OBJECTOR: Last weekend I went to a wedding of a Catholic friend. When it came time for Communion, the priest invited all non-Catholics to come forward with their arms crossed over their chest to receive a blessing. He implied that only Catholics could receive the bread and the wine. Why wasn’t I allowed to receive Communion? I am a Christian too, you know.
CATHOLIC: The priest probably invited you to receive a blessing because he didn’t want you to feel left out. You see, Catholics believe that a blessing can be given to anyone, Catholic or not, but they also believe that Holy Communion is only for those who profess the Catholic faith.
OBJECTOR: But I did feel left out. I still don’t understand why I was not allowed to take Communion. In fact, I asked a Catholic friend of mine after the wedding, and he said the priest was wrong and that he should have let me take Communion.
CATHOLIC: Unfortunately, not all Catholics understand the reasons for the practices of their Church. Your Catholic friend failed to understand that the Eucharist is only for those who believe it to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ in accord with the teachings of the Church.
OBJECTOR: Well, I believe that it is the body and blood of Christ. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “This is my body”? So why can only Catholics receive Communion? Does the Church think that I am not a Christian?
CATHOLIC: Oh, no. The Church makes no judgments about whether any person is a true Christian, not even about its own members. It knows that it cannot see into people’s hearts, so it has to have some outward way of distinguishing those who should take Communion from those who shouldn’t. The only way to do that is by whether a particular person is a member.
OBJECTOR: But in my church anybody who is a Christian can take communion whether he or she is a member or not. Our minister says that all Christians are welcome to come to the table of the Lord.
CATHOLIC: Given your belief in the nature of church, that makes perfect sense. You believe the church is invisible—that the church is only the members of the mystical body of Christ and that God did not specify what structure or form the church should have. Am I right in my understanding of your beliefs?
OBJECTOR: Yes, that’s basically what I believe.
CATHOLIC: And, if I am not mistaken, don’t you also believe that it doesn’t matter a lot whether different Christians hold different beliefs? Is it true, for example, that one person in your church may believe in the Eucharist as the true body and blood of Christ while another may not, and this difference doesn’t make much of a difference?
OBJECTOR: Yes. Even though I believe in the Eucharist the same as you Catholics, the man next to me in my church may not, and we don’t think that should keep him from receiving communion.
CATHOLIC: Well, you see, the Catholic Church teaches that it does make a difference—a huge difference—whether a person believes in the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ.
OBJECTOR: Why should it matter? Aren’t we just splitting theological hairs?
CATHOLIC: The Church teaches it because Scripture teaches it. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 Paul asks a couple of rhetorical questions: “Isn’t the cup which we bless a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, isn’t it a communion in the body of Christ?” Paul’s rhetorical questions assume that taking Communion is a union or a sharing in the body and blood of Christ. Now, if Paul as an apostle believed this, and it is written in Scripture, shouldn’t we believe this as Christians?
OBJECTOR: Well, I do believe it, but I shouldn’t judge my brother about his beliefs. Didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not that you be not judged?” (Matt 7:1).
CATHOLIC: You’re right—and the Church does not judge others’ personal beliefs. That is precisely why the Church asks non-Catholics not to receive Holy Communion. If it allowed non-Catholics, the Church would have to investigate each person’s beliefs. It clearly cannot do that, so it assumes that all Catholics believe in the Eucharist in the way the Church teaches.
OBJECTOR: But why can’t the Church just say, “Come all Christians!” and make no further judgments?
CATHOLIC: Because the Church has a responsibility to teach what Scripture teaches. Think of it this way: If the Church allowed everyone to take Communion, it would be giving up its responsibility to teach what Christ and his apostles taught. If Scripture says that receiving communion is a fellowship or a sharing in the body and blood of Christ, and the Church allowed a person to receive it who didn’t believe in it this way, then the person is engaging in a act of lying, even if he is not aware of it as lying. By his actions he is saying that he believes what the Catholic Church says is true, but in his mind he doesn’t believe it. The Church does not want to put anyone in the position of having to lie with their actions, so it insists that a person receiving Communion must believe in the Eucharist in the way that the Catholic Church teaches.
OBJECTOR: Maybe such a person wouldn’t be lying because he doesn’t believe in it as the body and blood of Christ.
CATHOLIC: That is entirely possible, but remember the prior issue. Either the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ or it isn’t. What any individual believes doesn’t alter the truth of the matter. If a person receives the Eucharist, he is receiving the body and blood of Christ, regardless of what he believes. So if he receives the body and blood while not believing it to be the body and blood, he is placed in the position of someone whose actions belie his beliefs. The Church wants to spare a person that contradiction between beliefs and actions.
OBJECTOR: Okay, I suppose I see what you mean about a person who doesn’t believe in the Eucharist. But I do believe in it. Why couldn’t I take Communion?
CATHOLIC: Let’s not be too quick to say that we believe the same thing on this matter. The Church holds that to receive the Eucharist we must believe all that the Catholic Church officially teaches as coming from Christ. To take two examples, it is necessary for Catholics to believe that the pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth and that the Virgin Mary was immaculately conceived in her mother’s womb. Do you believe these things?
OBJECTOR: Well, no—but I don’t see what that has to do with receiving Communion.
CATHOLIC: The Catholic Church follows ancient Christian practice on this matter. Ancient Christians believed that we cannot partake of the Eucharist unless we believe the Christian faith. You see this idea in Justin Martyr’s First Apology (1:66), which is quoted in our current Catechism in section 1355: “Because this bread and wine have been made Eucharist, we call this food Eucharist, and no one may partake in it unless he believes that what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ taught.” In other words, to receive the Eucharist you must believe that these teachings are from Christ.
OBJECTOR: You’re falling back on that old Catholic standby: tradition. Maybe Justin Martyr was just plain wrong. Anyway, I don’t see this idea in the Bible.
CATHOLIC: I think you see Jesus our Lord saying this truth in Matthew 28:20 when he said “teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you.” Jesus is saying that all he taught is to be passed on. And you see Paul boasting to the leaders of the church in Ephesus that he had not “shrunk back from declaring to them the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
So, you see, the Church has the responsibility of teaching all of the truth that Christ taught. Whether you agree or disagree with all the Church’s teachings is beside the point just now. I only want you to see that partaking in the Eucharist requires one to believe all the Church’s teachings. You said earlier that we believe the same things about the Eucharist. I am only pointing out that we don’t, because for us Catholics receiving the Eucharist means embracing all of Christ’s teachings handed down through the Church.
OBJECTOR: Well, that leaves me even more confused, because I know Catholics who receive the Eucharist every week and also say that they don’t agree with the Church’s teachings on certain points. Then are they wrong to receive Communion?
CATHOLIC: That’s a thorny problem that will take more time to explain than we have now. But in general you are following the logic behind this very well. No one—not even a baptized Catholic—should receive the Eucharist knowledgeably if he does not believe that our teachings are the teachings of Christ. Taking Communion is an act of love for Christ as well as actually receiving Christ into one’s heart. To do that and yet not believe Christ is clearly a contradiction between one’s act and one’s beliefs—and that’s a problem.