Thursday, 11 October 2012

May Non-Catholics Receive Holy Communion?

When we are baptised we are incorporated into the Church and we are called to form one body: “For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and all were made to drink of one Spirit.[1] 

Through the Sacrament of the Eucharist we are united more closely with our Lord and, in turn, into one body, the Church.  “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.[2]

Holy Communion deepens our incorporation with the Church and it unites all the faithful who share the same faith, doctrinal teachings, traditions, sacraments and leadership, into communion with the whole Catholic Church. 

Holy Communion, amongst its many other fruits, also strengthens our charity and wipes away our venial sins.  But any baptised Catholic who wants to receive Holy Communion must first be in a state of grace.  If a Catholic is therefore aware of any mortal sin, that Catholic must, before receiving Holy Communion, first receive absolution through the Sacrament of Penance (Confession).  

It is important to remember that the “Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins – that is proper to the Sacrament of Penance.[3]  If one is therefore aware of any mortal sin one must first receive absolution before receiving Holy Communion.  Receiving Holy Communion does not absolve our mortal sins; receiving Holy Communion when one is not in a state of grace will only add to our mortal sins.

It is worthwhile to consider the words of St Paul on the subject of receiving Holy Communion: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.  Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.[4]

One example of a mortal sin that would require absolution before receiving Holy Communion is if a Catholic has negligently failed to attend Mass on a Sunday or a Holy Day of Obligation.  Catholics often confuse this requirement to attend Mass every Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation with the requirement to receive Holy Communion at least once a year.  We may not be required to receive Holy Communion every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, but we are nevertheless still required to go to Mass on those days, even if we don’t receive Holy Communion.

The Church obliges the faithful "to take part in the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feast days" and, prepared by the sacrament of Reconciliation, to receive the Eucharist at least once a year, if possible during the Easter season.  But the Church strongly encourages the faithful to receive the holy Eucharist on Sundays and feast days, or more often still, even daily. [5]

If a non-practicing Catholic, either because of not attending Mass or abandoning the teaching of the Church, were to receive Holy Communion, he would therefore be committing the sin of sacrilege. Hence non-practicing Catholics should not receive Holy Communion without first receiving the Sacrament of Penance.  

This scenario of a non-practicing Catholic now leads us naturally to the scenario of those Christians who are not themselves Catholic. I must emphasise that this progression to the subject of non-Catholics, from that of a non-practicing Catholic, follows only from the concept of a non-practicing Catholic. (I would be devastated if anyone misunderstood this natural progression to mean that I am somehow drawing a link between not being Catholic and sin!)

Throughout the history of the Church there have been divisions.  The first big division was that of the Orthodox Churches in 1054 and then later the Protestant Churches, starting in the year 1517. 

Christians share many common beliefs.  Yet, despite this, there are also numerous differences, which include big differences on subjects like the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the priesthood.  These more painful differences “break the common participation in the table of the Lord[6]

There is a big distinction in the differences that exist between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, and the differences that exist between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches.

The primary difference between the Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church is about the authority of the pope.  The Second Vatican Council therefore made this declaration about the Orthodox Churches in its Decree on Ecumenism:

These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments and above all, by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy.  Therefore some worship in common (communicatio in sacris), given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not only possible but to be encouraged.[7] 

So, members of the Orthodox Churches can receive the Sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick from the Catholic Church.  The Code of Canon Law states that:

Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed.[8]

The differences between the Protestant Churches and the Catholic Church are however more significant than those of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  As a consequences of these more significant differences, the second Vatican Council declared that the Protestant Churches: “have not retained the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Orders[9] and that therefore “Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible for the Catholic Church.[10] 

Anglican Communion Service
Catholics are therefore not permitted to receive the ‘sacraments’ of the Protestant Churches and neither can Protestants receive the Sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick from the Catholic Church. 

It should however be noted that the Catholic Church does allow for certain special circumstances when Protestants can receive the Sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick from the Catholic Church. 

If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.[11]

What is key to note here is that the non-Catholic requesting the sacrament should “manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments”.  There really would be no point in administering the sacrament to a Protestant who simply did not believe in the sacrament.  This provision does not apply in reverse.  Catholics cannot receive the sacraments of Protestants under any circumstances.

We should of course not forget that these occasions, where Protestants may ask to receive the sacraments from the Catholic Church, are to be reserved for extraordinary circumstances.  As a norm, even during those very 'special' moments, like weddings, Protestants cannot receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church.  To ensure that this practice of Protestant's receiving these sacraments is therefore always seen for what it is, extraordinary, and that it does not ever become the norm, Canon Law specifically states that: “the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops is not to issue general norms except after consultation at least with the local competent authority of the interested non-Catholic Church or community.[12]

While often it may seem as though it is a loving, respectful and right thing to do, especially when we are attending a funeral or wedding in a Protestant Church and are specifically invited to participate in ‘communion’ with them, doing so is more than just some symbolic nice gesture.  Receiving ‘communion’ from a Protestant Church makes a statement, whether it is our intention to do so or not, that we accept and align ourselves with what it is that they believe regarding that sacrament and distance ourselves from what we truly believe about the Catholic sacraments.  We proclaim what they believe to be true. 

For Catholics to do this would of course be a complete and total contradiction of our Faith.  In fact, if we consider it carefully, this act of receiving ‘communion’, no matter how well intended it may be, actually discredits either the Protestant's beliefs or our own Catholic beliefs.  We simply cannot claim to truly hold Catholic beliefs, while at the same time accepting opposite Protestant beliefs.  One of the statements of belief must by necessity be false.  They cannot both be truth.  Therefore the very act of Catholics receiving Protestant 'sacraments' or Protestants receiving our Sacraments of Penance, Holy Communion or the Anointing of the Sick, is a lie and is really an insult to one another's beliefs.  

We must decide what it is that we believe and then remain true to that belief.  We can pray with our Christian brothers and sisters.  We can attend their funerals and weddings, and they ours.  Indeed we must even seek all possible opportunities to ensure that the “ecumenical feeling and mutual esteem may gradually increase among all men.[13]  But let us be careful not to forget these important words of the Council Fathers:

Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded.[14]

[1] 1 Corinthians 12: 13
[2] 1 Corinthians 10: 16 - 17
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1395
[4] 1 Corinthians 11: 27 - 28
[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1389
[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1398
[7] Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree On Ecumenism), Nov 21, 1964, #15
[8] Code of Canon Law, Canon 844, #3
[9] Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree On Ecumenism), Nov 21, 1964, #22
[10] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1400
[11] Code of Canon Law, Canon 844, #4
[12] Code of Canon Law, Canon 844, #5
[13] Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree On Ecumenism), Nov 21, 1964, #19
[14] Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree On Ecumenism), Nov 21, 1964, #11

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