Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion
by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
[Note: The following memorandum was sent by Cardinal Ratzinger to
Cardinal McCarrick and was made public in the first week of July 2004.]
1. Presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion should be a conscious
decision, based on a reasoned judgment regarding one’s worthiness to do
so, according to the Church’s objective criteria, asking such questions
as: "Am I in full communion with the Catholic Church? Am I guilty of
grave sin? Have I incurred a penalty (e.g. excommunication, interdict)
that forbids me to receive Holy Communion? Have I prepared myself by
fasting for at least an hour?" The practice of indiscriminately
presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of
being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected (cf.
Instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," nos. 81, 83).
2. The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin. The
Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, with reference to judicial decisions
or civil laws that authorize or promote abortion or euthanasia, states
that there is a "grave and clear obligation to oppose them by
conscientious objection. [...] In the case of an intrinsically unjust
law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore
never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in
favor of such a law or vote for it’" (no. 73). Christians have a "grave
obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which,
even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law.
Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate
formally in evil. [...] This cooperation can never be justified either
by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the
fact that civil law permits it or requires it" (no. 74).
3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and
euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy
Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to
wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present
himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil
authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy
in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take
up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.
There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics
about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with
regard to abortion and euthanasia.
4. Apart from an individual’s judgment about his worthiness to present
himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion
may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute
Holy Communion to someone, such as in cases of a declared
excommunication, a declared interdict, or an obstinate persistence in
manifest grave sin (cf. can. 915).
5. Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s
formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a
Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for
permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with
him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he
is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end
the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise
be denied the Eucharist.
6. When "these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in
which they were not possible," and the person in question, with
obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy
Eucharist, "the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it"
(cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts Declaration "Holy
Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics" , nos. 3-4).
This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is
the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s
subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public
unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of
[N.B. A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so
unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to
deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s
permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not
share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but
votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote
material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of