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Interchurch Marriages and the reception of the Eucharist
Present and Future

A synopsis made by Fr Ladislas Orsy, S1, of his address to the Virginia conference

(This article was first published in the January 1997 issue of The Journal.

Differing understandings and practices It is a well-known fact that in the matter of the reception of the eucharist by non-Catholic spouses, Roman Catholic authorities do not interpret the relevant documents, such as the Code of Canon La'vv, 1983, the Directoryfor the Application (\f'Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 1993, and the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint (UThat 1995, in the same way. generous reception to rigid exclusion. "unevenness" causes disorientation and discontent. may be one"), As a result, local practices vary from Understandably, this Clearly, there is a need for thinking afresh and searching for a sound Itheological position in view of an equitable practical solution. United and divided The starting point for the re-evaluation of the situation should be in a better understanding of what unites and what divides us. We are united by our common baptism, but we are divided in our beliefs - or so it appears. In reality, our union extends much further. Catholics and other Christians alike receive the Word of God and respond with "I believe". We all surrender to the Word, but due to our limitation and sinfulness we remain divided in the perception of its meaning.

A special relationship This union extends even further in an interchurch maniage because, through the bond between the spouses, a new and special relationship arises between the Roman Catholic Church and the non-Catholic spouse. The latter, by entering into a consortium totius vitae, a partnership of the whole life, with a Catholic person, enters into a elose and mysterious relationship with the Catholic community, a relationship that has its spiritual dimension. Although the spollses may be "interchurch" partners, their malTiage is nonetheless regarded in the Catholic Church as the symbol of the unbreakable bond between Christ and his church. They are also the founders and members of a "domestic ecclesia". If there is so much "oneness", some compelling questions arise. Should the Catholic Church really instruct the spouses to divide for the eucharist - right after they have received the sacrament of matrimony with a Catholic blessing? Should those who are held to be symbols of Christ's unity with his church be separated at the Lord's table? Should the domestic church be divided for the reception of the bread and wine of life that brings into existence and nourishes all churches, large and small? Or should the church rather find inspiration in the divine saying, "\\'11at God has joined together, let no one put asunder" (Mt. 19:6), and find ways and means to keep the couple together at the celebration of the eucharist?

Interpreting the norms

Assuming the right dispositions of the other Christian spouse, there are good theological reasons for the Catholic Church to be generous and there are no serious canonical impediments to the contrary.

The right disposition from a theological point of view is best stated by St Paul himself in his first Letter to the Corinthians: "Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves" (I Cor. 11:28-29). Firm belief, therefore, in the mystery that the Catholic Church celebrates is necessary. If the same church asked for anything less, it would betray its own internal light and fail in integrity.

True, canon law sounds prohibitive. It declares that "Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments only to Catholic members of Christ's faithful" (can. 844, 1). This is, however, the statement of a general principle, followed by various exceptions (see ib. 2-4). The Directory for Ecumenism is quite explicit: it says that "in certain circumstances, by way of exception, and under certain conditions, access to these sacraments [Eucharist included] may be permitted, or even commended, for Christians of other churches and ecclesial communities" (# 129).

Admittedly, the circumstances are carefully defined, the conditions circumscribed, yet the openness to exceptions is never retracted. In a discreet fashion (not usual for our canon law in matters ecumenical), the door is left ajar for fresh insights and interpretations. The proper method of such interpretations should consist first in identifying the theological values relevant to the issues and then formulating the norms required to uphold and promote them.

The principal theological value in our case is, of course, the vital energy that the common participation in the eucharist can bring to support and nourish the sacramental union of the couple.  Further, there is the value of strengthening the religious beliefs and practices of the children; they will certainly be helped by being with both of their parents at the Lord's table.  (And who can ever tell the harm that may follow when little children are told about God's gift and then they see that one of their parents cannot receive it?

Special cases

Once the theological values are probed and established, the search for the correct norms ought to follow. Canon law speaks of a "grave and pressing need" that can at times justify an exception: the need to support a sacred symbol of unity and to nourish a domestic church effectively can be precisely such a need.  Further, the rules restrict the "openness" to special cases, but by good canonical tradition the "case" can have a broader interpretation and signify the uniqueness of a given marriage bond so that the permission once given can last for a life time. All the more so since today, in its relationship with other Christians, the Roman Catholic Church intends to be magnanimous provided no essential beliefs are wronged.

Admission of the non-Catholic spouse into eucharistic communion could be granted on the very day of the wedding.  Since such participation is, and will be, always a public act, it is fair that it should be preceded by a declaration of belief, public too in some fashion, in the mystery of the Eucharist. (One could think even of a simple exchange of words inserted into the liturgy of the wedding.)  Needless to say, the manifestation of belief in the eucharist should never be misunderstood for an intent to transfer from one church to another, or as a weakening of the bond of the other Christian with his or her community: after all, we can share some beliefs while we remain full members of different confessions.

A question of education

There is still, however, an outstanding problem. Will the Catholic communities understand? Will they not regard the admission of a non-Catholic to the eucharist as an assertion that fidelity to one's own church is of little importance?

The concern of the Catholic community must be respected. The resolution of the problem, however, cannot come in any other way than by judicious instruction and theological education. The people should be given an explanation of the delicate play of values; also they should be led to the perception of a need for generosity. They should be helped to a higher viewpoint where they can have a broader field of vision. Then, and only then, will they be able to see with clarity and without anxiety that no doctrine is compromised or betrayed; it is simply that the commandment to work for the healing of the body of Christ, that is the church, is obeyed.

This is the way the development could go - ought to go. For this to happen, we need not so much a new legislation as a "new attitude of mind", which is an expression used often and firmly by Pope Paul VI whenever he spoke of the interpretation of canon law after Vatican II. After all. the purpose of every law in the church is to open the way for God's unbounded love.

At the conference, a couple told me a touching story. At her First Communion, their little girl, realising that her non-Catholic mother was not allowed to be·with her, brought her mother a small piece of the consecrated host: "I saved it for you.”  "Out of the mouth of babes ... " (Ps. 8:2)

Ladislas Orsy, SJ