A recent article in the National Catholic Register reported an exchange between Mike Allen on HBO and Cardinal Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development:

“Do you have any question that President Biden is a Catholic in good standing?” Allen asked. “Should he be served communion?”

Cardinal Turkson responded: “If you say somebody cannot receive Communion, you are basically doing a judgment that you are in a state of sin.”

“It sounds like you don’t think that should happen in the case of President Biden,” said the interviewer.

“No,” said Cardinal Turkson. “You know, if, you know, a priest who’s distributing Communion sees — unexpected all of a sudden somebody he knows to have committed murder, he’s meant to protect their dignity and the respect of that person.”

“So it’s for extreme cases?”

“Yeah. Those, for extreme cases, okay?” Cardinal Turkson replied.


I can't really follow the logic here, whether or not priests are supposed to withhold Communion to murderers to protect their dignity or not distribute Communion for the sake of the murdered person, but the Cardinal appears to be saying that making a decision to withhold Communion is only for extreme circumstances.

Does that jibe with Canon law and the way things are practically done in the Catholic Church? It's not like we have a list of sinners at Mass like a list of people who pass bad checks at a diner. But I was under the impression that scandal was one of the things that should rouse the suspicions of a priest and to distribute Communion to a public heretic like Joe Biden would be inappropriate, in the way that distributing Communion to a private sinner like myself wouldn't be scandalous. If I were denied absolution, like I've heard St. Padre Pio would do after reading souls, wouldn't that be a more private scandal? Either way, it seems like an untenable situation, there are clear guidelines for the laity, but what do priests do in response to the laity not following the rules?

  • 1
    @NigelJ whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/09/03/… "And I under- — I respect people who think that — who don’t support Roe v. Wade; I respect their views. I respect them — they — those who believe life begins at the moment of conception and all. I respect that. Don’t agree, but I respect that. I’m not going to impose that on people. " it's one thing if he thinks it's OK to murder babies in the womb, it's another if he disagrees with a clear teaching on when life begins.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 13:58

1 Answer 1


The relevant canons are:

Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

Can. 916 A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.

Canon 915 defines the obligation of ministers whereas 916 is the obligation of the recipient. "others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin" is the phrase which could be applied to some politicians (among others). Ministers are "not to admit" (i.e. permit to receive) people who meet all the criteria of obstinate perseverance in a manifest grave sin. These are externally verifiable criteria and do not amount to a judgment on the state of that person's soul.

Obstinate perseverance means that despite attempts at correct (e.g. a pastor or bishop charitably pointing out the error and attempting to instruct), the person continues in the same course of action.

manifest means the action is reasonably public/knowable. E.g. marriage records are public, so living with someone other than your spouse would be manifest. Actions done relatively privately, even if habitual, are considered occult.

grave sin means the matter of the act is severe not mild. Note that here (unlike elsewhere in the Canons), grave sin is not a synonym for mortal sin -- the actual full knowledge and consent is not evaluated (for one, an external party cannot objectively judge with certainty whether full knowledge or consent exists)

Canon 915 is less about the salvation of the recipient and more about the salvation of others by minimizing scandal; that is, it's about preventing someone from concluding the would-be recipient's way of life is approved by the Church. Consequently, there can be cases where the objective observable criteria would meet the criteria and scandal must be avoided even though the individuals are not actually culpable of mortal sin. Historically, some of these cases were dealt with via private communion (which avoids the scandal).

Canon 915 does not allow denying communion because the minister observed the person do what appears to be a mortal sin.

  • +5. Excellent definitions of terms being applied to the question as well as the distinction of who is responsible and the purpose of canon 915 vs. 916. Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 19:03
  • @GratefulDisciple thanks
    – eques
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 19:06

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