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For two years a research group in the Theology Faculty at Innsbruck University has been looking at questions of ecumenism. The group is made up of colleagues from the university and from outside the university (among the former: Professors and lecturers from the institutes for doctrinal and ecumenical theology, liturgy, canon law, pastoral theology; among the latter: ministers, both men and women, and lay people from the Protestant church, a woman Elder from the Protestant church, a woman representative of the Greek Orthodox church.)

The group has been working on the question of the admission to communion in the Roman Catholic Church of a Christian who is not a Roman Catholic (Can. 844 § 4). The outcome has been to make apresentation to the Austrian Bishops' Conference. This presentation is being looked into by a Theological commission at the moment.The research group would like to make the text of this presentation more widely known Presentation to the Austrian Bishops' Conference by the ecumenical research group at the Institute for Doctrinal and Ecumenical Theology at the Catholic Faculty of Theology, Innsbruck.

Matters of concern

The ecumenical research group of the Catholic Faculty of Theology at Innsbruck, working within the framework of an ecumenical research project, is considering the question of the preconditions for permission for admission to communion in the Roman Catholic church of a Christian who is not a Roman Catholic. Since it is within the sphere of authority of Diocesan bishops, that is to say, of the Bishops1 Conference, to enact general regulations about this, the ecumenical group would like demonstrate ways in which preconditions for permission for admission would be meaningful. The focus is primarily on members of the Protestant churches.

1. The canonical situation according to the Code of Canon Law, 1983.

According to Can. 844 § 1 Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments only to Catholic members of Christ's faithful, who equally may lawfully receive them only from catholic ministers. 

Secondly: Whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and provided the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, Christ's faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a catholic minister, may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid (Can. 844 § 2). Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick to members of the eastern churches not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, if they spontaneously ask for them and are properly disposed. The same applies to members of other Churches which the Apostolic See judges to be in the same position as the aforesaid eastern churches as far as the sacraments are concerned (Can. 844 § 3).

Thirdly: If there is a danger of death or if, in the judgement of the diocesan Bishop or of the Episcopal Conference, there is some other grave and pressing need, catholic ministers may lawfully administer these same sacraments to other Christians not in full communion with the catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who spontaneously ask for them, provided that they demonstrate the catholic faith in respect of these sacraments and are properly disposed (Can. 844 § 4).

Fourthly: In respect of the cases dealt with in 2,3 and 4, the diocesan Bishop or the Episcopal Conference is not to issue general norms except after consultation with the competent authority, at least at the local level, of the non-catholic Church or community concerned (Can. 844 § 5).

>From this it follows: it is not a question of intercommunion, but of a permission for admission , under a specific precondition, to communion in the Roman Catholic Church of a Christian who is not a Roman Catholic.

2. Possibilities for admission of a Protestant Christian to communion in the Roman Catholic Church.

To be able to specify more exactly the preconditions under which a Roman Catholic minister is able to admit a Protestant Christian to communion in the Roman Catholic Church, it is necessary to look especially carefully at the development of Canon Law. This applies first to the expression used in Can. 844 § 4 "some other grave and pressing need" (alia gravis necessitas) and secondly to the reference we find in the same Canon to being unable to approach a minister of their own community.

2.1 "alia gravis necessitas"

2.1.1 Definition of "need"

In the Ecumenical Directory of 1967 the expression "urgent need" (urgens necessitas) is joined clearly to the reference to persecution (persecutio) and prison (carcer) 3. According to the understanding of the "Instruction of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity" of June 1st 1972 on the admission of Christians who are not Roman Catholics to communion in the Roman Catholic Churchit is not only oppression (oppressio) and danger (periculum) which are to be understood as "aliis casibus huiusmodi urgentis necessitatis". As an instance of urgent need (casus urgentis necessitatis) prime importance was given to a serious spiritual need (gravis necessitas spiritualis). As an example of this large scale movements of population (the diaspora)5 were mentioned. In the 1993 Directory (N. 129) there is recognition that "in certain circumstances, by way of exception, and under certain conditions, access to these sacraments [to Eucharistic communion and to the sacraments of penance and anointing of the sick] may be permitted, or even commended, for Christians of other Churches and Ecclesial communities"6.

>From this the conclusion must be drawn that the understanding of "urgent need" is not fixed and so is open to a wider interpretation, which the bishops through the Bishop's Conference are able to give. In Can. 844 § 2 of the Code of 1983 there is a precise statement: "Christ's faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from ministers who are not Catholics in whose churches these sacraments are valid". And in Can. 844 § 4: "If there is danger of death (periculum mortis) or if, in the judgement of the diocesan Bishop or of the Episcopal Conference, there is some other grave and pressing need, Catholic ministers may lawfully administer these same sacraments to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church." Under "grave need" is understood not only a physical, but also a need of a spiritual kind (necessitas spiritualis).

2.1.2 Examples of a "gravis necessitas spiritualis"

In the following examples it is our view that admission of a Protestant Christian to communion would be desirable.

First: Although in the "Joint Church Recommendations"" general intercommunion" is held not to be possible, and the wedding service of an interchurch couple is not recognized as "a situation of great pastoral need"8, the following should be noted: interchurch couples, for whom both partners have church roots, always find it more difficult to comprehend why, with the partners with whom they share the fundamental life experiences of love, hardship, birth, death, joy, sorrow, argument, reconciliation in all their stages of intensity and intimacy, they are not allowed to share the sacrament of life, (the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ), and although they are both baptised and have a place in Christ's kingdom through baptism, they should be divided by eucharistic communion. In the present implementation of church regulations the shared faith of married couples and families is placed in danger.

Secondly: At the baptism of children of interchurch couples in the Roman Catholic Church, and similarly at the first communion, confirmation and marriage of the children baptised and brought up as Roman Catholics by such couples, the Protestant parent is excluded from sharing in the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church. The unity in life (the care for the child) is turned to disunity in celebration at the liturgical high points for the child, although the father or mother otherwise is part of the unity of family care. The unity in life and celebration is placed at risk here.

Thirdly: If the Protestant mothers are preparing the children for their first communion in the Roman Catholic Church, it is hard to understand why on the one hand the preparation for eucharistic communion could be authentic, but on the other hand the child's companion on the road to communion is not allowed to share in this communion.

Fourthly: The separation is experienced as particularly painful in the case of burials of near relatives. If the sacrament of the eucharist is celebrated in this context, the Protestant Christians experience theirexclusion from communion in the Roman Catholic Church as a source of anguish which is almost unbearable - and not only they. At the eucharistic feast there is a sharing in the presence of the one who was crucified and risen, the first of those who have fallen asleep, in whom all people (living and dead), independently of their denominational allegiance, beyond death are united.

Fifthly: At special liturgical festivals in the Roman Catholic Church, such for example as the ordination of deacons or priests, the consecration of bishops, the entering of religious orders, Protestant Christians from the circle of relatives and friends are excluded from communion even when they are fully committed in their celebration of the event and fully identified with cause for celebration.

Sixthly: A mixed denominational group, which, in the context of a lengthy conference has been intensively engaged with ecumenical issues, experiences it as painful when at the end of the conference neither is an ecumenical service recognized for the Roman Catholics as a fulfilment of their Sunday observance, nor is a joint celebration of the eucharist and receiving communion held to be possible (in this case it is a closed group that is concerned). Here too an admission to communion in the Roman Catholic Church which is specific to this situation would be meaningful, since there is no danger of indifferentism in a closed ecumenical working group.

Summing up: When, through the denial of communion, faith, love and hope are seriously endangered, the ruling "no full eucharistic communion until full church unity" must admit of certain pastoral exceptions. The "grace to be won" (UR 8) justifies the admission to communion of a Christian who is not a Roman Catholic in the case of a "gravis necessitas" which is not to be restricted to the physical level.

2.2 Being unable to reach a minister of one's own community.

Can. 844 § 4 holds that administering communion is allowed, if a Christian whose community is not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church cannot reach a minister of his/her own community. The question which is raised is whether the impossibility of reaching a minister of one's own church constitutes exclusively a physical impossibility. In the "Instruction of the Pontifical Council for Christianity Unity of 1st June 1972" large scale movements of population are described as an example, but not as the only case to be considered9. Also in the 1983 Code of Canon Law the impossibility of reaching a minister of one's own community was not restricted to a particular physical situation. Consequently, by the impossibility of reaching a minister of one's own community one can also understand an impossibility of a moral kind. There exist both situations in which it is physically impossible to reach a minister of one's own community, and also those in which it is morally impossible. Such situations lead to situations of spiritual need. The reduction of the concept of impossibility to the merely physical would in some cases endanger the life of faith of both Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians. It would make purely external factors (the physical impossibility of reaching a minister of one's own community) the sole determining yardstick for receiving communion. If the Church were to be viewed merely as existing in physical space and time, there would no longer be an awareness of the real theological implications of Church (Church as the body of Christ, as sacrament, sign and vehicle for the most profound coming together with God, as also for the unity of all humanity).

3 Church membership recognized officially as less than complete

We approach the question of whether there can be such a thing as less than complete church community membership 

- In Austria since 1969 the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed churches have officially recognized one another's baptism. This recognition is to be understood as completely in accordance with the second Vatican Council. Baptism admits Christians who are not Roman Catholics to share in the sacramental reality of the Church. It lays the foundation for a form of Church communion - without removing the differences in teaching which exist

.- Through Baptism interchurch couples share in a particular way in the reality of Church. Since for Roman Catholics (according to Can 1055 § 2) a valid marriage between two baptized persons constitutes a sacrament and thereby brings into reality a Church communion10, so this is also true for validly married interchurch couples. According to Roman Catholic belief a sacramental communion is here11. The recognition of the marriage covenant between two Christians of different communions in its sacramental dimension brings with it the recognition that sacramental marriage and Church belong together (the marriage sacrament as domestic Church), that is to say that communion of sacrament and communion of Church belong together. Church communion is present, in spite of differences of teaching which exist, where couples of different Church communions are married. Because the Roman Catholic understanding is that full Eucharistic communion requires full Church communion, the question arises as to whether, in the case of interchurch couples, that is to say, in the case of marriages covenanted between two baptised persons, a conclusion is not to be drawn from their partial Church communion (their domestic church) which would allow partial Eucharistic sharing.

With the recognition of the sacramental nature of interchurch marriage comes recognition of its dependence on the Eucharist (cf PO 5). How can one reconcile knowing that, on the one hand, this dependence exists, but on the other hand there is no possibility of making this dependence a reality?

4 Partial Church and eucharistic communion.

The Catholic Church already recognizes cases where a partial church communion permits a partial eucharistic communion.

4.1 Examples from the inter-church sphere

- Roman Catholic ministers can under particular conditions legally administer the sacraments of penance, the eucharist and anointing of the sick to members of eastern churches who spontaneously ask and are rightly disposed, but are not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church (as well as members of other churches which in the judgement of the Apostolic See are in the same situation with regard to the sacraments as the eastern churches named) (Can. 844 § 3). The possibility exists for admission to be granted to receive the sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church under particular conditions even when there are differences in the understanding of orders, differences even in the understanding of primacy in teaching and jurisdiction.

- In the 1993 special agreement reached between the Roman Catholic Church and the national Polish Catholic Church in the unified states one of the possibilities allowed to the Orthodox (Can. 844 § 3) was for the first time applied to a non orthodox church, without already having reached a unity as far as primacy in teaching and jurisdiction is concerned.

Summing up: An overall agreement on questions of orders and jurisdiction does not constitute a conditio sine qua non for sacramental communion under certain conditions. There too, where there is no express recognition of the ministerial orders of the Roman Catholic Church, the sacraments of penance, the eucharist and anointing of the sick can legally be administered even outside danger of death. Limited eucharistic communion is possible in spite of existing differences in teaching.

4.2 Examples from within the Roman Catholic sphere.

In the Roman Catholic Church in our diocese it is the custom for first communion to be given already before confirmation12. So eucharistic communion is not understood as something static, but as a deepening growing into the Body of Christ, which is advanced and understood further at confirmation. If children and young people, who have not yet been confirmed, are admitted to communion, it follows from this that a not yet fully complete church community membership is seen as sufficient for admission to the eucharist, for the eucharist is not simply the goal of a fully completed unity, but it also makes the path of grace towards it. From this it follows that church communion is not just the precondition for eucharistic communion, but also is brought about and strengthened by it.

5 Summary of the matter of concern, for permission for a Protestant Christian to be admitted to communion in the Roman Catholic Church, taking into account binding criteria.

5.1 Summary

We, the members of the ecumenical research project of the Catholic Theology Faculty of Innsbruck, take the view that there is an urgent need to clarify what the preconditions for the possibility of admission of a Protestant Christian to communion in the Roman Catholic Church are. We reach the following conclusion: there are situations in which "great need" (gravis necessitas) is to be understood as spiritual need (Section 2.1) and in which it is morally impossible to reach a minister of one's own community (Section 2.2). Our desire in our undertaking has been to make clear that an enlarging of our understanding ("spiritual need" and "moral impossibility of reaching a minister of one's own community") does not stand in opposition to the tradition of Canon Law.

5.2 Binding criteria

Regarding our enlarged interpretation of "gravis necessitas" and of an "impossibility" which is not reduced merely to a physical impossibility of access, our suggestion does not contradict the view of the Roman Catholic Church when one considers the following:

The Protestant Christian must be in a physical or a spiritual situation of need, that is to say, in a situation in which it is physically or morally impossible to reach a minister of his own community.

There must be no encouragement of indifferentism. In all cases the church community identity which forms individuals through their denominations (the being at home in one's church ) is to be respected and cherished.13

On the Protestant side no statement must be imposed, which would become a precondition for valid and effective receiving of the sacrament. No more must be required of the Protestant Christian than is required of the Roman Catholic Christian.

6 The competence of diocesan bishops and of the Bishops’ Conference to take decisions

The Ecumenical Commission of the German Bishops' Conference has expressly made clear in a document dated 19th February 1997 to member churches of the Association of Christian Churches in Nürnberg (ACK Nürnberg): “From this the ‘grace to be won’ (UR 8) warrants the admission of a Christian who is not a Catholic to communion in particular exceptional cases, in particular cases of ‘serious need’ (CIC, Can. 844 § 4).” 14 The ecumenical research group of the Catholic Theology Faculty of Innsbruck adds its agreement to what is said here and asks the Austrian Bishops’ Conference to take into consideration, first, that this concern for the grace to be won asks for an enlarged understanding of “gravis necessitas” in the sense of a recognition of a spiritual need as a serious need ( see above, 2.1.2 for examples quoted), and second, that impossibility of reaching a minister of one’s own community should be understood also as a moral rather than exclusively as a physical impossibility.

In Canon 844 § 4 express reference is made to the competence of Diocesan bishops and of the Episcopal Conference to issue guidelines with regard to these matters. We15 ask the Austrian Bishops’ Conference to act on this. 

We should like to thank all the Dioceses of Austria and Germany and also the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity for their support.

Innsbruck, 5.6.1997

1 The members will be listed at the end of the document.

The regulations in Can. 844 § 3 and 4 concern the permission to receive the sacrament from a Roman Catholic minister and are not concerned with the question of valid reception.

3 “Qui accessus permitti potest in periculo mortis vel in urgente necessitate (in persecutione, in carceribus), si frater seiunctus ad suae Communionis ministrum accedere non potest et sponte sua a sacerdotecatholico sacramenta postulat, dummodo fidem consentaneam fidei Ecclesiae quoad haec sacramenta exprimat et rite dispositus sit” (1967 Ecumenical Directory N.55. AAS 59/2 [1967] 590 [N.55]). In the English translation “This may be permitted in danger of death or in urgent need (during persecution, in prisons) if the separated brother has no access to a minister of his own Communion, and spontaneously asks a Catholic priest for the sacraments – so long as he declares a faith in these sacraments in harmony with that of the Church, and is rightly disposed.”

Secretariatus ad Christianorum unitatem fovendam, Instructio: De peculiaribus casibus admittendi alios christianos ad communionem eucharisticam in ecclesia catholica. In: AAS 64 (1972) 518-525.

5 “Extra periculum mortis, in Directorio duo casus ad modum exempli ponuntur, eorum nempe, qui in carcere detinentur et qui persecutione vexantur; sed mentio fit de ‘aliis casibus huiusmodi urgentis necessitatis’. Huiuscemodi vero casus non tantum circumstantiis oppressionis et periculi circumscribentur. Namque agi quoque potest de christianis, qui in gravi necessitate spirituali versantur quique suas communitates adire nequeuent. Sit pro exemplo diaspora….” (AAS 64 [1972] 524f, italics not in original).

6 “ elle reconnaît aussi que, dans certaines circonstances, de façon exceptionnelle et à certaines conditions, l’admission à ces sacraments peut être autorisée ou même recommandée à des chrétiens d’autres Eglises et Communautés ecclésiales” (1993 Directory N. 129. AAS 85/2 [1993] 1089). In this connection the 1993 Ecumenical Directory refers to the Code of 1983, Can 844 § 4 and to CCEO, Can 671 § 4.

Joint Church Recommendations for the pastoral care of interchurch marriages and families, produced by the Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference and by the Council of Protestant Churches in Germany. Gütersloh 1981.

8 “A wedding is not an instance of a situation of great pastoral need” (Joint Church Recommendations 29)

9 “Namque agi quoque potest de christianis, qui in gravi necessitate spirituali versantur quique suas communitates adire nequeunt. Sit pro exemplo diaspora…..” (AAS 64 [1972] 525).

10 Marriage as ‘Domestic Church’ – s. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) 11: “The sacrament of matrimony makes Christian couples the sign of the mystery of the unity and the fertile love existing between Christ and the Church, and gives them a share in it (cf Eph. 5,32). By its power they are a help to each other in their married life, in the acceptance of children ...It is, as it were, a church in the home, where parents have, by their word and example, to be the first preachers of the faith that their children hear.. cf Familiaris consortio N.21“The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason too it can and should be called ‘the domestic Church’.” Cf Catechism of the Catholic Church N. 1656.

11 In the “Joint celebration of the Church wedding” (in a Roman Catholic Church with the participation of the Protestant minister) runs the text: “Holy father, creator of the world, you create man and woman in your likeness and bless their union. We pray to you for N. and N., who are joining themselves together here in the sacrament of marriage” (Joint celebration of the Church wedding. Order of service for interchurch couples with participation from both churches of those licensed for marriage. Produced by the German Bishops’ Conference and the Council of Protestant Churches of Germany. Leipzig 1995, 52.)

12 We wish here to leave on one side the question of whether the order of administering the sacraments accords theologically with their relationship with one another.

13 “In all forms and phases of the search for unity it is a question of Christian reconciliation.” (Joint Roman Catholic/Protestant-Lutheran Commission, Unity ahead of us. Models, forms and phases of Catholic/Lutheran Church communion. Paderborn 1985, N. 48, S.27). “Reconciliation” comes about not through indifferentism, but rather through sincere dialogue. First the devotion to one’s own tradition gives one courage to “acknowledge the convictions of the partner of the other tradition, accept the differences and search for agreement for a way forward together” (Joint Church recommendations for marriage preparation for interchurch couples. Produced by the German Bishops’ Conference and the Council of Protestant Churches in Germany 1973, Section 3.4)

14 On the question of eucharistic sharing in interchurch couples and families. Text from the Ecumenical Commission of the German Bishops’ Conference to the Association of Christian Churches in Nürnberg (ACK Nürnberg). In: Una Sancta 52/1 (1997) 85-88, here 86.

15 The names of the members of the research group are as follows, in alphabetical order:

Roman Catholics:

From the university:
Univ Ass. Dr. Konrad Breitsching (Institute of Canon Law)
a.o. Univ. Prof. Dr. Silvia Hell (Institute of Doctrinal and Ecumenical Theology)
o. Univ. Prof. Dr. Lothar Lies SJ (Institute of Doctrinal and Ecumenical Theology)
o. Univ. Prof. Dr. Reinhard Messner (Institute of Liturgical Studies)
o. Univ. Prof. Dr. Wilhem Rees (Institute of Canon Law)

From outside the university:
Dir. Mag. Klemens Betz
Dr. Irma Niederwolfsgruber
Mag. Theology Rolf Sauren
Ulla Urban


Elisabeth Betz
Gerlinde Busse
Mag. Bernhard Gross (Protestant minister)
Mag. Richard Rotter (Protestant minister)
Mag. Willi Thaler (Protestant minister)
Kurt Urban
Sen. Mag. Fridun Weinmann (Elder of a Protestant church)
Prof. Mag. Peter Ziermann (Minister in school education)
Orthodox: Frau Dr. Alexandra Czernohaus (Greek Orthodox)

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