Over the last few months, Catholics have had an on-and-off debate over who should and should not be admitted to Holy Communion. This debate was provoked mainly by the synod on the family and the surrounding discussion, in which some–even some Churchmen–have contended that the Church should find a way to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion.
One problem with this debate, it seems to me, is that it focuses narrowly on this one question, and thus loses sight of why the Church would exclude anybody at all from Communion, or by what principles it would make this determination. This was brought once again to my mind by reading Ronald Knox’s A Spiritual Aeneid, his memoir about his conversion to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism.
Knox’s conversion was a bit of a story at the time, because he was a well known figure–son of a bishop of the Church of England and in his own right a recognized author of books of religious controversy. One of those books was called Reunion All Round. In it Knox tried to recall to reason those Anglicans who thought no Christian should be excluded from communion at a Church of England ceremony. Knox summarized the book as follows:
The argument of the book was a simple reductio ad absurdum. If (as the British public seemed to think) it was the duty of all Christian bodies to unite for worship, sinking their differences on each side, why should the the movement be confined to Christians? What about the Jews, from whom we were only separated by the Council of Jerusalem. And if the Jews, why not the Mohammedans?
And so on. He even took it to the extent of suggesting that atheists should be admitted, since the Anglicans could “join with them in a common definition of the Divine Nature, which should assert it to be such as to involve Existence and Non-existence simultaneously.”
In making fun of a lax approach to this question by carrying to its logical conclusion, Knox tried to remind people of an important truth about Communion: It is an act of Christian worship. It would accordingly make no sense to admit non-Christians to it, since they don’t believe in it anyway. By the same reason it makes no sense to admit people who understand themselves to be Christians but who don’t believe in the act of worship that is being performed. And in fact this is the same reason that, then and today, the Catholic Church does not admit even Protestant Christians to Holy Communion.
People have a strange and misguided sense that this exclusion is a kind of meanness of lack of hospitality. They are forgetting this point to which Knox recalls us. It makes perfect sense if we remember that it is an act of worship that goes all the way back to the earliest Christians. They worshipped together, as was natural. It would make no sense to bring people in who did not hold the same beliefs. Such a policy would, in fact, destroy the act of worshipping together, since some of those present would not in fact be worshipping.
In thinking about these questions, the early Church would of course have been guided by the instructions of Jesus. In one of his recorded remarks, he spoke of those who will not be corrected and who disobey even the Church. If they will not listen to the Church, he said, treat them as one of the gentiles. I take it that this means something like excommunication. In view of this remark, it would have been natural for the Church to decide that not only non-Christians, but also Christians who persist in living in ways contrary to Jesus’ teaching, should not be admitted to communion.
In regulating who is admitted to communion and who is not, the Church is not trying to be mean or exclusionary. It is trying to be reasonable, responsible, and faithful to the teaching of its Founder.