Can priests deny Communion to people who support abortion?

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Question: Does a parish pastor have the authority to refuse to serve Communion to an every-Sunday contributing parishioner because the pastor knows she is pro-choice and she will not go to confession? Where does a priest’s authority begin and end in serving Communion?

— Name withheld

Answer: The answer to this is a pastoral and prudential one. In terms of canon law, pastors are instructed as follows: “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” (No. 915).

Since excommunication and interdict are rare, it thus comes down to whether the grave sin is manifest and whether the person, after being warned, persists in it. To knowingly support abortion, even if under the euphemism of being “pro-choice,” is a matter of serious dissent and a grave matter since it supports the killing of innocent human beings. Certainly, pastors should privately speak to parishioners whom they know to be actively “pro-choice.” If, after counseling them as to the gravity of the sin of abortion and support for it, the persons remain obstinate, the priest does well to teach them that they break true communion with the Church and with the Lord by this serious dissent from a known and critical moral teaching. Hence, they should refrain from holy Communion since their adherence to such a view renders their claims of communion false. Receiving holy Communion in such a state is incoherent since, in effect, it is a lie.

There remain situations in which the person continues to present himself or herself for holy Communion despite being instructed not to. In these cases, the pastor must make a prudential decision about when or how to refuse Communion in the moment. This will depend partly on how manifest the dissenter’s views are to others. Avoiding “showdowns” at the Communion station has value since people are often alarmed and misunderstand what is taking place. However, if the giving of Communion will cause confusion or scandal to others present, the priest may prudently decide to publicly refuse it. As noted, this may be needed especially for those times where the dissenting view or views of the person are widely known. In other situations, where the person’s views are largely private and unknown, most priests avoid a verbal or visual conflict at the Communion station and continue to privately urge the person to comply while not forcing the issue after repeated instruction. The essential question is what is best for the good of souls, both of the individual and of the other faithful who are present.

Yet another issue for priests to consider is the instruction of their bishop on the enforcement of Canon 915 (quoted above). Some bishops have made it clear that they do not want to enforce it. In this case, many priests willingly or reluctantly comply. Other priests, as a matter of conscience, do not, citing the higher authority of the universal law of the Church and holy Scripture (cf. 1 Cor 11). Reasonable men in the priesthood differ on whether the nonenforcement of a law is akin to its violation, or if obedience to the bishop in a prudential application of the law binds them more. At least realize that priests are often in an awkward moment at many levels in this whole matter, especially if their bishop has weighed in on the matter.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at Send questions to