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Intercommunion: Yes or No?

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On this page: | On Intercommunion | Communion vs Eucharist | Who Can Partake? | The Protestant Doctrine of Communion | The Catholic Doctrine of Communion | Evidence of the Catholic Doctrine | Conclusions |
This page was prepared for my Protestant and Catholic readers who may find themselves involved in some social action in a common cause such as protesting abortions, homosexuality, partial-birth abortion and so forth. When working side-by-side with friends of the opposite faith, the question of interfaith communion often arises. Herewith my position on that topic.

On Intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants

As Protestant, born-again believers in Jesus Christ, we at times find ourselves attending a Roman Catholic service (called a "Mass") at which communion is served. This often occurs dhen there is a public healing service, or when there is a service before or after some social action (such as protesting at an abortion mill) which both Catholics and Protestants object to on moral religions grounds. The question arises, "Should I, a Protestant, participate in this communion service?" The question usually arises in the context of wishing to show an "ecumenical spirit." Equally true, Roman Catholics attending Protestant services must ask themselves the same question, often for the same reason.

With the modern ecumenical spirit, Catholics and Protestants increasingly find themselves as "co-belligerents" against such common enemies as abortion, physical sickness and the like. I use the term, "co-belligerents" because terms such as "allies," or "confederates" implies a unity of doctrine that does not really exist. Inherent in this 'co-belligerency' is my denial that the doctrinal differences between the two faiths have, or are, disappearing. This is an error, and is quickly evident that in the question of intercommunion between the faiths.

To answer the question, "Should I participate in a Roman Catholic communion service? we must look to doctrine, to the dogmas and official teachings of the Church in this matter.

Communion vs Eucharist

In the Roman Catholic Church, communion is more accurately referred to as "the Eucharist." The official belief is that the bread and wine (more often only the wafer of unleavened bread) is somehow transformed from bread and wine into the actual, real, physical body and blood of Jesus Christ. This doctrine is called Transubstantiation; the bread and wine become God. The priest is said to have within himself the power to make this transformation happen, after which the bread and wine cease to exist. This ritual is referred to as "the consecration." Yes, it may look like bread and wine, but in Catholic theology, that is only a appearance, or, as they often call it, the 'accidents' of bread and wine.

The Catholic doctrines further declare that one "receives Christ" when one eats the wafer of "consecrated bread." (The Protestant understanding of "receiving Christ" is quite different.) This explains why Catholics kneel before the Eucharist, perform acts of worship in its presence, such as bowing, using incense, keeping a lit candle nearby, and so forth. For the sincere Roman Catholic, the bread and wine of communion (the Eucharist) is God. The Eucharist is considered as a sacrament of the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, the Protestant view of communion is quite different. It is seen, not as the actual body and blood of Christ, but as a memorial of his death and resurrection, and a reminder that He offered His body and blood for our salvation. Protestants also consider communion as a sacrament of the Church.

There is a third doctrinal perspective of Communion held by a few Protestant denominations called "consubstantiation." It this view, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ in a spiritual way, but the bread and wine remain as bread and wine. Thus, the body and blood of Christ co-exist simultaneously with the bread and wine. All Catholics and most Protestants deny Consubstantiation as being a valid doctrine.

Who Can Partake of Communion and the Eucharist?

Communion (Protestant Doctrine)

Generally speaking, any born-again believer in Jesus Christ can partake of communion in a Protestant church. Thus a Pentecostal, for example, is free to take communion in, say, a Baptist or a Methodist church (to name just two). While different Protestant denominations may have varying positions on secondary topics (such as form of worship, role of women in the church, and so forth), they agree on certain fundamentals, including the sacrament of communion. Thus there is no requirement in Protestant churches that people from other denominations adhere to, or subscribe to all of their teachings and practices before taking Communion. Room is allowed for differences of opinion on matters that are not essential to the Gospel of Salvation as they understand it.

Eucharist (Roman Catholic Doctrine)

In a nutshell, the Eucharist of the Roman Catholic Church can only be given to those who believe, who adhere to and proclaim the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. Conversely, no Catholic person is permitted to take communion in a non-Catholic church. To do so would be a public admission of approval of the Protestant version of Communion, an act that is clearly forbidden by Church Law. More on this below. In fact, Catholic priests are expressly forbidden by their church to distribute the Eucharist to anyone they know is a Protestant, a divorced -and-remarried Catholic, or to a Catholic whom they know to be in what that church refers to as "heresy," or "apostasy," or "mortal sin." (according to the Catholic definition of same). To do so would, in the Catholic tradition, constitute a sacrilege (i.e., a profanation of something sacred).

Evidence of the Catholic Doctrine Regarding the Eucharist

The following citations from approved Catholic sources, present the official position of the Catholic Church regarding intercommunion with Protestants.

Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)

"The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the (Catholic) Church."CCC #1395/1446, Page 352

What it means: Those who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church (e.g., Protestants, Jews, etc.) are not entitled to the Eucharist.

"If you are the body and members of Christ, then it is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your sacrament that you receive. To that which you respond "Amen." ("Yes, it is true!") For you hear the words, "The body of Christ" and respond "Amen." Be then a member of the Body of Christ that your Amen may be true." CCC#1395/1064, Page 352-353.

What it means: To receive the Catholic Eucharist, you are required to confess, "Yes, it is true!" Which is to publicly say that Transubstantiation is true.

"Ecclesial communities derived from the (Protestant) Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church, 'have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders.' It is for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible for the Catholic Church." CCC#1400, Page 353

What it means" The Catholic Church is not permitted, by its own laws, to distribute its Eucharist to Protestants.

"When, in the Ordinary's (a Catholic bishop) judgement, a grave necessity arises, Catholic ministers may give the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who ask for them of their own will, provided they give evidence of holding the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments and posses the required dispositions." CCC#1401, Page 353-354

What it means: The Catholic Church requires non-Catholics to prove that they hold the Roman Catholic Faith before allowing them to take the Catholic Eucharist.

The Code of Canon Law (1983)

"The disqualifications for which people may be denied the sacraments (including Eucharist) are clear enough when specified in the law, e.g., irregularities for orders in canon 1041, or denial of the Eucharist in Canon 915." CCL, Page 609 commentary.

What it means: If you deny the Eucharist (sic., transubstantiation), you are forbidden by canon low to eat it, and Priests/Eucharistic Ministers are forbidden to give it to you.

"Catholic ministers may licitly administer the sacraments (including the Eucharist) to Catholic members of the Christian faithful only ..." CCL, Canon 844, Page 609.

What it means: Priests/Eucharistic Ministers are forbidden by canon law to give the Eucharist to non-Catholics.

Roman Catholic Apologists

"In 1986 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued guidelines for receiving Communion (sic., the Eucharist). These guidelines are printed on the back cover of many missalettes. Two things here especially need to be noted. First, you must be in "a state of grace" to receive Communion (the Eucharist). If you aren't, you commit a sacrilege." (Attribution below)

What it means: What is unstated, but what is common knowledge for sincere Catholics is that, to be "in a state of grace," you must fulfill a pre-requisite unique to the Catholic Church: their sacrament of Penance, at least once. In Catholic doctrine, Penance (also called confession) is the practice of confessing your sins to a priest, in private, who is then said to grant you forgiveness of your sins. Catholic doctrine teaches that the Priest is "another Christ" who has the power to forgive your sins. Before taking the Eucharist, the Catholic person must have, at least once in his/her life, "gone to confession" (taken part in the Sacrament of Penance) prior to the first time he/she takes the Eucharist.(1) Further, if you have committed any "mortal sins," you must go to Confession to get them forgiven before you can take the Eucharist.

"So much for Catholics. Here are the Bishop's guidelines for other Christians who attend Mass. 'We welcome to this celebration of the Eucharist those Christians who are not fully united with us (Protestants). It is a consequence of the sad divisions in Christianity that we cannot extend to them a general invitation to receive Communion.. . . Reception of the Eucharist by Christians not fully united with us would imply a oneness which does not yet exist..." (Attribution below)

What it means: The Catholic Church forbids offering the Eucharist to Protestants because of doctrinal differences. They believe, rightly, that sharing Communion "implies a oneness which does not exist." Please note the qualification, "does not YET exist." This bears further scrutiny, but not in the present context.

The apologist goes on to say that the Catholic Church permits intercommunion with certain churches that "believe as Catholic do regarding the Eucharist and other sacraments," and that "have authentic bishops and priests and the same seven Catholic Sacraments. That eliminates all Protestant churches that come to mind." (What Catholics Really Believe, Karl Keating; Copyright 1962; published by Ignatius Press: ISBN 0-89870-553-3; pages 47­50)

What it means: The meaning is clear: The Catholic Church cannot offer the Eucharist to any known Protestant. Some modern priests skate around this prohibition by using a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude with folks they either know or suspect of being Protestant.

"But there are priests who openly offer the Eucharist to Protestants?!" Yes, there are. But this fact does not imply that they are obeying the rules of their Church. They may do it in ignorance, believing that Vatican Council II changed the rules (it did not), or because they simply disagree with their church (some do disagree). But the fact remains that the official doctrine of the Catholic Church clearly forbids it, and that is what we must deal with.

The Council of Trent

One of the most definitive dogmatic decrees of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the Eucharist is found in the Council of Trent. The promulgations of that council define the Roman Catholic faith, and were approved, without change, by Vatican Council II.

CANON I. "If anyone denieth that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as a sign, or in figure, or virtue: let him be anathema" (cursed).
CANON II. "If anyone saith that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood - the species (physical appearance) only of the bread and wine remaining - which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls transubstantiation; let him be anathema" (cursed).

What it means: The term, anathema, as used above, means cursed and damned to hell. This is no play on words, as evidenced not only by dictionary definitions, but by the writings of a number of popes. Thus, the official and unchanging position of the Catholic Church is that anyone who denies the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is officially cursed. This helps us to understand how the Catholic Church must deny its Eucharist to Protestants, who are, according to several church councils and Popes, under a curse (damned, unsaved, destined for hell). It also explains why the Roman Catholic Church considers it an heretical act to give the Eucharist to Protestants, or the take communion in a Protestant Church.

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Is a Catholic priest permitted to give the Catholic Eucharist to Protestants?

It is clear from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, from the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and from the writings of approved Catholic apologists that the answer is "No." This is quite logical when you think about it. If a non-Catholic, a person who expressly denies the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, should take the Eucharist, it would be, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a sacrilege.

A Catholic priest who knowingly gives the Eucharist to an 'unbeliever' in transubstantiation, violates his church's dogma and code of canon law.

Can a Protestant, in good faith, receive the Catholic Eucharist?

It is equally clear from the same sources that again, the answer is "No." When a person accepts the Eucharist, he/she is making a public affirmation of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Catholics who witness this act are likely to come to one of three conclusions:

1. This Protestant is now a Catholic, for he/she believes in the Eucharist. (False)

2. This Protestant is committing a sacrilege, and this priest should be reported to his bishop!" (Maybe, maybe not, depending on circumstances)

3. The Catholic Church has changes its dogma and doctrine on intercommunion (which it assuredly has not done).

All three assumptions, understandable as they may be, are false.

Thus, when a Protestant take the Eucharist, he/she is giving a false witness and/or giving rise to scandal and judgment. Further, if you happen to be a former Catholic, and there are Catholics present who know your history, you will cause them great consternation, or to stumble, or to fall into judgmentalism, which is a sinful thing for you to do (i.e., deliberately putting a stumbling block in front of others).

When a Protestant takes the Eucharist, other Protestants are likely to follow suit, with the same deleterious results, and they will give the impression to other Protestants that the Eucharist is really just another variation on Communion as practiced in Protestant churches (it isn't).

Can a Roman Catholic Take Communion in a Protestant Church?

For a Catholic to take Communion in a Protestant Church would be to make a public statement that he/she believed in the Protestant doctrine of Communion (that it is only a memorial). This would be a denial of their own faith, and an act of heresy. If discovered, that person could be severely dealt with by their priest or bishop, even to the point of being made to recant what they had done. If they persisted, they could be excommunicated from the Catholic Church (usually this would be a de facto excommunication because formal edicts of excommunication are rare, and usually reserved for more public, visible violations that could have a more far-reaching effect on the Church).

Is it Insulting to Decline the Eucharist?

To the contrary, refusal to eat the Eucharist shows respect for both official Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrine and practice. Further, it avoids possible scandal, prevents charges of heresy and sacrilege, and protects the Catholic priest from censure by his superiors.

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1. This 'first-confession-before-Eucharist' has been the practice for a very long time, but is not expressed as a dogma of the Church. Catholic Canon Law does allow for the first taking of the Eucharist before such a 'confession' is made. Because the majority of "first communions" are given to children at about seven years of age, this allowance is made, I believe, because of the unresolved question of whether or not a seven-year-old is capable of a "mortal sin." When an adult converts to the Catholic Church, however, a confession is normally required in advance of the first communion-on the assumption that, as an adult, one must have a few "mortal sins" to be forgiven.