“Ask a Priest: Does Everyone Really Have a Right to the Sacraments?”

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Q: I recently participated in a ministry workshop at my parish when the priest said that “everybody” has the right to the sacraments; I inquired about the story narrated on the article attached and he reaffirmed “everybody has the right to the Sacraments.” [Editor’s note: The attached article spoke of a priest who denied someone Communion at a relative’s funeral because the priest read in an obituary that the man was living in a same-sex union. The article said that local bishops did not support the priest but rather apologized to the man.] I am confused between what I read in the article that I’m attaching and what the priest at my parish said. Could you tell me where is the truth on this topic and its corresponding support in the Catechism and the Gospel? – G.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Sometimes the word “right” is used in a very loose way when it comes to the sacraments.

The Catechism in No. 1269 says, in part, “Just as Baptism is the source of responsibilities and duties, the baptized person also enjoys rights within the Church: to receive the sacraments, to be nourished with the Word of God and to be sustained by the other spiritual helps of the Church.”

While there is a stated right to the sacraments, the Catechism in No. 1131 says of the sacraments, “They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” [italics mine].

“Required dispositions” in the case of the Eucharist means that a person should be in a state of grace, that is, not knowingly have any mortal sins. To receive Communion in a state of mortal sin would be a sacrilege. St. Paul warns as much in this passage: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27).

So the phrase “right to the sacraments” has to be understood in context. A teenager with little or no religious instruction, for instance, cannot get in line at a confirmation Mass and present himself to the bishop for anointing. A cohabiting couple couldn’t simply show one Saturday afternoon at the parish and demand their “right” to marry.

Now, distribution of Communion is a delicate business. Normally it is up to each person to examine his conscience as to whether he is worthy to receive. The middle of Mass is normally not the time nor the place for battles with a minister.

I won’t try to second-guess any bishops here, for the simple fact that: 1) I don’t know all the facts, and 2) bishops have the authority to intervene in these cases. There might be lots of reasons why it is not opportune for tensions to be raised in a Communion line at a funeral Mass.

Suffice it to say, then, that the right to a sacrament is always conditional, and usually the onus is on the person who presents himself for a sacrament.

Pastorally, I would avoid using the phrase “Everyone has a right the sacraments” since it can be easily misunderstood.

Normally, in the case of someone who appears to be in an irregular situation, it is usually up to the pastor to decide how to handle things. He might choose to approach a person discreetly and explain Church teaching about norms about receiving Communion. If it involves a high-profile person, such as a politician, this kind of thing might be best left for the bishop to decide.

One important clarification is needed here: A minister never knows the state of a person’s soul. God alone knows the heart and soul of a person. This distinction is crucial to understanding why a minister will normally not refuse Communion to someone in line at Mass.

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