“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” We say these words at every Mass, conscious of our smallness before the greatness of God in the Sacrament of his Love. At the same time, much of our current conversation about “Eucharistic coherence” when it comes to the reception of communion by those in public disagreement with Church teaching is related to whether someone receives the Eucharist “worthily,” which leads to some confusion. What is the essential difference between “worthy” and “worthily”? Everyone is unworthy to receive the Lord, but some receive unworthily. Confusing these two words leads to bad theology and unhelpful pastoral practices.
A quick google search illustrates the problem. First, there is an article from OnePeterFive, in which the author, acknowledging that many have been away from Church due to coronavirus precautions, tries to encourage Catholics to go to Reconciliation before receiving the Eucharist again. The author writes,
I take confidence in knowing that, so long as I express true contrition, and so long as I request and believe in Christ’s forgiveness through the sacrament of Confession, He will grant it to me. If I do this, then I just might be worthy to receive Him.
I do not know if there is a more clear and obvious example of such an offense than the act of receiving Christ Himself into our bodies when He has told us we are not worthy to do so.
The other is a published homily from a priest in Birmingham, Alabama, writing, “If we have not been washed clean, we are unworthy to approach the Lord’s table.”
To be clear, not everyone who makes this mistake is doing so intentionally or due to bad theology. It may even be idiomatic particularly for American Catholics to describe human unworthiness for communion in this way. But there is an important difference between emphasizing the adjective “unworthy”—as in, those who have committed mortal sin are personally unworthy to receive the Eucharist—and emphasizing the adverb “unworthily”—as in, those who have committed mortal sin receive the Eucharist unworthily. The first sense is theologically confusing at best and easily leads to error in pastoral practice, while the second sense focuses on the act of reception itself and its significance for the recipient. To speak of “receiving unworthily” more directly stresses the importance of “coherence” or “consistency” between one’s moral life and one’s sacramental life.
We are never personally worthy to receive the Eucharist. St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia,
The bread which is broken on our altars, offered to us as wayfarers along the paths of the world, is panis angelorum, the bread of angels, which cannot be approached except with the humility of the centurion in the Gospel: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof ” (Mt 8:8; Lk 7:6). (48)
No one is worthy to receive him; no one can claim to be on equal standing before God; no one could claim as a right what is God’s alone to give freely from the abundance of his mercy.
But receiving “unworthily” is a separate matter from our personal unworthiness to receive. While “unworthiness” speaks to humanity’s fundamental relationship with God as sinful created beings, “unworthily” speaks to what the reception of the Eucharist means both to the individual and to the community. For example, a possible alternative translation for “unworthily” in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:27), where this discussion is ultimately rooted, is “irreverently.” With these words, Paul appears to convey both the sacredness of the sacrament and the necessity of the recipient’s openness to God’s love. When the recipient’s moral actions are in stark conflict with the Sacrament, they receive the Eucharist “unworthily.”
In a recent letter published by America, Bishop McElroy had an opportunity to clarify these distinctions while pointing out the seemingly partisan nature of the current discourse on Eucharistic coherence. He gets a lot right here, which remains to be explored in future articles. Unfortunately, by using the language of “personal worthiness” without clarification, he presented a confusing pastoral theology. In the conclusion, he wrote,
Is the central identity of the invitation of Christ to the Eucharist a sign of personal worthiness or the graced call of the God of mercy? At a time when we are emerging from a pandemic and seeking to rebuild the eucharistic community, it would be particularly wounding to embrace and emphasize a theology of unworthiness and exclusion rather than a theology that emphasizes Christ’s unrelenting invitation to all.
Bishop McElroy, attempting to temper the exclusionary approach taken by many, seems to conflate personal worthiness and worthy reception. For this reason, McElroy presents a false dichotomy; it is precisely in our unworthiness that we are called to receive God’s mercy in the Eucharist. What a remarkable gift! However, that does not preclude the possibility that some, in addition to being “unworthy to receive” also receive “unworthily.” McElroy’s article approaches the distinction but fails to address it concretely.
Pope Francis speaks directly to these distinctions in his official writings. Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (47). We are unworthy, always in need of God’s help to love as he taught us. And yet, Francis also wrote in Amoris Laetitia, “When those who receive it turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily” (186). In Amoris Laetitia and Chapter 8 in particular, Francis attempts to navigate through these serious issues of sin, scandal, integration into the community, and reception of the sacraments.
Unfortunately, so much of the current discourse on Eucharistic coherence, rather than using Francis’s language and pastoral framework, is focused on “personal worthiness” to receive. Like the article from OnePeterFive, it can easily lead to the false notion that being free from mortal sin makes one “worthy.” This, in turn, leads to the equally false conclusion that Eucharistic coherence is solely about whether one has committed mortal sin or if one is in a “state of grace.” If applications of Eucharistic coherence necessarily implied personal culpability for mortal sin, any application would seem especially painful, taking a private spiritual matter and making it a matter of public concern. This is not the case, however.
Over the last 20 years, in particular, the Church has used the language of “Eucharistic coherence” or “Eucharistic consistency” to flesh out what it means to receive unworthily. The Eucharist is a Sacrament of love. Accordingly, it is by its very nature ordered to justice and peace. Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, “A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.”
They receive unworthily who receive the Eucharist while being closed off to the “concrete practice of love” in their life. It is important to stress that there isn’t some spiritual scorecard we present at every Mass, indicating our relative worthiness or not; the focus instead is on our disposition, attitudes, and resolve. This is a very personal matter, often a difficult one, especially when it involves serious sin, habits of serious sin, or “irregular situations” as Francis discusses in Amoris Laetitia.
Importantly, however, personal culpability for mortal sin is not the only or even the key determinant when applying principles of Eucharistic coherence. There are other situations involving “outward conduct,” as St. John Paul II describes in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, that also conflict with the “concrete practice of love.” He writes,
The judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience. However, in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved. (37)
The thinking behind this statement is the foundation for the Church’s teaching on Eucharistic coherence today, particularly with regards to politicians who live very public lives. While there is a possibility that private individuals risk scandal by their reception of the Eucharist—a concern that Francis addresses in Amoris Laetitia 299-300, balancing the potential for scandal with a pathway to full integration into the life of the community—politicians’ professional conduct is “outward” and often amplified in the media. Sadly, their outward conduct is often also in direct conflict with the Church’s clear moral teaching, particularly on matters relating to the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. As John Paul taught, it is not essential to determine the degree of personal culpability for this conduct (which can be mitigated by a number of factors) before barring someone from reception of the Eucharist for the good of the Church as a whole. The pastoral suggestion that someone ought not to present him or herself for communion should therefore not be taken as a judgment that a person is in a state of mortal sin.
These distinctions have importance for Catholics in their everyday lives. As Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia 186, “The celebration of the Eucharist thus becomes a constant summons for everyone ‘to examine himself or herself.’” They are also relevant as Catholics in the United States relate to President Joe Biden, a professed Catholic who has publicly stated his support for expanded abortion rights and has implemented policies to that end.
It would be impossible to summarize every issue related to Eucharistic coherence in one post, including its actual use and the seemingly politically partisan nature of the debate happening in 2021. For example, abortion is not the only issue that should give rise to questions of coherence. Instead, I wish to propose a critical understanding of everyone’s unworthiness to receive the Eucharist, which emphasizes the need for worthy reception of the sacrament.
Through worthy reception of the Eucharist, Catholics are strengthened in the virtue of love. Pope Benedict beautifully wrote in his Exhortation on the Eucharist, “The Eucharist becomes in life what it signifies in its celebration.” We are all unworthy to receive this great gift, but through God’s boundless mercy, we are brought more deeply into communion with him and the Church, and so are “healed”. We pray that the Eucharist might be a true source of unity in love for all who come forward to the table.