The Necessity of the Holy Eucharist for Salvation
We distinguish two kinds of necessity,
- the necessity of means (necessitas medii) and
- the necessity of precept (necessitas præcepti).
In the first sense a thing or action is necessary because without it a given end cannot be attained; the eye, e.g. is necessary for vision. The second sort of necessity is that which is imposed by the free will of a superior, e.g. the necessity of fasting. As regards Communion a further distinction must be made between infants and adults. It is easy to prove that in the case of infants Holy Communion is not necessary to salvation, either as a means or as of precept. Since they have not as yet attained to the use of reason, they are free from the obligation of positive laws; consequently, the only question is whether Communion is, like Baptism, necessary for them as a means of salvation. Now the Council of Trent under pain of anathema, solemnly rejects such a necessity and declares that the custom of the primitive Church of giving Holy Communion to children was not based upon the erroneous belief of its necessity to salvation, but upon the circumstances of the times. Since according to St. Paul’s teaching (Romans 8:1) there is “no condemnation” for those who have been baptized, every child that dies in its baptismal innocence, even without Communion, must go straight to heaven. This latter position was that usually taken by the Fathers, with the exception of St. Augustine, who from the universal custom of the Communion of children drew the conclusion of its necessity for salvation. On the other hand, Communion is prescribed for adults, not only by the law of the Church, but also by a Divine command (John 6:50), though for its absolute necessity as a means to salvation there is no more evidence than in the case of infants. For such a necessity could be established only on the supposition that Communion per se constituted a person in the state of grace or that this state could not be preserved without Communion. Neither supposition is correct. Not the first, for the simple reason that the Blessed Eucharist, being a sacrament of the living, presupposes the state of sanctifying grace; not the second, because in case of necessity, such as might arise, e.g., in a long sea-voyage, the Eucharistic graces may be supplied by actual graces. It is only when viewed in this light that we can understand how the primitive Church, without going counter to the Divine command, withheld the Eucharist from certain sinners even on their deathbeds. There is, however, a moral necessity on the part of adults to receive Holy Communion, as a means, for instance, of overcoming violent temptation, or as a viaticum for persons in danger of death. Eminent divines, like Francisco Suárez, claim that the Eucharist, if not absolutely necessary, is at least a relatively and morally necessary means to salvation, in the sense that no adult can long sustain his spiritual, supernatural life who neglects on principle to approach Holy Communion. This view is supported, not only by the solemn and earnest words of Christ, when He Promised the Eucharist, and by the very nature of the sacrament as the spiritual food and medicine of our souls, but also by the fact of the helplessness and perversity of human nature and by the daily experience of confessors and directors of souls.
Since Christ has left us no definite precept as to the frequency with which He desired us to receive Him in Holy Communion, it belongs to the Church to determine the Divine command more accurately and prescribe what the limits of time shall be for the reception of the sacrament. In the course of centuries the Church’s discipline in this respect has undergone considerable change. Whereas the early Christians were accustomed to receive at every celebration of the Liturgy, which probably was not celebrated daily in all places, or were in the habit of Communicating privately in their own homes every day of the week, a falling-off in the frequency of Communion is noticeable since the fourth century. Even in his time Pope Fabian (236-250) made it obligatory to approach the Holy Table three times a year, viz, at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and this custom was still prevalent in the sixth century. Although St. Augustine left daily Communion to the free choice of the individual, his admonition, in force even at the present day, was: Sic vive, ut quotidie possis sumere, i e “So live that you may receive every day.” From the tenth to the thirteenth century, the practice of going to Communion more frequently during the year was rather rare among the laity and obtained only in cloistered communities. St. Bonaventure reluctantly allowed the lay brothers of his monastery to approach the Holy Table weekly, whereas the rule of the Canons of Chrodegang prescribed this practice. When the Fourth Council of Lateran (1215), held under Innocent III, mitigated the former severity of the Church’s law to the extent that all Catholics of both sexes were to communicate at least once a year and this during the paschal season, St. Thomas ascribed this ordinance chiefly to the “reign of impiety and the growing cold of charity”. The precept of the yearly paschal Communion was solemnly reiterated by the Council of Trent. The mystical theologians of the later Middle Ages, as Tauler, St. Vincent Ferrer, Savonarola, and later on St Philip Neri, the Jesuit Order, St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonsus Liguori were zealous champions of frequent Communion; whereas the Jansenists, under the leadership of Antoine Arnauld (De la fréquente communion, Paris, 1643), strenuously opposed and demanded as a condition for every Communion the “most perfect penitential dispositions and the purest love of God”. This rigorism was condemned by Pope Alexander VIII (7 Dec., 1690); the Council Trent and Innocent XI (12 Feb., 1679) had already emphasized the permissibility of even daily Communion. To root out the last vestiges of Jansenistic rigorism, Pius X issued a decree (24 Dec., 1905) wherein he allows and recommends daily Communion to the entire laity and requires but two conditions for its permissibility, namely, the state of grace and a right and pious intention.
Written by J. Pohle. Transcribed by Charles Sweeney, SJ.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York