Should a Protestant receive Communion at Mass?

Protestant Holy Communion

Just to set the record straight, the simple truth is that it is not against Catholic doctrine for Protestants to receive Communion at Mass.

1. We believe that Baptism in the Protestant Churches gives exactly the same thing Baptism in the Catholic Church gives — the “state of grace”: divine life and the divine gifts of faith, hope, and love. We do not re-baptize Protestants who become Catholics.

2. Pope St. Pius X wrote in his Eucharistic decree, December 20, 1905, “No one who is in the state of grace and comes to the table of the Lord with a good attitude and devotion can be prohibited from receiving Communion.”

3. Therefore, any baptized Christian who has not rejected the grace of Baptism by doing something so evil it is called “deadly” or “mortal sin” (1John 5:16-17) is permitted by Catholic doctrine to receive Communion.

Pope John XXIII added: “We address, then, as brothers and sisters all who are separated from us, using the words of Saint Augustine: “Whether they wish it or not, they are our brothers and sisters. They cease to be our brothers and sisters only when they stop saying ‘Our Father'” (Ad Petri Cathedram, 86).

If Protestants are our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we are being inconsistent with our faith when we deny them a place together with us at our Father’s table.

It is true that Catholic policies—administrative rules that change according to time and place—sometimes add restrictions.

For example, in the Latin or Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, children are required to receive doctrinal instruction before their First Communion. In the Eastern Rites of the equally Catholic Church, babies are given Communion as soon as they are baptized.

These policies are based on practical considerations, and are not absolute. For example, no Roman Rite priest in his right mind would deny Communion to a baptized child in the hospital just for lack of the scheduled doctrinal instruction.

There are official policies that seem to deny Communion to non-Catholics. But Father Bernard Häring (1912-1998), whom some consider the greatest moral theologian of modern times, wrote about a Mass at which he presided while serving in the German army during World War II:

On the eve of the outset of the Russian war, I took it upon myself to celebrate the Eucharist and grant general absolution to soldiers of all faiths, most of whom participated.

Given the seriousness of the situation, and because all of us where one in Christ Jesus, I found it unthinkable, in fact, totally abhorrent,to uphold and maintain any distinctions between Catholics and Protestants.

Consequently, all the men, regardless of their faith persuasions, felt called to share in Communion” (Priesthood Imperiled, Triumph Books, p. 9).

Can you imagine anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with Jesus Christ refusing Communion to a young soldier about to face death, just because he wasn’t a formal member of the Catholic Church?

Many official policies—policies made in offices—appear acceptable within the isolated capsules of bureaucratic management. But they lose all connection with religion and rationality when brought down to earth in the mud and blood of the battlefield.

John Paul II gave communion in the Vatican to Tony Blair, Prime Minister of England, while he was still an Anglican. At John Paul’s funeral, Pope Benedict XVI gave Communion to Brother Roger, a Presbyterian founder of the ecumenical monastery of Taizè.

That should be enough to settle the question. But let’s develop it a little further.

Are we one in faith?
It is Catholic teaching that all who are baptized with water “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” receive exactly the same gift—the “grace” of sharing in the divine life of God—without any difference. All are equally Christians. All receive the same gifts of divine faith, hope, and love.

But after the Protestant Reformation, we began to speak and act as if there were a difference between being baptized into the “Catholic Church” or into a “Protestant” Church.

There is a difference, but it is not in Baptism itself. Nor is there any difference in the gift of faith that we receive.

By the divine gift of faith we know what only God knows, in a way no creature can possibly know it. For that we have to share in God’s own act of knowing. Jesus made that clear: “No one knows the Father except the Son” (Matthew 11:27).

To know God as he is, you have to be God. To know God as Father you have to be God the Son. So when Jesus adds, “and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” he is saying the Son lets us know the Father as he himself does in the only way possible; that is, by letting us share in his own divine act of knowing. That gift is the “mystery of faith.”

When Protestants and Catholics receive the gift of divine life and divine faith through Baptism, there is no difference between us.

But when the wordless light of faith given in Baptism is translated into human thoughts and words, there can be differences in the human expression of the same truth that is in the hearts of all, and in the way people will be taught to live out the gift of divine life each receives at Baptism.

This makes a real and practical difference on the level of “religion” (doctrines, rules and practices). But on the level of the deep mystery of the gift of faith given at, all Christians are the same.

While these differences are important — because we need to be both human and divine in the way we understand and live our religion — they should not make us forget that, down deep, consciously or not, on the level of the divine life of grace that we share, we are all the same.

Whenever and wherever we find evidence of God’s light shining in others, whether they are consciously Christians or not, we experience “communion in the Holy Spirit.”

All the Catholic bishops in the world affirmed this during the Second Vatican Council, which met in Vatican City from 1962 to 1965:

People who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect.

The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church – whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church – do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion.

The ecumenical movement is striving to overcome these obstacles. But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers and sisters by the children of the Catholic Church (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3).

We could stop right here and ask if it is consistent with our belief to ban from the Father’s table those who are “accepted as brothers and sisters by the children of the Catholic Church” because they are children of the same Father.

The foundation of our essential unity is the Truth all Christians believe and mystically know by what Saint John of the Cross calls “the dark light” of faith. What we understand humanly by translating our faith into human words can be misleading.

Recognizing this, the bishops urged theologians “to seek continually for more suitable ways of communicating doctrine to the people of their times. For the ‘deposit of faith,’ or revealed truths, are one thing; the manner in which they are formulated… is another” (Gaudium et spes, 62).

A special problem

People often make this objection: “But many Protestants don’t believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.”

As Catholics, however, conscious of the mystery of faith and grace in them, we would say, without arrogance, that they really do believe in the real presence. They just don’t know they do.

The Eastern Rites of the united Catholic Church give Communion to babies as soon as they are baptized. Do these babies have an explicit and conscious faith in the doctrine of transubstantiation?

Could they say, even if old enough to speak, “This is the real Body of Jesus”? No, but they do have faith, because it was given to them as a gift at Baptism.

That gift is the light of God in their hearts empowering them to believe everything God has revealed.

By that gift we must say the babies already believe truths they have not yet learned and are not mature enough either to understand or express. One of them is the real presence of Jesus in Eucharist.

Protestant babies, who receive the same gifts of divine faith, hope and love at Baptism that Catholic babies do, already, in a way deeper than human consciousness, share in Christ’s own act of knowing.

Like all whom grace has made “children of God,” they know the Father as their Father, as only God the Son can know him (see Matthew 11: 27). And in the same preconscious way, they share in Christ’s knowledge that the Eucharist is his real Body and Blood.

But for this knowledge to translate itself into explicit human thoughts and words, further maturity and education are necessary. Continue reading

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