Priests should think twice before denying Communion to Catholics in same-sex unions.
Editor’s note: This article is part of The Conversation with America Media, offering diverse perspectives on important and contested issues in the life of the church. Read another view on the reception of the Eucharist here.
Every Christian denomination is struggling with L.G.B.T. issues. Whether they concern ordained ministry or simply ordinary participation in church life, the issues surrounding L.G.B.T. Christians threaten to sunder the unity of many church communities. The Catholic Church is no exception, as the reaction to the recent response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the blessing of same-sex unions indicates. The Catholic struggle, however, plays out most intensely at the local level—in our parishes.
Consider this situation. A woman, who self-identifies as a lesbian and who has entered a civil marriage with another woman, presents herself for Holy Communion. Her priest is aware of her marriage. Should he share the sacrament with her? Much depends on how that priest sees himself. Is he a pass-giver or a gate-keeper? A pass-giver, who most likely is of a certain age and with a more liberal attitude, inclines to “just give” the sacraments to people upon request. If pressed to provide a theological justification, he may point to inclusivity and mercy—both of which have a firm foundation in the Gospel. A gate-keeper worries about the integrity of the sacraments, the connection with genuine commitment and the danger of scandal. These concerns are also well-founded in the Gospel.
Even if priests offer personal and individual attention, they still need to address important theological and pastoral issues.
Pass-givers and gate-keepers do not usually talk to each other. They should, because there is some important wisdom to be found in each perspective. Instead, they tend to view each other from a distance.
Permit me to say something else that often gets lost in dealing with this sacramental question. Both the pass-givers and gate-keepers ought to talk with L.G.B.T. people who face them across the altar and want to share in the sacramental life of the church. Only by knowing their experience, their struggles and their aspirations will these ministers be in a position to serve them adequately and, perhaps, even well. In my estimation, both pass-givers and gate-keepers often look at the questions theoretically and view people by categories. So they fail to see the real human beings entrusted to their care. But even if they offer personal and individual attention, they still need to address important theological and pastoral issues.
Merciful and faithful
The pass-giver needs to assume a more critical approach to complex questions. That means the hard and honest process of discernment as Pope Francis has indicated, especially in “Amoris Laetitia.” Discernment is a demanding task and the pass-giver needs to take it seriously. In these reflections, however, I want to focus more on the gate-keeper and his scruples, because I believe his outlook challenges us even more in this delicate moment of church life.
The gate-keeper, we must assume, wants to be merciful and sensitive, but he also wants to be faithful. As he faces the woman in a same-sex marriage across the altar, he wants to do the right thing by her, but he also does not want to do the dangerously misleading thing that could provoke scandal.
The gate-keeper may be inclined to deny her the sacrament, claiming the need to enforce Canon 915: “Those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” The relevant words here are “in manifest grave sin.”
When we care for the people entrusted to us, our goal ought to be to provide them with every possible spiritual resource that we can legitimately make available.
The priest needs to decide if the woman is indeed in manifest or evidently grave sin—that is, an objective situation of sin. He does not need to make a judgment of her subjective culpability (nor can he do so). As a pastor, the priest also has to take into account the impact that her public reception of Holy Communion would have on the community. Would it provoke scandal? Would it misrepresent Catholic teaching? Would it seem to condone the sinful situation of being in a same-sex marriage? With these concerns and questions, the gate-keeper priest, who wants to do the right thing by the sacrament, by the church and by the woman herself, would likely move to deny her Holy Communion.
Yet this priest would be well-advised to move cautiously for canonical reasons, for proper sacramental discipline and for good pastoral practice. The situation of this would-be communicant is not as clear-cut as it might first seem to the sacramental gate-keeper.
Integrated into the life of the church
A good place to begin is an essential horizon for all pastoral ministry. When we care for the people entrusted to us, our goal ought to be to provide them with every possible spiritual resource that we can legitimately make available. That is foundational, and it frames our sacramental discipline and the application of church law. Pope Francis reminded the entire church of this principle and goal in “Amoris Laetitia.” (See, for example, No. 299.)
Although this principle seems to favor the pass-giver priest and to give him a license to open the sacraments to everyone without distinction, that is not the case. The same passage from “Amoris Laetitia” speaks of people in complicated and compromised situations, all of whom remain in the church and all of whom need to be integrated into the life of the church. But that integration does not automatically mean sacramental integration. It can take various forms. So we are back to Canon 915 and the need to determine whether our would-be communicant is in “manifest grave sin” that calls for her exclusion from the Eucharist.
The refusal of Holy Communion is a very serious matter, the denial of an essential resource of the Christian life. We need to proceed cautiously. A good place to begin is Canon 912: “Any baptized person who is not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to Holy Communion.” In other words, unless there is a clear prohibition in law, the baptized have a right to approach the sacrament. This affirmation in turn requires the interpretation and understanding of Canon 18: “Laws which establish a penalty or restrict the free exercise of rights or which contain an exception to the law are subject to a strict interpretation.” Under the rubric of strict or narrow interpretation for refusing the sacraments, we need to take a closer look at the situation of the woman coming to Holy Communion.
The refusal of Holy Communion is a very serious matter, the denial of an essential resource of the Christian life.
Is this woman obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin? Is that the case because she is homosexual? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (see Nos. 2357-2359) indicates that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. At the same time, the condition of homosexuality (being gay or lesbian), whose origins the Catechism admits as “largely unexplained,” cannot therefore be the result of a choice that would imply sin. Her condition as a lesbian cannot bar her from receiving Holy Communion.
In fact, the opposite is true. The Catechism clearly states that men and women who have “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives, and by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection (see Nos. 2358-2359). In other words, they are called to the highest state of the Christian life and need to draw from the sacraments to fulfill that calling.
Does the fact that a woman is in a public civil marriage with another woman constitute a manifest grave sin? That could be the case, if, for example, she approaches Holy Communion to make a negative statement about Catholic teaching on marriage and to advocate doctrinal change. She would be exploiting the Eucharist for her own purposes—a grave abuse of the sacrament. And Holy Communion would appropriately be denied.
On the other hand, her marriage to another woman can be construed in another way, once an important distinction is made. Catholic teaching affirms marriage is the permanent and faithful union of a man and a woman with a potential to bring new life into the world. Same-sex marriage equivocates that basic understanding. Even those who strongly endorse the possibility of two people of the same sex getting married continue to distinguish “gay marriage” from “traditional marriage.” The union of two people of the same sex is a reality, but it is not the same reality as the marriage of a man and a woman.
Are two people in a same-sex marriage or union in an objectively sinful situation? Not necessarily.
Given this distinction, it is important to ask: Are two people in a same-sex marriage or union in an objectively sinful situation? Not necessarily. I began to explore this question in a book several years ago before the widespread legalization of same-sex marriage (Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: New Paths to Understanding, 2012; see especially pages 79-85).
Two people of the same sex may want to form a pact or covenant and share important elements of a stable life together, such as companionship and mutual support and even spiritual accompaniment. Such a decision could be prompted by a genuine desire to escape or avoid a promiscuous and unsafe lifestyle. The sexual component of that relationship may or not be involved, or be involved initially but fade out over time.
In our moral tradition, sexual activity is the morally problematic dimension of the relationship between two men or two women, not the relationship itself. Sexual activity, however, is not a necessary, essential or universally present component of a same-sex marriage. Having the civilly recognized status of marriage with a partner of the same sex does not automatically mean that the partners are living in a state of grave sin. Their marriage may be the result of a decision to do the best they can at this point in their lives. This requires some explanation.
Pastorally, we must assume—unless there are clear signs to the contrary—that the person approaching Holy Communion comes with good and proper intentions.
The options for people of the same sex who want to live a partnership, covenant or pact—or merely an intimate friendship—with due legal and social protections and some public identification are quite limited. In our culture and in our legal system, the path of “gay marriage” is generally and practically the only way to achieve those goals for a same-sex couple.
Pastorally, we must assume—unless there are clear signs to the contrary—that the person approaching Holy Communion comes with good and proper intentions, has examined her conscience and sincerely wants to participate in the sacrament. These, by the way, are assumptions that we make all the time about all who approach the Eucharist; we do not conduct an investigation of each person’s situation. We cannot automatically extrapolate from the status of being in a same-sex marriage to being in a state of manifest grave sin that calls for the denial of the sacrament. In fact, if we take into account the need to interpret a given restriction of a sacramental right strictly, then the minister seems obligated in justice to share the Eucharist with the communicant in question.
The danger of scandal
Resolving an individual situation, however, does not resolve all issues in the life of the larger church community. There is, for example, the danger of scandal and the misapprehension of Catholic teaching on marriage and human sexuality. Admitting persons in same-sex civil marriages to Holy Communion does not and must not signal a revision of church teaching on marriage and sexuality. Furthermore, people in gay marriages need to fulfill those requirements that obligate all Catholics for a worthy reception of the Eucharist. They need to hold fast to faith in the sacrament, have a proper intention, be free of serious sin and observe the Eucharistic fast.
When a communicant in a same-sex marriage receives Holy Communion, some congregants will raise their eyebrows. Their pastors need to remind them to avoid unduly harsh or hasty judgments. The clear words of Jesus come to mind: “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned” (Lk 6:37). Scandal, of course, can also cut the other way. Young people and others, for example, are sometimes scandalized when they perceive large numbers of Catholics in a given congregation living in contradiction to important elements of the Gospel and yet see sacramental sanctions imposed only for matters relating to sexuality and politics. A fair and even-handed sacramental practice can address that kind of scandal.
Admitting persons in same-sex civil marriages to Holy Communion does not and must not signal a revision of church teaching on marriage and sexuality.
Although telling a community not to judge others harshly and rashly is an important step, it is not enough. The formation of a community requires an accurate, complete and clear presentation of Catholic teaching on marriage and human sexuality. In this context, Pope Francis’ words about the catechesis of young people apply to the entire church. “In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur…” (“Amoris Laetitia,” No. 307)
Being pastorally nimble
The truth of the Gospel and of our moral lives in Christ endures as a stable reference point. We are, however, in a moment of great cultural and social flux. Putting together these perennial truths with today’s fluid realities is a great challenge. We are dealing not with categories but real, live human beings whom we should get to know. This requires a pastoral nimbleness that is both faithful to the tradition and prudent in concrete applications.
In some measure this has always been the case. Today, it has added force. In this moment, we need to redouble our availability to the Holy Spirit who alone can lead, guide and direct us. The Spirit enables us to walk the road of discipleship together, in synodality, with discernment, accompaniment and integration. That synodal way will enable us to avoid the boilerplate responses of either a pass-giver or a gate-keeper, and can help us to meet our challenges with both a steady faith and a generous responsiveness to the real needs of men and women today.