Q&A with Fr John Flader: Non-Catholic communions

Reading Time: 4 minutes
A priest wearing a protective face mask gives holy Communion to a man May 1, 2020, in a Catholic church in Kevelaer, Germany, during the first public Mass in the city since churches were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. PHOTO: CNS/Thilo Schmuelgen, Reuters

Dear Father, I saw the recent article in The Catholic Weekly saying that a German bishop is giving Holy Communion to Protestants who ask for it. I thought this was not allowed. My husband is Lutheran and he would like to receive Communion too. Can this be done?

In article in The Catholic Weekly on 7 March 2021 reported that the President of the German Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, has said that he would continue to give Holy Communion to Protestants who ask for it, and that it was necessary to respect the “personal decision of conscience” of those seeking to receive it.

He said this was already a practice in Germany every Sunday, and that it was in line with papal documents.

We should understand that while it may be a practice in the diocese of Limburg, and perhaps in some other dioceses, it is most certainly not a practice throughout the country. There are many bishops in that country who are faithful to the Church and opposed to the practice.

the word “Communion” means “union with”…in the Catholic Church only those who are in full union with the Church on doctrinal matters and in their personal lives – with their soul in the state of grace – may receive Holy Communion.

That the practice is not in line with papal documents is clear in a four-page critique by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent to Archbishop Bätzing in September 2020. It emphasised that significant differences in understanding of the Eucharist and ministry remained between Protestants and Catholics: “The doctrinal differences are still so important that they currently rule out reciprocal participation in the Lord’s Supper and the Eucharist.”

We should remember that the word “Communion” means “union with”, and that in the Catholic Church only those who are in full union with the Church on doctrinal matters and in their personal lives – with their soul in the state of grace – may receive Holy Communion.

What then is the teaching of the Church on who may be admitted to Communion? As a general rule, the Code of Canon Law states that “Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments only to Catholic members of Christ’s faithful, who equally may lawfully receive them only from Catholic ministers” (Can. 844 §1).

Bishop Terry Brady concelebrates the Eucharist at the centenary of St John of God Parish in Auburn in 2015. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

There are a few exceptions to this rule. A distinction is made between the Eastern Churches not in full communion with the Catholic Church, i.e., the Orthodox, and the communities derived from the Reformation, usually known as Protestants.

The reason for the distinction is that the Orthodox Churches, by virtue of their apostolic succession, have a valid priesthood and therefore valid sacraments. Moreover, they have the same faith as regards the sacraments; eg, that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ, and not just a symbol. The Protestants, on the other hand, do not have apostolic succession or a valid priesthood, and their theology of the sacraments is very different from ours.

With respect to the Orthodox, the Code says: “Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick to members of the eastern Churches not in full communion with the Catholic Church, if they spontaneously ask for them and are properly disposed. The same applies to members of other Churches which the Apostolic See judges to be in the same position as the aforesaid eastern Churches so far as the sacraments are concerned” (Can. 844 §3).

We should pray for the German bishops, that they may be in full communion with the Church as regards her teachings and discipline

As regards Protestants, the criterion is more strict: “If there is a danger of death or if, in the judgment of the diocesan Bishop or of the Episcopal Conference, there is some other grave and pressing need, Catholic ministers may lawfully administer these same sacraments to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who spontaneously ask for them, provided that they demonstrate the Catholic faith in respect of these sacraments and are properly disposed” (Can. 844 §4).

Protestants do not share our faith in the Real Presence and so only in danger of death or in some other grave and pressing need can they be admitted to Holy Communion.

The Church in Germany is going through a very trying time, as many are aware. We should pray for the German bishops, that they may be in full communion with the Church as regards her teachings and discipline, and for Pope Francis, who has the difficult task of restoring and preserving this unity.

Related: