#AskaCatholic: Are Non-Catholics Allowed to Receive the Eucharist?
NOTE: This column is hosted by and has been updated from it’s original at Spokane Faith & Values. It has graciously been given permission for reposting at MtnCatholic.com.
Q. I attended a retreat at a Benedictine monastery and they allowed non-catholics to celebrate the Eucharist. I thought that was forbidden. What are your thoughts?
A. While anyone, Catholic or not, is permitted and encouraged to attend Mass as often as they like, non-Catholic Christians are not permitted to receive the Eucharist under nearly every circumstance, and non-Christians are not permitted to receive at all.
The Eucharist, for those unfamiliar with the term, is what Catholics celebrate at each Mass as the real Body and Blood of Jesus under the “accidents” of bread and wine. In the same way Jesus presented, before the 12 Apostles, the bread and wine transformed into his body and blood at the Last Supper, a priest speaks the same words and offers a re-presentation (not representation) of Jesus’ sacrifice on the night before he died.
People who have been received into the Catholic Church and been given their First Communion come forward at each Mass and receive the Eucharist, responding “amen” after having received it. This one-word assent, as it turns out, holds a lot of weight, spiritually speaking, and tells a lot about the reason non-Catholics are asked not to partake in the Eucharist.
A common misconception among non-Catholics (and many Catholics) is that not allowing non-Catholics to receive is showing a lack of hospitality. However, the truth is, in fact, the opposite — asking non-Catholics to refrain from taking the Eucharist is instead the true hospitable act, because each time a person receives the Eucharist, they, by their very action in receiving, are assenting to all the Catholic Church teaches, most especially that Christ is really and truly present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Eucharist. When we say “amen,” or “I believe,” that’s what we are saying yes to. We’re giving verbal assent to our physical “yes” in receiving.
For proof that the Eucharist is more than just hospitality, we turn to St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:
Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup.For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying. If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment, but since we are judged by [the] Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Cor. 11: 27-32; emphasis added)
Here’s an imperfect but useful college football analogy: When a high school quarterback gets recruited to play college ball, the coach says, “Come and play”. He gets there and is redshirted for a year, sits at second string on the depth chart for another year, then finally starts in his junior year. The coach wasn’t lying to him about the offer to “Come and play”, and those two years of preparation weren’t absent of relationship and “spiritual” growth. In order to be properly disposed to start at quarterback for the team, the kid needed proper preparation–he needed a journey in order to get there.
The reality of the present state of Christianity is that it sits in a profound state of division, with many thousands of differing belief systems and many beliefs within them that are different and in stark disagreement with that which the Catholic Church proclaims to be true. This is the primary reason for reserving the Eucharist to Catholics (and, in very specific circumstances, non-Catholic Christians). When it comes to the Eucharist, Catholics and non-Catholics alike owe it to themselves to discern their readiness, ensuring proper preparation for receiving the sacrament, before choosing to “Take and eat”(Matthew 26:26). For some, that could mean simply going to Confession, while for others it may mean something far greater.”
The church teaches that even Catholics, prior to receiving the Eucharist, must discern the state of their soul, asking them to refrain if their soul is in a state of grave sin. Understanding the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life,” as the Second Vatican Council proclaimed, is to understand that the Eucharist is something to be striven towards rather than something to be handed out as a sign of welcoming.
Witnessing to the Eucharist by treating it as the most serious aspect of Christian faith is, in my experience, becoming exceedingly foreign to our American sensibilities. John Paul II, in his 2003 encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharista spoke profoundly on this very point:
“At times one encounters an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery. Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet. Furthermore, the necessity of the ministerial priesthood, grounded in apostolic succession, is at times obscured and the sacramental nature of the Eucharist is reduced to its mere effectiveness as a form of proclamation. This has led here and there to ecumenical initiatives which, albeit well-intentioned, indulge in Eucharistic practices contrary to the discipline by which the Church expresses her faith. How can we not express profound grief at all this? The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation.” (10; emphasis added)
To answer the question more fully, the Eucharist is reserved for Catholics, but only those who have “discerned the body” and prepared their soul to receive the fruit of Christ’s great sacrifice. It should never be considered an act of hospitality to extend the Eucharist to non-Catholics, because it was never intended to be treated as such. The receiving of the Eucharist by faithful Catholics was intended to be (by Jesus), and continues to exist as the ultimate sign of faith in all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches.
In light of that, it’s disappointing that the retreat masters at the Benedictine monastery, the nuns and/or priests entrusted with being faithful witnesses of the fullness of Catholic teaching, misled non-Catholic retreatants into believing that an invitation to receive the Eucharist was a sign of hospitality. They should have known better, and by not “discerning the body,” as St. Paul wrote, they disregarded the Gift Christ gave to the world and disregarded the spiritual well being of any non-Catholics they encouraged to come forward to receive it.