On admitting Other Christians to Eucharistic Communion in the Catholic Church

Author: PCCU

Declaration On The Position Of The Catholic Church On The Celebration Of The Eucharist In Common By Christians Of Different Confessions


7 January, 1970

1. Recently, in various parts of the world, certain initiatives have been taken with regard to common participation in the Eucharist. They have involved, on the one hand, faithful and clergy of the Catholic Church and, on the other, laity and pastors of other Christian Churches and ecclesial communities. At times there is question of the admission of Catholic faithful to a Protestant or Anglican eucharistic communion; at other times, participation by Protestants and Anglicans in the eucharistic communion in a Catholic church; or again, there are common acts of eucharistic worship jointly celebrated by ministers belonging to Churches and ecclesial communities still separated from one another, and in these the laity of the communities concerned take part.

This subject is of great theological, pastoral and, above all, ecumenical importance, and we desire to recall the Church's recently formulated norms concerning it.

2. The Second Vatican Council addressed itself to this subject in the Decree on Ecumenism, <Unitatis Redintegratio>. After having called to mind that common prayers for; unity are an efficacious means for asking for the grace of unity and constitute an authentic expression of the bonds by which Catholics remain united with other Christians, the Decree continues: "As for common worship, however, it may not be regarded as a means to be used indiscriminately for the restoration of unity among Christians. Such worship depends chiefly on two principles: it should signify the unity of the Church; it should provide a sharing in the means of grace. The fact that it should signify unity generally rules out common worship. Yet the gaining of needed grace sometimes commends it. The practical course to be adopted, after due regard has been given to all the circumstances of time, place, and persons, is left to the prudent decision of the local episcopal authority, unless the bishop's conference according to its own statutes, or the Holy See, has determined otherwise." (Decree on Ecumenism, D. 32, n. 8).

3. In applying these general principles, the Council asks us to consider well "the particular situations of the Churches of the East." (Decree on Ecumenism, n. 14) and to draw the appropriate consequences from these facts: "Although these Churches are separated from us, they possess true sacraments, above all—by apostolic succession—the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in a very close relationship Therefore, given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, some worship in common is not merely possible but is recommended" (Decree on Ecumenism, n. 15).

The Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, <Orientatium Ecclesiarum>, makes some applications. It permits Eastern Christians not in full communion with the Apostolic See of Rome to be admitted to the Sacraments of Penance, of the Eucharist and of the Anointing of the Sick when they find themselves in the specified circumstances. It equally authorizes Catholics to request these same sacraments from Eastern priests whenever necessity or a genuine spiritual benefit call for it and access to a Catholic priest is physically or morally impossible. It also recommends that the authorities of the Churches involved contact each other about the matter (cf. Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, nn. 27, 29).

4. The section of the Decree on Ecumenism devoted to "the separated Churches and ecclesial communities in the West" includes Christian confessions of great variety. In it the Council treated the theological problem which underlies eucharistic sacramental relations with Christian communities where those conditions found in the Churches of the East are lacking: "The ecclesial communities separated from us lack that fullness of unity with us which should flow from Baptism, and we believe that especially because of a deficiency of the Sacrament of Order they have not preserved the genuine and total reality of the eucharistic mystery. Nevertheless when they commemorate the Lord's death and resurrection in the Holy Supper, they profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and they await his coming in glory. For these reasons, dialogue should be undertaken concerning the true meaning of the Lord's Supper, the other sacraments, and the Church's worship and ministry." (Decree on Ecumenism, n. 22).

It should be noted that the doctrinal appreciation of the Eucharist of these communities is bound up with an appeal for dialogue about the Eucharist and the entire sacramental life, and a special mention is made of the ministries of the Church.

It is well known that the Catholic Church attaches a decisive importance to the traditional teaching about the necessity of the ministerial priesthood connected with the apostolic succession, and the conditions in which it exists.

5. The dispositions of the Second Vatican Council were applied through the Ecumenical Directory which was approved by the Holy Father on 22 April 1967 and published in the <Acta Apostolicae Sedis> on 5 July of the same year.

For eucharistic relations with Eastern Christians not in full communion with the Apostolic See of Rome, the Directory reproduces the dispositions of the Council and determines in a precise way certain useful points especially in what concerns reciprocity and previous agreement between the ecclesiastical authorities of the Churches concerned (Directory Concerning Ecumenical Matters, Part One, nn. 39-47).

6. The Directory went more into detail when treating of those Christian communities with which we do not share the same ecclesiological and sacramental bases that particularly unite us to the Churches of the East. After giving doctrinal justifications of its norms, it formulates these in the following way: "Celebration of the sacraments is an action of the celebrating community, signifying the oneness in faith, worship and life of the community. Where this unity of sacramental faith is deficient, the participation of the separated with Catholics, especially in the Sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick, is forbidden. Nevertheless, since the sacraments are both signs of unity and sources of grace (cf. Decree on Ecumenism, n. 8), the Church can for adequate reasons allow access to those sacraments to a separated brother. This may be permitted in danger of death or in urgent need (during persecution, in prisons) if the separated brother has no access to a minister of his own communion, and spontaneously asks for a Catholic priest for the sacraments-so long as he declares a faith in these sacraments in harmony with that of the Church, and is rightly disposed. In other cases the judge of this urgent necessity must be the diocesan bishop or the episcopal conference. A Catholic in similar circumstances may not ask for these sacraments except from a minister who has been validly ordained" (Directory concerning Ecumenical Matters, Part One, nn. 55).

7. In commenting on this passage, one month before his death, Cardinal Bea, President of the Secretariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians, endeavored to throw light on its exact meaning. "These texts determine precisely the conditions required for admitting an Anglican or a Protestant to eucharistic communion in the Catholic Church. It is not enough, then, that one of these Christians be spiritually well disposed and that he spontaneously request communion from a Catholic minister. In the first place two other conditions must be verified: that they hold the faith that the Catholic Church herself professes concerning the Eucharist, and that they are unable to approach a minister of their own confession.

"The Directory cites as examples three very special cases, where these conditions can be verified: danger of death, persecution, imprisonment. In other cases the ordinary of the place or the episcopal conference will be able to give the permission, if it is asked. The condition must be, however, that urgent necessity similar to that in cases cited as examples and the same conditions must be verified.

"When one of these conditions is lacking, admission to eucharistic communion in the Catholic Church is not possible" (Note on application of Directory concerning Ecumenical Matters, <L'Osservatore Romano> 6 October 1968).

8. With regard to the role which the Directory plays in the pastoral action of the Church, it is useful to recall the words addressed by the Holy Father on 13 November 1968 to the members of the Secretariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians: "We need not tell you that, to promote ecumenism in an efficacious way, one must also guide it, submit it to the rules that are quite precise. We regard the Ecumenical Directory not as a collection of advisory principles which one can freely accept or ignore, but as an authentic instruction, an exposition of the discipline to which all those who wish truly to serve ecumenism should submit themselves" (<L'Osservatore Romano>, 14 November 1968).

9. The Secretariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians is following this question very closely and itself has taken various initiatives concerning it. Recently, during its plenary assembly (<Congregatio plenaria> of which forty bishops from all over the world are members), held in Rome from 18 to 28 November, it devoted a great deal of attention to it. At the same time the Secretariat particularly appreciates the work being done all over the world to deepen the theology of the Church, of ministry and of the Eucharist, both as sacrament and sacrifice, done within the historical context of the division among Christians. It is following with interest and profit the efforts being made to clarify the problem in all its dimensions and to work out a more precise vocabulary. Above all it is pleased with the inter-confessional dialogue on this subject which is now taking place at both local and international levels. The Secretariat hopes that these conversations will help to bring about a convergence of positions on the subject. Still, it must be pointed out that, up to the present, these dialogues have not yet produced results which can be adopted on both sides by those who have responsibility in the Churches and ecclesial communities involved.

The Catholic Church, then, is not at present in a position to modify the norms of the Directory concerning Ecumenical Matters as given above. The line of conduct traced out there results from the Church reflecting on her own faith and considering the pastoral needs of the faithful. Before considering another way of acting in the matter of a common Eucharist, it will be necessary to establish clearly that any change to be made will remain totally in conformity with the Church's profession of faith and that it will be a service to the spiritual life of her members.

10. At this time when the Week of Prayer for Unity is about to begin, we are taking into account the extent to which the desire for a common Eucharist powerfully stimulates the search for that perfect ecclesial unity among all Christians willed by Christ. This desire can be expressed very appropriately in the celebrations which will take place during this Week of Prayer. As well as the reading of and meditation upon holy Scripture, these celebrations could in fact include elements which point towards the common Eucharist so much desired: our gratitude for the partial unity already obtained, our regret for the divisions which still remain and our firm resolve to do everything possible to overcome them, and finally our humble petition to the Lord to hasten the day when we will be able to celebrate together the mystery of the Body and the Blood of Christ.