As the National Conference of Catholic Bishops puts it,
Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Communion.
To put in the language of the street: Catholics have closed communion. Non-Catholics are not invited to the table (well, technically Eastern Orthodox Christians can receive communion in a Catholic Church, but even they “are urged to respect the discipline of their own churches” — which probably means in most circumstances they should not participate, because their own church has closed communion). If you are a Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical or post-denominational Christian participating in a Catholic mass, you are specifically expected not to receive the host or the precious blood.
It is not the purpose of this blog post to either defend or attack this doctrine. Perhaps it is a litmus test of whether one is a “traditional” or “progressive” Catholic, as to whether one agrees or disagrees with this matter of church teaching. But I do not wish to get into the dogfight, and I certainly lack the theological chops to make a persuasive argument one way or the other. All I can talk about is the evolution of my own experience in regard to this particular aspect of the Catholic faith. This evolution has undergone four stages: my “Protestant” phase, my “Pagan” phase, my “RCIA” phase, and where I am today. When I look at the arc of my personal spiritual journey, I suppose it is inevitable that I’ve ended up where I am now, but I sure didn’t see it coming beforehand.
1. When I was a Protestant (I grew up Lutheran, and then as a young adult became an Episcopalian) I thought that closed communion was wrong. As I saw it, this was one of the many ways in which Roman Catholicism had abandoned the gospel. I felt no compunction about receiving communion when I attended a Catholic mass, even though I knew that I was violating the teachings of the Catholic Church. I believed I was obeying a higher authority — basically, my conscience — which therefore freed me from any obligation to observe Catholic customs.
2. Eventually I abandoned Protestantism to explore Pagan spiritualities such as Wicca and Druidism. Initially, this meant that I no longer cared what the Catholic Church taught. I thought that Catholicism, like all forms of Christianity, were no longer relevant to my own spiritual practice. However, over the course of my sojourn within Paganism, as I learned more about mystery religions and the idea that some practices should only be engaged in by those properly initiated into them, I began to see the Catholic understanding of communion in a new light. Catholics denying communion to Protestants were no different from Wiccans who only allow initiates to participate in their full moon rituals. Since I accepted Wiccan teachings on initiation, why should I be judgmental of Catholic teaching? Indeed, I began to respect Catholicism for having clear boundaries.
3. After a crisis of faith eroded my interest in Paganism and I felt drawn to return to Christianity, I faced the question of whether I should return to Anglicanism or pursue another path. I pondered whether I should become a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Catholic. My interest in sacramental theology pretty much eliminated the Quaker and Unitarian options, and my desire to engage in monastic spirituality drew me toward Catholicism (although there is a monastic culture within the Episcopal Church, I live only 20 miles from a Catholic monastery, whereas the nearest Episcopal monastery is hundreds of miles away). So I entered RCIA, this time taking a humbler approach to Catholic teaching. I accepted the idea that the Eucharist is a sign of Christian unity, and that it is simply a violation of that sign for non-Catholics to receive communion. I refrained from receiving throughout my period of exploring Catholicism, first as a seeker and later as an RCIA candidate, and did not receive communion until after I was confirmed and formally received into the Catholic Church. So by this point I had done a complete about-face from where I stood as a Protestant: from contemptuously dismissing Catholic teaching, I had moved to fully accepting and upholding it.
4. We never really stand still, do we? It’s been over five years since I discerned an interest in becoming Catholic; over four years since I was confirmed. In that time I have immersed myself deeply into Catholic culture, working at a monastery bookstore and entering into formation as a monastic lay associate. I love Catholic spirituality and see it as a framework not only for my religious observance, but for living a good life. Still, I live in a part of the country where Catholics are in the minority, and so continue to have many non-Catholic friends. I’ve learned that many non-Catholics would dearly love to be invited to the Eucharistic feast, and — unlike me when I was a Protestant — won’t presume to come without being invited. Even more interesting, as I see it, is how so many Catholics are divided on the question. Some are vehement in their insistence that if anyone wants to receive Communion, they need to become a Catholic. Others feel that closed communion is a man-made rule, and that Jesus himself would never do such a thing. As I said above, I don’t really want to get involved in this fight, but I am fascinated to learn all the different sides of the argument.
But where am I? Here’s what I can say. Just last night I attended a church (I won’t say which one) that is not my home parish. I’ve been to this church before, and have enjoyed the priest there, who is rather playful and has a warm rapport with his congregation. At last night’s mass there was a Baptism, and many extended family members and friends were present. The priest chatted up these folks before mass, and many of them were non-Catholic. I was in the pew directly behind the baptismal party, so I heard it all.
When the time came for the passing of the peace, the family and friends of the little girl being baptized were all vigorously hugging one another — and even though I was a stranger, I got caught up in it too, getting more hugs during the passing of the peace than I ‘ve experienced since my Episcopal days. The family was all smiles, laughter, and joy.
And then the priest, his normal jovial manner suddenly absent, made this announcement: “Since we Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and believe that the Eucharist is a sign of our oneness in Christ, Protestants are not invited to receive communion. If you are not a Catholic and want to come forward anyway, just ask for a blessing.”
The atmosphere among the Baptismal party immediately changed. The smiles were gone, and everyone looked at each other, with questioning expressions on their faces. None of the non-Catholics went forward to “ask for a blessing.”
My heart was broken for these folks.
I know it’s church teaching, and I know the priest was only doing his job. Certainly he could have done it better — I think he should have asked the family of the girl being baptized (remember, her immediate family is Catholic) to discreetly go over church teaching with their non-Catholic friends and relatives, before the mass. But from the strict letter of church law, he did what he was supposed to do, even if he did it artlessly.
But when I saw the looks of confusion on the faces that just a minute earlier had been beaming with joy and laughter, the faces of those who were there to celebrate their young niece’s entry into the church family, my heart was broken. Catholic teaching basically intruded on the Christian joy of the moment.
So now, I think my relationship to official church teaching on closed communion is simply that of a broken heart. I will not attack the teaching like I did when I was a Protestant, nor will I simply defend it like I did during my RCIA days. It is what it is. And it breaks my heart.
Yes, communion is a sign of oneness in Christ — see I Corinthians 10:17. But the body of Christ is a crucified body. It is a body broken and wounded. I can only imagine that every time someone is denied or disinvited to communion, whether in writing (the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement that can be found in most Catholic missals) or over a church P.A. system as took place at the mass I attended last night, I believe Christ’s heart is broken yet again.
I suppose the hard line is this: once all the non-Catholics see the error of their ways and submit to papal authority, this sad division will cease. But from New Testament times onward, the body of Christ has been “broken” in the sense of parties and divisions within the church. The divisions we know today aren’t going to go away. Likewise, the other hard line is to just denounce Catholic teaching (like I did in my youth). But boundaries are part of being human, too. If we say this boundary is wrong, what do we replace it with? Just a broader boundary? Episcopalians and Lutherans are proud of the fact that Christians from other denominations are welcome to their Eucharistic feast, but their official church teaching draws the line at non-Christians partaking. Isn’t that just the same problem, a difference of degree rather than kind?
I think taking a hard-line stance toward closed communion (either pro or con) is just an attempt to armor ourselves against the pain that goes with the territory. But is such armoring really helpful, or useful? I don’t think so. So we are left with a broken heart. We who are invited to the Eucharistic feast will forever be haunted by the fact that others are not invited, either by their own choosing or by the decisions of yet others. This is not a problem to be fixed. It is only a reality to be lived into, vulnerably and tearfully.