Originally published 3 June 2010
I have been told, that several years ago there was a Catholic conference in which a member of the Heritage foundation gave a talk and said the problem with Catholicism today is the Mass. According to most figures, 95% of Catholics contracept (I’m not sure what the margin of error is, but regardless we all know it is pretty high), yet the same people receive communion every Sunday. Whatever one makes of those figures, it is not far wrong to reckon a majority of people are in a state of mortal sin yet receive communion. For a society this has disastrous results.
During the Synod of the Eucharist in 2005, (not that a whole lot has changed) then prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Arinze made the same observation:
“The problem we have discussed is that many people don’t go to Mass, and those that come don’t understand — they go to Communion but not to confession, as if they were immaculate.” (source)
Arinze as we know is not a fan of the Traditional Mass. Yet he sees the problem very clearly, and apparently he was not the only one. It is also not the first time the Church has dealt with this problem. To reflect we should look at certain witnesses on the need to be in a state of Grace when receiving Holy Communion.
St. Paul dealt with this question in his time. Writing to the Corinthians, he said:
ἕκαστος γὰρ τὸ ἴδιον δεῖπνον προλαμβάνει ἐν τῷ φαγεῖν, καὶ ὃς μὲν πεινᾷ, ὃς δὲ μεθύει. μὴ γὰρ οἰκίας οὐκ ἔχετε εἰς τὸ ἐσθίειν καὶ πίνειν; ἢ τῆς ἐκκλησίας τοῦ θεοῦ καταφρονεῖτε, καὶ καταισχύνετε τοὺς μὴ ἔχοντας; τί εἴπω ὑμῖν; ἐπαινέσω ὑμᾶς; ἐν τούτῳ οὐκ ἐπαινῶ. Ἐγὼ γὰρ παρέλαβον ἀπὸ τοῦ κυρίου, ὃ καὶ παρέδωκα ὑμῖν, ὅτι ὁ κύριος Ἰησοῦς ἐν τῇ νυκτὶ ἧ παρεδίδετο ἔλαβεν ἄρτον καὶ εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν καὶ εἶπεν, Τοῦτό μού ἐστιν τὸ σῶμα τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν: τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν. ὡσαύτως καὶ τὸ ποτήριον μετὰ τὸ δειπνῆσαι, λέγων, Τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη ἐστὶν ἐν τῷ ἐμῷ αἵματι: τοῦτο ποιεῖτε, ὁσάκις ἐὰν πίνητε, εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν. ὁσάκις γὰρ ἐὰν ἐσθίητε τὸν ἄρτον τοῦτον καὶ τὸ ποτήριον πίνητε, τὸν θάνατον τοῦ κυρίου καταγγέλλετε, ἄχρις οὗ ἔλθῃ. Ὥστε ὃς ἂν ἐσθίῃ τὸν ἄρτον ἢ πίνῃ τὸ ποτήριον τοῦ κυρίου ἀναξίως, ἔνοχος ἔσται τοῦ σώματος καὶ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ κυρίου.
For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 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. (I Cor. XI:21-27)
What does St. Paul mean? The issue at hand was primarily what liturgical scholars call the “Agape” meal, which was the conducting of liturgical rites in the context of a meal such as men normally eat. Due to the fact that eating and drinking was involved, and some became drunk, men were approaching the sacrament unworthily. There is also the question of time and place, which St. Paul addresses when he says “μὴ γὰρ οἰκίας οὐκ ἔχετε εἰς τὸ ἐσθίειν καὶ πίνειν”, Do you not have houses in which you should be eating and drinking? Thus St. Paul is more or less condemning a liturgical abuse which was introduced by the Church of Corinth. The Corinthians are not respecting time and place, and they have departed from the Tradition. How do we see this? St. Paul says, as the Vulgate renders it: accepi a Domino quod et tradidi vobis, what I received from the Lord I have handed down (tradere) to you. The Greek uses the same word, παρέδωκα, which comes from παραδίδωμι, which like tradere refers to handing something over in order that it might be guarded, or taken care of. Thus when St. Paul instituted the Mass in Corinth, he gave them clearly what he received (accepi) yet they did not follow it, and committed sacrilege. Due to this some of them have died (I Cor. XI:30). Why did they die? St. John Chrysostom tells us:
Here he no longer brings his examples from others as he did in the case of the idol-sacrifices, relating the ancient histories and the chastisements in the wilderness, but from the Corinthians themselves; which also made the discourse apt to strike them more keenly. For whereas he was saying, he eats judgment to himself, and, he is guilty; that he might not seem to speak mere words, he points to deeds also and calls themselves to witness; a kind of thing which comes home to men more than threatening, by showing that the threat has issued in some real fact. He was not however content with these things alone, but from these he also introduced and confirmed the argument concerning hell-fire, terrifying them in both ways; and solving an inquiry which is handled everywhere. I mean, since many question one with another, whence arise the untimely deaths, whence the long diseases of men; he tells them that these unexpected events are many of them conditional upon certain sins. What then? They who are in continual health, say you, and come to a green old age, do they not sin? Nay, who dared say this? How then, say you, do they not suffer punishment? Because there they shall suffer a severer one. But we, if we would, neither here nor there need suffer it. (Homily 28 on 1 Corinthians)
In Homily 27, Chrysostom actually compares the one who receives communion unworthily to the Jews who slew Our Lord on the Cross with malice:
Why so? Because he poured it out, and makes the thing appear a slaughter and no longer a sacrifice. Much therefore as they who then pierced Him, pierced Him not that they might drink but that they might shed His blood: so likewise does he that comes for it unworthily and reaps no profit thereby. Do you see how fearful he makes his discourse, and inveighs against them very exceedingly, signifying that if they are thus to drink, they partake unworthily of the elements ? (source)
St. Thomas asks the question, Would the sinner (i.e. one in mortal sin) sin when receiving Christ’s body sacramentally?
In hoc sacramento, sicut in aliis, id quod est sacramentum est signum eius quod est res sacramenti. Duplex autem est res huius sacramenti, sicut supra dictum est, una quidem quae est significata et contenta, scilicet ipse Christus; alia autem est significata et non contenta, scilicet corpus Christi mysticum, quod est societas sanctorum. Quicumque ergo hoc sacramentum sumit, ex hoc ipso significat se esse Christo unitum et membris eius incorporatum. Quod quidem fit per fidem formatam, quam nullus habet cum peccato mortali. Et ideo manifestum est quod quicumque cum peccato mortali hoc sacramentum sumit, falsitatem in hoc sacramento committit. Et ideo incurrit sacrilegium, tanquam sacramenti violator. Et propter hoc mortaliter peccat.
In this sacrament, as in the others, that which is a sacrament is a sign of that which is the matter of the sacrament. There is however a double reality of this sacrament, as has been said above, there is a certain one which is signified and contained, namely, Christ Himself; yet the other is signified and not contained, to be sure the mystical body of Christ, which is the fellowship of the saints. Whoever therefore receives this [sacrament], he signifies himself to be one with Christ and incorporated with his members. This is done by living faith, which no one has when in mortal sin. And therefore it is manifest that whosoever receives this sacrament while in mortal sin, commits falsity in this sacrament. Therefore he incurs [the crime] of sacrilege, because he is a violator of the sacrament as it were and on this account he sins mortally. (III:qLXXX, a4)
St. Thomas also treats an objection which is quite relevant to our modern context, does someone who is ignorant of his sin, commit a sin when receiving communion? St. Thomas says yes:
Ad quintum dicendum quod hoc quod non habet aliquis conscientiam sui peccati, potest contingere dupliciter. Uno modo, per culpam suam, vel quia per ignorantiam iuris, quae non excusat, reputat non esse peccatum quod est peccatum, puta si aliquis fornicator reputaret simplicem fornicationem non esse peccatum mortale; vel quia negligens est in examinatione sui ipsius, contra id quod apostolus dicit, I Cor. XI, probet autem seipsum homo, et sic de pane illo edat et de calice bibat. Et sic nihilominus peccat peccator sumens corpus Christi, licet non habeat conscientiam peccati, quia ipsa ignorantia est ei peccatum.
Alio modo potest contingere sine culpa ipsius, puta, cum doluit de peccato, sed non est sufficienter contritus. Et in tali casu non peccat sumendo corpus Christi, quia homo per certitudinem scire non potest utrum sit vere contritus. Sufficit tamen si in se signa contritionis inveniat, puta ut doleat de praeteritis et proponat cavere de futuris. Si vero ignorat hoc quod fecit esse actum peccati propter ignorantiam facti, quae excusat, puta si accessit ad non suam quam credebat esse suam, non est ex hoc dicendus peccator. Similiter etiam, si totaliter est peccatum oblitus, sufficit ad eius deletionem generalis contritio, ut infra dicetur. Unde iam non est dicendus peccator.
To the fifth: The fact of a man being unconscious of his sin is able to come about in two ways. In the first manner, through his fault, whether because through ignorance of the law, for which ignorance does not excuse him, he reckons something not to be sinful which is a sin, say if one guilty of fornication were to deem simple fornication not to be a mortal sin; or because he neglects to examine his conscience, which is opposed to what the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 11:28): “Let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice.” So nevertheless the sinner sins receiving Christ’s body, although he is not conscious of sin, because the very ignorance is a sin on his part.
In another case, it may happen without his own fault, say, when he has had grief over his sin, but is not sufficiently contrite: and in such a case he does not sin [by] taking the body of Christ, for a man cannot know with certitude whether he is truly contrite. It suffices, however, if he find in himself the marks of contrition, say, if he “grieves over past sins,” and “propose to avoid them in the future”. Yet if he be ignorant that what he did was a sinful act, through ignorance of the fact, which excuses, for instance, if a man approach a woman whom he believed to be his wife whereas she was not, he is not to be called a sinner on that account; in the same way if he has utterly forgotten his sin, general contrition suffices for blotting it out, as will be said hereafter hence he is no longer to be called a sinner. (Ibid, reply to obj. 5)Thus we see a two-fold issue: receiving communion without right belief (perceiving the body and blood of our Lord in the sacrament), and being worthy of the sacrament. In this, ignorance is not enough to excuse one, because it is a question of the moral law which we should know. Moreover who in the modern context, both with media exposure and the access to technology can not know that contraception is a sin? Let alone the many other things for which Catholics are guilty yet go to communion weekly, some even daily! We speak not of complicated issues of bio-ethics, rather of the pill and prophylactics.
There are other considerations to take into account when we speak of sacrilegious communions. St. Paul says that some of the Corinthians had died. There is a story of King Lothaire, the son of Charlemagne, who was the duke of Lorraine. He had become attracted to a woman in his court, and put away his wife in order to take up with this younger woman. He was ordered by the Pope to cease or face an excommunication, and he made thousands of false promises of what he would do. Again, he asked to be absolved in Rome and to receive Holy Communion from the Pope. The Pope found that nothing had changed and he had no real intention of putting her off. Then he celebrated Mass for the King and his nobles. When communion was given, the King went to the altar and the Pope said to him in a distinct voice “O king, if you are truly resolved to quit this woman and take back your lawful wife, then receive this Holy Sacrament unto life everlasting; but if you are not sincerely resolved, then do not dare to profane the sacred Body of Jesus Christ and eat your own damnation.” Lothaire turned pale and trembled, but he had already made a sacrilegious Confession, and now he sealed his doom by adding a sacrilegious Communion. The King and his court left Rome. They arrived in Lucca (not far away) and were attacked with a fever, could not speak and their nails, hair and skin fell off, whereas the members of his court who did not join him in Communion were spared.
St. Cyprian of Carthage tells of a certain young woman who, after an unworthy Communion, was instantly possessed by the devil. She became quite furious and in her rage bit her tongue to pieces and endeavored to kill herself. At last she died in horrible agony.
The lives of the saints are full of examples of those who profaned the sacrament suffering consequences. There is but one more thing, a great quote from St. John Eudes, that “the presence of wayward clergy is the surest sign of God’s displeasure with his people.”
Forgetting all the illness, murders, crimes, drugs, accidents and rapes in our society, the base abuse of women and so many other things, consider alone the destruction of our children’s lives by molestation and rape. Not only of priests, as it has often been pointed out, there are more molesters by percentage among teachers, doctors and social workers than among priests. Nevertheless that the priest, one who is called apart in a way that the former are not would do these evils merits the indignation even of those who think most of these evils are okay. Sacrilegious communions by those living in sin and receiving communion (even Traditionalists, don’t think they are exempt!), are the cause par excellence of the sex abuse crisis. Yes the Bishops let them in, then hid them. Yes those who held sway under the last Pope protected them. Yes more could have been done. Those are not the reasons God allowed these evils, they are simply the material considerations. God allowed these evils because His people have gravely offended Him, in a way as direct as blasphemy.
You get the leaders you deserve, and the bad lives of Catholic faithful, before and after the Council, have brought the crisis we deal with today. Not only do Catholics not pray enough, they are not Holy enough. Heretofore, I have considered only those who live in mortal sin but receive communion weekly, and in some instances daily. There is however one more way in which the remaining 5% fail to please God, though it does not offend Him as the other 95% (give or take) do. It is in the failure to offer rightly the priesthood of the laity.
Part of this is due to the fact that the traditional teaching of the laity’s sacerdotal character has been obscured and falsely attributed to the participation in the liturgy (doing the readings, distributing communion and things of that sort). The Church first allowed lay participation in the liturgy when she let young boys serve Mass, and that was the only way (except for in mission territories or the US a layman was given permission to be the subdeacon for a Solemn Mass, observing the same rules as clerics who were not ordained to that order) until Vatican II when they came to be doing almost everything. The Church has the authority to allow lay participation in the right no matter how distasteful, untraditional or theologically ridiculous, yet none of that constitutes the “priesthood of the laity”. All of those things constitute the laity mimicking the functions and behavior of the ordained, with or without approval. Even teaching a 1st communion class, since the Potestas docendi of the Church finds its expression at the local level in the Bishop and the priests and clergy in union with him, this is also properly a role of the priest though lay people can conduct it well.
No, the priesthood of the laity involves the interior actions of the faithful both in Mass and in their daily life. The priestly sacrifice can only be done by a priest no matter how many laymen you stick on an altar. I sometimes joke with my priest that I’ll say Mass for him when he’s gone, and it is a good joke but if I got up in all his vestments and performed every action with absolute perfection and precision, no amount of wishing will accomplish the Sacrifice of Mass. NONE.
St. Thomas teaches in the Summa that
Laicus iustus unitus est Christo unione spirituali per fidem et caritatem, non autem per sacramentalem potestatem. Et ideo habet spirituale sacerdotium ad offerendum spirituales hostias, de quibus dicitur in Psalmo, sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus, et Rom. XII, exhibeatis corpora vestra hostiam viventem. Unde et I Petri II dicitur, sacerdotium sanctum offerre spirituales hostias.
“A devout layman is united with Christ by spiritual union through faith and charity, not however by sacramental power. Therefore he has a spiritual priesthood for offering spiritual offerings, of which it is said (Psalm 1:19): “A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit”; and (Romans 12:1): “Show within your bodies a living sacrifice.” Wherefore, it is also said (1 Peter 2:5): “A holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices.” (III; Q. LXXXII; a1 response to the second objection)
So while absolutely distinct, it is absolutely valid. It is not to be confused with the “priesthood of believers” one finds in Protestant doctrines, which deny any ministerial role to the priest something that is totally contrary to all Catholic teaching. It is also not to be confused as in the liberal mindset with a participation in the ordained priesthood. It is a participation in Christ’s priesthood through Baptism.
The Fathers teach that Baptism is actually a being put to death in our old nature, and rising with Christ in a new nature, a New creation in Christ (II Cor. V:17). This is why baptisteries descend, and when you look in many baptismal fonts they have a deep well, which is supposed to represent a grave. You are put to death and rise again. Now we are enabled to do spiritual works by virtue of Sanctifying grace. Thus we offer sacrifice, but it is the sacrifice of our selves. Baptism conforms us to the death of Christ, with a foretaste of the resurrected life (sanctifying grace in the soul). Now there are three parts of a sacrifice, offering, slaying the victim, and consummation. In order to offer ourselves, either at Mass or in life, we need to make a real offering to God, and then slay the victim which means dying to ourselves, and then the consummation which is charity, love of God. Dying to ourselves means rooting out our vices, it means purging ourselves of venial sin. Most people who fit that category of orthodox Catholics trying to lead a good life and stay out of mortal sin mostly simply do not offer themselves correctly, nor die to themselves. This blocks the grace flowing from the Mass, that is from the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary and blocks the merit we can attain in offering. So those who could be making up for the failings around them are also not doing what they could. Hence our Lord said in the Gospels “Yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
In all of these ways the Mass is exactly our problem. What however are we to do about it? The first step as always are for those of us to whom Jesus has given the gift of faith (and remember it is a gift He gave us, it is not because we are so smart to see it. Without God we would be tambourine smacking baptists) to be holy and offer ourselves fully with the sacrifice of Christ. The second thing is more practical, what can be done about the sacrilege at Mass?
Most people do not realize that in the Roman Rite communion was rarely given during Mass. After Mass the priest would come out with a ciborium and preform the communion rite. This had a certain utility since those not worthy could easily leave without the social stigma attached to not going to communion. Then in the 20th century St. Pius X changed it so the normative posture is to receive communion during Mass after the clergy. This was done for many reasons, and it was a good change at that time given the circumstances. People needed more grace to fight the onslaught of militant atheism, which caused the most destructive conflicts in human history. Today however, it might be right to reconsider, given the situation in the culture, and the fact that most people simply don’t take the sacrament seriously, to remove it until after Mass (since most people cut out to go shopping after communion anyway, this will cut the numbers receiving communion). This is not something that need be done wholesale but could be done on an ad hoc basis, combined with greater preaching on Eucharistic devotion.
The last thing, is we need another St. Peter Julian Emyard, and we need Eucharistic fraternities such as what existed in those days. You see perpetual adoration, which is good, but there are not enough of those laity who pray and offer up sacrifices and fasts for the spread of Eucharistic devotion. Without more of that all the preaching, catechesis, synods, and papal exhortations in the world will not move modern Catholics out of their sin and into God. Some people simply need someone to merit the gift of faith for them by prayer, fasting and good works. Traditionalists should not imagine that they are immune either, since many a priest who offers the Traditional Mass will tell stories of people who come to the Traditional Mass and are just as worldly as anyone else. Without an end to the sacrilegious communions made by modern Catholics, our society will come to an end. Period. Events in the world should already be telling us, that even if it is not the end times, it is certainly the end times for Western Culture.