One could ask why we would need to consider cooperation in sacrilege when, morally speaking, the avoidance of scandal should be sufficient reason for the minister to refuse communion to a public sinner. The answer to that question lies in the fact that many ministers of the sacraments do not understand the seriousness of the matter. As a matter of fact, one must be dismayed by the general lack of awareness of sound moral principles regarding the administration of the sacraments. This is not to say that the Church’s ministers are intentionally failing in their responsibility, but the discussion that has taken place surrounding this matter of Holy Communion certainly points to a lack of knowledge about authentic moral principles which guide the administration of sacraments. Perhaps by considering the more basic question of the minister's moral culpability for cooperation in another’s sin, the importance of the issue of scandal involved in public sin can be better appreciated.
In their erudite treatment, Moral Theology: A Complete Course, Dominican authors John McHugh, OP, and Charles Callan, OP, discuss the circumstances under which the minister must deny the sacraments to a potential recipient. They write, the minister “must deny them, as a rule, to those who to his knowledge are certainly unworthy (e.g., on account of lack of requisite instruction or moral disposition); otherwise he casts pearls before swine, cooperates in the sacrilege of others, and scandalizes the people.” (Mc Hugh and Callan 1958, 2: 663) They add, “Hence a public sinner—that is, one whose unworthiness is notorious…--should not be given the Sacraments publicly, until he has repaired the scandal he gave; and no unworthy person, even though he is a hidden sinner whose guilt is known only to the minister, should be given a Sacrament in private until he has shown signs of repentance.” (663) They indicate quite clearly that the minister must refuse to admit to Holy Communion persons who are known to be unworthy. “Those persons are denied communion who cannot receive without scandal.” (687) Among those who cannot receive under this circumstance they identify those who are infamous such as prostitutes or defamers and those who are intoxicated or “insufficiently dressed.” (687)
The authors make some points here which need to be clearly understood. First, the worthiness of the recipient is, in fact, an issue when administering sacraments. Thus, it is incumbent upon the minister to be aware of the potential for immoral cooperation and scandal. Secondly, the question of cooperation in sacrilege arises in the case of any sinner, not only the case of the public sinner. Thirdly, the minister’s response to the unworthy recipient differs depending upon whether the recipient’s unworthiness results from a public sin or a hidden (not public) sin. When the grave sin is not public, administering the sacrament to the unworthy recipient whose sin is known to the minister constitutes cooperation in the sin. In such a case, however, cooperation is permissible under some circumstances and scandal is not likely to become an issue. But, when the sin is public, the matter of scandal takes on paramount importance. And, since the moral law called for “repair of the scandal” as a matter of justice, essentially a public repentance, the unworthy recipient could not receive the sacraments publicly again even if he had confessed the sin and received absolution. The authors, however, in no way discount the need for absolution for the one whose sin is private but known to the minister.
The fact that scandal becomes the overriding moral issue in the case of the public sinner does not, however, eliminate the need to consider the duty of the minister not to cooperate in sacrilege.
McHugh, John A., OP, and Callan, Charles J., OP, 1958. Moral Theology: A Complete Course Based on St. Thomas Aquinas and Best Modern Authors. Rev. and en., Edward P. Farrell, OP. New York: Joseph F. Wagner.
(Fourth post in a series on Communion and Pro-Abortion Politicians)