees fit. His issue isn’t that you can represent all of faith in a Denzinger book, but rather that those articles of faith must be taken to their correct, original meaning. You can’t evolve dogma by continuously changing what the words mean (or any other way). What is true yesterday should be true today, regardless of how it is expressed.

    I think you could argue that Mr. Larson is being unkind to Pope Benedict XVI. That he is assuming too much from his words. But I don’t think at all that he is saying that the dogma is complete. In fact, the very bible would disprove that “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known”.

    By the way, I think I know where you are coming from with the idea of Thomism being positivist. The Thomist view of the intellect is a rather hard subject. At least, it is for me. As far as I understand, Thomism holds that human minds (angelic minds are a very different deal) understand things by turning to “ideas” and “phantasms”. These are the specific steps we take in understanding. For instance, when trying to understand what air is, we could give examples about the wind, about pressure changing when you go up a mountain, show the person a balloon, etc. All of these form the ideas through which the mind arrive to the substance of air. In other words, the mind actually understands what air is. This is different than simply being able to say if a proposition about air is true or false, it is actual knowledge (even if imperfect) of air.

    Now, though the mind enters in some kind of relation with the thing understood, it is not to say that our mental vision and the thing understood are the same, or that it will become real. That is, as far as I understand, how things exist only because God knows them. But no matter how perfect a knowledge you may have of, say, dogs, the dog only properly exist outside you.

    By the way, sorry if I am just rehashing old arguments you have heard before. Feel free to tell me to leave it for another day if you don’t feel like discussing right now.

  • Mike T says:


    Be that as it may, it should disturb you greatly when “Christian leaders” are putting out soundbites that can easily be made to sound like being a Christian of any sort is in no way obligatory to have access to salvation. The consequence of that is not schism, but people saying that they can simply forego any faith at all and probably be fine.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:

    Be that as it may, it should disturb you greatly …

    “Things that really should make people cranky” is my other blog, which is all about the feels. That’s where we also discuss how saying A is endorsement of B, because you didn’t mention B when you said A.

  • Zippy says:


    Meaning is a rather mysterious critter. (Life is full of mysterious critters. Time, space, free will, etc. We are immersed in mystery that we mostly take for granted).

    When we are talking about something actual, it both changes and stays the same. Bob at age 30 is still the same Bob as he was at age 12, and yet he can look and act and be very different. The sacrament of confession has changed quite a lot over the millennia, but it is still the same sacrament. And the Mass is still the same Mass, and would be even if it were mutilated by nefarious forces following Vatican II. Christ with a wound in His side is still Christ.

    Saying something similar about God’s act of revelation is not wrong. As something real we can understand it in a way consistent with its essence or we can mutilate and desecrate it. But the problematic of essence and accident doesn’t disappear.

    In short, when discussing act (the actual), especially in the face of an army of mutilators, desecrators, and distorters of truth, it can be very tempting to take a positivist approach as a reactionary defense against postmodern mutilation and desecration. The problem is that taking a positivist approach is precisely what empowers postmodern mutilation in the first place. Positivism masquerades as hard-nosed realism, and in the end is the very thing which fuels anti-realism.

  • Red Jacket says:

    I usually attend a fairly typical lax-ish American N.O. parish on Sundays. When the priest or the EMs happen to know that someone present isn’t Catholic, they do usually take the trouble to warn each other not to allow that individual to receive. Still, that’s entirely dependent on somebody knowing the individual in question.

  • John Jones says:

    In Catholic circles, it’s a ball of confusion to be sure. But your typical modal Catholic gets swelled up with pride over the fact: that you can hear your son and his girlfriend going at it all night, and empty a trash can full of condoms for them in the morning and to even “suggest” to them that they not receive communion the next morning would be “pharisiacal”. Of course the modal Catholic just doesnt really believe in the Eucharist.

  • Alex says:

    Hello again, Zippy! Sorry for going silent suddenly, but I had to finish some things yesterday and today.

    Now, correct me if I am wrong, but what you are saying is that you are afraid the website I linked, and thomists in general, are taking a “positivist” approach by insisting on a specific wording of the dogma, rather than its meaning, correct?

    If that is the issue, I don’t think it applies to Mr. Larson at the very least. He might be seeing too much where there is nothing, but the issue here isn’t that, or at least so I understand, that an old truth is told in a new way for a new generation, but rather that a new lie is told as if it was an old truth.

    An example of that would be the text I mentioned where Cardinal Ratzinger refuses to accept that the crime of an ancestor (Adam) might condemn the souls of newborns, which is just pelagianism.

    The issue here isn’t that the formulas might change, or even that new articles may be added, but rather that these changes may, if not deny the real meaning of the article, at least muddle it so people can no longer know what that meaning might be. For instance, how people keep claiming for mercy for the divorced while doing the most unmerciful thing possible to them.

  • […] those who commit manifest grave sin been given backstage passes by the Vicar of Christ to skate past the bouncers and turnstiles, and receive Holy […]

  • […] are a few words from one of those ridiculous radtrads who think that endorsing Communion for divorced and remarried people sows confusion about the indissolubility of marriage.  […]

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