WHY DOES THE CATHOLIC CHURCH HAVE A CLOSED COMMUNION?
Mother Church often receives criticism for her age-old policy of excluding non-Catholics from receiving Communion at a Catholic Mass. This is a very difficult issue; one which even causes some people pain. But is there a good reason for it, pehaps even a wisdom behind it? This article will examine the issue.
Closed -vs- Open Commmunion
Those churches which exclude certain people (usually non-members) from receiving Communion are said to have a "closed Communion". In contrast, those which allow non-members to communicate are said to have an "open Commmunion".
Note that these particular restrictions apply to fellow Christians. Non-Christians are a completely different matter. Even churches with a relatively "open" policy usually exclude non-Christians from receiving Communion.
This is not due to some kind of snobbishness; there are many doctrinal reasons for it. Catholics, Orthodox and some Protestants believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, and that only members of Christ's Mystical Body can partake of His Sacramental Body. Even Christians who don't believe in the Real Presence generally understand that Communion is a Christian rite, and is therefore reserved only for Christians. Only the most liberal Protestant denominations would allow non-Christians to receive Communion.
A Widespread Practice
Although the media usually seems to criticize the Catholic Church for having a closed Communion, this is not entirely fair since she is not the only Christian church with such a policy. The Eastern Orthodox also have a closed Communion; they only permit Orthodox Christians to receive in their churches and forbid their own members from communicating in any other church (even a Catholic one!). Some Protestant churches have similar rules, only allowing those who accept Jesus as their Savior to participate in their "Lord's Supper".
Since the Catholics and Orthodox constitute the large majority of Christians, closed Communion is actually the norm for most of the Christians in the world!
An Ancient Practice
The policy of a "closed Communion" is nothing new; in fact it goes back to the earliest Christians. The Didache, a book of Church discipline dating back to the late first century A.D., clearly states that only Christians can receive the Eucharist:
"But let no one eat or drink of this eucharistic thanksgiving, but they that have been baptized into the name of the Lord". -Didache 9:10-12
So the concept of a closed Communion goes all the way back to the Church of Apostolic times!. Those churches which observe it today are merely being faithful to the practice of the earliest Christians.
Note that this text only explicitly excludes non-Christians from the Sacrament. Back then the Church was united; there were no "denominations" to exclude. However, as tragic divisions started to form within Christendom itself, it soon became necessary to close access to the Lord's Table even to some baptized Christians.
Why? Because the Eucharist is the Sacrament of our unity in Christ. Those who receive it must have unity in the Faith. Those who are not in unity cannot receive.
Even back then some Christians were excluded from the Sacrament, as the following quote from the Didache indicates:
And on the Lord's own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled; for this sacrifice it is that was spoken of by the Lord; "In every place and at every time offer Me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great king, saith the Lord and My name is wonderful among the nations". -Didache 14:1-5
Any Christian who had a dispute with a fellow Christian was not allowed to receive the Eucharist with the rest of the community until the dispute was reconciled.
Why? Because Jesus once said "If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24). God wants us to worship Him in love, humility and unity, not with prideful divisions among us, rooted as they are in sin.
Now consider this: the Protestant denominations have a dispute with the Catholic Church! And this dispute is far from reconciled. So by the standards set in this early Church document, our separated brethren cannot partake of the Eucharist in a Catholic Mass, even though they are fellow Christians. Their dispute with Catholics excludes them!1
This is the logic behind a closed Communion. It is not an arbitrary or spiteful policy, but a necessary one for a divided Christendom.
Sin Excludes Even Some Catholics!
However, just because one is Catholic does not mean one has absolutely free access to the Lord's Table. Those who are in a state of mortal sin are not supposed to receive the Eucharist. This is because mortal sin causes the death of the soul (I John 5:16-17), which severs communion between the individual and the Body of Christ. Those in mortal sin must first be reconciled to the Church by the Sacrament of Confession before they can return to the Supper of the Lamb.
This is all Biblically based. The Bible says that those who partake of Holy Communion unworthily are guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord (I Corinthians 11:27; read verses 17-34 for the whole context). This is why the Church forbids those in a state of mortal sin to receive. It is not so much a punishment as an act of protection, since Saint Paul says that those who communicate unworthily eat and drink judgment to themselves (vs 29), and he even insinuates that this could in some cases cause illness or death (vs 30)!
This is not a trivial matter; the Eucharist is not to be toyed with!
Exceptions to the Rule
We should also note that Mother Church makes some exceptions to her closed Communion policy in certain situations. She would allow an Eastern Orthodox Christian to receive in an emergency situation (although that person's own church would forbid it, as we saw above). Members of the Polish National Catholic Church, an Old Catholic communion, are also allowed by the Vatican to partake in our Eucharist if they have no recourse to their own Communion. And a Protestant may be given permission to receive the Eucharist, but only if he or she:
Unless all these circumstances are met, a Protestant cannot receive Communion in a Catholic church. The Church is not being mean, snobbish or exclusive; she does this because, as we have seen, the Eucharist is the Sacrament of our unity in Christ. Christians who are not in perfect union with us cannot receive Communion with us, nor can those who have a dispute with us. As a sign of unity, the Eucharist cannot be used as a means toward a unity which does not exist (yet - hopefully we will be reunited someday!).
Now if a particular separated brother or sister accepts the Church's teaching on the Eucharist, then a certain "unity of Faith" is present, and if he or she is not living a life of sin, the threat mentioned in I Corinthians 11:27-30 would not apply. In such a case, the Church may make an exception. (Naturally, any Orthodox Christian or Old Catholic would also have to be in a state of grace before asking for Communion in a Catholic Church).
The exceptions listed above are just that: exceptions to a general rule. Closed Communion is still the norm, the Church only relaxes the restrictions in extreme circumstances out of charity.
So the practice of excluding some people from Communion is a Biblically based, ancient Christian discipline observed by both Catholics and Orthodox, as well as many Protestants. It is neither recent nor arbitrary nor unreasonable. Rather it reflects the mind and heart of the early Church, as they were taught by the Apostles.