A few years ago, my wife and I invited her parents to join us for Mass at our new parish. We had been happy to find that the parish we had recently moved into was an extraordinarily vibrant community that was widely known both for its diversity and its rich liturgies.
Shortly after we had settled into our pew, my Lutheran father-in-law poked me and pointed to the inside cover of the missalette he had started to read. "Well, that's a fine how-do-you-do," he grumbled as he showed me the boldfaced "Guidelines for Receiving Communion," which spelled out the letter of the (canon) law: "It is a consequence of the sad divisions in Christianity that we cannot extend to [non-Catholic Christians] a general invitation to receive Communion. . . . Reception of the Eucharist by Christians not fully united with us would imply a oneness which does not yet exist, and for which we must all pray."
The Catholic Church's strict rules against non-Catholics receiving the Eucharist in Catholic liturgies--and its even stricter rules against Catholics receiving Communion in non-Catholic liturgies--have been a source of great irritation, frustration, offense, and pain both for the many Catholics with family members in other Christian churches, and in Catholics' ecumenical relations with these churches.
The printed guidelines in the missalette are just the least of it. Consider the following real-life examples:
Over the past couple of years, several heads of state--including President Bill Clinton and Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair--made headlines for various entanglements with Catholic Communion regulations. When the Irish President Mary McAleese, a devout Catholic, received Communion in the Anglican Cathedral in Dublin two years ago, Irish bishops blasted her publicly. The archbishop of Dublin said it was a "sham" for Catholics to take Protestant Communion, implying that all Protestant Communion services were a sham.
Not a few Catholic priests during Mass on the high feasts of Christmas and Easter make a special point of reminding non-Catholic family members and visitors that they are not welcome at the Lord's table. Some presiders are so concerned about potentially "illicit" communers that even during funeral services and wedding celebrations, they issue stern warnings from the pulpit whenever they know that family members from other Christian denominations are present.
When it was time for Communion during the installation Mass for a Catholic bishop in Massachusetts, ushers were posted to guard the front pews to make sure the Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist, and other Protestant "honored guests" stayed in their places.
Few Catholics know that in the various post-Vatican II ecumenical dialogues between Catholics and Protestants a significant consensus has been reached on the theology of the Eucharist. The "sticking point" in the Catholic denial of eucharistic sharing is not, as many mistakenly assume, any substantial disagreement regarding the Real Presence but the official Catholic view that Protestant ministers have a "defect" in their ordination because of a Reformation-era break in the apostolic succession. The ecumenical dialogue with Protestant churches is currently stalled because of an unwillingness by the Catholic Church to act on some of the proposed ways to make a mutual recognition of ordination possible.
The Catholic Church's general prohibition of eucharistic sharing with Protestants is, of course, most acutely felt within the many mixed marriages today. According to a recent survey, close to 40% of all post-Vatican II Catholics are married to non-Catholics.
It is true that in recent years, the Catholic Church has made some cautious, limited steps toward opening up eucharistic sharing in the context of mixed marriages. A 1993 directory of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity specifically recognized marriages between baptized Catholics and non-Catholics as instances of the "grave and pressing need" required by canon law for exceptional admission to Communion. And guidelines issued since then by the archbishop of Brisbane, Australia; the German bishops; and the South African Bishops' Conference have made pastoral provisions that under certain conditions allow non-Catholic spouses to receive Catholic Communion on a regular basis.
However, in most parts of the Catholic world, including the United States, many priests and bishops continue to deny any and all requests of mixed-marriage couples to receive Catholic Communion together. Furthermore, Catholics officially are still categorically forbidden from going to Communion in Protestant churches.
Thus the Catholic Church already recognizes that there are exceptions to this rule. In fact, even though it has no full unity with the Orthodox churches either, it welcomes Orthodox Christians to the eucharistic table because their ordinations are not seen as "defective." (Ironically, in this case, the Orthodox Church is generally more cautious and unwilling to allow Catholics to receive Communion at Orthodox liturgies.)
As the difficulties continue on an official level, many Catholics and non-Catholics have, of course, for a long time engaged in what Lutheran church historian Martin E. Marty has called the "quiet smuggling of communion elements." Marty says he has "communed Catholic cardinals and been offered the sacraments by them, not covertly, but also, inevitably, not as a joyful public sign of realized common life in the Body of Christ."
According to several sources, even Pope John Paul II has on different occasions intentionally communed Protestant church leaders and ambassadors. Certainly, following the pope's example--and one's own conscience--and participating in eucharistic sharing with other churches remains a widespread, valid, and honorable option for Christians today. But the larger question remains: Why on earth should Catholics even worry so much about whether other baptized Christians might sneak a piece of our Lord's Body and Blood from us? Do we really believe that it is our exclusive property whose consumption we must police?
Recalling the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples at Emmaus, the Rev. John Muddiman, a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, recently asked in a letter to the Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly, "What assurance did the risen Christ have that Cleopas and his companion had the right beliefs and were in good standing before he celebrated the Eucharist for them? After all, they doubted even his Resurrection. But their simple invitation to 'stay and eat' was sufficient for divine grace to comply."
Considering Christ's example, it seems to me that the Catholic Church should work harder to find ways to remove the scandal of division at the banquet of life.
How much more appropriate than the guidelines cited above sounds the concise, positively worded invitation that is printed on the bulletins of one of the two parishes my family attends: "You are invited to share Holy Communion with us today if you are a baptized Christian who believes Christ is present in the sacrament and forgives your sins." Of course, as you might have guessed, this is not our Catholic but our Lutheran parish.