Some thoughts on Abp. Sheehan’s recent comments regarding Eucharistic discipline
While I offer no opinion on the recent comments made by Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe to the National Catholic Reporter regarding his take on inter-episcopal relations (that’s between arch/bishops), his assertions on the canon law of Eucharistic reception are something else. In my opinion, several of Abp. Sheehan’s assertions thereon are flawed. Even so, I might have let them pass, except that Sheehan, besides being an archbishop, also has a doctorate in canon law (Lateran, 1971) and thus some might incline to his views based on those credentials. So, here goes.
Sheehan sums up his views on withholding Communion from major pro-abortion Catholic legislators thus: “You have to be very careful. The Vatican doesn’t do these big sanctions, you’re out of the church if you vote this way. They’ve tried it, it doesn’t work, and I try to learn from what the Vatican has to teach and to use that myself . . . The primary responsibility for someone receiving communion is the person himself or herself and their conscience, to come forward to receive. The priest shouldn’t be like a watchdog, looking around and finding out who’s unworthy.”
Okay, in that order:
1. Yes, withholding Communion from the publicly unworthy should be done only with great care. But,
2. Withholding Communion under Canon 915 is not a penal “sanction” (though Sheehan implied several times it was), rather it is a sacramental disciplinary norm. The differences (procedurally, pastorally, etc.) between these two kinds of actions are many. And,
3. Withholding Communion under Canon 915 has nothing to do with retaining one’s membership in the Church, so why even bring it up? Furthermore,
4. While the primary responsibility for a worthy reception of Communion rests with the individual (under Canon 916, if we need a norm to prove the point), “primary” responsibility is not the same thing as “sole” responsibility. Ministers of holy Communion, like it or not, have the responsibility under Canon 915 to withhold the Eucharist from certain members of the faithful under certain circumstances. This is so obvious: why even have a Canon 915 if the would-be recipient of Communion were the sole person authorized to decide on reception? Moreover,
5. Canon 915 does not require ministers to determine “who’s worthy” to receive Communion (to phrase the question that way is to misconstrue the Code and sacramental theology on this point), but rather, it requires ministers to be alert to the possibility that under certain circumstances some Catholics are not canonically eligible to receive Communion.
Elsewhere, say in his example about Communion for a couple in a potentially irregular marriage, Sheehan seems again to confuse Canons 915 and 916, and his remarks are in any case difficult to reconcile with the tenor of CDF’s 1994 letter “Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced-and-Remarried Members of the Faithful” (esp. as it invokes Familiaris consortio n. 84)*, but these discussions can be left for another day.
I will say, I am disappointed that Abp. Sheehan described those faithful (including, one must conclude, some major American prelates) who call for the just enforcement of Canon 915 as being engaged in “hysterical activity”. To me, it seems labeling others that way is itself a hysterical act. + + +
*See also: Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration (II), 24 June 2000.