Canon 915: Teachers of Heresy may not receive Communion

Canon 915 says nothing about divorce and remarriage, explicitly. It forbids ministers to give Communion to persons obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin. It is interpreted to apply to the divorced and remarried, if they are in the situation where the first marriage is not annulled, and the first spouse is still alive, and the second marriage is not valid. This implies that the sexual relations of the second marriage is a type of adultery (Mt 5:32; 19:9) and the grave sin of scandal.

However, the Roman Pontiff has the authority to make exceptions to anything and everything in Canon Law, except direct expressions of teachings on faith and morals. The current Roman Pontiff has done so, allowing the divorced and remarried to receive Communion, in some cases, given that they are believed to be in the state of grace, even if by a sincere but mistaken conscience. And he certainly permits reception if the couple are living in continence, having been to Confession. However, he has not done so for other manifest grave sins.

Canon 915 is treated by some commentators as if it only applies to the manifest grave sin of the above-stated type of adultery. What other manifest grave sins fall under that Canon? All of them. Every grave sin that is manifest, and of course which meets the condition of obstinate perseverance, falls under the Canon.

What about grave sins which are not manifest or which lack obstinate perseverance? Those sins fall under Canon 916, which instructs the faithful not to receive Communion, if they are conscious of grave sin, (with some exceptions) until they confess. In no case are they to receive without repentance: at least imperfect contrition with Confession, or perfect contrition if Confession is to be delayed for a grave reason.

So every type of grave sin falls under one or the other Canon (or both).

Teaching Heresy

The grave sin of formal heresy, even if it is not manifest, prohibits one from Communion under Canon 916, and also carries the penalty of automatic excommunication under Canon 1364. When the grave sin of heresy is “manifest” and the person is “obstinately persevering”, then Canon 915 also applies. This can occur when a Catholic publicly makes their “position” known, in direct and knowing opposition to Church teaching. For example, if a politician publicly announces that the Church is just wrong on contraception, that is manifest formal heresy.

The Church’s teaching in Casti Connubii is that contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, “even with one’s legitimate wife”, and that this truth was divinely-revealed in Sacred Scripture (in the passage on Onan). This teaching is not found only in Humanae Vitae or Casti Connubii; it is repeated in many magisterial documents. It has been the constant teaching of the Church, and so it falls under the infallibility of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

And it is still heresy when an infallible divinely-revealed teaching is substantially distorted, rather than simply denied; for then truth is turned into error. And the faithful are harmed all the more when such errors of distortion are falsely said to be the teaching of the Church.

Note that formal heresy is not necessarily an actual mortal sin. So we are not here judging the soul, but rather taking the person at their word, when they publicly state that they know what the Church teaches, and that they reject that teaching or believe something incompatible with it.

The sin of formal heresy applies to teachings that are to be believed with divine and catholic faith, which includes divinely-revealed teachings under Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, and the ordinary and universal Magisterium. It does not apply to non-infallible teachings, or to dogmatic facts, or to teachings that fall short of being taught by the Magisterium as divinely-revealed.

However, if a person publicly rejects an infallible teaching that falls short of this level of teaching authority (divine and catholic faith), he would be “would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.” [Doctrinal Commentary on the Professio fidei].

In the first case, the person is automatically excommunicated for formal heresy. In the second case, the person is committing the grave sin of scandal — we are speaking of manifest grave sins — and the grave sin of rejecting an infallible teaching. This sin falls under Canon 916 in every case, and under Canon 915 when manifest with obstinate perseverance. So the teacher of this type of grave error cannot claim to be worthy to receive Communion based on the technical difference stated in the above doctrinal commentary. It’s only a slightly less grave error.

Far worse is the sin of those Catholics who have chosen to teach the faithful on matters of faith, morals, and salvation, and yet teach heresy and other grave errors. The sin of teaching heresy and grave error certainly meets the condition of being manifest grave sin, and then, as the person continues to teach the errors without retraction, the condition of obstinately persevering is also met.

Teachers of heresy and grave error, and other persons who publicly promote or assert the same, are unworthy to receive Communion under Canon 915. The scandal that they give to the faithful, especially by teaching heresy, is far worse than that of the divorced and remarried. If the divorced and remarried may not receive, then certainly neither can they.

Good Conscience?

What if the teacher of heresy sincerely believes that he is teaching truth, despite being well-aware of the infallible teaching of the Magisterium? Canon 915 still applies, since it is not based on a judgment that the person is guilty of actual mortal sin, but only an objective mortal sin that is manifest and in which the person is obstinately persevering. So the teacher of heresy and grave error cannot argue that he is right, and the Church is wrong; if he does, he is still unworthy to receive Communion.

Some of these teachers of heresy and grave error absolutely reject the Roman Pontiff’s decision, made by the authority he possesses as the successor of Peter, by his authority not only to teach doctrine but to rule over discipline, to allow the divorced and remarried to receive Communion, in some cases, if they are in good conscience. This rejection of papal authority is the grave sin of scandal, and is proximate to the sin of schism. Does Peter hold the keys or not? If he holds the keys, why are you trying to close a door that he has opened?

A faithful Catholic can hold the opinion that a different discipline for the divorced and remarried would be better, and even that this decision of the Roman Pontiff is something of an error. But he cannot publicly assert that his side is simply right and the other side, being that of the Roman Pontiff, is simply wrong. Peter holds the keys. What he binds on earth is bound in heaven. And therefore the argument that Canon 915 is based on divine law does not hold.

However, the Roman Pontiff has not given a decision allowing teachers of heresy and grave error to receive Communion. Canon 915 still applies to them.

So now we come to the hypocrisy of those papal critics who reject the Pontiff’s decision to permit the divorced and remarried to receive Communion, and who teach heresy and grave error, without repentance. They loudly repeatedly oppose the Roman Pontiff’s decision, citing Canon 915. And yet, as that same Canon applies to them, they ignore it and receive Communion anyway.

The objection of these teachers of error is that their teachings are correct on every point, or at least not gravely erroneous. But the case is easily made that some of their teachings are abject heresy, and other errors are gravely contrary to faith and morals. And their claim to be in good conscience does not work, according to them, for the divorced and remarried, so why would it apply to them? They should not be receiving Communion.

Here’s a blog post by Dr. Ed Peters, stating that he is right and the Pope is wrong: Sometimes one side is simply right and the other side is simply wrong. Well, the Roman Pontiff has made his decision. The divorced and remarried may receive Communion, as stated in Amoris Laetitia. So the side that is simply wrong is that of Peters and other Amoris Laetitia critics.

Take heart, critics of Amoris Laetitia! I am very sure that the very next Pope will use the same authority of Peter and change the discipline for Communion again: generally forbidding anyone guilty of grave sin to receive Communion. Unfortunately, this includes the grave sins that are popular among the Catholics in the pews: contraception, abortion, abortifacients, many different types of sexual sins, and adhering to or teaching heresy. The result will very likely be a mass exodus from the Mass, and a collapse of many parishes for lack of attendance and finances. So rejoice! The thread you are pulling will soon unravel the whole sweater. Isn’t that what you want? You don’t really want ONLY the divorced and remarried to be prohibited from Communion, and not all others unrepentant from grave sin, do you?

A question for my readers: Should I name names? Should I write a post, one for each teacher of heresy and various grave errors, teachers who are harming souls by contradicting or radically reinterpreting the teachings of the Church? Should I point out that each of them is also prohibited from reception of Communion?

The sins of formal heresy and formal schism have become a joke in the Church. Prominent conservative Catholics openly teach heresy and/or openly oppose the very authority of the Roman Pontiff, without losing support from their Catholic readers, without losing their jobs with Catholic organizations, without suffering any rebuke from their peers. And they receive Communion regularly. And then they loudly denounce the divorced and remarried for doing what they themselves also do: receiving Communion, despite Canon 915. The only difference is that one group has permission from the highest authority in the Church on earth, and the other group thinks themselves to be that authority.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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3 Responses to Canon 915: Teachers of Heresy may not receive Communion

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    And her certainly permits reception if the couple are living in continence, having been to Confession.
    The Pope is a he, not a her
    Should I name names? Should I write a post, one for each teacher of heresy and various grave errors, teachers who are harming souls by contradicting or radically reinterpreting the teachings of the Church? Should I point out that each of them is also prohibited from reception of Communion?

    Yes. Yes. And yes.

  2. Paul M. says:

    Ron, could you address the possibility that Pope Benedict XVI did not properly abdicate his papacy by retaining it’s spiritual dimension? And, thus, Pope Francis is no Pope at all. Thanks.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The resignation of a Pope is not a fragile thing. It is easy to get right and hard to get wrong. Benedict resigned, and subsequently he ceased to speak and act as if he were Pope. He accepts Pope Francis as the valid Pope, as do all the dioceses of the world and the body of Bishops. God never permits anyone to be accepted by the Church and the body of Bishops as the true Pope, if he were not, as the Church is indefectible and the Pope is the head of the Church.

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