A: Whereas many Protestant denominations allow Christians who are not members of their denominations to receive communion in their services, the Catholic Church does not. Because many do not understand the reasoning behind this prohibition, some people feel offended by the Church’s insistence that only Catholics (and, in some instances, Orthodox Christians) receive the Eucharist.
The Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar is called by several different names, as considered in paragraphs 1328–1332 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). One of these names is Holy Communion because “by this sacrament we unite ourselves to Christ, who makes us sharers in his Body and Blood to form a single body” (1331). After all, the word communion itself means “union with.” The Catholic Church only allows those who are her members—those either baptized into the Catholic Church or those who have been received into her through the profession of faith—to receive the Eucharist; if she allowed those who are not united with or in the Church to receive Eucharist, she would seem to be acknowledging something that is not true: that those not in communion with the Church may take part in that which definitively marks such communion.
As Catholics, we know that the Eucharist is the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. We know that the Real Presence of Christ effected in this Sacrament does not cease once the celebration of the Mass is finished. This is why we worship the Eucharist, “genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord” (CCC, 1378). When a Catholic says, “Amen” to “The Body of Christ” or “The Blood of Christ,” he or she acknowledges the Eucharist to be the very Body and Blood of Christ, and not a mere symbol. At the same time, a Catholic acknowledges and accepts the teachings of the Church and maintains communion—unity—with the Church. This is a claim that a non-Catholic cannot honestly make.
Most Protestants do not believe that Holy Communion is the very Body and Blood of the Savior. If one said, “Amen” to “The Body of Christ,” he or she would be speaking falsely. Even if a Protestant does believe that Holy Communion is the very Body and Blood of Christ, that individual could still not honestly say, “Amen,” to “The Body of Christ,” because he or she has no real intention of maintaining unity with the Catholic Church; if this individual did intend to maintain unity with the Church, he or she would or should either be taking part in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults or would already be Catholic.
Because the Catholic Church respects the beliefs of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, we do not share communion with them. We want them to remain men and women of integrity. (There is one exception: the Directory for the Application and Norms on Ecumenism states, “The conditions under which a Catholic minister may administer the sacraments of the Eucharist, of penance, and of the anointing of the sick to a baptized [non-Catholic, non-Orthodox Christian] are that the person be unable to have recourse for the sacrament desired to a minister of his or her own Church or ecclesial Community, ask for the sacrament of his or her own initiative, manifest Catholic faith in this sacrament and be properly disposed” (131)). These cases are exceptional, however—often characterized by extreme or dire circumstances.
It is because the Catholic Church loves and respects all people that we do not share communion with those who are not in union with us. This discipline derives, in part, from the clear teaching of St. Paul, who says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord…. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (I Corinthians 11:27-29).
If a non-Catholic does believe what the Church believes about the Eucharist, the Church would gladly share Holy Communion with him or her; however, before receiving, such a person needs to enter into the full communion of the Church established by Christ the Lord through formal instruction such as the RCIA or other means of catechesis.
—Answered by Father Daren J. Zehnle Diocese of Springfield, IL