I (Hugh) attended Catholic Church every week for seven years before I decided to become Catholic, and I didn't take the Eucharist during that time. The first time I had communion was at my confirmation. So I understand what it feels like to watch everybody go up for Communion while I stay in my pew and pray.
Occasionally, an Evangelical is at a Catholic mass, perhaps for a marriage or funeral. Usually they are attending to support a Catholic friend, family member or relative. Some think the Catholic Church is prideful or snobby for not allowing non-Catholics to receive Communion.
Some non-Catholics can share communion
Before discussing why most denominations cannot join us for communion, we should mention that many Eastern Orthodox Christians are welcome to receive Catholic Communion, even though our Churches split up about 1000 years ago. So we are not trying to have an "exclusive club." We would love everybody to be in a position to receive the Eucharist. We actually think it's really serious not to have communion. (Jn 6:56) More about that later.
Not pride but rather humility
We suggest that it is not pride that causes us to refuse communion to some non-Catholics, but rather humility. For 2000 years, nothing has been closer to the heart of the Church than the Body and Blood of our Lord. All of the Early Church Fathers talk about cherishing our Lord in the Eucharist, and countless early Christians gave their lives to guard its integrity.
The Eucharist is the most intimate expression of our faith. If we were to share it with a visitor, it would be like saying to someone who knocks on the door of our home, "come in, don't bother with the living room, come directly into the bedroom." The deepest intimacy is saved for the family. We feel that our Lord has made himself very vulnerable by coming in the form of bread and we have an obligation to protect him when he is vulnerable, just like Joseph protected Jesus when he was a baby and most vulnerable.
If you are not Catholic, we invite you to imagine yourself in our place. Pretend for a moment that you believed, with all the early Christians, that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ, and that you have been given a Biblical command to guard it. You would be hesitant to share it with someone who thinks it's just bread?
It's dangerous to mess with the Eucharist without the right preparation
Saint Paul says:
"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself." (1 Cor 11:27-29)
We think it is quite serious to consume the Eucharist without believing ("discerning") that it is the Body of Jesus. It would banalize the center of our faith. We cannot pretend that there is unity by compromising what we believe is the Body of our Lord, the source and summit of our faith. It would be a kind of desecration. We don't want to see people hurt themselves that way, and we don't want to be held accountable before God for not paying attention to what he had ordered us to do in Scripture. The Eucharist is the Body of Christ which is the Word of God made Flesh. Extreme judgment fell upon the people of Beth Shemesh when they looked into the Ark:.
But God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. (1 Sam 6:19)
If earthly death happened to those who had disrespect for the Word of God made stone, how much worse would the Spiritual death be for those who treat the Word of God made flesh with disrespect. We don't mess around with the Eucharist.
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance for the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it.... (Ex 12:43-45)
Evangelicals welcome Catholics to join in their Communion, so why not vice versa?
Evangelicals think of Communion as just a symbol, so it makes sense that they are not as strict about having the right relationship to it as Catholics and Orthodox Christians who believe it is a sacrament and the true presence of Christ.
Catholics don't participate in Evangelical communion because we feel it would be wrong to pretend that Communion is just a symbol, or that it can be served by anybody.
How come some lousy liberal Catholics who are sinning come up for communion, while spirit-filled, Bible-loving Evangelicals are asked not to partake?
We got an email that said:
Don't you think it's wrong for the Catholic Church to give Communion to people it knows don't give a rip about Jesus and then refuse me because I'm not sure where I am with transubstantiation? Protestants acknowledge the Body of Christ given up for us (same with the shed blood) just like Catholics and maybe something supernatural really does take place in the heavenlies during Communion. I don't necessarily disagree with transubstantiation. The RC Church is greater of the larger offense of letting its own uneducated and often unbelieving nominal members take Communion.
Our response was this:
You have a great point about bad Catholics receiving communion while good evangelicals are not. It brings us right up against a fundamental difference in the way the Catholic Church addresses "abuses" of a sacrament and the way Protestants address abuses (in general).
The Catholic Church addresses problems by looking at the long term. It sometimes takes a generation or two to work itself out, sometimes a couple of hundred years. In the short term it can seem very hypocritical, legalistic, and not very practical. The Catholic Church would rather that a fundamental principal be maintained on paper, even if it is abused in practice.
For example, same-sex relationships are quite common in this generation, and many liberal Catholics are agitating for "reform" and relaxing the Church's position on it, in light of its prevalence in society, including in the Church. They say people are leaving the faith because of the Church's "rigidity". However the Catholic Church will never change its position on same-sex relationships, unions, or "marriages". In time, when the present age dies away and a more orthodox age appears after the coming persecutions, the internal fighting over it will stop. The principle of a man and a woman will be intact on paper and the age-old principle will resume. (Unfortunately, many Protestant denominations have caved in on homosexuality, such as Anglicans, United, Methodists, etc, and they are drifting further and further from the truth on this.)
If however, we said, "same-sex relationships are common, and even Catholics are getting into them. This principle of no same-sex relationship isn't working, people are showing up at Mass in relationships. Let's change it." Then future generations would no longer have the fundamental principle to return to.
Relaxing the rules of reception of the Eucharist because there are abuses would be like "harm reduction".
Harm reduction theory says "since junkies are sharing needles and getting HIV, we should change the law and make it legal and give them clean needles." The problem is, human beings, make "risk compensation" adjustments, and just find greater risk-taking behaviour, and then society moves the goal posts further still away from the Truth. For example, now that same-sex marriage is legal in Canada, polygamy is the next goal for the "liberal" crowd. There is no satisfying the cravings of sin.
The Church won't change rules, just because the rules are being abused. The current abuses of the Eucharist will pass and a new generation of hungry, faithful and orthodox catholic bishops take their place.
So yes, you are right, it's terribly hypocritical that a faithful evangelical like you can't receive communion but a lousy liberal Catholic does. However, it is forbidden by the Church that people in sin take it, even if some priests don't pay attention to the rule. But eventually these current abuses by modern liberal Catholics will wear themselves out and self adjust, God always does that with the Church, which is why the Inquisition passed, and the Crusades and all the rest of the vain attempts to figure out the best way to Evangelize passed. The Eucharist, will be respected, but I'm afraid a lot of Christian blood will flow before we get the correct level of faith again.
It was the Eucharist that converted my wife. Her story is here.
What about people who grew up Catholic, who are visiting a Catholic Church for a specific reason like a wedding, funeral, etc...
We got an email:
... when Communion time rolls around, I never know if I should go up or not because, while nominally Catholic, I’ve been a member of three different non-Catholic denominations over the last 20 or so years. ... The priest ...told me I shouldn’t because I’ve been away from Catholicism for so long, so I didn’t take part. ... As a kid, I was given the first four sacraments. We believe the creeds of the Catholic Church (Apostles’ and Nicene) but if I’m honest, I guess I’m not too loyal to the RC Church traditions – veneration of Mary, the Rosary, as an example. We believe the weightier matters that all Christians - Catholics and Protestants – share like the Holy Trinity, the Deity of Jesus, etc. In the traditional sense, I guess I’m not a Catholic but in the larger sense I’m a Christian like they are and Communion is a Christian, not just a Catholic, sacrament. I’ve never actively renounced my ties with the RC Church but I haven’t exactly strengthened them either. In your opinion, am I still Catholic or not? What do you think, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic” or “Use it or lose it”?
Our answer: we think it's important to look at your question in two parts.
- Are you still Catholic
- Should you take communion
Once someone has been baptised and confirmed, the Church considers that person Catholic until they die, or until they send a formal letter of renouncement to the bishop (where they were baptised). So if you never attended the Church again we'd still consider you Catholic, just like in the Old Testament if a person is born Jewish and born with Jewish blood, they were considered Jewish until death, regardless if they practised or not. At baptism and confirmation you came under the blood of Jesus and that is considered indelible.
On the second question, should you take communion? When we say "Amen" upon receiving the Eucharist it is basically saying "yes" to communion, and it's like saying, "we believe everything the Church teaches". This would be difficult for someone in your position. Those who are not disposed for communion go up with their arms crossed in an "x" to signify they would like to receive a blessing. Most Catholic Churches accept that. That's what my Protestant brother does when he comes to Church. When you are ready to become a practicing Catholic, it is quite easy. Smply go to confession with the intention of returning to the Catholic Church, and you can start the Eucharist again.
Catholics think succession is necessary in order to have a valid Eucharist
Catholics believe the Lord has preserved the preparation of the Eucharist for those who are the direct successors to the apostles who were present at the last supper. There is a lineage of bishops and priests from the last supper to today's Catholic priests. Succession was passed on by the laying on of hands, starting with the apostle Peter. It is foreshadowed in the Jewish Rabbinical practice of laying on of hands. This is why we recognize the validity of the Orthodox Eucharist which split off from Catholicism 1000 years ago. Their Eucharist is valid because their priests share our lineage, and they teach the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Therefore, Christians from their churches are welcome to join Communion with us.
We don't think it's accurate to say the Catholic Church is being snobby for denying communion to Christians who come from a Church that doesn't teach the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Perhaps it's a bit snobby to think it should be OK to wander into the most intimate part of Catholicism, without taking it seriously.
Although it is uncomfortable to not celebrate communion together, we have to remember that there is an underlying cause. This discomfort we experience is kind of like the pain in our body if we are in need of medical treatment. If we ignore the pain and act like everything is normal, then the cause of our disunity would go unnoticed. We pray for the day when all Christians will be in full unity. In the meantime, I'm totally into praying together and playing music together. Many Catholic Churches also welcome non-Catholics to come up for a blessing during communion by simply putting their hands over their chests in an 'X".
If you really want to celebrate the Eucharist with us, here is an article on how to do that.
Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.