" Eucharistic sharing in exceptional circumstances by other Christians requires permission according to the directives of the diocesan bishop and the provisions of canon law (canon 844 § 4)."
These words, technically correct, are from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and greet all non-Catholic visitors as they open the prayer book in thousands of Catholic parishes across the country. They are intended to be a guide for visitors, true brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ who come from churches from which our church is estranged. Too often, however, these words help to form an unscalable wall, a powerful force for division and the destruction of ecumenical relations. Let's have a look at the statement.
It calls for people to request permission according to the directives of the diocesan bishop. There is, however, no indication of where one might find such needed directives in order to be able to follow them. Does your diocese have such a directive? Is it generally available? Do you know where to find it? If the answer to any of these questions is 'no', then the statement provides a system designed to produce failure, as one must request permission according to a non-existent, or non-available directive.
It also refers to canon 844 § 4. That seems clear enough, doesn't it? But is canon 844 § 4 readily available, so the person can determine what it says, and whether the law actually applies in that person's case? Let's look at the canon itself.
Again, this seems quite reasonable (even if in language which people of other Christian traditions may find difficult to understand and who, because of a fear that they may not be correctly understanding, may not apply for permission.) But is it?
Consider that, if there is no danger of death, the judgment of the diocesan Bishop or of the Episcopal Conference comes into play. It goes on to say that the bishop may determine a grave/pressing need, in which case permission may be granted, provided other elements are equally present. That seems reasonable. It even goes on to state the other elements, namely "
of their own
for them", "
in respect of these sacraments", and "are properly disposed". Each of these could be considered a test of ecclesiality, and as such could be quite realistic. But what happens in practice?
In practice, the judgment is made by the priest or diocesan bishop before any questions of ecclesiality are asked, much less answered. On what is such a judgment made?
Bear in mind that non-Catholics don't normally have the luxury of going first to a Catholic parish, finding out what is required, going through the stated steps to request permission, and finally going again to actually receive. All of this can take considerable time and effort.
Instead, what usually happens is that a non-Catholic shows up for the baptism, confirmation, first communion, wedding or funeral of a close friend or family member, there and then to be confronted with a demand which explains nothing, in a religiously foreign language, and which may in fact be impossible to follow due to the lack of the essential ingredients, yet everything must happen between the time the person arrives and the service begins.
In most cases, there is no opportunity for dialogue, no chance for learning from the other the reality of that person's case; a judgment is made before any gathering of evidence, be it supportive of or contrary to the case in question, as is normally called for when exercising jurisprudence. There is, in effect, a completely pre-judicial decision rendered, whereby the person attempting to request permission is charged, tried, convicted and sentenced without the gathering of a shred of evidence as to the validity of his/her concrete, particular, personal case.
What is worse is that it doesn't take many such experiences to determine that one is not welcome, need never again darken the doors of any Catholic church. What should have been an opportunity for discovery, discernment, and mutual learning becomes instead a way of building a wall effectively keeping out the very people the Catholic Church is so keen to reach and welcome.
This was all recently put in stark relief when my wife and I were planning a trip to another city to join in the celebration of a grand-nephew's wedding. I had been to that city a couple of months earlier, and joined my grand-nephew at Mass. While there, I read and noted the words in the prayer book.
On returning home, I told my wife about the statement. We live an interchurch marriage, I being a life-long Catholic, she a deeply faithful Anglican. Together we worship and participate in both our churches to whatever extent we are able.
Scripture tells us, and the Church has always believed and taught, that in marriage two individuals are made
, a unity so real and so strong that it cannot be dissolved short of death. As well, Jesus told us that unless we eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of His blood, we can have no life in us. We therefore ask where that
made so by God in marriage is to take and eat, take and drink? Surely, if Christ demands it, the Church/His Body must be able and willing to provide.
After 27 years of marriage, we have come to know how fraught can be the whole issue of receiving communion together, not just as individuals, but as the
made so by God in marriage. We know, from too many experiences, both of our own and of friends similarly in interchurch marriages, how easily the whole process can be derailed through pre-judicial renderings of decisions.
Being respectful of the requirements as specified by the USCCB, my wife wrote to the parish priest where the marriage is to be celebrated, to ask for the diocesan directive so she could follow it in presenting her case to receive. She was very specific in stating that she was not, at this time, asking for permission; rather, she was asking for the diocesan directive so she would know what was required in asking for permission. What followed was instructive.
Rather than reply with the directive, or even an indication where we might look for it, he forwarded the request to his bishop. In turn, the bishops immediately replied, not with the requested diocesan directive, but with a decision saying he could not give permission. He pointed to canon law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church for his reasons for denial.
Both call for the adjudication of a request for permission, a request which is to include the presentation of grave reason, along with the other elements already mentioned, by the person requesting permission. Without that request, and the presentation of those elements, no judgment can be appropriately rendered, since no actual case has been presented.
My wife had not presented her case for receiving communion, had instead specifically stated she was, at this point, asking for the diocesan directive, i.e. the 'ground rules', so that she could appropriately present her request for permission.
It was with real sadness, and a heavy heart, that she and we received the letter of denial; sadness at the denial, a heavy heart that her request for the diocesan directive had been disregarded, thereby preventing her from presenting her case, yet a decision rendered as though her case had been presented and found wanting. She decided to write again.
In this letter, she expressed her desire to present her case despite not knowing, even now, what the diocesan directive (if it even exists) might say about the form her request for permission should take, or what it should present by way of argument. She then proceeded to present her case.
Then, despite recognizing that canon law deals with the particular person and not the
made so in marriage (one might say that canon law, and the Catechism, have not yet caught up with the Church's theology of marriage), she asked me also to write to the bishop, to present my understanding and experience of our need to receive together. I did so, though we both knew the bishop's decision had already been made, with little likelihood of a reversal.
Within that letter, I posed the question I had grappled with for some years before coming to a decision: Do I recognize and live by the unity of our baptisms and marriage, and refrain from Eucharist whenever my wife is told she cannot receive (on the basis that, if half of
is not welcome, the other half of that same
cannot claim to be welcome)? Or do I deny the unity of our baptisms and marriage, in order to go forward to receive - and in the denial, render myself indisposed to receive? What would you do?
After grappling with this question for some considerable time, I came to the conclusion that, whenever my wife is not welcome to receive (with the proviso always that she is asking for the Eucharist of her own free will, that there is no Anglican minister present at this worship time to whom she may go to receive, that she has a Catholic faith in the Eucharist, and that she is suitably disposed to receive), then I, too, will not receive, and instead join her in a Eucharistic fast.
Today, some time later, we have still not had a response from the bishop to those letters, nor from the parish priest, as to whether any such directive exists, nor what it might say. We intend to join my grand-nephew as he and his fiancee administer the sacrament of marriage to each other within the context of our family and community. And, in that same context of family and community, we will refrain from receiving the Eucharist.
In closing, I invite you to discover for yourself: does your diocese have a directive on sharing the Eucharist? Is it readily available? Could you explain to a non-Catholic acquaintance what it and canon 844 § 4 say and mean?
Without those elements present to be read, understood and followed, the statement by the USCCB is a system designed not only to guarantee failure, but to push away people who might otherwise be favourable to exploring and discovering the spiritual and liturgical riches the Catholic Church has to offer.
Ray Temmerman (Catholic) and his wife Fenella (Anglican) are actively involved in the Interchurch Families International Network (IFIN), active and worshipping together as much as possible in both their churches. Ray also administers the IFIN website at