“Communicatio in sacris” means to participate in Holy Communion with a church or Christian community outside one’s own tradition. The document restates Church law, which says that a Catholic bishop may allow a non-Catholic Christian to receive the Eucharist in “exceptional” cases, such as danger of death or “grave necessity,” provided that the person shares the Catholic belief in the Eucharist.
Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said in a press conference Dec. 4 that “the Catholic Church holds that Eucharistic communion has as a prerequisite ecclesial communion.”
This is why, he said, canon 844 of the Code of Canon Law -- which indicates the conditions under which a Christian not in full communion with the Catholic Church may receive Holy Communion from a Catholic minister -- states that the person must “manifest Catholic faith” in the Eucharist and be properly disposed.
The vademecum notes that a bishop’s judgment about what constitutes a “grave necessity” and “when exceptional sacramental sharing is appropriate” always requires “pastoral discernment,” because it has to do with “the care and the salvation of souls.”
“Sacraments may never be shared out of mere politeness. Prudence must be exercised to avoid causing confusion or giving scandal to the faithful,” the document says.
Cardinal Koch said it was his opinion that the issue of whether there is valid ordination in Christian communities outside the Catholic Church is “the biggest obstacle” to resolving the theological question of intercommunion.
He cited, for example, the fact that the Anglican community has allowed the ordination of women as priests and bishops, which the Catholic Church cannot accept.
“We must work on this situation very hard in the future, but we have not resolved this situation today,” he said.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, also said that the problem of episcopal ordination was “fundamental, and so it is at the core of ecumenical dialogue.”
Another place where the guide addresses giving scandal is in the use of a Catholic church by another Christian community. The bishop may offer that possibility if the need arises, but he must discern that it “will not cause scandal or confusion to the faithful,” the vademecum says.
In January of this year, a controversy erupted over a Virginia bishop’s decision to allow an Episcopalian diocese to use a Catholic parish for the consecration of an Episcopalian bishop, Susan Haynes.
Bishop Barry Knestout of the Catholic diocese of Richmond defended the decision to allow the Episcopalian Diocese of Southern Virginia to use St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg, citing Vatican II documents on ecumenism. But the location of the event was changed after an internet petition objecting to the event drew national attention.
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The new document may help bishops navigate situations like this in the future.
The guide for bishops also addresses what it calls “interchurch marriages,” when a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian marry. It says these marriages “should not be regarded as problems for they are often a privileged place where the unity of Christians is built. However, pastors cannot be indifferent to the pain of Christian division which is experienced in the context of these families, perhaps more sharply than in any other context.”
The document recommends that bishops meet with and listen to interchurch families in their dioceses, especially during marriage preparation and as couples have children and prepare them to receive the sacraments.
Koch said that the idea for the vademecum came about during the pontifical council’s 2016 plenary meeting, attended by bishops from around the world. He explained that some members of the council asked for a practical document for bishops to learn from and reference on the topic of ecumenism. The guide then took three years to write, in consultation with other curial departments.
“The ministry of the bishop is the ministry for unity,” the cardinal said. “Not just for his own diocese or for the Catholic Church, but unity for the whole of Christians.”
The new document also notes the obligation of lay Catholics to work for unity with other Christians and promotes “practical ecumenism,” which it describes as Christians serving together to promote a common cause or to address injustices, such as human trafficking, mistreatment of immigrants, and attacks on the sanctity of life, among other issues.