Eucharistic hospitality: an ecumenical novelty

Is the ecumenical novelty of "Eucharistic hospitality" outlined in Pope Benedict XVI's Sacramentum Caritatis compatible with the Church's traditional teaching, laws and practice?

This article about the problems with ecumenical "Eucharistic hospitality" was first featured in the March 2008 issue of SiSiNoNo, having been translated from Courrier de Rome ( June 2007, pp.1-3).

Ecumenical contradictions

On February 22, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI made public the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, a document reflecting the conclusions of the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. In general, this document can be considered both as an attempt to rein in the avalanche of liturgical abuses we have seen over the course of the last 40 years and as an effort to reverse the Church’s course by re-appropriating certain elements that were gradually lost along the way after the Council. It is an effort, though, that runs the risk of sterility as long as it confirms the principle of collegiality “baptized” by Vatican II, and as long as the hierarchy hesitates to reassert the coercive aspect of law, which requires that measures be taken against those who infringe it.

The purpose of this brief article is not to examine in detail the Apostolic Exhortation, much of which we welcome with satisfaction (for example, the invitation addressed to priests to return to the Latin liturgy and Gregorian chant). We shall limit ourselves to an examination of its Paragraph 56: “Participation [in the Eucharist] by Christians who are not Catholic.” We reproduce it here in full:

Extract from Sacramentum Caritatis


The subject of participation in the Eucharist inevitably raises the question of Christians belonging to Churches or Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church. In this regard, it must be said that the intrinsic link between the Eucharist and the Church’s unity inspires us to long for the day when we will be able to celebrate the Holy Eucharist together with all believers in Christ, and in this way to express visibly the fullness of unity that Christ willed for his disciples (cf. Jn. 17:21). On the other hand, the respect we owe to the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood prevents us from making it a mere “means” to be used indiscriminately in order to attain that unity.[1] The Eucharist in fact not only manifests our personal communion with Jesus Christ, but also implies full communion with the Church.

This is the reason why, sadly albeit not without hope, we ask Christians who are not Catholic to understand and respect our conviction, which is grounded in the Bible and Tradition. We hold that eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion are so linked as to make it generally impossible for non-Catholic Christians to receive the former without enjoying the latter. There would be even less sense in actually concelebrating with ministers of Churches or ecclesial communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church.

Yet it remains true that, for the sake of their eternal salvation, individual non-Catholic Christians can be admitted to the Eucharist, the sacrament of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. But this is possible only in specific, exceptional situations and requires that certain precisely defined conditions be met.[2] These are clearly indicated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church[3]) and in its Compendium[4]). Everyone is obliged to observe these norms faithfully."

This text, which seeks to restore order to a sector in which bishops, priests, and religious have given free reign to their “ecumenical inspiration,” presents two important limits that lead to a conclusion which has never been admitted by the Church before, namely, to allow non-Catholics to receive Holy Communion in particular circumstances.

The Church’s doctrine

The Exhortation posits a correct principle: “eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion are so linked as to make it generally impossible for non-Catholic Christians to receive the former without enjoying the latter.” Indeed, if on the one hand Eucharistic communion unites us more intimately to the Christus totus, Head and members, it requires, on the other, that this communion already exist. St. Augustine expressed this reality in his Discourses while commenting on the formula “Corpus Christi, Amen,” conserved in the Ambrosian Missal, by which he conferred the consecrated host to the faithful:

If then you are the body of Christ and His members, on the table of the Lord is placed your holy mystery: you receive your holy mystery. Your respond “Amen” to what you are, and by so responding you adhere to it. Hear then “The Body of Christ,” and answer, “Amen.” Be the Body of Christ so that the Amen be true!"

Whoever approaches the Eucharist, by virtue of the Eucharist, becomes more profoundly what he began to be at his holy baptism, that is to say, a member of the Body of Christ.

Moreover, Eucharistic Communion requires not only that the soul receiving it be already incorporated in Christ by baptism, but also that this incorporation still be current and not dead or interrupted. This incorporation becomes dead in souls in the state of mortal sin, that is to say, deprived of sanctifying grace. They are still members of the Church, but as dead members of a living Body, which is why the bond of communion is not life-giving. These souls may not approach the sacrament of the Eucharist if they have not become once again living members by means of sacramental confession (cf. I Cor. 11:27-29).

There are also souls who, though having been incorporated into the Church by baptism, break off from this Body and cease to be members of it. The bond of communion produced in them by baptism is broken by heresy, schism, or excommunication. Unlike the case of sinners who though dead remain attached to the Body, these souls cease completely from being members of the Church, and that is why they cannot licitly approach the sacrament of Holy Communion.

This is the doctrine the Church has always taught in keeping with a clear, internal logic. Now we shall try to see the novel elements introduced by the 1983 Code of Canon Law and ratified by the Catechism of the Catholic Church to which the paragraph of the Apostolic Exhortation we are examining refers us.

“Novelties” and Contradictions

First of all, in Sacramentum Caritatis we find a “classic” neologism of Vatican II, the celebrated formula “full communion,” according to which the heretical and schismatic communities would no longer be separated from the Mystical Body of Christ, and the fullness of the bond of communion would only be diminished. We shall not stop to further examine this aspect, which we have studied in detail previously. We shall only note that, this premise being posited, the consequence which the Apostolic Exhortation draws from it is contradictory, to say the least. For, if it concerns members of the Church, then it is difficult to understand why they should be prevented from receiving the Eucharist. If, for example, as the conciliar document Unitatis Redintegratio affirms, the schismatic Eastern “Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments and above all, by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy” (§15), they have the right to communio in sacris.[5] But Sacramentum Caritatis forbids communicating the Eucharist to the faithful of the [schismatic] Eastern “Churches” except in exceptional cases, which shall be addressed later. This is a point that cannot but engender confusion and serious equivocations, especially since it appears not only in texts aimed at “experts,” but also at those written for the instruction of the faithful.

Let us look at the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Article 63 states:

In the churches and ecclesial communities which are separated from full communion with the Catholic Church, many elements of sanctification and truth can be found. All of these blessings come from Christ and lead to Catholic unity. Members of these churches and communities are incorporated into Christ by Baptism and so we recognize them as brothers."

If the members of these “Churches” are really incorporated into Christ, they are a fortiori real members of the Mystical Body of Christ, because those who are not attached to Christ-Body cannot be attached to Christ-Head. Why then should these people not licitly be able to receive the Eucharist?

This interdiction makes no sense unless it is in line with the traditional doctrine, well expressed by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Mortalium Animos: "Whosoever therefore is not united with the Body is no member thereof; neither is he in communion with Christ its head.” Indeed, it is logical that those who are not members may not receive the Body of Christ. We find the same clear position in the Encyclical Mystici Corporis of Pope Pius XII: “They, therefore, walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth.” Those who are separated from the Church are in no wise in communion with the Lord Jesus, for there is no other means of entering into communion with the Son of God than incorporation into His Mystical Body.

Let us consider another article of the Compendium, No.168, which in reply to the question “Who belongs to the Catholic Church?” answers:

All human beings in various ways belong to or are ordered to the Catholic unity of the people of God. Fully incorporated into the Catholic Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, are joined to the Church by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government and communion. The baptized who do not enjoy full Catholic unity are in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church."

Once again, we are confronted with two contrary conceptions: for the Compendium, all men belong to the Church or are at least ordered to it. The Catholics, heretics, and schismatics belong to it equally, but in varying degrees of fullness: the Catholics possess all the qualities required and belong to it “fully”; the heretics and schismatics, not possessing all the conditions, are nonetheless “in a certain, although imperfect communion.” According to the traditional doctrine, on the contrary, whoever does not fulfill all the conditions (valid baptism, profession of the true faith, and “permanence” of ecclesial communion) is not a member of the Church: “Outside the Church are...the damned, the infidels, the Jews, heretics, apostates, schismatics, [and] the excommunicates,” even if they are in good faith.[6] Pius IX states that,

it will be easy to convince [“whoever thus gives proper attention and reflection to the situation which surrounds the various religious societies, divided amongst themselves and separated from the Catholic Church”] that in none of these societies, and not even in all of them taken together, can in some way be seen the one and Catholic Church which Christ the Lord built, constituted, and willed to exist. Neither will it ever be able to be said that they are members and part of that Church as long as they remain visibly separated from Catholic unity."[7]

The logic is implacable: Either those who belong to heretical and schismatic communities belong to the Church, in which case there is no reason to refuse them Holy Communion, or else they are outside the Church, in which case the 1983 Code of Canon Law, echoed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, absolutely cannot maintain that

A certain communion in sacris, and so in the Eucharist, given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely possible but is encouraged."[8]

The “Exceptional Situations”

The other aspect that must be considered is that of the conditions in which, according to the dispositions of the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the new Catechism, it would be permissible to allow non-Catholics to receive Holy Communion. The Apostolic Exhortation mentions it:

Yet it remains true that, for the sake of their eternal salvation, individual non-Catholic Christians can be admitted to the Eucharist, the sacrament of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. But this is possible only in specific, exceptional situations and requires that certain precisely defined conditions be met. These are clearly indicated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church ([ff]174) and in its Compendium ([ff]175). Everyone is obliged to observe these norms faithfully."

Let us see what these “specific, exceptional situations” and their “precisely defined conditions” would be by examining the texts to which the Exhortation refers. The first paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§1399) treats of Eastern “churches” and states:

The Eastern churches that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church celebrate the Eucharist with great love."

Paragraph 1401 tells us what the “suitable circumstances” are:

Notice that nothing states what constitutes “grave necessity,” which implies that it is not limited to the danger of death, an inference confirmed by Canon 844 of the Code of Canon Law to which the Catechism refers:

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....

It is left to the judgment of the Ordinary or to the Episcopal Conference to establish the presence of this 'grave necessity,' after which it would be licit to administer the Eucharist if three other conditions are fulfilled: 1) the request to receive the sacrament; 2) evidence that the party holds the Catholic faith regarding the sacrament; and 3) the required dispositions."

The Compendium (Art. 293) is clearer than the Catechism on this point, distinguishing between the conditions required for the members of the Eastern “churches” and for those of other ecclesial communities:

Catholic ministers may give Holy Communion licitly to members of the Oriental Churches which are not in full communion with the Catholic Church whenever they ask for it of their own will and possess the required dispositions. Catholic ministers may licitly give Holy Communion to members of other ecclesial communities only if, in grave necessity, they ask for it of their own will, possess the required dispositions, and give evidence of holding the Catholic faith regarding the sacrament."

Note that in the Compendium, the requirement of a “grave necessity” expressed in the Catechism disappears for the members of the Eastern Churches (which might suggest a broadening of concessions), while the condition of having a good disposition (precisely what that would consist of is not clear), which does not appear in the Catechism, is added.

Among these required conditions, two would seem to be subjective (the freedom with which the request is made and the suitable disposition) and one is objective (possession of the Catholic Faith regarding the sacrament to be received). Are these conditions sufficient for members of non-Catholic communities to receive the Eucharist? For the 1917 Codex Juris Canonici, on the contrary, the possibility of receiving the Eucharist for heretics and schismatics is illicit whenever the elements of separation from the Catholic Church exist objectively, such that even in case of danger of death, it is not licit to give them Communion (under certain conditions, however, it is permissible to confer absolution and administer extreme unction). In the domain of canon law, which implies practical rules of conduct, the Church judges objective conditions, which does not exclude that the subjective dispositions may be good, but de internis non iudicat Ecclesia (the Church does not judge interior dispositions).

It is often assumed that the Church (of the past) considers that all members of heretical or schismatic communities consciously adhere to schism or heresy. This is not the case. Catholic theology has always made the distinction between material heresy and formal heresy. Outside of the sacraments, the Church has never arrogated to itself the right to judge consciences; the Church only judges objective conditions. That being so, the only way the Church can judge the good dispositions of these non-Catholic Christians is if they are revealed externally, namely, by the renunciation of the schism or heresy.

The only objective element named in the two cited texts is the evidence of holding the Catholic faith regarding the Eucharist. It must be stated that this condition, while necessary, is insufficient to render licit the administration of the Eucharist to a non-Catholic, for heresy is by definition a negation of a part of Catholic truth. That is why if someone who requests the Eucharist shows his adherence to the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding this sacrament, his position as a heretic or schismatic does not disappear, for one is a Catholic not by believing some of the dogmas taught by the Catholic Church, but by believing them all because they have been revealed by God and taught by His one Church. St. Thomas Aquinas explains this very well:

Neither living nor lifeless faith remains in a heretic who disbelieves one article of faith. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith. Even so, it is evident that a man whose mind holds a conclusion without knowing how it is proved, has not scientific knowledge, but merely an opinion about it. Now it is manifest that he who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will."[9]

St. Thomas applies this principle to those who object that someone can have faith in several articles but not in others:

Faith adheres to all the articles of faith by reason of one mean, viz. on account of the First Truth proposed to us in Scriptures, according to the teaching of the Church who has the right understanding of them. Hence whoever abandons this mean is altogether lacking in faith."[10]

The same holds true for a non-heretical schismatic (granting that there can be schism without heresy): although he adheres to the Catholic Faith, he separates himself from the authority that teaches it, and so separates himself from Christ.



1 Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint (May 25, 1995), 8: AAS 87 (1995), 925-926.

2 Cf. Propositio 41; Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio, 8, 15; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint (May 25, 1995), 46: AAS 87 (1995), 948; Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia (April 17, 2003), 45-46: AAS 95 (2003), 463-464; Code of Canon Law, can. 844 §§3-4; Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, can. 671 §§3-4; Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Directory for the Application of the Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (March 25, 1993), 125, 129-131: AAS 85 (1993), 1087, 1088-1089.

3 Cf. Nos. 1398-1401.

4 Cf. No. 293.

5 Note that in the very same sentence this Exhortation contradictorily states that these Churches are both intimately linked with the Catholic Church and separated from it.

6 Catechism of St. Pius X, No. 124 [French].

7 Jam Vos Omnes, September 13, 1868.

8 Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1399; cf. CIC, Canon 844, §3.

9 Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 5, Art. 3.

10 Ibid., ad 2.