On Conscience and Refraining from Communion

holy hour, eucharistic adoration

When we are faced with temptation, we often act as though we fall into it through weakness, and indeed many times that is the case. The apostles falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane due to the “weakness of the flesh” and letting the Lord down is one of the more obvious examples. Sometimes, however, we know what is right, and we refuse to do it. We are presented with a choice, and we act deliberately against the good.

For the past two Sundays I had an opportunity to make some money in what the Baltimore Catechism would define as “servile work.” It is hard for me to be inactive for any length of time: I’m a doer, and I always try to make the best of this disposition. In this case, I took advantage of the opportunity, and I further rationalized that the situation would not present itself to me on any other day. In my mind, if I didn’t respond to it, someone else would, and it would be gone. The fact that it was the Sabbath was ancillary to the consideration, and in this case, the love of money, which is the root of all evil, took precedence.

Keep Holy the Sabbath

As Catholics we are obliged to fulfill the Third Commandment and honor the Sabbath, but we do not honor it in the same fashion as Orthodox Jews: i.e., refraining from turning off light switches, driving, or doing manual labor, etc., which they believe violate God’s law. And yet, in this particular instance, my decision seemed to be a clear violation of the Third Commandment. I was not resting; the work involved physical labor. I was making money in the process, so contracting business. I knew the Commandment, and yet I did it anyway. Being honest with myself, it was the choice between keeping holy the Sabbath as the Lord commands, or of making a few hundred bucks for a few hours work. I took the pieces of silver and profaned the Lord’s Day.

We went to Mass that evening instead of in the morning because of circumstances, but when the moment for Communion arrived, I felt convicted that I should not receive before I confessed my sins. I try to avoid scrupulosity in matters of sin, but in this case I felt a firm conviction and did not consider it scrupulous. I almost always receive Communion, both at daily Mass and on Sundays, and I typically avail myself of the Sacrament of Penance once a month. In this instance, however, my conscience led me to refrain until I had gone to Confession.

The Role of Conscience

What does it mean to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord “worthily”? St. Paul admonishes believers to “examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). The Church teaches that anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion (CCC #1385). When we examine ourselves, we must listen to our conscience quietly and carefully, judging ourselves not by what we “think” or “feel” is right or wrong, but what is right or wrong – that is, the moral law.

Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law. (CCC #1778)

It is often asserted too easily in pious conversation that this or that is a mortal sin. It is good to remember the fundamental conditions for mortal sin (i.e., sin that destroys the grace of God in the sinner). The sin must be a) grave matter; b) committed with full knowledge; and c) done with deliberate intent.

The first condition, grave matter, is more or less objective: killing someone is more serious than just yelling at him. But the second and third conditions rest with the individual and may only be known to them. We have a tendency to see other people’s sins as greater than our own and to downplay our own offenses. That is why it is important not only for us to refrain from judging others, but also to properly form our individual consciences with regard to the objective nature of sin. The Catechism states this clearly:

Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of hear. (CCC #1784)

When our conscience convicts us, we should – in fact, we must – heed its call. In my particular situation, I felt the matter of working on a Sunday was grave. It is the Lord, after all, who gives the direct command to rest (whether we want to or not) and to refrain from work on the Sabbath. I knew it was wrong, and I could have said no, as it was not a necessity. Saying no would have cost me a few hundred dollars; nonetheless, I operated with deliberate intent and ignored the Lord’s prohibition. “To this purpose, man strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and his gift” (CCC #1788).

Hunger for the Lord

I still remember the time when I was preparing to come into the Church; I had an overwhelming desire to receive the Lord in the Eucharist while not yet being able to. As the saying goes, “Hunger is the sweetest sauce.” Now that I have the opportunity to attend daily Mass, it is easy to get complacent and forget the radical gift that is the Body and Blood of the Lord in Communion. Refraining from receiving Communion because of an issue of conscience should be a reminder, however brief, of what it is like to be apart from Him:

Presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion should be a conscious decision, based on a reasoned judgment regarding one’s worthiness to do so, according to the Church’s objective criteria…The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected. (Ratzinger Memo to Cardinal McCarrick, # 1)

It is easy to get self-conscious sitting in the pews while others shuffle by on their way up to Communion. “What will people think? Will they wonder what I’ve done?” That business belongs to the Lord, though, and does not matter much in the grand scheme of things. It is not our place to judge, and we should hope others will not judge us either. There is a certain humility in recognizing one’s own unworthiness for Communion as long as it is not overtaken by extreme scrupulosity or self-condemnation. With a firm resolve to reconcile oneself to God as soon as possible in the Sacrament of Penance, refraining from Communion when not in a state of grace can be an opportunity to taste the bitter herbs of separation from our Lord and move us to come back to Him with a repentant heart – and a firm resolve never to leave His side again.

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9 thoughts on “On Conscience and Refraining from Communion”

  1. If you are afraid to stay seated in the pew at the time of communion because you wonder what others are wondering about you, well, most of us receiving communion don’t care. We’re more concerned with how to maneuver around your knees to continue past you then we are concerned why you’re seated. I don’t actually notice the people still seated, honestly, so I presume others don’t notice me when I’ve stayed seated.

    If I really started wondering, there would be a few questions that I wouldn’t dream of asking the seated individual. Is someone not receiving communion because he/she is not Catholic? Not receiving because of mortal sin? Not receiving because this is the 2nd Sunday Mass this person has attended in the same weekend? Not receiving because he/she is gluten intolerant and is visiting and forgot to mention before Mass to the priest (this is a stretch of a question, I know)?

    The nice thing about us unfriendly Catholics is we often can’t tell if a face in the congregation is a normal member of the parish (who sat in a different section of the church or went to a different Mass time than normal), is a visitor from another parish, or is a non-Catholic. So if you are seated, it’s likely I might not even recognize you, so I would automatically assume you’re not Catholic and not receiving because of that. And I appreciate you not receiving if you don’t agree with Church teaching nor practice her truths.

  2. Given the awful moral state of the church in the 21st century, one could argue that just going through the dogma motions is a reach. The complexity of Catholicism today could easily cause one to bail out. Someone hit the nail by saying “were you unsure if you have committed mortal sin”, What about the moral status of the man in the cassock behind the screen?

    If it is true that God cast Adam and Eve from the Garden because she at from the forbidden tree, God created a flawed humanity without regard for the innocent unbaptized babies who once went to Limbo.

  3. Isn’t there a rule that says you can receive Communion if you are deeply repentant for your sin, personally tell God this in prayer, and resolve to receive Reconciliation at the next possible time?

    1. That would work with venial sins JEM but not with Mortal sins.
      Mortal sins need the sacrament of Confession to be forgiven and thus receive Communion. I agree many Priests may tell Rob that what occurred was not sinful. However, Rob obviously has an informed conscience, that is, not ignorant and with full knowledge of the situation. ‘To those that much is given, much is expected’. Grey areas certainly exist, if you were unsure as to whether your offense contravenes God’s law regarding mortal sin, should anyone risk the great offense of receiving Our Lord unworthily if unsure?

    2. So this ‘new and improved” site does not allow more than one level of replies? This reply is for Bill. It is my understanding that if you are unsure if you have committed mortal sin, you may receive, and do so worthily. Note that I said “unsure”. If you later determine that you did, then that is a matter for confession.

      But that’s off-topic from the article. Rob is “sure” that he committed mortal sin, he has formed his conscience with cliches like “money is the root of all evil” and whatnot. His conscience might well be informed incorrectly. Church rules about “servile work on Sunday” are not what they once were. You can do your own investigation and read many well-informed opinions on the topic. Yes, you can find folks who still adhere to the interpretations from centuries ago, with silly time limits on how long you can work and etc. It is indeed a huge gray area. Not nearly as cut-and-dried as, say, missing Sunday mass without a valid reason.

  4. The author may not want to hear this because it appears that his mind is already made up, but I did some investigation of the rules regarding “servile work” and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he went to Confession and was told that he committed no sin at all, or that his working for pay on Sunday simply did not rise to the level of needing to avoid receiving Communion. Opinions are all over the place on this topic.

  5. Forty Five minutes per week. Forty five minutes at a very awkward time on late Saturday afternoon is the scheduled time for ‘reconciliation’.
    It can’t possibly be that important a sacrament, can it?
    Add this to the almost total silence on sin and repentance from the pulpit and there you have it.
    Refraining from Communion…don’t make me laugh.

    1. I don’t know, Sean, in my parish we have about 3 times as much opportunity for the sacrament of confession as you do. But whether or not it’s valued enough by your pastor, please get there at least once a month. You’ll be glad you did.

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