Fr, I have heard the it is a great sin to receive communion while in mortal sin. But I heard from my parish priest that it is a heresy to deem yourself unworthy of receiving communion unless you go to confession first. I am greatly confused on this matter! - Anonymous
That’s a thorny one! Oddly, the answer is that everybody’s right. So how does it fit together?
First off, it is in fact a great sin to receive Jesus in the Eucharist while in mortal sin. Here’s how Saint Paul put it:
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. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)
The Catechism cites that, and then continues, “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion” (#1385).
Okay, now is it a heresy to say “I’m in grave sin”? Well, what your pastor appears to be referring to is the principle that we can’t know with total absolute certainty if we’re in a state of grace or not. Only God knows. It was solemnly defined at the Council of Trent.
That’s what makes Saint Joan of Arc’s response to the trick question at her trial (“Are you in a state of grace?”) so incredibly impressive for someone who hadn’t studied theology: “If I am not in the state of grace, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.” It’s neither absolute certainty, nor despair, but real trust in God.
At this point you should be confused… if I can’t have absolute certainty, how can I know if I can really go to Communion? The answer is a bit of theological hair-splitting: We can indeed have what’s called moral certainty, which isn’t the same as absolute certainty. Rather than saying, “I’m absolutely positive that I’m in a state of grace,” I say, “As far as I can tell, I’m in a state of grace, and I trust and hope in God that it may in fact be the truth.”
So, at a practical level, if I’ve done something that I know is a serious sin (no point to giving an exhaustive list of those, like they used to try to do), I know that I’ve freely chosen to offend God deeply, and that in order to approach him as an adopted child and receive him in the deepest possible communion of love, I really really really have to get to Confession first.
When you go to Confession like that, feel free to ask the priest if he thinks it was in fact crucial for you to go to Confession before returning to receive Communion. Based on those specific circumstances, he’ll be able to give you a solid judgment with the special help of the Holy Spirit there in the sacrament.
Sometimes we’re afraid of Confession, but the truth of the matter is that it’s one of God’s greatest gifts to us! Because when you walk out, you’re (morally) certain that you’re in a state of grace… at least for me, it’s like walking on the clouds.
God bless you!
- Father Shane