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Synopsis of a Presentation
by Fr. Ladislas Orsy, S.J., at the

Ninth International Conference of
Associations of Interchurch Families,

Virginia Beach, USA, 24-28 July 1996

It is a well known fact that ecclesiastical authorities do not interpret the relevant documents such as the Code of Canon Law (1983), the Ecumenical Directory (1993) and the encyclical, 'That They Might Be One' [Ut Unum Sint] (1995), in the same way and as a result local practices vary from generous reception to rigid exclusion. Understandably, this 'unevenness' causes disorientation and discontent. Clearly, there is a need for thinking afresh and searching for a sound theological position in view of an equitable solution.

The starting point for the re-evaluation of the situation should be in the understanding of what unites and divides us. We are united by our common baptism, but we are divided in our beliefs--or so it is often stated. In fact, Catholics and non-Catholic Christians alike receive the Word of God and respond with 'I believe': the difference is not in their surrender to the Word--they are all believers--but in their understanding of it. It follows that our unity in faith is greater than it appears. We are one in the act of accepting the Word, we are divided in the perception of its meaning.

Moreover, in the case of an interchurch marriage, the non-Catholic Christian spouse enters into a special relationship not only with a Catholic person but with the Catholic Church itself: indeed, he or she is welcome to receive the sacrament of marriage in a Catholic ceremony. Once married, the union of the two spouses is the symbol of the union of Christ with his church. Through a mysterious and unbreakable bond, the Catholic and non-Catholic Christian belong to each other, and they belong to Christ.

The question inevitably arises: would it be fitting for the Catholic Church to instruct them to divide for the reception of the Eucharist after the church received them together for the sacrament of marriage? Should not the church rather recall the divine saying, 'What God has joined together, let not man put asunder' and apply it in this case too?

Assuming the right disposition of the non-Catholic Christian spouse, there appears to be no theological or even legal obstacle for the Catholic Church to be generous.

The right disposition from a theological point of view is best stated by St. Paul himself in his first Letter to the Corinthians: let each one examine himself or herself, and then eat and drink with discerning the [Lord's] body (cf. I Cor. 11:28-29); a belief, therefore, in the mystery that the church celebrates is necessary. If the Catholic Church did not ask for this act of faith, it would fail in integrity.

In our legal system, as it is, there is no substantial obstacle; there is, however, a need for developments in the interpretation of the relevant norms. The incentive and guide for such developments should be in the theological values. They must be identified and defined, then the necessary norms should be invoked always in view of supporting them. The principle value in our case is, of course, the sacramental unity of the couple under all its aspects; a unity, visible and invisible, that the church certainly wants to promote.

The presently valid rules in the Code and in the Directory are not rigid; they allow the possibility of admitting non-Catholic Christians to our Eucharist--at least in exceptional cases. The term 'case', however, need not be restricted to a single reception; it can well signify the uniqueness of a given marriage bond. The next step forward, then, could be in recognizing that whenever the non-Catholic Christian spouse shares our belief in the mystery, an exception from the general prohibition could be granted for the unique case of that marriage and thus the participation in our Eucharist allowed. Such a recognition could even be given on the very day of the wedding--to last for a life time. (No reason why this could not be done in a brief para-liturgical ceremony where the non-Catholic Christian professes his or her faith in the mystery of the Eucharist and the Catholic Church welcomes him or her to our celebrations.)

A problem, however, emerges: will the Catholic communities understand? Will not they regard the admission of the non-Catholic person to the Eucharist as an assertion that fidelity to one's own church is of little importance?

The concern of communities should be respected. The response to it, however, should come through instruction and education. They should be helped and raised to a higher viewpoint where they can see and understand that the eucharistic sharing with the non-Catholic Christian of good and devout faith and married to a Catholic is not a compromise, still less a betrayal; it is respect paid to a sacramental bond and an effort to heal the wound of division in the church of Christ.

This is the way the development ought to go; and to do it we need not so much a new legislation as a 'new attitude of mind', which is an expression used firmly and repeatedly by Pope Paul VI whenever he spoke of the interpretation of our laws after Vatican Council II. After all, the purpose of every law in the church is to open the way to God's unbounded love.