Can a Catholic receive Communion at a non-Catholic worship service?
In this age of many Protestant denominations, it regularly happens that members of the Catholic faithful while attending a wedding, funeral, or another service in a Protestant church may be confronted by the invitation to receive “communion.” Many Protestant denominations hold to a position of “open communion” (that is, any who are present are invited to share) and will simply presume that Catholics legitimately can also receive their communion. Unfortunately, this understanding of anyone taking part is problematic in two ways: first, regarding the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist itself, and second, in the definition of “communion.” While most Protestant ministers mean no harm, the real, even if unintended, consequence of the open invitation is a lack of respect for Catholic faith and what we understand to be the meaning of Communion. Let’s look at the two aspects of the problem.
In speaking of the sacrament itself, our Catholic faith is quite simple. We believe that the Eucharist IS objectively the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharistic presence of Jesus is a great mystery. However, our belief in this truth is according to Scripture, as in John 6 Jesus speaks of Himself as the “Bread of Life,” offering a teaching on the Eucharist, and in the accounts of the Last Supper His words express this literal reality: “This is my body” (Matthew 26:26). We believe the words of Jesus exactly as they are handed on to us.
Thus, by God’s own design, the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, His body and blood, soul and divinity. Through the words spoken by the validly ordained priest, who stands in Christ’s place in making the offering, the bread and wine changes into the Body and Blood of Christ (even if it still looks and tastes like bread and wine). Once this change has occurred, it does not change back into bread after Mass, but remains as the Real Presence of Christ—which is why we can adore the Lord in the tabernacle in Eucharistic Adoration.
The word “communion” is used both to define the act of receiving the sacrament (like when we say “First Communion”), and the action of being unified by God and in Him when we receive the Eucharist. If there is to be true communion, all who partake of the Eucharist necessarily have to be of one and the same faith, believing in the
Real Presence of Jesus along with EVERYTHING that has been revealed by God in the Church, and they must have a right disposition for grace (that is, being free of mortal sin). There is no true unity in receiving the sacrament if the unity of faith and the proper disposition of the recipients are not found, and therefore, there would not be true communion—which is why non-Catholics and Catholics who are in a state of mortal sin cannot receive the Eucharist.
Protestant faiths explain communion in a different way. Though I have no authority to speak for their definitions, I can say that for a Catholic to receive communion in a non-Catholic Church undermines his/her own Catholic faith—as the action says that one is not really in communion with the Catholic Church, or that communion means something different to them than what Catholic faith really teaches. Meanwhile, for Protestants partaking in their own communion, their invitation to all who are present to share may give an outward appearance of the unity of the people; however, it does not have the sacramental character that brings about union with God in the way that the Eucharist does – as such communion is seen either as only symbolic of the Last Supper or it is “real” based on personal belief (not the objective act of consecration by the priest, as our Catholic faith professes).
Thus, while one may be invited to partake of the communion of another faith, it is not fitting to receive their communion, in light of our understanding of communion (and perhaps even their understanding). It may be awkward to have to say “no” when they are presenting it to you; but be comforted that you are not trying to undermine their faith – you are simply holding firm to your own Catholic faith.