A Modest Proposal for Intercommunion

May a non-Catholic receive Communion at a Catholic Eucharist? The relevant reference from canon law gives the legal basis for no intercommunion:

Can.  844 §1. Catholic ministers administer the sacraments licitly to Catholic members of the Christian faithful alone, who likewise receive them licitly from Catholic ministers alone, without prejudice to the prescripts of §§2, 3, and 4 of this canon, and can. 861, §2.

844 §2 gives the conditions under which a Catholic may receive the Eucharist from a non-Catholic minister and isn’t immediately germane to the point of my post.

Eastern Christians are given a favored status, mainly because we acknowledge their sacraments as wholly valid:

§3. 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. This is also valid for members of other Churches which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition in regard to the sacraments as these Eastern Churches.

And for most Anglicans and Protestants, the bar is higher:

§4. 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.

Why am I posting on this? I’ve been following the thread on PrayTell on Cardinal Kasper’s regrets about a lack of deeper intercommunion among Christians. Regret is an appropriate response. The striving for greater unity among Christians was one of four key reasons to call the Second Vatican Council (Sacrosanctum Concilium 1) and is part of the Church’s mandate to its own believers. Prayers for unity and concrete actions in our spiritual lives and in our dealings with non-Catholics are not optional. They are required of us, not unlike Sunday obligations, not unlike following the Commandments, or otherwise living virtuously.

I confess I don’t always see in some Catholics the outward attitude of contrition for Christian divisions and the willingness to pray (let alone work) for unity. And some might protest that they’re on the right side already, that strikes me as an empty sentimentality, especially in the face of the Gospel witness (Matthew 5:23-24, where the “brother” has something against us). And overall, there’s that Catholic laziness–a sense of entitlement that we should have all the people, but we shouldn’t have to lift a finger to get them in the door.

I was particularly struck by the example of a non-Catholic married to a Catholic–a sacramental marriage by any definition. Sacramental marriage is the basis for the Domestic Church, not political unity, and not even theological congruence. Perhaps we have arrived at a time in which the Domestic Church needs to be bolstered in some significant ways. Pope Benedict’s “laboratory of unity” deserves a bit more, wouldn’t you think? Two people in a marriage encounter Christ in a special way, and make that presence manifest through God’s grace in any number of ways, both in society as well as in the Church.

I would encourage non-Catholic spouses who, in the words of canon law, “manifest Catholic faith in respect to (the) sacraments and are properly disposed” might consider their situation sufficiently grave (read: important, serious, worthy of respect and support) to approach their bishop and pastor and ask for a fuller participation in the Catholic sacramental life.

Bishops all over have been equating same-sex union initiatives with an attack on marriage. Two things suggest to me this is empty politicking–and better left in the hands of the laity. First, that bishops haven’t insisted that the laws of the land reflect Church teaching on sexual activity outside of traditional marriage. Clearly, it is wrong, and therefore why are they satisfied to stop at legal arrangements? Bishops, were they to take their logic to its full conclusion, should be advocating for the criminalization of sexual acts outside of marriage. Shouldn’t they? Why all the timidity about visiting a sick partner and getting someone on one’s insurance. (Oh, wait–those are actually virtues, aren’t they?)

And second, that bishops offer very little in terms of actual support to married couples. At least not much that hasn’t been on their predecessor’s to-do list. Apostolic succession is a wonderful tradition, but it would be nice if the deposit of faith was used for something more than a comfortable resting place.

My serious response to the bishops is to do something positive and constructive for marriage: announce that non-Catholic spouses who “manifest Catholic faith in respect to (the) sacraments and are properly disposed” may individually ask to join spouse and children at the Eucharistic altar. I would think local pastors could handle these requests. But the bishops should all get behind it. It’s appropriate. It’s traditional. It’s in keeping with the significance of the sacramental system. And it’s time for a leadership gesture that actually supports the laity in an important and significant area of spirituality, virtue, and culture. And let’s face it: the hermeneutic of obstruction has been making too many gains recently. It’s time to slap some of that back.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in ecumenism, Liturgy, spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Modest Proposal for Intercommunion

  1. David D. says:

    Although certainly not a canonist, I would personally interpret Can. 844,Sec. 4 more narrowly than Todd does here. Canons 17 and 18 seem to dictate a strict interpretation that would preclude the admission of Protestants to Holy Communion solely by virtue of having Catholic spouses. That being said, Todd’s interpretation is hardly novel. See e.g., http://www.interchurchfamilies.org/confer/innsbruk.shtm.

    Issues of interpretation aside, why wouldn’t one who manifests the Catholic faith in respect to the sacraments and who is properly disposed simply not enroll in the local RCIA program?

  2. Todd says:

    Just for the record, I’m not a canonist either. I’m not arguing from the view of canon 844. I think the canon is flawed and probably needs reconsideration and expansion. But we should note the decision is left to the bishop.

    There are any number of reasons why a non-Catholic would choose not to become Catholic. But even if they did, RCIA strictly speaking, probably does not apply to those who manifest faith in the Catholic sacraments.

  3. David D. says:

    I’m glad that you clarified that. I don’t think 844.4 gets you where you want to go. Although discretion is given to the bishops that discretion is nonetheless fairly limited under the Canon. In any event, you can take comfort knowing that most traditionalists agree with you that 844.4 merits serious reconsideration. :)

  4. Neil says:

    Thanks to Todd for this post and his encouragement of an “outward attitude of contrition for Christian division.” (I should also note that, even if I haven’t been posting lately, I’ll get back to regular contributions next week.)

    I’d like to note three things:

    1. Obviously, a lot depends upon the interpretation of Canon 844, Sec 4, which speaks of “grave necessity,” presumably similar to the “danger of death.” But I think that a less narrow reading of the Canon can be justified than David suggests. For instance, the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism now speaks of a “grave and pressing need” (130), which is a noticeable change in language that can guide our interpretation of this earlier canon.

    2. It strikes me that Protestants can “manifest Catholic faith” in the Eucharist, which, it should be added, does not necessarily require use of the language of “transubstantiation.” A Protestant can recognize the Eucharistic prayer as representation and anticipation that is not merely a calling to mind, and can discern Christ’s “real, living and active presence in the Eucharist” (see Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry). (Obviously, not all Protestants can do this.)

    3. We furthermore have to recognize the difficulty of interpreting our present situation. We recognize that Protestants are baptized into the Church of Christ – there is no baptism into “Methodism” or “mere Christianity” – and are thus “in Christ” and our brothers and sisters. Yet, in most cases, we do not invite them to share in the Eucharist. What does this mean? How do we speak of millions of Christians seemingly suspended between the font and altar? This is theologically problematic, perhaps historically unprecedented, and surely cause for regret.

    Thanks again.


  5. Jimmy Mac says:

    By all means, say “no!!!!”

    We say that to so many Catholics, why not “others?”

    We need to keep things small and, above all, pure.

    Petulant arrogance needs to be kept as one of THE defining Marks of Holy Mother Church.

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