(ST. THOMAS AQUINAS)
“The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation.” (Saint Pope John Paul II)
The prerequisite for receiving Holy Communion is that one must be in a state of sanctifying grace. This is one of the most fundamental principles of Catholic sacramental life and it is frankly surprising that there appears to be some confusion regarding this requirement. This principle is set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“To respond to this invitation [to receive Holy Communion] we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment…. ‘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.’ Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1385)
Clearly from this principle in CCC 1385 we can see that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect because one need not be cleansed of all sin to receive Holy Communion – only of mortal sin, that is to say, of grave sin.
The purpose of this note is to simply demonstrate that Saint Thomas Aquinas clearly teaches that the Eucharist is not a spiritual medicine to heal those in mortal sin, but rather a medicine given to strengthen believers who are in a state of grace.
The clear teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas I am referring to occurs in Question 80, Article Four (Pt. III) of the Summa Theologica, which reads as follows as specifically pertaining to Objection 2 (which St. Thomas answers in Reply to Objection 2):
FOURTH ARTICLE: Whether the sinner sins in receiving Christ’s body sacramentally?
We proceed thus to the Fourth Article: –
Objection 2. Further, this sacrament, like the others, is a spiritual medicine. But medicine is given to the sick for their recovery, according to Matthew 9:12: “They that are in health need not a physician.” Now they that are spiritually sick or infirm are sinners. Therefore this sacrament can be received by them without sin.
[St. Thomas then responds to this objection, stating]
On the contrary, The Apostle says (1 Corinthians 11:29): “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself.” Now the gloss says on this passage: “He eats and drinks unworthily who is in sin, or who handles it irreverently.” Therefore, if anyone, while in mortal sin, receives this sacrament, he purchases damnation, by sinning mortally.
I answer that, In this sacrament, as in the others, that which is a sacrament is a sign of the reality of the sacrament. Now there is a twofold reality of this sacrament, as stated above (III:73:6): one which is signified and contained, namely, Christ Himself; while the other is signified but not contained, namely, Christ’s mystical body, which is the fellowship of the saints. Therefore, whoever receives this sacrament, expresses thereby that he is made one with Christ, and incorporated in His members; and this is done by living faith, which no one has who is in mortal sin. And therefore it is manifest that whoever receives this sacrament while in mortal sin, is guilty of lying to this sacrament, and consequently of sacrilege, because he profanes the sacrament: and therefore he sins mortally.
Reply to Objection 2. Every medicine does not suit every stage of sickness; because the tonic given to those who are recovering from fever would be hurtful to them if given while yet in their feverish condition. So likewise Baptism and Penance are as purgative medicines, given to take away the fever of sin; whereas this sacrament is a medicine given to strengthen, and it ought not to be given except to them who are quit of sin.
CONCLUSION: You do not need to be in a state of perfection to receive the Holy Eucharist, but you are required to be in a state of sanctifying grace (that is to say, knowingly free from mortal sin). If you are in mortal sin, you must first go to sacramental confession before receiving Holy Communion.
“The Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins — that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church” (CCC 1395).
Thomas Mulcahy, M.A., J.D.
P.S. This note naturally presupposes that you have made your First Holy Communion in accordance with sacramental guidelines.
Image: “Detail from Valle Romita Polyptych by Gentile da Fabriano (circa 1400)” at Wikipedia. Public Domain, U.S.A.
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