When non-Catholics receive communion—UPDATED

When non-Catholics receive communion—UPDATED April 25, 2015


At Cardinal Francis George’s funeral Thursday, the governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, evidently received communion.

There’s just one problem: Rauner is not Catholic.

That is notable. But so is this fact: non-Catholics are permitted to receive the sacrament under certain limited circumstances. And some prominent non-Catholics have done just that in the past—even receiving from the hands of popes.

One of those was British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who received the Eucharist after a meeting with Pope John Paul in 2003. Blair at the time was Anglican: 

At 8am, the Blairs arrived in the Pope’s private chapel to find him already sitting facing the altar, immersed in prayer. “The image he gave,” writes O’Connor, “was for Cherie a symbol of both suffering and the defeat of suffering. When he began to say Mass, he sprang to life: he said all of it, the first part in English but, when he came to the Eucharistic prayer, in Latin.

…O’Connor then reports that “the Pope gave the family communion, while the other celebrants gave communion to the rest of the congregation”. What he does not spell out is whether the Prime Minister took communion.

Most people have assumed that he did not, since – after years of receiving the sacrament when he accompanied his family to Mass in London – Mr Blair had been told by the late Cardinal Basil Hume that this was not appropriate for a non-Catholic. He duly stopped.

On March 21, 2003, however, the Catholic Herald claimed that the Pope had personally given Tony Blair Holy Communion – the first time in history that a British prime minister had received the sacrament from the hands of the pontiff.

The story was followed by such a flurry of denials that the newspaper was forced to withdraw the claim in its next issue.

Yet it was perfectly true, as the Pope’s biographer Garry O’Connor discovered from several sources, including the papal chamberlain’s office. The Telegraph this week also independently verified the story.

Did John Paul II break his own rules by administering communion to an Anglican? Not quite: there was, at the time, a provision that non-Catholics could ask to receive communion “on a unique occasion for joy or for sorrow in the life of a family”.

Tony Blair presumably made such a request, and would also have been expected to assent to the Catholic doctrine that the body of Christ is really present in the consecrated bread and wine.

No previous British prime minister has ever held this belief (though Harold Macmillan, who was High Church, probably came close to it.)


In 2005, there was the case of  Taize founder Brother Roger Schutz, a member of the Swiss Reformed Church:

When Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated Pope John Paul’s funeral Mass in April, he was probably surprised to see Brother Roger being rolled up in a wheelchair at the head of the Communion line.

What to do? Cardinal Ratzinger had long defended the church’s general prohibition on shared Communion. Special circumstances might allow for Communion, but the cardinal could hardly probe the matter in the middle of the pope’s funeral.

In the end, he did what many pastors in local dioceses do in such circumstances: He gave Communion. What made it different was that the world was watching, and wondering. Immediately people began asking: Had Brother Roger converted to Catholicism? Or had Cardinal Ratzinger changed his mind about shared Communion?

The answer in both cases was no, according to Vatican officials interviewed over the summer.

Because the questions about Brother Roger’s taking Communion would not go away, the Vatican made available in July an informal, unsigned statement of explanation.

The bottom line appeared to be: It was all an unfortunate mistake. Brother Roger, it seems, had been moved to a closer vantage point at the start of the Mass and had unwittingly ended up in the section reserved for those receiving Communion from the chief celebrant, Cardinal Ratzinger.

When he was wheeled forward, “it did not seem possible to refuse him the most Blessed Sacrament,” the Vatican said.

The statement noted that Brother Roger shared the Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It also said his situation was unique and stressed that his receiving Communion did not represent a generalized policy.

With Brother Roger’s death and funeral four months later, the question was revisited in news reports and in conversations around the Vatican. Informed Vatican officials, who spoke on background, emphasized that the church’s position on shared Communion had not changed.

But the issue has nuances that are still studied and discussed inside the church.

All of which brings us to the question: how and when can non-Catholics receive the Eucharist?  It’s spelled out in canon 844 in the Code of Canon Law:

  • Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed. This is also valid for members of other Churches which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition in regard to the sacraments as these Eastern Churches.
  • If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed (emphasis added.)

I’m not sure if Gov. Rauner’s reception of communion meets all those criteria. But under the particular circumstances—a gathering of thousands of Catholics at a televised public event, a crowded communion line, a funeral—I’m not sure it rises to the level of scandal or sacrilege, either. It may have been misguided, but it doesn’t appear to have been malicious. And: a moment like that is not the place to engage in a theological inquiry about a person’s proper disposition to receive the sacrament or attempt some catechesis. (Another remote possibility is that the priest giving out communion may not have known the governor’s religion.)

The minister of communion can’t know every communicant’s backstory, or what led them to the communion line. The ultimate burden falls on the shoulders of those who present themselves for the sacrament.

At a certain point, the minister of communion—whether it’s a lay person, a bishop, a deacon or a pope—has to trust in the power of grace. The Eucharist is a gift and a miracle. We can’t always know who will receive that gift or that miracle—or what impact it might have.

UPDATE: An alert reader points us to this post by canon lawyer Ed Peters, which addressed a similar situation in Canada a few years ago. Ed describes what transpired as a “grave blunder.”

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