When Can Catholics Receive Communion at a Non-Catholic Service?

Q: Can Catholics receive communion at Episcopal services?  One article I read … states that the Canon Law deems reception of communion from a non-Catholic minister is blasphemy and, as such, a mortal sin. –Paula

A: When Catholics attend an Episcopal service (a funeral or a wedding, let’s say), it can indeed be confusing to see how similar it appears to a Catholic Mass.  The presiding cleric is dressed like a Catholic priest, says words of consecration very similar to those of the Catholic Mass, and then distributes communion in pretty much the same way too.  On top of that, at Episcopal services attended by many non-Episcopalians—like the funeral/wedding scenario just mentioned—the cleric might announce to the congregation that everyone is welcome to receive communion.  In such a situation, what’s a Catholic to do?

The flip-side of this question was already addressed in “When Can Episcopalians Receive the Eucharist at a Catholic Mass?” as well as “Can a Non-Catholic Receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church?”  We saw that canon 844.1 lays out a general rule: Catholic sacraments are for Catholics, and Catholics are to receive the sacraments from Catholic ministers.  Nevertheless, we also saw that there are some very strictly limited circumstances in which Episcopalians and other non-Catholics can receive the Eucharist from a Catholic cleric.

Paula’s question is the mirror-opposite, and the answer is much simpler: no.  Here’s why.

We Catholics believe that Christ ordained His twelve Apostles as the first bishops, and they in turn ordained other men as bishops over the following years.  Those bishops then consecrated other bishops, who consecrated other bishops, and so on, up until the present day.  All Catholic bishops alive today are thus successors to the successors to the successors, etc. of the Apostles.  In other words, over the course of the past two millennia, episcopal consecration has been passed on in a continuous line, from the original Apostles right up to the bishops we have now.  In this way, the validity of their ordinations is unchallenged.

The Catholic Church does accept that there’s another Church out there which also has validly ordained bishops today, for the same reasons: the Orthodox Church.  The Orthodox can trace their apostolic succession all the way back to the Apostle St. Andrew.

So why aren’t they Catholics, then?  The Catholic Church holds that the Orthodox are in schism, because they gradually broke away from Rome, eventually rejecting the Pope as the supreme head of the Church.  In 1054 the Bishop of Rome, and the Patriarch of Constantinople, made a definitive break when they officially excommunicated each other, thus sparking the Great East-West Schism.  Sadly, this schism remains to this very day—even though the mutual excommunications were finally lifted by both sides in the 20th century.

(Catholic readers may be scratching their heads at this point, wondering how anybody could excommunicate the Pope?  The short answer is, they can’t!  To the Catholic Church, this action in 1054 illustrated clearly the fact that the Orthodox no longer accepted the Pope as the Vicar of Christ.  If they did, they would have understood that the Pope’s power is supreme on earth, and thus no other cleric can judge him, let alone penalize him.)

In the eyes of the Catholic Church, therefore, the Orthodox have valid sacraments, because they have maintained apostolic succession and therefore still have validly ordained clergy.  And that’s why the Orthodox Liturgy still constitutes a real Mass, with a real consecration that effects the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar.  The Orthodox Eucharist, therefore, is really the Eucharist, so far as Catholics are concerned!  Consequently, in some (once again) very strictly limited circumstances, Catholics are permitted to receive Holy Communion at an Orthodox Liturgy, as per canon 844.2.  This was discussed in more depth back in “Can a Catholic Ever Attend an Orthodox Liturgy Instead of Sunday Mass?

But Anglican and Episcopal liturgical services (and those of all other non-Catholic protestant groups that formed during/after the protestant reformation) don’t fall under canon 844.2, and so a Catholic cannot receive communion at them.  That’s because the Catholic Church holds that they do not have a valid clergy, so they do not celebrate a valid Mass, and thus do not consecrate the Eucharist into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Why not?  Well, the question was specifically addressed in “The Validity of Anglican Holy Orders,” but in short, these new Anglicans didn’t “just” deny the authority of the Pope as head of the Church, like the Orthodox did; they also denied basic Catholic doctrine on the clergy and the sacraments.  During the reformation-period, those Catholics who chose to leave the Church and became protestants went into heresy, not schism.  Depending on the protestant denomination, they denied that some of the sacraments are even sacraments!  And in the course of their protestant “reform,” they broke apostolic succession.

Depending on whom you talk to, many Episcopalian clerics will strenuously deny this.  They sincerely believe that they are validly ordained priests, so they naturally get upset if/when Catholics suggest that they aren’t!  The Catholic position is not deliberately intended to offend anybody—it’s just based on the Church’s historical analysis of the theological positions of those involved in the separation of the Anglicans/Episcopalians from the Catholic Church, centuries ago.

In a nutshell, Catholics cannot receive communion in an Episcopal church, period.  And if they understand that the host they’re being offered is just a piece of unconsecrated bread, they shouldn’t want to receive it anyway!  Which brings us to the last part of Paula’s question: is it a mortal sin for a Catholic to do this?

Before answering, it’s worth noting that strictly speaking, canon law doesn’t deal directly with sin—that’s the realm of moral theologians.  The Code of Canon Law says nothing about blasphemy either, for similar reasons.  Nevertheless, a canon lawyer may safely tell you this: if through no fault of his own, a Catholic (1) genuinely doesn’t understand that there’s a huge difference between the Catholic Eucharist, and the bread and wine distributed in an Episcopal service, and (2) is heartily invited by an Episcopal cleric to receive communion in such a service… then it’s completely illogical from a theological standpoint to assert that this error constitutes a mortal sin.  That’s because for a mortal sin to be committed, the person must have the full knowledge that what he’s about to do is a grave evil—and then freely choose to do it anyway.  Honest mistakes and misunderstandings don’t count!

At the same time, it’s important for Catholics to inform themselves about these sorts of theological questions, to avoid making these mistakes—especially if the part of the world where they live has a large number of Episcopalians, and so attendance at the Episcopal wedding or funeral mentioned above might easily crop up.  Paula’s question was well worth asking.  Now she has her answer.

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