It is frequently asked whether non-Catholics can receive Communion at a Catholic Mass. Quite often this comes up in the context of family events – weddings, baptisms, funerals – situations which put a great deal of pressure on families and Eucharistic ministers, Ordinary and Extraordinary, to allow it. As a result it happens quite frequently that Communion ministers believe themselves authorized to extend Eucharistic hospitality, either for the sake of kindness or a genuine sense of unity among the members of the Congregation. While such motives are admirable, the result nonetheless falsifies the sacramental meaning of the Eucharist as both a sign of communion with Christ and communion with the Catholic Church.
In order to safeguard the sacrament, and to ensure that Christ is received with the proper dispositions (something very important for the authentic good of the person receiving Him), the Church has enacted certain norms for determining those occasions when intercommunion is legitimate. In the 1983 Code of Canon Law the following is prescribed:
Canon 844 (c.671 in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches)
1. Catholic ministers may licitly administer the sacraments to Catholic members of the Christian faithful only and, likewise, the latter may licitly receive the sacraments only from Catholic ministers with due regard for parts 2, 3, and 4 of this canon, and can. 861, part 2.
2. Whenever necessity requires or genuine spiritual advantage suggests, and provided that the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, it is lawful for the faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose churches these sacraments are valid.
3. Catholic ministers may licitly administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist and anointing of the sick to members of the oriental churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, if they ask on their own for the sacraments and are properly disposed. This holds also for members of other churches, which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition as the oriental churches as far as these sacraments are concerned.
4. If the danger of death is present or other grave necessity, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or the conference of bishops, Catholic ministers may licitly administer these sacraments to other Christians who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and on their own ask for it, provided they manifest Catholic faith in these sacraments and are properly disposed.
5. For the cases in parts 2, 3, and 4, neither the diocesan bishop nor the conference of bishops is to enact general norms except after consultation with at least the local competent authority of the interested non-Catholic Church or community.
In keeping with the sacramental meaning of the Eucharist this canon reserves the sacraments to Catholics, that is, those who are in communion with the Church. It then addresses the question of Catholics receiving the sacraments from non-Catholics. It sets the following strict conditions:
a. necessity or genuine spiritual advantage
b. when the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided
c. it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister
d. a church which has valid sacraments
This last condition is the key one, since it eliminates ALL the Reformation churches (Anglican, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist etc.), none of whom have valid sacred orders, and therefore, a valid Eucharist. The possibility of a Catholic receiving from the minister of another church, when the first three conditions are fulfilled, is limited to the Orthodox Churches, other Oriental Churches, Old Catholics, Polish National and others whose sacraments are recognized by the Holy See. As paragraph 3 notes, the members of those churches may likewise receive from a Catholic minister, when they ask and are disposed.
Under what conditions, therefore, may non-Catholics from the Reformation churches receive? Paragraph 4 addresses this matter and sets stricter conditions than for non-Catholics who belong to Churches which have a valid Eucharist, true Eucharistic faith and valid Penance. These conditions are:
a. danger of death, or, other grave necessity,
b. the norms of the diocesan bishop, or, the conference of bishops are
c. cannot approach a minister of his or her own community
d. asks on his or her own for it,
e. manifests Catholic faith in the sacraments
f. properly disposed.
These last two conditions are very important. When Catholics and Orthodox present themselves for Communion, either to their own minister or that of another Church with valid sacraments, Eucharistic faith and proper disposition is assumed, given the introduction to both Penance and the Eucharist at an early age in Churches which have a Catholic Eucharistic faith. However, when a non-Catholic presents himself the norms presume an investigation to determine the person’s faith, and to determine the necessary moral conditions for a proper reception of the Eucharist. That all these conditions are met, especially the last two, cannot be determined by a minister of Communion, ordinary or extraordinary, in the Communion line. This is why the USCCB guidelines, which are published in the back of every missalette, exclude weddings, funerals and other such occasions as appropriate for intercommunion. The occasions would be individual, normally determined by a pastor after consultation with the bishop, or, in accordance with norms drawn up on the basis of this canon (paragraph 5).