Episcopal Communion

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Dear Catholic Exchange:

We are Catholics and will be attending a wedding mass in an Episcopal church at the end of this month. We would like to receive communion at this mass. Is this wrong? What is the difference in their beliefs and our Catholic beliefs in this area?


Howard Rellinger

Dear Mr. Rellinger,

Peace in Christ!

Thank you for your question on why Catholics cannot — except in rare circumstances — engage in “intercommunion” with other Churches and ecclesial communities.

As a norm, intercommunion — participating in the Sacraments of the Catholic Church by a non-Catholic, or a Catholic’s participating in sacraments of other Churches or ecclesial communities — is not permitted by the Catholic Church. There are some rare exceptions which under special circumstances allow non-Catholics to receive communion in the Catholic Church, but the rules governing Catholic’s receiving sacraments outside the Church are considerably stricter. Generally speaking, the Church draws a distinction between other “churches” which have a valid Eucharist such as the various Orthodox and “ecclesial communities” which though properly called “Christian” lack a valid Eucharist. This distinction is incorporated into Canon Law no. 844 which addresses the whole issue of intercommunion. It reads:

“Whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and provided the error of indifferentism is avoided, Christ’s faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid (no. 844 §2, emphasis added).”

The question is does the Anglican Church have a valid Eucharist? In 1896 Pope Leo XIII commissioned a detailed study on the question of the validity of the Anglican priesthood. This question of course directly affected the issue of the validity of the Anglican Eucharist, since of course a validly ordained priest is necessary to confect a valid Eucharist. Leo’s Apostolic letter Apostolicae Curae ruled that Anglican orders were null and void essentially because the Anglican ordination rite had repudiated the sacrificial character of the priesthood. This closed the issue until Vatican II.

After Vatican II’s famous document on ecumenism called Unitatis Redintegratio, there was considerable talk that the Church was preparing to revisit the whole question of Anglican orders. This was because the council fathers in recognizing the sacramental validity of the Orthodox Churches seemed to set apart the Anglican Church from other Protestant “ecclesial communities” as occupying a “special place” wherein “catholic traditions and institutions continue to exist (Decree on Ecumenism no. 13).” However, the decision of the Anglican Church to begin ordaining women has more or less made the issue of valid Anglican orders an academic one. Given the Vatican’s definitive stance against women’s ordination in the Catholic Church, there is very little prospect that the Catholic Church will ever recognize the Anglican priesthood and thus the validity of the Anglican Eucharist. Furthermore, in the Commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem in 1998, the CDF made it known that it considers Leo XIII ruling in 1896 a settled issue which cannot be reopened.

The decision of the Anglican Church to pursue this course of action is unfortunate because there are a good number of Anglicans who continue to believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. But the lack of a valid priesthood in the Anglican Church makes it quite impossible for Catholics to receive communion there. For a Catholic to receive communion in the Anglican Church would testify to a kind of unity of faith and sacramental validity which sadly does not exist and without which no real communion is possible. This is why Catholics are not permitted to receive communion in the Anglican Church.

United in the Faith,

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