Holy Communion, Jansenism, and Scruples
There is nothing greater on this poor earth. To receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ – and with Him all the graces that God can bestow upon the soul – is the most sublime and significant thing one can do in this life.
Such a magnificent gift is not to be trifled with.
All Catholics know that one should not receive the Eucharist when in a state of mortal sin. But many a Catholic would not know a mortal sin if it bit him on the arse. This is not a new problem. Saint Teresa of Avila, in her autobiography, describes some of her earliest priest-confessors who were themselves confused on the point and led her astray:
“What was venial they said was no sin at all, and what was serious mortal sin they said was venial. This did me so much harm that it should not surprise anyone that I speak of it here in order to warn others against so great an evil.”
Due to my own capacity for self-deception, I myself am not always sure about this, despite the clear teaching of the Church.
This occasional uncertainty, along with the weight of the sheer accumulation of venial sins, induces me to hold myself back from holy communion from time to time. Some have told me that this practice is “Jansenistic” and scrupulous. Perhaps there is a taint of scrupulosity in my personality, and perhaps not: that really isn’t the point. It just seems to me that the Holy Eucharist is important enough to prepare oneself well, and when one hasn’t prepared himself well, refraining from communion can provide the incentive and devotion needed to prepare for the next opportunity.
The Catholic Church, of course, does not require weekly reception of Holy Communion, but encourages it for those who are well prepared. Receiving Our Lord with indifference, distraction, lukewarmness and moral uncertainty – as I am so often inclined to do – does not strike me as being well prepared. That said, I expect that most of my neighbors are usually better prepared than I am, or at least have better internal assurances, and I would advise any Catholic with a properly formed conscience – including my own children – to receive communion whenever in doubt, with the intention of going to confession during the week.
“On some occasions, I personally choose to stay behind and not receive the precious Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Perhaps too many venial sins have piled up and I haven’t yet confessed my sins to the priest, or perhaps I have been inattentive and not prepared myself well for Holy Communion.”
“I believe denying oneself Holy Communion once in a while is useful not only for our own souls, but also serves as an example to others who may feel they are obligated to receive Holy Communion simply because they attend Mass.”
As for the charge of Jansenism, the practice of refraining from communion for devotional reasons long predates this heresy. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, which in retrospect seems to promote very frequent communion rather incautiously, the frequency of reception declined precisely as Faith was on the ascendancy:
“The Poor Clares, by rule, communicated six times a year; the Dominicanesses, fifteen times; the Third Order of St. Dominic, four times. Even saints received rarely: St. Louis six times a year, St. Elizabeth only three times.”
At a time when scrupulosity was a widespread problem, it made sense to promote frequent communion. But we live in different times: today the problem is presumption, not scrupulosity, and the greater danger is sacrilege.
I don’t want the Church to abandon the ideal of frequent communion, but let’s remove the stigma from not receiving. There are many reasons not to receive: not having confessed one’s mortal sins (or uncertainty about the same), not having fasted properly, not having recollected oneself, arriving late for Mass, etc. One should have a good confessor to help determine whether scrupulosity is an issue. All should try to receive weekly by preparing themselves well, beginning, if possible, on Saturday night. The preparation need not be perfect, of course. And it is good to remember that reception of the Eucharist bestows the forgiveness of venial sins. But let’s also remember that, for some, abstaining from holy communion on occasion is helpful in maintaining a proper reverence and respect for the Sacrament, so that the Eucharist is received more worthily and lovingly in the future.