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This article was published in the Summer 1998 issue of The Journal.


In January 1998 the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a Directory on Ecumenism for Southern Africa. In doing so it applied the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Rome, 1993, to the situation in Southern Africa. The first sections were devoted to the history of divisions in Southern Africa, how to promote the Catholic Church’ s contribution to ecumenism, ecumenical formation, how to promote community life and spiritual activity between baptised Christians, the sacrament of confirmation, and sharing spiritual activities and resources. We give below the full text of the sixth section, on sharing sacramental celebrations, and of the seventh, on interchurch marriages. References in the text are to the 1993 Directory on Ecumenism (DE).


6.1 "A sacrament is an act of Christ and his Church through the Spirit. Its celebration in a concrete community is the sign of the reality of its unity in faith, worship and community life. As well as being signs, sacraments - most specially the Eucharist - are sources of the unity of the Christian Community and of spiritual life, and are means for building them up. Thus Eucharistic communion is inseparably linked to full ecclesial communion and its visible expression. 

6.2 "At the same time, the Catholic Church teaches that by baptism members of other Churches and ecclesial Communities are brought into real, even imperfect communion, with the Catholic Church." (DE #129)

6.3 Governing Principles

6.3.1 The principles governing sacramental sharing laid down in the Directory on Ecumenism can be summarised as follows: 

(a) the sacraments and most especially the Eucharist are signs as well as sources of unity and therefore are properly open as a matter of course only to those who are in full ecclesial communion with each other; 

(b) baptism creates a bond between all the baptised which seeks its full expression in eucharistic communion (DE # 129).

 6.3.2 The general rule flowing from these principles is therefore that abstinence from shared sacramental worship is the normal state of affairs but circumstances can exist in which such a sharing becomes not only permissible but advisable (DE # 129).

6.3.3 The circumstances in which such sharing is justified are (a) danger of death and (b) any other pressing need. 

6.3.4 The norms for judging when such a need exists should be laid down by the diocesan Bishop (DE#130), although the Directory on Ecumenism does single out the situation of spouses in a mixed marriage, bound to each other as they are by the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony (DE #160).

6.3.5 The pastoral advisability of permitting sharing the sacraments depends both on the general situation of the local worshipping community and on the conditions to be met by the individual persons concerned.

6.3.6 When such sharing is justified, the following conditions are to be met: 

(a) the person admitted to such sharing must seek it of his or her own initiative; 

(b) must be unable to receive the sacrament from a minister of his or her own Church; 

(c) must manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament; 

(d) must have the proper dispositions for the fruitful reception of it' (DE #131).

6.3.7 As regards (b) in 6.3.6 above, this inability need not be one that exists over a period of time but could arise out of the nature of the situation in which the petitioner finds himself or herself (e.g., when spouses in a mixed marriage attend a eucharistic celebration together). 

6.3.8 As regards (c) in 6.3.6 above, it is important to recall that there is a crucial distinction between the substance of the faith and the way in which it is expressed. What is required is unity in the substance of the faith. Moreover, in judging whether or not such unity is present, due cognisance must be taken of those ecumenical agreements that display the existence of a substantial agreement in faith. One example of such an agreement is that which was reached by the Anglican and Roman Catholic International Commission regarding the Eucharist. In the light of that agreement, members of the Anglican Communion may be presumed to share the essentials of Eucharistic faith with us. 


In view of the above the following recommendations are made. These are permissive, not prescriptive, since they clarify what can be done within the framework of Church discipline.

6.4 Since `the salvation of souls is the supreme law', in danger of death the above norms are not to be interpreted narrowly. Pastoral considerations must predominate, when in such circumstances Christians from other Churches wish to receive the sacraments of Penance, Anointing of the sick or the Eucharist.

6.5 In cases other than danger of death, provided that conditions (a) to (d) mentioned in 6.3.6 above are fulfilled, the following guidelines apply:

6.5.1 As regards baptismal celebrations, Christians of other Churches who so wish are to be encouraged to participate as fully as possible. Similarly, Catholics are to be encouraged to participate, where invited, in baptismal celebrations of other Christian Churches (see 4.1.3 & 4.1.4).

6.5.2 As regards the Sacraments of the Sick and of Penance, the mere request for such sacraments can be taken as evidence of pressing spiritual need and the sacrament may be administered. Special consideration should be given to spouses in an interchurch marriage who may wish to approach these sacraments together, if their situation justifies it.

6.5.3 As regards the Eucharist, a special need can be said to exist on occasions when Christians from other Churches attend a Eucharistic celebration for a special feast or event. On these occasions eucharistic sharing may be both meaningful and desirable, expressing the degree of unity that the participating Christians already have with each other. It has been a long-standing pastoral practice in the Catholic Church not to refuse someone who comes to receive communion in good faith. However, where possible and according to circumstances, it may be advisable or even necessary to inform such a person afterwards of Catholic discipline. A unique situation exists as regards spouses of a mixed marriage who attend Mass together in a Catholic Church. The uniqueness consists in the fact that their baptismal unity in Christ has been still further sealed by the sacramentality of their marriage bond. Hence both may experience a real need to express that unity by receiving Holy Communion whenever they attend Mass together. If such couples attend Mass together only infrequently, then they may both receive Communion on those occasions, provided that it is the spontaneous desire of the non-Catholic partner to do so. In cases where both parties attend Mass together virtually every Sunday, then the non-Catholic party may approach the local Ordinary through the parish priest for permission to receive Communion every time he or she attends Mass with his or her spouse. In all the above cases it is assumed that the non-Catholic lives devotedly within his or her tradition. Cases where the only Church that the non-Catholic partner attends is the Catholic Church must be referred to the local Ordinary through the parish priest.

6.5.4. The guidelines given above must not be allowed to lead to a situation where the divisions between Christians are no longer taken seriously. Catholics must therefore be educated as to the reasons why abstinence from eucharistic sharing is the general norm and why only a limited form of such sharing is possible. Catholics also need to be educated to take seriously the fact that the degrees of visible unity between the Catholic Church and other Churches can differ. In the case where the visible unity is very close - e.g., in the case of the Orthodox Church - less weight (from a Catholic perspective) may be placed on the divisions and more on the unity already possessed, thus justifying a far freer sharing in the sacraments in general and the Eucharist in particular. In cases where the visible unity is marred by very many serious divisions, more emphasis needs to be placed on bearing truthful witness to the sad state of the division, thus justifying a more limited form of sacramental sharing.

6.5.5 As regards Catholics seeking to receive the sacraments from pastors in other Churches, the same circumstances apply as above (viz., regarding need, substantial agreement in faith, etc.). Catholics must also have due respect for the ecclesiastical discipline that may operate in the Church in which they seek to receive a particular sacrament. The Directory on Ecumenism also notes a further condition, viz., that the sacrament be sought 'from a minister in whose Church these sacraments are valid or from one who is known to be validly ordained according to the Catholic teaching on ordination' (DE #132). As regards the Eastern Orthodox Churches, this condition is already fulfilled. As regards the Churches arising out of the divisions that occurred in the West at the time of the Reformation, the matter, from a Catholic perspective, is not so clear. 

6.5.6 Where it is not permissible for Catholics to receive the sacraments in another Church, they should be educated to take the pain of Christian divisions sufficiently seriously to use that opportunity to pray and pledge themselves to strive for Christian unity.


7.1 Catholics and members of other Churches who are entering into the covenant of marriage must be adequately prepared to make an ecumenical partnership of their marriage, as envisaged by the Post-Synodal Exhortation, "Familiaris Consortio," while respecting the responsibilities of the Catholic partner regarding the practice of the Faith and the education of the children (FC 78).

7.2 Where there are genuine pastoral reasons for the granting of a dispensation from the canonical form of marriage, it should not be refused.

7.3 Pastors should make the fullest possible use of opportunities afforded for ecumenical celebrations for mixed marriages.

7.4 It is against freedom of religion and the dignity of women that a wife should be expected to join the Church of her husband or that pressure be put on either spouse to convert, on the pretext of achieving unity of faith.



The celebration

4.1.3 As regards the minister, the traditional practice of only one minister performing the actual act of baptising (viz., the pouring with water while proclaiming the baptismal formula) is to be retained. However, wherever appropriate a minister of another Christian Church should be invited to participate in the other parts of the baptismal liturgy, e.g. readings, prayers, etc. An obvious case where this would apply would be the baptism of a child, one of whose parents belongs to another Christian Church (DE # 97).

4.1.4 As regards official sponsors and witnesses, except for Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Directory on Ecumenism forbids members of other Christian Churches to be one of the official sponsors at a Baptism performed in the Catholic Church (DE #98). However, the permission that is given for others to act as witnesses - provided there is at least one confirmed and practising Catholic acting as an official sponsor - should be utilised to the full. Here too it should be encouraged that wherever appropriate a confirmed practising member of another Christian Church be invited to act as a witness. The names of such witnesses should be entered as such into the baptismal register. We also encourage theological reflection on the extent to which the distinction that is made between Eastern Orthodox Christians and others in this matter should be retained.

Reception into full communion Christians who were baptised in other Christian Churches and who seek full communion in the Catholic Church, should be examined regarding their motivation, in order to ensure that it is not for purposes unrelated to their convictions of faith. Examples of insufficient reasons are: because it is nearer to their home, because the spouse is a Catholic, because of disputes with their own minister, etc.

Sharing spiritual activities and resources

5.4 The burial of members of each other's Churches should be determined on the local diocesan level. In terms of this Directory deceased members of other Christian Churches may be buried with Catholic Rites, especially in the case of a deceased spouse (DE#120). Deceased Catholics may in turn be buried with the rites of another Christian Church, should there be a justifying reason for doing so.

Originally published by the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference



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