Canon 915

11-10-2019Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Canon 915, in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II states that “those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion”. This was the basis on which a Pastor in South Carolina denied Presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden Holy Communion at Sunday Mass a few weeks ago. Many have asked, “can he do that” and “should he do that”. To the first, yes. A priest especially a Pastor is responsible for custody and care of the Eucharist and proper administration of the sacraments. To the second, well that is where all the debate surrounds.

It is important to remember that when a person approaches Holy Communion the minister of Holy Communion is in no position to judge the state of someone’s soul. No matter what you might know or think you know, you don't know at that moment if that person has repented and confessed. Canon 915 is referring to a public manifestation of sin. In the case of Mr. Biden, namely his very proabortion stance which directly contravenes the Church’s teaching. Canon 915 involves “grave sin” not issues on which there is a legitimate difference of opinion such as how to deal with immigration or the environment or even the death penalty. And the dissention from Church teaching or morals must be public which means any act of repentance would also require a public refutation of the grave sin.

Most Bishops in the US are reluctant to invoke Canon 915, particularly when it comes to public elected officials. They give different reasons for doing so: it creates a victim who is being bullied by the Church, it is very divisive, the Eucharist should not be used as a reward or punishment, there is a difference between a personal belief and a political position, it unnecessarily makes the Church look like it is being political and partisan.

I am sure the denial of Holy Communion would certainly be seen in many of those ways. But the rationale for Canon 915 is for the good of someone’s soul. Jesus told the Apostles, “what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven and what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” In other words, the Church binds so as to try to bring a person to repentance and a change of heart.

It seems to me that a first step on the way to invoking Canon 915 is to meet with the person who has taken a public stand against a well-defined moral teaching of the Church and explain to them that their position breaks their communion with the Church and since the reception of Holy Communion is among other things a very public acknowledgement that the person receiving believes and accepts what the Church believes and teaches, their public position negates that communion and they should voluntarily not receive Holy Communion. Since most elected officials spend their time in the US or State capitals the local Bishop should have that conversation with them. Then the Bishop can instruct the Pastors on what to do so that one parish is not doing one thing and another parish something different.

The fact is that those who “persevere in manifest grave sin” make their reception of Holy Communion a cause for scandal and confusion. How does the woman sitting in the pew that refused to have an abortion despite a very delicate and difficult pregnancy feel when she sees a person who promotes abortion approach the Sacrament? How about all those who spend their time and resources helping women to choose life or run Crisis Pregnancy Centers or Houses for expectant mothers? Or the mother who made the courageous choice to give her child up for adoption rather than abort? If a Catholic politician thinks that a Prolife position is going to put him or her in a losing political position, he or she should talk to some of the people who really know the meaning of making a Prolife sacrifice. Lose an election or lose your soul is the real choice here.

If you ever had your ten year old doing something very wrong that you repeatedly told them not to do and you made them go sit in their room and reflect on why what they did was wrong, well that is the point of Canon 915, denying someone the most precious gift of our Faith should give them pause to reconsider why the position they are taking is clearly wrong and of grave consequence to their spiritual health. In the end I hope that all of you love and treasure the Eucharist enough to not put yourself in the position where you would be denied Holy Communion. Struggling personally with a Church teaching is one thing but publicly rejecting the teaching is another matter entirely.

In the case of former Vice President Biden, as he stated, Pope Francis, who has said that abortion is like hiring a hitman, still gave him Holy Communion despite knowing his political stance on abortion. So, what do you do with that other than pull your hair out? If a priest is going to invoke Canon 915 it is likely that he will not have the Pope or many Bishops to cover his back. Abortion continues to poison just about everything.


Fr. John B.