In the news recently is a discussion in the Roman Catholic Church about not giving Holy Communion to certain politicians who argue that 3rd trimester infants in utero are not to be acknowledged as having a human right to life comparable to adults.

For those who are not Catholics, or are moderate Catholics, how should church discipline be practiced among the laity outside of Eucharistic bans? For example, during the Hitler era, most of the Lutherans in Germany did not refuse communion to those who belonged to the Nazi party. But were there other restrictions related to lay ecclesiastical service or church member identification?


2 Answers 2


From my experience, open communion is about being relatively open and welcoming at the entrance to the Christian community. It means:

  1. Regular church attendees do not need to become formal members to take communion
  2. And in fact, usually even visitors can take communion
  3. Partakers may not need to have previously professed their faith or confess any particular creed, or even be baptised (some churches may state that baptism is a requirement, but it wouldn't be enforced, instead trusting that those who have not been baptised will exclude themselves.)
  4. Partakers do not need to justify their worthiness prior to each communion service (unlike churches which, for example, issued communion tokens)

Behind all of these stands the principle that it is primarily ourselves who are predominantly responsible for ensuring that we partake in communion in a worthy manner, as taught in 1 Corinthians 11:28. This is just an extension of the fact that we are ultimately all responsible for our own actions and spiritual health.

But each person being responsible for themselves doesn't negate church discipline. Church discipline is initiated when the church leaders become aware of recurring unrepentant sin by someone in their congregation. When that happens the church discipline process begins, though there are many different forms. The goal is to lead the person to repentance and changing behaviour. When people do not immediately repent, there are many things that can happen, and allowing the person to still attend church services but restricting their participation in communion is a common consequence. So it's not a contradiction to have both open communion and excommunication as a method of church discipline.

  • My general experience concurs. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    May 25, 2022 at 8:34
  • Nigel & CD, Really? When have the Episcopalians or Lutherans recently restricted people from taking communion? Have those cases been in the news? Is it even codified in their theology?
    – Jess
    May 25, 2022 at 15:28
  • @Jess Why would private local church matters make the news? And see WCF chapter 30.
    – curiousdannii
    May 25, 2022 at 21:37

during the Hitler era, the Lutherans in Germany did not refuse communion to those who belonged to the Nazi party.

The Catholic Church in Germany excommunicated the Nazis, and excommunicates cannot receive Holy Communion.

Another instance was when St. Ambrose of Milan (346-395 A.D.) excommunicated the Christian Roman emperor Thedosius I, who, out of excessive zeal and to make an example, ordered the massacre of 7,000 innocent spectators in an amphitheater of barbaric gladiatorial games in Thessalonica (390 A.D). St. Ambrose wrote him:

It grieves me that you, who were an example of singular piety, who exercised consummate clemency, who would not suffer individual offenders to be placed in jeopardy, should not mourn over the destruction of so many innocent persons … I dare not offer the Sacrifice if you determine to attend.

After 8 months of public penance, Theodosius was readmitted to the Church. St. Ambrose's said at his funeral 4 years later:

I loved him because, divesting himself of his regal state, he wept publicly for his sins and asked for pardon with groans and tears. I loved him because, Emperor as he was, he was not ashamed to do the public penance from which many of low degree shrink, and because he deplored his sin every day he lived.

—Rengers & Bunson, 35 Doctors of the Church, ch. 7 St. Ambrose

Saint Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral:

  • I don’t think you read the question right. A better way to answer it would be to propose other ways Ambrose could have persuaded emperor, Theodosius of publicly repenting of his role in a massacre of civilians.
    – Jess
    May 25, 2022 at 5:00
  • 1
    I am looking for a pragmatic answer on how to motivate Christians to not violate human rights without making participation in communion a matter of correct moral behavior. In other words the question needs to take into account this presupposition: “…communion should be viewed not as a prize for the perfect, but as a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,…the great gift of the Holy Eucharist is too sacred to be made a political issue.”
    – Jess
    May 25, 2022 at 5:19
  • @Jess Withholding Communion from those "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin" (1983 Code can. 915) ≠ excommunication. St. Ambrose's approach was excommunication, which bars the excommunicate from all the sacraments and cuts him off from membership in the Church, like a dead branch pruned from a vine. Withholding Communion is a lesser penalty.
    – Geremia
    May 25, 2022 at 20:02
  • That 1983 can. 1398 ("A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latæ sententiæ [automatic] excommunication."; cf. 1917 Code can. 2350: "Procurers of abortion, the mother not excepted…") applies to pro-abortion politicians is a minority position (Robert T. Miller, “Catholic Politicians and Excommunication,” First Things, May 2007).
    – Geremia
    May 25, 2022 at 20:37
  • @Jess Canon Law specifies several delicts that incur automatic excommunication, so even if bishops would like to impose a penalty less severe than excommunication, they cannot go against canon law; however, they can lift excommunications and readmit the excommunicate into the Church when he has repented—which was done with, e.g., the excommunication of medical ethics board member Margaret McBride, who approved a direct abortion in 2010.
    – Geremia
    May 25, 2022 at 20:45

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