Our beloved Pope Francis reminds us often that holy Communion “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” This reminder is important for all people but even more needed for those with scrupulosity. Unfortunately, the essential truth that the Pope teaches can get lost in the noise of conversation and debate.
The belief of well-intentioned people that the Eucharist should be denied to certain politicians has only confused some of the faithful. This highly charged political atmosphere can cause scrupulous people to feel pushed and pulled in many directions. If a politician can be denied the Eucharist, or so the crooked thinking goes, persistent sinners should be denied, too. And scrupulous people believe no one is more sinful than the scrupulous.
Powerful words that are casually tossed around in discussions about who should be banned from Communion can lead scrupulous people to believe they have committed: mortal sins, sacrilege, and blasphemy. These false beliefs are damaging. Of course, we are to avoid mortal sins, blasphemy, and sacrilege, but no responsible or conscientious Church official favors withholding the Eucharist from those who sin. The Pope most certainly does not favor such an action.
It is essential to remember there is a difference between the reality of an event or experience and the fear fueled by the confusion and anxiety that scrupulosity spawns.
As a Church, for centuries we have been wrestling with the idea of purity, perfection, and everything related to the proper intention for the reception of Communion.
A heresy known as Jansenism has infected the consciences of good and faithful people for a long time. Unfortunately, Jansenism again has become a concern plaguing today’s Church. Pope Francis may be speaking so strongly and passionately about the Eucharist in order to help correct errors that seem to be running rampant.
Jansenism at first was intended to clarify sin. It holds that people tend to sin, and the individual usually is not strong enough to resist sin. Without grace, sin will very often defeat the soul.
While not technically incorrect, Jansenism leans more toward sin than grace. Its emphasis was on fallen humanity rather than on redeemed humanity. It was not long before this emphasis took on a life of its own and effectively blurred the reality of the relationship between God and people.
Some Jansensists went so far as to insist that sin was so pervasive and grace so rare that only a few people could effectively be saved. Humanity was not redeemed, they said, it was condemned. The problem was, there was no reliable method to determine who was saved and who was condemned. The only response to this dilemma was to live as if you were steeped in sin, absent yourself from the sacraments—especially the Eucharist—so there was no possibility of sacrilege, and then hope for the best while assuming the worst.
Jansenism falsely drove some to live in fear to and in desperate resignation of a tyrannical God. They attended Mass but avoided the Eucharist for fear of offending God even more. Sadly, it was not unusual for the only communicant at Mass to be the priest, who was required to receive the sacrament.
The Church combatted the heresy of Jansenism with a consistent theological emphasis. For example, the Church insisted on the power of God’s all-pervasive and dominant grace. The Church stressed the abundance of grace that was given generously to all God’s people.
To combat the practice of infrequent and rare reception of holy Communion, the Church began requiring Catholics to receive the Eucharist at least once a year. This often occurred on Easter Sunday, hence the origin of the term, “Easter duty.” Although Easter duty brought people to God’s table, it warped into a misunderstanding that emphasized confession, not Communion. This confusion and other efforts continued to damage the relationship people had with God.
Today, the Pope emphasizes that the Blessed Sacrament is for imperfect people who sometimes struggle with faithful living. He thus stands firmly in the orthodox teaching tradition of the Church. Some may wish to blur the truth of his teaching or deliberately confuse the clarity he seeks. I have never understood the appeal of a fierce God who demands that his people live in a constant state of fear and anxiety. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ should have put that useless perception to rest long ago!
For scrupulous people, who because of the disorder that they endure may be prone to an idea that recognizes sin over grace, it is vitally important to change perspective. The inner struggle that often makes it difficult to believe in the power of grace and redemption is real. A powerful truth is that grace will triumph and God will ultimately provide all that is required for salvation and redemption. Holy Communion provides the necessary strength we need to accept this reality, despite the struggle that scrupulosity inflicts upon God’s vulnerable people.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR