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Is reception of Communion doctrinal or disciplinary?

October 6, 2014

In a recent brief interview Washington Archbishop Donald Cdl. Wuerl stated: “The reception of Communion is not a doctrinal given, it’s a pastoral application of a doctrinal position” (0:30). Distinguo.

Preliminarily, Communion reception (an external activity) is not by its nature “doctrinal” (as in, propositional), so the cardinal’s comment, as it stands, informs the practical debate but little. If, however, the prelate’s point was—and I rather think it was—that questions of Communion reception do not turn on doctrine, then I think that claim is often (not always, but often) wrong. Consider three cases.

(a) The question as to whether non-fasting Catholics may be allowed to receive Communion is clearly practical and pastoral;

(b) The question as to whether non-Catholic Christians may be allowed to receive Communion is, it seems, partly pastoral and partly doctrinal; and

(c) The question as to whether non-baptized persons may be allowed to receive Communion is, I think, entirely doctrinal.

Disciplinary norms (canons) touch all three reception questions (see cc. 919, 844, and 842 respectively) but the mere fact that canons regulate all three activities does not render all three questions disciplinary (or for that matter, doctrinal). What must be appreciated by discussants is whether doctrine underlies the disciplinary norms. Sometimes doctrine is not involved; sometimes doctrine is involved in part; and sometimes doctrine is the fundamental basis of the discipline in question.

I have argued from the outset of this debate that the reception of holy Communion by divorced-and-remarried Catholics raises fundamental questions of doctrine not simply about marriage, but also about the Eucharist and about the sacrament of Confession.

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