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Are all Catholics truly 'in communion' with the Church?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 17, 2014

What does it mean to be “in communion” with the Church? The phrase is not often used among American Catholics, but it is highly relevant to ecumenical discussions.

We say that we are not “in communion” with the Orthodox churches. We profess essentially the same faith, with only a few differences. In some cases it is difficult to discern a credal difference between the Orthodox churches and their Eastern Catholic counterparts. Still there are differences, and for that reason we are in communion with some Eastern Christians and not others.

We are not in communion with Protestants, for more obvious doctrinal reasons. An informed Protestant should not want to receive Communion in a Catholic church, because by doing so he would be professing beliefs that he did not really hold. As a matter of integrity, one does not pretend to be what one is not.

Yet this week we have been reminded that some Catholics—perhaps many—do not believe what the Church professes, still share in the Eucharist, and are not troubled by the contradiction. This, too, is a question of integrity, both for the dissenting Catholics and for the loyal members of the Church who are—knowingly or not, willingly or not—sharing Communion with them.

For years we have been debating whether Catholics who ignore Church teachings should be barred from the Eucharist. That is a legitimate debate; I have no intention of dismissing it here. But there is another side to the question: Should dissenting Catholics want to receive the Eucharist? Shouldn’t they be ashamed to display their hypocrisy? Shouldn’t we, the lay faithful, make them feel ashamed to present themselves for Communion?

As I mused on these matters this week, I was occasionally distracted by thoughts about football, since we are coming to the climax of the season and my hometown team is still in the running. Then suddenly a comparison occurred to me. In a sense it may be impossible to compare the Holy Eucharist with any earthly matter. But I hope readers will not consider me impious if I make a ridiculous comparison, simply to illustrate the point. If I compare our understanding of “being in communion” with the fellowship enjoyed by American football fans, I trust that no one will think I mean to compare the Mass with a pep rally. With that disclaimer let me offer this awkward little parable:

After this weekend’s games, two teams will emerge as the final contenders for the NFL championship Let’s imagine that before beginning their final preparations for the Super Bowl, one of the teams arranges a festive dinner, to be attended by all the players and coaches, executives and scouts, with their families. The purpose of the dinner would be to promote a healthy team spirit: a very important factor, since the next two weeks of practice will be physically and emotionally draining. You might expect some toasts to the team’s success, a motivational talk or two, and lots of boisterous cheer.

Does it go without saying that everyone at this dinner would be equally anxious for the team’s success? Actually, No, it doesn’t; not quite. We assume that all the players and coaches would be thoroughly dedicated to a Super Bowl victory. But some of their wives might be a bit bored with football, and some of the team executives might be working simply for the paycheck. For that matter, there might be a disgruntled benchwarmer on the team, unhappy that he hadn’t been given a larger role. There could even be a star player unsatisfied with his contract, hoping to sign a more lucrative deal with another team next year.

However, even if they were not completely gung-ho about the Super Bowl prospects, these people would keep their mouths shut at the team dinner. If they betrayed even the slightest lack of enthusiasm, they would quickly by ostracized, if not forcefully evicted. They would have shown that they had no right to join in the celebration; they did not belong there.

Now you may say that the egotistical star player, interested only in his next contract, had a right to attend the dinner, since he was a member of the team. You might be right; I suppose it would depend on how the invitations were worded. Still I insist that he did not belong there, and even if it was his right to attend, he should have stayed home.

The hosts of the dinner would obviously realize that not everyone shared their hopes for the team’s victory—that many people would be cheering for the other team. But those other people would not be welcome at this dinner. To admit them would be to defeat the entire purpose of the event. In terms of football fandom, one might say that supporters of another team would not be “in communion” with the participants in this banquet.

Now—after readily acknowledging, again, the absurdity of the comparison—let me apply the same logic to the Mass. As Catholics, sharing in the Eucharist, we draw strength for our common purpose. What is that purpose? To carry out the great commission: to preach the Gospel message to all nations. Evangelization is not just something that we, as Catholic Christians, do together. It is the thing that we do together. Our corporate mission, the mission of the Church, is to spread the faith. But what faith? What beliefs do we share? If we don’t agree on the content of the message, we might be acting at cross purposes. Why would we gather together to draw strength for the battle, if we will be battling against each other?

The Mass, we are often reminded, is a communal meal. That is only one aspect of the full truth about the Eucharistic sacrifice, but it is, interestingly enough, the aspect that liberal Catholics are wont to emphasize. It makes no sense to share that meal with people who disagree with us on fundamental issues of faith. Catholics with integrity should realize that they are not in communion with those who—whether they identify themselves as Catholics or not—do not share their faith.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 20, 2014 12:32 PM ET USA

    If we focus on the sacrament of Baptism, particularly the traditional rite of Baptism, we have an excellent starting point. We are oriented properly when we reflect upon and embrace our baptismal promises. We renounce Satan and the ceremony includes an exorcism. We unite ourselves to the mission of the Church to the salvation of souls. This must be the priority, and it necessarily involves a sense of urgency. All else follows.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Jan. 19, 2014 5:37 PM ET USA

    My bishop banned the song "All Are Welcome." In some limited cases there are people who actually are not welcome to enter the church building and should not be there. But no one should ever have construed the silly song to mean everyone can participate in Holy Communion! Jesus died for ALL without reservation; ALL are invited to the wedding feast of heaven. But not all present themselves wearing a wedding garment, as in the parable.

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Jan. 17, 2014 4:50 PM ET USA

    I understand and accept all of this. It is still difficult, when (for instance) an Episcopalians worships with me, he points to the line where it says non-Catholics may not receive communion and says I would be welcome at the Lord's table in HIS church. This is particular hard if we have just sung "All are welcome, all are welcome in this place." This puts the burden on the layman to explain that while all are welcome in church, they are not welcome at the altar unless they are in communion.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 17, 2014 3:46 PM ET USA

    Wasn't it Pope Benedict who once suggested Catholics refrain from receiving on occasion to show humility and solidarity with divorced and remarried parishioners, those who could not approach the altar? In fact, things have come to such a pass that I am tempted frequently to assume the truest Catholics at some Masses are those who REMAIN in the pews during Communion; at least they seem to understand clearly what is at stake.

  • Posted by: Defender - Jan. 17, 2014 12:48 PM ET USA

    It used to be that there were many who came to Mass but would not receive Communion on Sunday. Of course, I remember the time when, if you didn't get to Confession the previous Saturday, you didn't receive. How serious people are about the Faith is debatable, though how they act and dress for Mass isn't, but it tends to indicate how serious they are about being Catholic.