Resisting Fundamentalists

When is denying Communion blasphemy?

By David M. Knight | United States
Published in La Croix International, 14 Aug 2020

Cardinal Burke and his allies have made many attempts to box Pope Francis into a corner by asking him whether the “doctrine” on denying Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics is still part of the unchanging Catholic teaching.  Pope Francis refuses to boxed in by Burke.  This article by Fr. Knight will demonstrate why Pope Francis will never back down on this position.

Jesus said, “If you love me, feed my sheep.” But every time I hear confessions I realize many of the sheep are not being fed with what is most necessary for them—the Body and Blood of Christ—because they were taught false doctrines growing up, and are afraid to receive Communion. And one of those errors is what they were taught about mortal sin. It is blasphemy.

When Is Sin Mortal?

The bishops at Vatican II admitted we were taught error (Church in the Modern World 19):


Believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.


This statement has personally poignancy for me, because my 93-year-old brother has been, not an atheist, but an avowed agnostic all his life because of the false teachings we received as children.


We were told God would send a small child to hell for all eternity for things like missing Mass on a single Sunday. My brother drew the obvious conclusion: God is unbelievably cruel — and therefore unbelievable. He has been an agnostic ever since.


A few years ago he wrote me:


Religious belief – which I do not have – provides us with an explanation for our existence. And I do often wonder – Why am I here? Is there any purpose to human existence? The inability to come up with answers makes me uncomfortable.


The Catholic Church provided me with a raison d’être– but, as you know, it was not palatable. Each of us was put on earth to go through an ordeal, to be tested, to run a gauntlet. And if we scrupulously obeyed each and every edict of the Church, we would probably get through life without alienating God and having him consign us to damnation. That never appealed to me.


For my brother, God was like a pitcher standing on the mound, just waiting for him to take one step off first base so he could throw him out and cast him into hell forever. We taught him – yes, the Catholic Church taught him – that God was a monster.


That teaching was blasphemy. It “concealed rather than revealed the authentic face of God.” And every teaching that makes sins “mortal” when they are not is unintentional blasphemy against the true nature of God.


A pastor in my diocese asked an altar server at Sunday Mass where his ten-year-old brother was.


“He didn’t want to come to Mass this morning, Father,” the boy replied.


“Well, when you go home, you tell your little brother he has committed a mortal sin, and if he doesn’t come to Confession, he is going to hell.”


Who committed the greater sin: the boy who missed Mass, or the pastor who blasphemed by perverting the truth about God’s love for that little child?


The most common and destructive single error in the Church may be our centuries-long teaching about mortal sin.


We were given the impression we could easily distinguish mortal sin from venial sin. Mortal sin required three things: serious matter, sufficient knowledge, and full consent of the will.


That sounds clear enough. But in reality, it is almost impossible to identify anything as a mortal sin by using these three criteria.


When is knowledge “sufficient,” and when is consent “full”? More basically, what “matter” is serious enough to make God withdraw “grace,” the gift of divine life? In practice we were taught it was a mortal sin to miss Mass on one Sunday, or to eat a hamburger on Friday. Every sexual sin was “serious matter”—impure thoughts and touches, passionate kissing, masturbation, and contraception.


Married people were denied Communion for years because of “birth control.” According to the common teaching—and admittedly in the metaphorical language of the time—anyone who did any of these things and died without repenting, would be cast by God into the fires of hell to burn for all eternity.


To “conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God” like this makes our loving Father a monster. Is that not blasphemy?


The truth is, to be “mortal,” a sin has to be, not just bad, not just real bad, but evil; so evil that a normal father or mother whose son or daughter did that act would have to say it would be right and just to burn their child at the stake.


That would be much less than the punishment we say God inflicts in hell.


The truth is, the Church has never defined, with all her dogmatic authority, any particular act as the “serious matter” required for mortal sin. But from the pulpit, in the classroom, and in sacramental preparation, all sorts of offenses are blithely defined as mortal sin. This has to stop.


A good, practical rule of thumb for recognizing mortal sin would be to ask, “If my daughter did this, would I drive her from the house, refuse to let her eat at the family table—and yes, to be consistent with the doctrine we were taught—agree that she deserves to be burned in hell for all eternity?” If you answer “No” to any of these questions you do not really believe the girl is guilty of “mortal sin” as the Catholic Church defines it.

A Current Pastoral Failure

Up until 2016, when Pope Francis wrote his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), approving the findings of the Synod on Family Life, it was almost universally taken for granted that those married “out of the Church”—that is, invalidly, because in a way contrary to the rules—were living in mortal sin, and were not allowed to receive Communion.


But in The Joy of Love the pope declared officially in paragraph 301:

“It can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.”


And in paragraph 243:

“It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union [without an annulment] should be made to feel part of the Church. They are not excommunicated, and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community. These situations require careful discernment and respectful accompaniment.”


There used to be a decree that declared them excommunicated, but it was abolished in 1977. And a 1984 article in US Catholic magazine quoted Father James Provost of the Canon Law Society of America:


Divorced Catholics enjoy the same good status of any other Catholic in regard to the Mass, Eucharist, and any liturgical function. Catholics who remarry without annulment have an irregular status, but “they are not excommunicated, are under no special penalties, and are not excluded from receiving the Eucharist if they believe they should receive it.” Father Edgar Holden, director of the tribunal of the Seattle archdiocese, agrees.”Nothing in Church law forbids a person with irregular status from receiving the Eucharist. This is a personal decision of conscience. We suggest that if people feel unable to reach a decision on their own, they ask their pastor or spiritual director for assistance” (emphasis added).


In other words, the only thing new about the teaching of The Joy of Love is its authoritative promulgation by the Pope and Synod.


No general rule exists or should be made either forbidding or allowing those in irregular marriages to receive Communion. This must be decided on a case-by-case basis. And the most important factor in every case is the conscience of the individual.


But in spite of the fact that the words of Pope Francis are available on the Vatican’s internet site (, this may be one of the best-kept secrets in the Catholic Church. I have yet to meet a Catholic who has heard this teaching of the Synod on Family Life, or the words of Pope Francis about it, proclaimed and explained from the pulpit.


Undoubtedly, there are pastors who have done so, but they must be few and far between. The great majority of Catholics are left in ignorance—and many are deprived of Communion who have a right to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.


This is a serious, serious pastoral failure. The “Great Commandment” of pastoral ministry is what Jesus said to the first pope—and through him to all subsequent popes, bishops, and pastors, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”


The teaching in The Joy of Love should be shouted from the housetops. Why is that not happening?


David M. Knight is a senior priest of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis (USA) and the leader of Immersed in Christ, a movement for spiritual growth based on the five mysteries of Baptism. A former Jesuit, he has a doctorate in theology, 50 years of ministerial experience in 19 countries, and 40 books in print. He speaks four languages.



Here is how things stood in 2014 when the bishops were discussing pastoral options prior to the Synod on the Family:

In February, Pope Francis tapped one of his favorite theologians, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, to address a meeting of all the cardinals.

Kasper argued that the church must show more mercy to people whose first marriages have failed and who want to remain within the church.

“With respect to the divorced and the remarried people, the church does not give them absolution, [does] not give them Holy Communion. And many people say this is not the God of Jesus, because Jesus was very merciful — he forgives us — and the church does not,” he said.

Kasper spoke to NPR after his address. He said it provoked sharp exchanges among some of the cardinals.

“Of course there was a heated debate, but there were not only cardinals who were against it, there were also cardinals who were in favor,” he said. “And so the voices are divided. The pope himself was very grateful for the discourse.”

Many Catholic conservatives rejected Kasper’s proposals. On the eve of the current gathering of bishops, known as a synod, five cardinals published a book of essays, “Remaining in the Truth of Christ.” In them, they described Kasper’s permissive attitude toward Communion as “fundamentally flawed.”

One of the authors is American Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the Vatican’s top court. In an interview with Catholic News Service, he dismissed the viability of Kasper’s proposal.

Catholic doctrine stipulates that a second marriage without the complex and often lengthy annulment of the first amounts to adultery, and that anyone married in a civil ceremony is living in sin and therefore ineligible to receive the sacraments.

But Kasper says there is no such single category as “the divorced and remarried.” For example, he says, a woman who is abandoned by her husband is different from the man who abandoned his wife.

“So we have to distinguish the cases,” he says.


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