Communion Questions Just Keep Coming


Tuesday is my day to field questions on the nationally syndicated “Catholic Answers Live” call-in radio program. Almost every week someone asks whether a non-Catholic may receive Communion at a Catholic parish or a Catholic may take the “Lord’s Supper” at a non-Catholic church. My answer always begins with Canon 844 of the Code of Canon Law.

Tuesday is my day to field questions on the nationally syndicated "Catholic Answers Live" call-in radio program.

Almost every week someone asks whether a non-Catholic may receive Communion at a Catholic parish or a Catholic may take the "Lord's Supper" at a non-Catholic church. My answer always begins with Canon 844 of the Code of Canon Law. That canon has five sections. The first says that "Catholic ministers may licitly administer the sacraments to Catholic members of the Christian faithful only and, likewise, the latter may licitly receive the sacraments only from Catholic ministers." So, in general, the answer to questions I get about intercommunion is "No." But there are exceptions, and those are handled in the following three sections of the code.

Section 2 permits a Catholic to receive Communion in a non-Catholic church if that church has a valid Eucharist. (This section also deals with receiving penance and anointing of the sick, but no one ever asks me about receiving those in a non-Catholic church.) Since no Protestant church, including the Anglican, has a valid Eucharist, Catholics who sit through the "Lord's Supper" at, say, a Baptist church may not partake of the bread and wine there.

The problem is that the bread and wine are just that — bread and wine — and not the body and blood of Christ. Protestant churches have no valid Eucharist because they have no valid priesthood, and they have no valid priesthood because the l6th-century reformers did away with the episcopacy.

By contrast the Eastern Orthodox churches have maintained a valid episcopacy and priesthood and thus have all seven sacraments. These are the non-Catholic churches at which a Catholic might receive Communion — provided "it is physically or morally impossible" for the Catholic "to approach a Catholic minister." This could occur if the Catholic were living for a long time in an area, such as Siberia, where there are few or no Catholic parishes.

Section 2 is not applicable to Catholics in this country who simply want to "sample" another religion. The permission is given only when "necessity requires" and "provided that the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided. Almost no American Catholic will ever be in a position to take advantage of Section 2. After all, if a Catholic in the United States can make it to an Eastern Orthodox parish, he likely can make it to a Catholic parish.

Section 3 deals mainly with Eastern Orthodox who want to receive sacraments at a Catholic parish. It says that Catholic ministers may give penance, anointing of the sick, or the Eucharist "to members of the oriental churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church." "Oriental churches" is the term used to signify the Eastern Orthodox churches." The term "Eastern Orthodox" is not used in canon law. The provisions of Section 3 also apply to other churches which may be determined by the Vatican to have valid sacraments — perhaps one of the offshoots of the 19th-century Old Catholic movement, for instance, though many of those churches seem to have jettisoned apostolic succession, and some of them even have become New Age churches.

Non-Catholics who qualify under Section 3 must "ask on their own for the sacraments" — this means there can be no general invitation to them — and they must be "properly disposed," which means in the state of grace.

Section 4 applies mainly to Protestants, though that term, like "Eastern Orthodox," is not used in canon law. This Section says that "if the danger of death is present other grave necessity," and if the diocesan bishop approves, Catholic ministers may give the three sacraments to Christians who are neither Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox. Such people must not be able to approach a minister of their own community, must ask for the sacraments on their own (again, there is to be no general invitation to non-Catholics to "come up and receive Communion"), must be in the state of grace, and must "manifest Catholic faith in these sacraments."

This means their understanding of the Real Presence, for example, must be the Catholic understanding. Several Protestant churches describe what they have as the Real Presence though in fact none of them have it and they do not mean by the term the same thing we mean. This causes no end of confusions.

Some Protestants who profess belief in the Real Presence have in mind a "really meaningful" symbolism. Others say Jesus is "really," though only "spiritually," present at their churches' celebration of the "Lord's Supper." Not a single Protestant church teaches the Catholic doctrine, though a few individual Protestants have come to accept the Catholic understanding on their own. It is for them that this Section makes provision. Section 5 says that no diocesan bishop or conference of bishops may institute general norms regarding the four preceding sections of Canon 844 "except after consultation with at least the local competent authority of the interested non-Catholic church or community."

We don't want to step on anyone's toes, and we don't want anyone to step on ours.




Karl Keating. "Communion Questions Just Keep Coming." National Catholic Register. (September 24-30, 2000).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers and edits its magazine, This Rock. Keating is the author of Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians", What Catholics Really Believe-Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith, Controversies: High-Level Catholic Apologetics, and The Usual Suspects: Answering Anti-Catholic Fundamentalists. He also engages in public debates with leading anti-Catholics, and publishes This Rock magazine. Karl Keating is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

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