Who Can Receive Communion? (CCC 1384-1390)

The Catholic Church rightly regards the Eucharist as the most important of the seven sacraments of the Church as contained within what appears to be a small wafer of bread is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is also perhaps the most obvious division between Catholics and Protestants.

Unlike many Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church practices what is called closed communion. While other Christians are often (although not always) happy to welcome Christians of a different denomination to share in their “communion services”, “ordinances of the Lord's supper” or whatever they might call their sharing of bread and wine (this position is called open communion), the Catholic Church does not allow non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist.

Many non-Catholics (and even non-Christians) are puzzled and sometimes offended by this. This attitude is viewed as damaging ecumenism and fostering division. A Catholic apologist must be prepared to not only explain what the Church teaches about the reception of the Eucharist, but also why she teaches this. Closed communion does not lead to division; division leads to closed communion.

In addition to the Eucharist being closed to non-Catholics, there are certain Catholics who are unable to receive the Eucharist. A Catholic apologist must be prepared to address this issue, as the unworthy reception of communion causes both scandal to the Church and very real spiritual damage to the individual who is receiving communion unworthily.

What must a Catholic do to receive communion and why?

In order to receive communion, a Catholic must be in a state of grace (that is, not in a state of mortal sin), have been to confession since his committing his last mortal sin, believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation and observe the Eucharistic fast.

The Catholic Church teaches that a Catholic must be in a state of grace following I Corinthians 11:27-28; “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”

The Didache (an early Church document which is regarded by many as being the first catechism) expresses this need to be in a state of grace as well, but does so by specifically referencing the sacrament of confession. “But first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one” (Didache 14).

The need to be in a state of grace is the most important requirement for receiving communion, and may never be dispensed with. If a Catholic (or, indeed, anyone) received the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin then he or she would be guilty of profaning the Eucharist – guilty of profaning God Himself!

This requirement is, ironically enough, the one which is most often ignored. While most Catholics do not commit certain mortal sins (generally speaking the ones which are illegal) an unknown number commit mortal sins which have become “socially acceptable” and then go and receive the Eucharist. Among the most common of these mortal sins are adultery, fornication, use of contraception and material participation in abortion. Committing these sins and then receiving the Eucharist (especially for a public figure such as a politician who creates or votes for pro-abortion laws) not only spiritually damages the Catholic who is guilty of the mortal sin of profaning the body and blood of Jesus Christ, but also causes grave scandal to the Church.

The Church teaches that the Catholic must believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation. Technically speaking, this is covered by the necessity to be free of mortal sin – as denial of the doctrine is heresy, which is a mortal sin.

This requirement is a very important one for Catholic apologists to convey to those they speak to – as there are a number of Catholics who either do not believe in the Real Presence, or who believe something different to what the Church actually teaches. The various positions concerning what the Eucharist is are discussed in a separate article.

The Church requires belief in the doctrine of transubstantiation for two main reasons. Firstly, she is following I Corinthians 11:29, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself”. Even if the person is not in a state of mortal sin, if he does not see (“discern”) that the Eucharist is the body and blood (the doctrine of transubstantiation) then he will bring “judgment upon himself”.

Secondly, membership of the Church is dependent on (among other things) orthodox belief. To deny such a central doctrine of the Church as transubstantiation is to deny the central aspect of Catholicism. At that point, the individual is unable to to receive communion because he or she has effectively left the Church.

The Catholic must adhere to the Eucharistic fast. In Canon law, this is described as “One who is to receive the most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception only of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion” (CIC 919 §1). Elderly people, those who are ill, and those who are taking care of them are excused from the Eucharistic fast (CIC 191 §3). Priests and deacons may not allow someone who has not held to the Eucharistic fast unless the bishop has given express permission (cf. CIC 89).

This teaching (which is not a dogma or doctrine, but rather a discipline, and therefore can – and has been – changed) exists out of respect for Jesus Christ; it is not considered respectful to have Jesus Christ mingle in the stomach with ordinary food as if He were nothing more than a simple meal. The Eucharist is far more than that, and the rules governing which Catholics can receive it reflect that.

Why can non-Catholic Christians not receive communion?

Non-Catholics cannot (under ordinary circumstances) receive the Eucharist. This is for essentially the same reasons as exist which might prevent a Catholic from receiving the Eucharist – most non-Catholics deny the doctrine of transubstantiation, for example.

In addition, Scripture makes it very clear that the Eucharist is the highest sign of Christian unity (I Corinthians 10:17 - “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”. If non-Catholics were to receive the Eucharist in a Catholic Church this would imply a unity which does not, regrettably, exist.

When the Catholic apologist is defending the Church's practice of closed communion it is often advantageous to ask a question of the non-Catholic who is offended or puzzled; why would a non-Catholic want to receive the Eucharist in a Catholic Church? If the non-Catholic believes what the Church teaches about the Eucharist, then why is he or she not Catholic? If the non-Catholic does not believe what the Church teaches, then why does he or she wish to participate in what he or she simply considers to be a symbolic communion?

Why Non-Christians cannot receive the Eucharist

Although the Church welcomes non-Christians to participate in the liturgy of the Mass and other prayers to the degree their conscience allows them, she does not allow them to receive communion. It should be obvious to most people the reasons why this is – firstly, non-Christians do not believe that the Eucharist is in any way relevant; it is not even a symbolic meal to them. Participation in the Eucharistic meal implies a unity which non-Christians themselves would not be happy implying (no non-Christian would wish to imply that they believed any of the claims of the Christian Church involving Jesus Christ, for example).

If non-Christians are made aware of what the Catholic Church actually believes about the Eucharist (few of them actually are aware of the doctrine of transubstantiation and what it means) then most of them are very happy to not participate out of a degree of respect for Catholic beliefs.

In addition, non-Christians have not been baptized. Although many non-Catholics do not acknowledge this, baptism is the gateway to the other sacraments (including the Eucharist). Therefore, they are unable to receive communion.

Catholics receiving communion at the services of other denominations

The flipside of non-Catholics not being allowed to receive the Eucharist is Catholics not being permitted to receive communion at non-Catholic services. Many non-Catholics (who have open communion) are offended by Catholic refusal to participate in their communal meal. Explaining the reasons for this (and, indeed, explaining to Catholics who think they are or should be allowed to participate in other denominations' services) is a wonderful piece of apologetics.

Very simply, to participate in the communion service of any denomination implies a unity of thought and belief (especially over what is believed concerning the Eucharist) which simply does not exist. The Catholic who participated in communion in a Protestant service is tacitly saying that particular Protestant denomination is correct in its teaching. As all Protestants differ from the Catholic Church in one or more essential doctrines, this is effectively saying that the Catholic Church is wrong.