Hey, Father! Can I take communion at a non-Catholic church?

As a Catholic, if I were to attend another church service that is not Catholic and they distribute communion, is it OK if I receive communion there? Can my Christian friends receive communion at a Catholic Mass, for example, at a wedding?

– Paul in Springfield

Whereas many Protestant denominations allow Christians who are not members of their denominations to receive communion in their services, the Catholic Church does not. Because many do not understand the reasoning behind this, some people feel offended by the Church’s insistence that only Catholics (and, in some instances, Orthodox Christians) receive the Eucharist.

The Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar is called by several different names, as considered in paragraphs 1328-1332 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. One of these names is Holy Communion “because by this sacrament, we unite ourselves to Christ, who makes us sharers in his Body and Blood to form a single body” (CCC, 1331). After all, the word communion itself means “union with.” The Catholic Church only allows those who are her members – those either baptized into the Catholic Church or those who have been received into her through the profession of faith – to receive the Eucharist. If she allowed those who are not united with or in the Church to receive the Eucharist, she would seem to acknowledge something that is not true.

As Catholics, we know that the Eucharist is the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Jesus Christ. We know that the Real Presence of Christ effected in this Sacrament does not cease once the celebration of the Mass is finished. This is why we worship the Eucharist, “genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord” (CCC, 1378). When a Catholic says, “Amen,” to “The Body of Christ” and/or “The Blood of Christ,” he or she acknowledges the Eucharist to be the very Body and Blood of Christ – and not a mere symbol. At the same time, a Catholic acknowledges and accepts the teachings of the Church and maintains communion – unity – with the Church. This is something a non-Catholic cannot honestly say.

Most Protestants (even non-denominationals) do not believe that Holy Communion is the very Body and Blood of the Savior. If one of them said, “Amen,” to, “The Body of Christ,” he or she would commit a lie. Even if a Protestant does believe that Holy Communion is the very Body and Blood of Christ, he or she could still not honestly say, “Amen,” to, “The Body of Christ,” because he or she has no real intention of maintaining unity with the Catholic Church. If he or she did, one would either be taking part in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults or would already be Catholic. Because the Catholic Church respects the beliefs of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, we do not share communion with them because we want them to remain men and women of integrity.

The same discipline applies when a Catholic attends a non-Catholic service at which a communion ritual is celebrated. Just as non-Catholics cannot receive communion in the Catholic Church, Catholics cannot receive communion in non-Catholic services (regardless of what the Protestant denomination teaches). The only exception to this is in the Orthodox Churches, who have maintained a valid priesthood, something no Protestant community has done. If a Catholic received communion in a Protestant service, the Catholic would be professing unity with that religious body, something that is not true.

It is because the Catholic Church loves and respects all people that we do not share communion with those who are not in union with us. This discipline derives, in part, from the clear teaching of Saint Paul, who says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord … For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (I Corinthians 11:27-29).

If a non-Catholic does believe what the Church believes about the Eucharist, the Church would gladly share Holy Communion with him or her. All such a person needs to do is enter into the full communion of the Church established by Christ the Lord.

Father Daren J. Zehnle, JCL, KCHS, is pastor at St. Augustine in Ashland, director of the Office for Divine Worship and the Catechumenate, and judge in the diocesan Tribunal