Non-Catholics and Communion


I am writing about the paragraph in The Washington Times story (3/30/98, page A6) of President Clinton and his Sunday visit to Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto, South Africa. To quote: "The President, a Southern Baptist, partook of the Catholic Communion, as did Mrs. Clinton and many members of the White House staff." Why did this happen? Who permitted this wrong? I answer, "Shame, shame, shame." What is your answer to this insult?

Straight Answers has received numerous phone calls and letters about this incident. The New York Post even printed an almost full-page picture of the president receiving Holy Communion on the tongue. At this point, let us first review the rules of the Catholic Church regarding the reception of Holy Communion.

One of the great fruits of Holy Communion, according to the Catechism (No. 1396), is that the Holy Eucharist makes the Church: "Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it, Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body — the Church. Communion renews, strengthens and deepens this incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism." Therefore, the reception of Holy Communion truly unites in communion the Catholic faithful who share the same faith, doctrinal teachings, traditions, sacraments and leadership.

A Catholic must be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion and anyone aware of being in a state of mortal sin must first receive absolution in the Sacrament of Penance (Catechism, No. 1415). A professed Catholic who has negligently not attended Mass or who has abandoned the teachings of the Church is not in a state of grace and therefore cannot receive Holy Communion. A Catholic in a state of mortal sin who receives Holy Communion commits the mortal sin of sacrilege and causes scandal among the faithful. St. Paul reminded the Corinthians: "Every time, then, you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes! This means that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first; only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Cor 11:26-28).

What then about non-Catholics? Sadly, since the time our Lord founded the Church upon the apostles, we have witnessed divisions, the first major one being with the Orthodox Churches in 1054 and then followed by the Protestant Churches beginning in 1517. While all Christians share many beliefs — for instance, in Jesus Christ, in Baptism, and in the Bible as the Word of God — and can work and pray together in serving the mission of our Lord, major differences in beliefs till do exist, including the primacy of the pope, the sacrificial priesthood and the nature of sacraments, including what the Holy Eucharist is. Indeed, much progress has been made since the Second Vatican Council to discuss these differences with various Christian groups. Nevertheless, these differences still "break the common participation in the table of the Lord" (Catechism, No. 1398).

Exceptions are made for extreme and rare circumstances (cf. Code of Canon Law, No. 844). An example would be when a member of the Orthodox Church, which does have valid sacraments and apostolic succession, does not have access to an Orthodox Church for the reception of the sacraments. Another example would be when a Protestant who does personally believe in the substance of our Catholic sacraments requests the reception of Holy Communion when in danger of death or in cases of other grave necessity, and again does not have recourse to a Protestant minister. However, these exceptions to the rule for individual cases should not be interpreted as the norm, and they are carefully regulated by the local bishop.

In regard to those who are not baptized, e.g., a member of the Jewish or Moslem faith, Catholics welcome them to share in prayer, but cannot extend to them an invitation to receive the sacraments. This restriction is obvious since the sacraments are intrinsically linked to the fundamental belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior.

We must continue to pray that the divisions which separate Christians will be healed. Until these differences are healed and out of respect for each other's beliefs, a real "intercommunion" of sharing the Holy Eucharist cannot take place.

With this in mind, we turn to the incident in question. Clinton is a professed Southern Baptist who often attends Foundry Methodist Church in Washington with his wife (who, I believe, is a professed Methodist). They are not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church and thereby do not have the right to receive Holy Communion. Moreover, their professed moral beliefs on several issues are openly hostile to Roman Catholicism, for instance their blatant promotion of abortion, including the heinous partial birth abortion procedure. Such positions should exclude a Catholic from the reception of Holy Communion.

Since Clinton was educated at Georgetown University, where he must have gained some familiarity with Catholicism, since his protocol officers should know the Church's rules, and since they have attended Masses before, the Clintons should have known better and refrained from receiving Holy Communion.

The priest celebrant of the Mass should also have known better. Knowing the presence in the congregation of several people who are not Catholic, the priest should have very charitably explained the regulations of the Church before distributing Holy Communion, as many priests do regularly when celebrating a wedding or funeral Mass. Nevertheless, when they approached the altar, he should have blessed the president and first lady without giving them the Holy Eucharist. Better to risk embarrassing someone who has no right to receive Holy Communion than to cause scandal among the faithful who cherish the Blessed Sacrament and consider reception of Holy Communion a privilege.

Quite frankly, here is the tragic bottom line: Whether done in ignorance or for political gain, this incident was indeed a scandal — to the faithful Catholics who are constantly defending the tenets of the faith against the attacks of the Washington politicos; to those in RCIA programs who have wrestled with the decision to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church and have spent months preparing to receive this sacrament; and to the suffering Catholics who cannot receive Holy Communion because they are in invalid marriages and are struggling to rectify their situation. Yes, for all parties involved, shame, shame, shame!




Saunders, Rev. William. "Non-Catholics and Communion." Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.


Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.