Catholic Schools With Non-Catholic Students

Q1:  My children attend a Catholic secondary school [run by a religious institute]. At the first Mass of the year, it was announced that an Anglican vicar would be available to distribute Communion to Anglicans or people from other denominations who were used to receiving Communion in their churches. Catholics should receive from the Catholic ministers.  We have since discovered that this is standard practice at all school Masses.

My husband and I could see how this solution could be seen as a sensitive pastoral response to a school body that is only around 70% Catholic … [but] we wondered what would occur if Muslim pupils wished elements of their faith practice to be incorporated into Mass. Or what of atheist pupils or their parents?

… Despite our assumption that the intention of the priests at the school is honourable and while it may seem to solve a delicate problem, doesn’t it in fact violate how Mass should be celebrated? –Samantha

Q2:  In my province, Catholic education is publicly funded and is widely available. This often leads to non-Catholics sending their children to the local Catholic school.  Sometimes the non-Catholic population is even the majority!

At our school Masses, it is common for Protestant Christian, Orthodox Christian and even atheist students to serve as lectors, cantors/psalmists, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and altar servers. Is this permitted?

Once a teacher did not know how to distribute Holy Communion, so he simply just handed the chalice to each communicant.  Another time, a teacher identified herself as Orthodox to the celebrant before Mass, asking if it was acceptable for her to distribute Communion. The priest responded in the affirmative.

Now to be fair to my Bishop, he recently put forward a policy requiring all Extraordinary Ministers to be “mandated” by their home parish and to submit a list to the diocese, although its application to school Masses has yet to be seen.

… Whenever I suggested to our school administration that perhaps we should consider not having atheists or Protestants acting in these roles, I was met with great resistance.  Even my Spiritual Director is having a hard time pointing to a specific document dealing with this, because it is so inconceivable!   –John Paul

A:  These questions came from different hemispheres and involve different specific details, yet their commonalities should be evident.  Both concern Catholic schools with a significant number of non-Catholic students, and those students’ attendance at Catholic Masses while at school.  Before delving into particulars, it’s important first to look at the fundamental purpose of Catholic schools, and then at what (if any) exceptions need to be made for non-Catholic students whose families choose to send them there.  Once we’ve seen what the general rules are, we can examine these two situations more closely.

As we saw in “Canon Law and ‘Catholic’ Organizations,” if an educational institution identifies itself as a Catholic school, this fact carries with it certain obligations.  Canon 803.1 defines the term Catholic school as one that is under the direction of either a competent ecclesiastical authority (most commonly a diocesan bishop) or a public ecclesiastical juridic person (most commonly a religious institute—see “When Can Parish Buildings be Rented Out for Secular Use?” for more on what a juridic person is).  Ordinary Catholics around the world are generally familiar with both kinds: many schools are run by parishes, under the authority of the diocesan bishop, like the school where John Paul teaches; others are owned/operated by religious institutes dedicated to education (cf. c. 801), like the one Samantha’s children attend.  (The latter type are, of course, always physically located within a diocese, and thus are operating there with the consent of the local bishop—see “Notre Dame, Obama, and the Bishop’s Authority” for a discussion of how this works).

The next paragraph of canon 803 tells us what these Catholics schools exist to do, and who should be doing it: it notes that formation and education in a Catholic school must be based on the principles of Catholic doctrine, and the teachers must be outstanding in true doctrine and uprightness of life (c. 803.2).  This is, incidentally, why one occasionally hears of teachers or administrators at Catholics schools who are let go, after it becomes publicly known that they are living an objectively immoral lifestyle.  It should be evident (but for some reason it often isn’t!) that a teacher who is (let’s say) known to be pregnant outside of wedlock, or is “married” to a person of the same gender (see “Could Canon Law Be Changed to Permit Gay Marriage?” for more on this), or is divorced and remarried invalidly outside the Church, isn’t modeling for students an “uprightness of life” that is in accord with Catholic teaching.  And providing authentic Catholic role models for young people is, as this canon shows, a raison d’être of Catholic schools.

As we’ve seen so many times before with other canons of the code, the content of canon 803 wasn’t concocted out of thin air.  It is firmly grounded in Gravissimum educationis, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Education, promulgated in 1965.  With regard to Catholic schools the Declaration states,

The influence of the Church in the field of education is shown in a special manner by the Catholic school.  No less than other schools does the Catholic school pursue cultural goals and the human formation of youth.  But its proper function is to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities, and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith.  So indeed the Catholic school, while it is open, as it must be, to the situation of the contemporary world, leads its students to promote efficaciously the good of the earthly city and also prepares them for service in the spread of the Kingdom of God, so that by leading an exemplary apostolic life they become, as it were, a saving leaven in the human community…. (GE 8) [Emphasis added]

In short, the purpose of a Catholic school is not only to provide a solid secular education (something which non-Catholic schools are certainly capable of doing as well), but also to teach students to be good Catholics, to live out their faith in the world.  This is why it should surprise no one that Catholic schools are intended to form their students into good Catholics!

Nevertheless, as most of us know, many non-Catholics have long been voluntarily sending their children to Catholic schools, for a variety of reasons.  Maybe the quality of the education provided by their local Catholic school is better; or perhaps parents are attracted by the discipline the school imparts.  Regardless, while it may very well be that non-Catholic students regularly attend Catholic schools, the purpose of Catholic schools is not to foster the faiths of non-Catholic students— that is simply not their job!  Catholic schools exist to provide a Catholic education.  And a natural part of Catholic formation is praying together as Catholics—especially in the Church’s highest form of worship, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  This brings us directly to our two questions.

Samantha’s children attended the first school Mass of the academic year, and when it was time for Holy Communion, the Catholic priest announced that an Anglican cleric would distribute to the non-Catholics, while the Catholics would receive the Eucharist from the Catholic priest.  (Apparently the Anglican brought hosts with him, from his own church, to give to the Anglican and other non-Catholic students.)

As was discussed in “When Can Catholics Receive Communion at a Non-Catholic Service?” the Catholic Church does not recognize the validity of Anglican/Episcopal holy orders, and thus holds that their clergy do not celebrate a valid Mass.  While it may externally appear that they are doing the same thing when they distribute communion at their liturgy, theologically it is altogether different—because the Catholic Church will tell you that in fact it is not the Body of Christ.  Thus at Samantha’s children’s school we have a situation where a validly ordained Catholic priest distributes the true Body of Christ, while nearby a non-Catholic minister seems to be doing that too—but he isn’t.

This arrangement sends a clear message to students that the Catholic Eucharist is like non-Catholic communion—and as such it would be difficult to come up with a more blatant example of the “false irenicism” famously referenced by Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio:

Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded. (UR 11)

Think about it: if non-Catholic students are sitting at Mass among their Catholic classmates, and at the time for Holy Communion these students are supposed to receive Communion over there, while those students should come over here … what happens when a student gets confused and receives from the wrong minister?  Does anyone seriously think that this will never happen?

If you go looking in the Code of Canon Law or the Catholic liturgical books for information as to whether it is permissible or not to invite a non-Catholic minister to administer a non-Catholic sacrament (which in the eyes of the Catholic Church is an invalid sacrament, to boot) during a Catholic Mass, you won’t find this scenario addressed—but that certainly does not mean it’s okay.  Rather, such a proposal is so flatly contradictory to the nature of a Catholic Mass—Catholic liturgical worship celebrated by a Catholic priest in a Catholic church—that the Church reasonably assumes it is hardly necessary to mention that it is prohibited.  Some things, after all, are just expected to be obvious!  This is undoubtedly why such an idea is not even addressed in the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, much less in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) which constitutes the Church’s primary source of liturgical norms (more on both of these in a moment).

These Vatican documents’ silence, in a case like this, does not imply approval—on the contrary, the message sent by the Church’s non-mention of this issue is “don’t even think about it!”  We saw a far more dramatic example of this same basic concept in “Why Would a Catholic Cleric Desecrate an Altar?”  The Church’s laws don’t include a specific prohibition of priests having sex in church, on a consecrated altar with two prostitutes (something which, as discussed in the article just mentioned, really did happen).  But shouldn’t we be able to figure that one out for ourselves?  Samantha’s situation is less extreme, of course, but the clergy likewise shouldn’t need the Church to explain that this isn’t permissible during a Catholic Mass—it’s easy enough to reach that logical conclusion on our own.

Samantha reasonably assumes that the school administrators’ motivation for their liturgical abuse is “a sensitive pastoral response” and “may solve a delicate problem.”  In other words, their intention is presumably to be nice to non-Catholics—not to violate liturgical laws.  But as we’ve already seen, the purpose of Catholic education is not to be nice to non-Catholic students whose parents may choose to send them to Catholic schools; its purpose is to form Catholic students in their faith.  Providing non-Catholics with non-Catholic sacraments is not the responsibility of a Catholic school, but is rather the duty of their own non-Catholic ministers at another more suitable place and time.

To be fair, the Catholic clergy of the school may be trying to avoid the possibility that non-Catholic students might approach a priest during Mass in order to receive the Eucharist—something which, as was discussed at length in “Can a Non-Catholic Receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church?” is absolutely not permitted under these circumstances, as per canon 844.4.  But the correct liturgical solution to this potential problem is to explain to the students, politely and with charity, that Catholic sacraments are for Catholics.  Around the world it happens all the time that non-Catholics attend a Catholic Mass, perhaps accompanying Catholic family members or friends; and the Church simply informs them that in accord with Catholic teaching, they will not be able to receive Holy Communion.  This is not complicated.

The situation at John Paul’s school is different, but comparable.  He indicates that there are quite a lot of non-Catholics both attending his Catholic school and apparently teaching there with him as well; and he notes that at school Masses, non-Catholics and even non-Christians are functioning as “lectors, cantors, psalmists, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and altar servers.”  What, if anything, does the Church have to say about this?

To begin with, we Catholics all know that it is quite common for laypeople to function as lectors, and to lead the congregation in singing at the appropriate points during the Mass.  And it’s even more common for either children or adults to assist the priest at Mass as altar servers.  The basic question raised by John Paul’s situation is, can non-Catholics routinely serve in these roles?

As was the case with Samantha’s scenario, there is no canon or liturgical norm that says outright, “non-Catholics cannot be involved in these ways during Mass.”  We can, however, easily extrapolate from the laws and norms which the Church has given us—which are grounded in Catholic theology—and reach an uncontestable conclusion.  Let’s start by looking at what the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) has to say.  As mentioned above, this is the Church’s main body of liturgical law.  We’ve looked at the content of the GIRM before, in “How Many Masses Can a Priest Say on Sundays?” and “The Virus and the Bishops: Twisting a Vatican Document to Further an Agenda,” among others.

When speaking of the lay faithful serving in the liturgy, the GIRM notes the following, in the section entitled “Other Ministries”:

100… [L]ay ministers may be deputed to serve at the altar and assist the priest and the deacon; they may carry the cross, the candles, the thurible, the bread, the wine, and the water, and they may also be deputed to distribute Holy Communion as extraordinary ministers.

101…[O]ther laypersons may be commissioned to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture. They should be truly suited to perform this function and should receive careful preparation…

102. The psalmist’s role is to sing the Psalm or other biblical canticle that comes between the readings. To fulfill this function correctly, it is necessary that the psalmist have the ability for singing and a facility in correct pronunciation and diction….

104. It is fitting that there be a cantor or a choir director to lead and sustain the people’s singing. When in fact there is no choir, it is up to the cantor to lead the different chants, with the people taking part.

As you can see, so far there’s no mention of any of these people actually needing to be Catholics, is there?  But note what paragraph 107 of the GIRM has to say:

Liturgical functions that are not proper to the Priest or Deacon and are mentioned above (nos. 100-106) may even be entrusted … to suitable lay persons chosen by the pastor or the rector of the church. As to the function of serving the Priest at the altar, the norms established by the Bishop for his diocese should be observed. [Emphasis added]

This naturally raises the next question: who is a “suitable lay person”?  For the answer, we turn now to the Code of Canon Law.  Let’s go firstly to a section entitled “The Canonical Condition of Physical Persons,” where canon 96 tells us this about “persons” in the Church:

By baptism one is incorporated into the Church of Christ and is constituted a person in it with the duties and rights which are proper to Christians in keeping with their condition, insofar as they are in ecclesiastical communion and unless a legitimately issued sanction stands in the way.  [Emphasis added]

Bearing that language in mind, let’s now look at canon 205, which speaks to the aspect of full communion as relating to one’s “personhood” in the Church:

Those baptized are fully in the communion of the Catholic Church on this earth who are joined with Christ in its visible structure by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance.

Thus when liturgical norms reference “suitable lay persons,” the Church clearly is talking about suitable Catholics—who by definition are the only ones in full communion with the Catholic Church.  There is absolutely no way to reach the conclusion that a non-Catholic, even a baptized non-Catholic Christian, constitutes a “suitable lay person” to be entrusted with the various responsibilities mentioned by John Paul during Mass.

If for some reason readers still find the conclusion tenuous, let’s now look at the Vatican’s 2004 Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, On Certain Matters to be Observed or to be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist (which was cited in “Who is Qualified to Become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion?”).  It speaks directly to the question raised by John Paul:

The lay Christian faithful called to give assistance at liturgical celebrations should be well instructed and must be those whose Christian life, morals, and fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium recommend them.  It is fitting that such a one should have received a liturgical formation in accordance with his or her age, condition, state of life, and religious culture.  No one should be selected whose designation could cause consternation for the faithful” (RS 46).  (Emphasis added)

You can’t demonstrate “fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium” if you belong to another Christian denomination, or belong to another faith, or hold no faith at all!  In fact, even if you are a Catholic, this requirement indicates clearly that your membership in the Catholic Church does not, in and of itself, automatically render you qualified for any ministerial role in the Church’s liturgical actions—if perhaps you are known publicly to question Catholic doctrine and/or flout the Church’s moral teachings, or are untrained or otherwise incapable of handling that role.

This paragraph isn’t a fluke: the same basic qualifications were already stated elsewhere by the Vatican some years previously.  lts 1997 Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests, Ecclesia de mysterio, says this:

Catholics who do not live worthy lives or who do not enjoy good reputations or whose family situations do not conform to the teaching of the Church may not be admitted to the exercise of such functions. In addition, those chosen should possess that level of formation necessary for the discharge of the responsibilities entrusted to them. (Article 13)

In other words, when it comes to functioning as an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist, or in other roles during Mass or the celebration of the sacraments, this Instruction provides specific confirmation that certain lay Catholics are not “suitable lay persons.”  But it simply takes it for granted that the “suitable lay persons” engaged in these roles are all Catholics!

At this point, some readers may be objecting, “but when I got married in my Catholic parish, my protestant sister-in-law was allowed to read one of the readings at our wedding Mass!  How was that permitted if non-Catholics cannot be lectors at Mass?”  Yes, this definitely does happen, and no, it is not a violation of liturgical norms—because the Church does allow for this exceptionally.  The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (already referenced above) tells us this:

The reading of Scripture during a Eucharistic celebration in the Catholic Church is to be done by members of that Church.  On exceptional occasions and for a just cause, the Bishop of the diocese may permit a member of another Church or ecclesial Community to take on the task of reader. (133)

As can be seen, this paragraph first states the norm (that lectors are Catholics), and then provides for a specific exception in special circumstances, if the diocesan bishop permits it.  Thus it’s quite possible for your protestant sister-in-law or some other non-Catholic to be a lector at your Catholic wedding Mass, which constitutes an “exceptional occasion.”  There is, however, nothing “exceptional” about the situation described by John Paul, as he plainly indicates that non-Catholic students/teachers at his school assume the role of lector on a regular basis.

In any case, while there is some slight latitude regarding non-Catholics functioning as lectors at Mass, there would be no latitude regarding non-Catholics serving at the altar, or distributing the Eucharist as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.  None.

So now that we’ve established that in both of these situations, the Church’s laws and liturgical norms are being repeatedly violated, what can Samantha and John Paul do about it?  We can see that John Paul tried to object directly to the clergy of the school, without success.  That’s no surprise, since those same clergy are the ones who regularly approve of these violations in the first place.

The correct approach in both cases is to contact the bishop in whose diocese the school is located, and respectfully inform him of the situation.  In general, it’s a pretty safe bet that diocesan bishops have no idea what is routinely happening at school Masses—and why would they, since they don’t attend these Masses themselves?  That’s why the letter-writer should assume that the bishop knows nothing about the situation, and provide him with clear and specific details, which he will likely be hearing about for the first time.

Samantha promptly did just that, and provided some follow-up: “I wrote to my bishop….  I received a reply assuring me that he was grateful for my letter and would look to discuss the arrangements for communion at school Masses with the abbot.  The letter was discreet and contained little to indicate what the bishop might think of the practice.”  While the bishop’s response may have been “discreet,” the promptness of his reply was a positive sign.  He may rightly be surprised and shocked at what has been happening at the school, and intend to intervene—as is his right, even in those schools which are run not by the diocese itself, but by religious institutes (c. 806.1).

John Paul did the same, and even though we don’t know what the bishop’s action will be, he already gave some indication that he is concerned at least with the suitability of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist elsewhere in the diocese: as John Paul tells us, the bishop now requires all parishes to submit a list of these ministers to him.  This very fact would suggest that the bishop has already encountered trouble in this regard at the parish level, and wants it to stop.  His new parish policy bodes well for an appropriate resolution of the problems at John Paul’s school too.

Note that nobody is suggesting that non-Catholics can’t or shouldn’t attend Catholic schools.  As a general rule, the Church has always welcomed those who genuinely seek an education at her academic institutions of all levels.  Certainly Catholics and non-Catholics can treat each other with professional courtesy, respect, and charity, while the Church provides the students at her schools with a Catholic education—but maintaining charity toward non-Catholics does not require us Catholics to violate our own liturgical laws during the Catholic Church’s highest form of worship, the Holy Mass.  We can, and should, explain to non-Catholics the reasons why they cannot function as altar servers, lectors, or Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist even if they really want to … because that’s part of providing a Catholic education.

Thank you to my former student-turned-seminary-professor-of-liturgy, for taking the time to provide some of the citations noted above.  Grazie, Professore!

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