Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Sharing Communion in a Broken Church

by Father Steve Werner, for the Inland Register

(From the September 20, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)

In the past few issues of the Inland Register, several writers have expressed concern over non-Catholic Christians sharing in Eucharistic Communion at Catholic celebrations. Such concern should take into account the fact that some Protestants share our belief that Christ is present in the Eucharist, although they may not agree with “how” Christ is present (for example, transubstantiation or consubstantiation). The statement “Protestants do not believe in the real presence” is not accurate: some do, some don’t. Obviously, such a statement is offensive to those who do. Nonetheless, belief in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, by itself, is not sufficient cause to allow for sharing in Communion.

In the Catholic Church, sharing in Eucharistic Communion – among other things – is an expression of a unity of faith and life in Christ. So, in ordinary circumstances, the ancient practice continues of distributing Communion only to those who are baptized, and who share the Catholic Church’s faith, and who are living that faith. This practice is attested to by the martyr, Justin, in about the year 155AD: “We call this food Eucharist; and no one may partake of it unless he believes that what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ taught” (1st Apology, #66 from The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1355).

For us Catholics and our Christian neighbors, the Communion Rite is a difficult point in the Mass because it reminds us that the Church is broken (albeit intact) and that there is work to be done on all sides before the Church can be the sacrament of unity that Jesus intended it to be. Yet, as a general rule, it is better to be reminded that the Church is broken by not sharing in Communion (which brings the Church’s wound of disunity to the forefront of our consciousness) than it is to pretend that everything is as it should be.

Admittedly, there are extraordinary circumstances in which, for the good of the baptized, reception of Holy Communion by the non-Catholic may be possible. The Roman Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law acknowledges such rare circumstances when (referring to the sacraments of Anointing of the Sick, Reconciliation and Eucharist) it states: “if the danger of death is present or other grave necessity … Catholic ministers may licitly administer these sacraments to other Christians who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own communion and on their own ask for it, provided they manifest Catholic faith in these sacraments and are properly disposed” (#844,4).

So, besides affirming a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, several other conditions must be present for a Protestant to receive Communion from a Catholic minister. There has to be a grave reason. The person has to have been baptized – something which Catholics believe is integral to making a person a Christian. The person must not have access to a minister of their denomination. The person must freely ask to receive Eucharist from the Catholic minister. And, the person must be properly disposed – the judgment of which is usually best left to the individual’s conscience.

Also, we should not overlook the fact that Eastern Orthodox Churches (and a few others) are served by bishops and priests who, from a Catholic perspective, are validly ordained and, therefore, celebrate valid sacraments. Moreover, Eastern Orthodox Churches also share a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. So, when it comes to members of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and churches like them, the Code of Canon Law does not place as many conditions on them – only insisting that they ask to receive Catholic Eucharist on their own and be properly disposed (#844, 3).

The Code of Canon Law even allows for Roman Catholics to receive the Eucharist from ministers of churches like the Eastern Orthodox (whose clergy are validly ordained) “whenever necessity requires or genuine spiritual advantage suggests” when it is “physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister” (#844, 2). Notice that the conditions that warrant Roman Catholics sharing in the sacraments of the Eastern Orthodox are not very stringent. There does not have to be a “grave” reason – just “necessity” and “a genuine spiritual advantage.” However, the Code of Canon Law clearly presents such circumstances as extraordinary and only allows for such sharing in Communion “provided that the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided” (#844,2).

Regarding the lack of validity of many non-Catholic Eucharistic celebrations: In its discussion of the necessity of baptism for salvation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by the sacraments” (#1257). This statement might be extended to our treatment of invalid Eucharistic celebrations. In the case of most Protestant “Eucharistic” celebrations, the Catholic Church can say that a validly ordained minister is lacking; therefore, the celebration itself lacks something the Church believes is necessary for its sacramental effectiveness. But, it would be incorrect to say unequivocally that invalid sacramental actions are not effective – that Christ’s presence is lacking or that God’s grace cannot act through those actions. To do so would be to bind God. To call a sacramental action “valid” is to say that we know that the sacramental action accomplishes its God-given purpose (to the extent that the recipient properly disposed, of course). To call a sacramental action is invalid is to say that we cannot have such certainty because the sacramental action lacks one or more indispensable elements.

In conclusion, as one can see, the issue of sharing in Eucharistic Communion is complex. Clergy who choose to make announcements about not sharing in Communion would do well to have a carefully worded statement prepared ahead of time – the content of which focuses primarily on the Eucharist as an expression of faith and life in Christ (see paragraphs #2-3 above). It has been my experience that our Protestant brothers and sisters understand and respect such an explanation which avoids the pitfalls of telling them that they don’t believe in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (they may) or triumphantly implying that they are unworthy to receive validly-confected Eucharist.

(Father Werner is pastor of the parishes in Colville, Kettle Falls, Northport, Republic, and Curlew.)

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