Oct 9, 2018

Q: Can a Catholic funeral liturgy be celebrated for a non-Catholic?

A: The 1983 Code of Canon Law addresses three groups of “non-Catholics” for which the Church’s funeral rites may be celebrated.

First, “when it concerns funerals, catechumens must be counted among the Christian faithful” (Canon 1183 §1). Even though unbaptized, “Catechumens, that is, those who ask by explicit choice under the influence of the Holy Spirit to be incorporated into the Church, are joined to it in a special way. By this same desire, just as by the life of faith, hope, and charity which they lead, they are united with the Church which already cherishes them as its own. The Church has a special care for catechumens; while it invites them to lead a life of the gospel and introduces them to the celebration of sacred rites, it already grants them various prerogatives which are proper to Christians” (Canon 206 §1-§2).

Second, “the local ordinary can permit children whom the parents intended to baptize but who died before baptism to be given ecclesiastical funerals” (Canon 1183 §2; also Order of Christian Funerals, 18). “In these celebrations,” explains the Order of Christian Funerals, “the Christian community entrusts the child to God’s all-embracing love and finds strength in this love and in Jesus’ affirmation that the kingdom of God belongs to little children” (237). Elaborating further, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them” (1261).

The Roman Missal contains Mass formularies for the “Funeral of a Child Who Died before Baptism,” which includes these instructions in its initial rubrics: “Should a child whom the parents wished to be baptized, die before Baptism, the Diocesan Bishop, taking into consideration pastoral circumstances, may permit the funeral to be celebrated in the home of the deceased child, or even according to the form of funeral rites otherwise customarily used in the region. In funerals of this kind there should ordinarily be a Liturgy of the Word, as described in the Roman Ritual. Nevertheless, if at times the celebration of Mass is judged opportune, the following texts should be used. In catechesis, however, proper care is to be taken that the doctrine of the necessity of Baptism is not obscured in the minds of the faithful.”

Third, “in the prudent judgment of the local ordinary, ecclesiastical funerals can be granted to baptized persons who are enrolled in a non-Catholic Church or ecclesial community unless their intention is evidently to the contrary and provided that their own minister is not available” (Canon 1183 §3; also Order of Christian Funerals, 18; Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 120). On this last point, commentators speak of both “physical unavailability,” as when no congregation exists locally to which the deceased would otherwise attend, and “moral unavailability,” as when the deceased has not practiced his or her faith according to a particular denomination, or has attended the Catholic Mass with a spouse for a period of time. If a Funeral Mass is celebrated, the names of the non-Catholic deceased are not to be included in the Eucharistic Prayer (i.e., Eucharistic Prayers I-III).

Finally, the Church’s funeral rites consist in three principal elements: the Vigil, the Funeral Liturgy (whether with or without Mass), and the Committal. Except where mentioned (e.g., in the funeral for a child who died before baptism), each component may be celebrated for the deceased.


Answered by Christopher Carstens, Editor

The Editors