Are Catholic and Orthodox Sacraments Interchangeable?

Dear Catholic Exchange:

I have been married for over 40 years to the same man. I returned to my Catholic faith in 1961. He embraced the Catholic faith about 1964. However he returned to his Greek Orthodox faith about 1998 and he insisted that I could go to his church every once in a while and that would count as going to mine. I didn't go along with that so sometimes I did go to both and I didn't take communion at his church. My question is. A Catholic priest told him he could receive communion at a Catholic church but when he asked at his church he got a very definite NO. Another Catholic priest on hearing this story said he should go with the Greek Church. Not really a question just interesting. Currently he is unable to go to his church due to health, and he doesn't come to church with me.


Dear Cynders,

Blessings of Christ for your marriage!

As long as your husband is a Greek Orthodox, he generally would worship in communion with that Church. At the same time, the Catholic Church is accessible to him should he feel the need to approach for his spiritual good.

Here are some norms. Regarding the Orthodox spouse:

"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 and are properly disposed" (Code of Canon Law, canon 844§3).

The substance of this canon was repeated in the 1993 Directory on Ecumenism, issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity with an additional and very important observation. No. 125 says that "due consideration should be given to the discipline of the Eastern Churches for their own faithful and any suggestions of proselytism should be avoided." If the particular Church of the Orthodox individual prohibits him from receiving from other Churches, then the Catholic minister should ordinarily refrain from administering the sacraments to him. Exceptions would involve cases of the "need of salvation and the spiritual good of souls," which are "prime considerations."

Thus, it would seem that unless the particular Orthodox Church forbade their faithful from receiving the sacraments from Catholic ministers, the Orthodox spouse could do so if he or she desired of his or her own free will and were properly disposed. Regarding the Sunday obligation, the Orthodox spouse would be bound by the laws of the particular Church of which he or she is a member.

What are the norms for the Catholic spouse?

"Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that the danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid" (canon 844 §2).

Whereas the Catholic Church will administer the sacraments to Orthodox Christians who freely desire them, a Catholic individual may receive from Orthodox ministers only if they cannot approach a Catholic minister. Even then, there must be either necessity or a "true spiritual advantage."

May the Catholic spouse fulfill the Sunday obligation at the Eucharistic liturgy in an Orthodox Church? The 1967 Directory on Ecumenism said that if there is reasonable grounds for doing so, such as "public office or function, blood relationships, desire to be better informed, etc." (no. 50), one is dispensed from assisting at Mass at a Catholic Church after having attended a liturgy in an Orthodox Church. Such exceptions are understood to be occasional (no. 47).

The current Directory does not repeat this section. This may be however, because the Code of Canon law, promulgated in 1983, provides for a dispensation from the Sunday obligation in a Catholic Church by one's own pastor for just cause (canon 1245; cf. Catechism, no. 2181). Hence, the 1993 Directory had no need to include it specifically. 

An important distinction should be made. A Catholic does not fulfill his or her obligation at an Orthodox liturgy, but rather there are just reasons that a Catholic may be dispensed from the obligation. The reason is that the obligation arises from the fact that the "Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice" (Catechism, no. 2181). Thus, the Catholic obligation is inseparably tied to the Eucharist celebrated in the Catholic Church.

These are the general norms that govern the administration of sacraments between Catholic and Orthodox Christians. The application of them in any given circumstance is going to fall within the prudential judgment of faithful pastors.

United in the Faith,

Eric Stoutz
Director of Catholic Responses
Catholics United for the Faith
827 North Fourth Street
Steubenville, OH 43952
800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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