In 1643, Antoine Arnauld published De la frequente Communion, arguing that the frequent reception of Holy Communion cheapened the Sacrament as so few were in a proper state of Grace to receive the Lord. Arnauld’s book became a centerpiece of the Jansenist movement and the debates around sin, Grace and Holy Communion that would consume the political-religious affairs of France, and the Church in general, for more than a century.
Arnauld was a man of great learning and piety. His amazing family was devoted to the Jansenist approach to Religion. His sisters were both superiors of the community at Port Royal and Arnauld was among the “Solitaries” who lived and taught in the environs around the famous convent. He was a doctor of the Sorbonne. His teachings on Augustinian theology, including matters related to sin and Holy Communion, eventually resulted in his expulsion from that most prestigious of theological faculties. It was in his defense that Blaise Pascal penned his Provincial Letters, mocking the Jesuits for their alleged extreme laxity and employment every trick of sophistry to explain away a penitent’s culpability for even the most egregious sins. Arnauld never wavered in his conviction that his theology was a Catholic implementation of St. Augustine’s thought on sin and Grace. As a result, he lived in hiding for much of his life under the mercurial Louis XIV, who was ever ready to stamp out any sign of disunity in Church or State.
The controversies over the proper disposition for the reception of Holy Communion persisted well into the 18th century, despite the decline of religious sentiment that marked the development of France, and all Europe, during that epoch. Nonetheless, until the Revolution, France remained a Catholic nation in which throne and altar were intertwined. As late as 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, outlawing Protestantism. His successor, Louis XV, never failed to keep a mistress in prominence during his long reign. Although Louis XV reigned in the fashion of an absolute monarch, ruling as the “Most Christian King” over the “Eldest Daughter of the Church”, he was barred from the Sacrament for decades because of his persistent adulterous conduct. In 1750, more than a century after Arnauld’s publication of his treatise on frequent Communion, ironically, the Church in France attempted to deny Communion—even Viaticum—to those who would not formally renounce their attachment to the Jansenist teachings and give their assent to papal condemnations of such teachings.
France under the ancien regime was, until its end, a society of fervent religious passion. The 17th century alone produced Vincent De Paul, Mary Margaret Alacoque, Bousset, and de Rance (founder of the Trappists), along with the complex theological and political movement associated with the Jansenists. Its great ministers were clergymen, Richelieu, Mazarin and Fleury, and the kings whom they served had authority in ecclesial matters, including the right to nominate bishops. The attempt of Louis XIV in 1682 to increase his role in Church affairs during the crisis over the Regale was a serious matter that nearly led to a break with Rome, a crisis staved off only by the underlying Catholic character of the nation that could never abide such a result.
It is strange, therefore, that our secular society, so distant from that of old France, where Religion is largely regarded with either disdain or indifference, should confront a political controversy over the question of whether President Biden should be admitted to Holy Communion. It seems that the people most upset about the prospect of Biden’s debarment from the Sacrament are non-Catholics and non-believers who know nothing of the Church’s Eucharistic theology. They operate under the assumption that debates over the conditions for the admission to Holy Communion are a novel attempt to make a statement within American politics, ignorant of the fact that the question of sin and Holy Communion only dates back as far as St. Paul.
Indeed, the division of the Mass into two parts—the “Mass of the Catechumens” and the “Mass of the Faithful”—derives from the practice in the early centuries of dismissing the unbaptized from the assembly prior to the Consecration as it was thought that they were not properly disposed merely to witness the most sacred act (of course, the modern reformers, allegedly enamored of all things primitive, annoyingly replaced these appellations).
They are likewise wholly unaware that, until the 20th century, “frequent Communion” as we now know it was not the norm in the Church. As Eucharistic piety grew in the Middle Ages and onward towards the modern period, many Faithful assisted at Mass simply by attendance, reverence, prayer and engagement in devotional acts. The reluctance to receive “all the time” was rooted in the sense of one’s unworthiness to approach “so great a Sacrament” (in St. Thomas’ phrase) and fear of condemnation due to reception in a state of sin. The moral theology books were filled with commentaries on how confessors should handle various kinds of sins and the sort of advice regarding the reception of Holy Communion a confessor should offer in various circumstances.
Equally misunderstood is purpose of the teaching itself. Debarment form the Sacrament is not directed as a “weapon” against any Christian but is meant as a remedy. It has always been held that unworthy reception brings further condemnation—eating and drinking death. Withholding Communion until confession, absolution and reform is intended to restore spiritual health, not as punishment on the sinner.
Thus, as always, historical knowledge lends some perspective that may calm the anger of those who find it outrageous that the bishops of the United States should tend to their fundamental pastoral duty to protect the integrity of the Church’s most precious sacramental possession and to guide souls toward repentance and worthy reception.
In any event, it seems utterly incongruous that this secular world should give a care about the whole kerfuffle. The question of what Catholic bishops say about the reception of a piece of bread in a ritual that one might occasionally endure for the sake of a wedding, funeral or family event ought to be completely irrelevant to “our democracy.” If ours is a society in which Religion is an entirely private matter that should be divorced from public policy and legally prohibited from any involvement with the State, why is it a question of public importance whether our secular political leaders may receive a Sacrament in a private religious ceremony?
Finally, amidst the uproar, the bishops, in their desire to promote “Eucharistic coherence”, might take the occasion to ask themselves how it is that the Church has fallen into this bizarre state of affairs. As important as it is to proclaim upon the effect of sin and the notion of worthy reception, it is even more essential to demonstrate to the Faithful—only a quarter of whom bother to attend the Mass weekly and only a fraction of whom evince an actual belief in the Real Presence—the sanctity of Corpus Christi. Here, once more, the Church’s own age-old practices offer the answer, manifested in the Traditional Mass. The silent Canon, the triple genuflections, the use of torches, bells and incense at the Consecration and, most notably, the requirement for a communicant to receive kneeling and on the tongue from a Sacred Minister would do more for “Eucharistic coherence” than all the papers, pronouncements and Zoom meetings issued and convoked from here to Eternity.
Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004. He is the author of The Pearl of Great Price: Pius VI & the Sack of Rome.