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Conscience and Communion

Jimmy Akin

There is a good bit of conversation about how conscience may play a role in the question of whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can receive Holy Communion.

For example, Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich discussed the subject at a press briefing in Rome during the synod of bishops.

What the archbishop said or was trying to say is not entirely clear to me from the quotations I’ve seen in the press, and I do not wish to speculate based on incomplete press accounts.

I have, however, received a number of queries about the role of conscience in this area, and a brief look at the question may be in order. 

1. Acknowledging past abuses

Some people become suspicious immediately whenever the word conscience is brought up in connection with controversial moral subjects.

That’s understandable. The concept has been much abused.

After Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, there was a push to justify dissent from the Church’s teaching on contraception based on one’s conscience. Dissidents were subverting Jiminy Cricket’s slogan “Always let your conscience be your guide” into “Always let conscience be your guise.”

Since then the concept has been profoundly abused. This is one of the reasons why the word conscience appears more than a hundred times in John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor and why the Catechism of the Catholic Church has a lengthy section devoted to conscience.

And it’s no surprise that many become suspicious whenever conscience comes up in a moral controversy.

On the other hand, not every invocation of conscience is contrary to Church teaching. So what does the Church teach?

2. The primacy of conscience

It is often stressed that one must obey one’s conscience. This can be a tactical dodge to justify rejection of Church teaching, but it is not necessarily so.

The Church agrees that one must obey one’s conscience. The Catechism states:

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself (CCC 1790).

In other words, it is a sin to defy a certain judgment of your conscience. If you are certain that you must not do something and you do it anyway, you are sinning by violating your conscience. Conversely, you are sinning if you are certain that you must do something and you refuse to do it.

Notice that this applies when you are certain. If you are uncertain, the situation can be different.

Even when you are certain, that doesn’t mean that the judgment of your conscience is right. The Catechism continues:

Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

What happens when a person’s conscience is wrong? Does that mean he’s off scot-free?

3. Personal responsibility and erroneous conscience

The Catechism states:

This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits (CCC 1791; emphasis added).

Saying that you are acting in accord with your conscience doesn’t protect you from the charge that you are sinning—and culpable for doing so. If, through your own fault, you have warped your conscience, then you are still responsible.

What if your conscience is mistaken but through no fault of your own?

If—on the contrary—the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience (CCC 1793; emphasis added).

In this case, you aren’t culpable for your actions, but they are still evil.

4. Conscience and Communion

Prior to receiving Holy Communion, every person needs to examine his conscience:

To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” [1 Cor 11:27-29]. Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion (CCC 1385; emphasis added).

This applies to people who are divorced and civilly remarried as much as anyone else.

5. Properly formed conscience on civil remarriage and Communion

What should a person who has divorced and civilly remarried conclude when he makes this examination of conscience? The Catechism states:

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ—“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” [Mk 10:11-12]. The Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive eucharistic Communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence (CCC 1650; emphasis added).

A person with a properly formed conscience will conclude that he cannot receive Communion until he has addressed his situation properly.

6. Erroneous conscience on civil remarriage and Communion

Based on the above, a civilly remarried person not living chastely would be unable to receive Communion, and so his conscience would be erroneous if it told him that he could. What are the implications of this?

As we’ve seen, if “the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.” He thus would not be personally culpable for receiving Communion. However, “it remains no less an evil” for him to do so (CCC 1793).

However, the ignorance responsible for a person’s erroneous conscience “can often be imputed to personal responsibility. . . . In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits” (CCC 1791).

7. Pastoral care and erroneous conscience

What would appropriate pastoral care be for persons in this situation who have an erroneous conscience?

If the individual is not personally culpable for receiving Communion, it remains objectively evil for him to do so, and thus the Catechism states “one must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience” (CCC 1793). The Catechism’s statement could be taken to mean that one must work to correct one’s own errors, but since the pastors of the Church have an obligation to assist the faithful in forming their conscience, they share in this obligation as well.

If the individual is personally culpable for receiving Communion, then the matter is even more urgent. Not only is he committing an objectively evil act, he also is culpable for doing so—eating and drinking judgment upon himself, in St. Paul’s words—and the pastors of the Church need to take effective action to address the situation.

Thus in both cases—whether the person is culpable or not—it is not sufficient to simply say, “The person is following his conscience” and leave it at that. If it is an erroneous conscience, the pastors of the Church must work to correct it.

This is particularly so in light of what the Catechism has to say about common causes of errors in moral judgment:

Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct (CCC 1792; emphasis added).

Since “rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching” is one of the known causes of erroneous conscience, pastors of the Church must combat this by issuing calls to accept the Church’s authority and teaching (as well as explaining the reasons for doing so).

Further, simply concluding that a person is acting on his conscience and leaving the matter fosters precisely the “mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience” against which the Catechism warns.

And there is another reason why the matter cannot simply be left up to conscience . . .

8. Civil remarriage, Communion, and canon law

The Code of Canon Law contains a provision that applies in this situation:

Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy Communion (CIC 915; emphasis added).

Note that this canon does not have the qualifier “unless they are acting on their conscience.”

What it specifies for the denial of Communion is “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.”

Couples who have civilly remarried are presumed to be engaging in sexual intercourse and thus committing grave sin, unless they are known to be living chastely. If their civilly remarried status is known in their community, then the presumed state of grave sin is manifest. And if their pastor has warned them about their situation and they do nothing to address it, then they are obstinately persevering in it. In such a circumstance—the way canon law is presently written—the pastor is obliged to refuse Communion.

There is thus a canonical requirement constraining pastoral action in addition to the theological ones discussed above.


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