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Worship with Non-Catholics: Can You Do It?

Some may recall the scuttlebutt that arose about six years ago when the largest bishop’s conference in the world, the National Bishops’ Conference of Brazil (CNBB), issued a Pastoral Note to all Catholics in their country – roughly 130 million souls.

We didn’t hear much about it stateside at the time, but the note was to alert Catholics to “certain religious groups” in the country and give some direction:

[D]espite defining themselves as ‘Catholic’, [these groups] are not in communion with the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and are not part of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church. For this reason, all religious rites and ceremonies celebrated by them are illicit for the Catholic faithful. It is thus eagerly recommended to the faithful not to attend the buildings where they assemble, nor to collaborate or participate in any celebration promoted by these groups[.]

Bishops directing the faithful to avoid non-Catholic worship? Fancy that.

That a directive like this would have been completely unsurprising to anybody even 50 years ago may indicate how far things have devolved in this regard, inasmuch as the Catholic discipline governing all “sharing in sacred things” demonstrated a constant and uniform continuity – traceable from the first-century teaching of Christ and his apostles – until roughly the latter part of the 20th century, at which point things began to get a bit “squishy.”

This article aims at recovering a certain sensus catholicus with regard to the issue of joining in common worship with non-Catholics, chiefly by illustrating the traditional discipline of the Church and (most importantly) highlighting the doctrinal foundations for this praxis – a return to which will be essential for a full recovery from the widespread and truly diabolical disorientation of our times.

Unfortunately, even little steps back toward orthopraxy like that of the CNBB described above have proven short-lived: six bishops of the same conference apparently just offered a public Mass for the “41st Earth Pilgrimage,” with a few Protestant ladies (priestesses? ministeresses?) concelebrating. Lord, have mercy.

Years past would have witnessed armed uprisings at the sight of such sacrilege in a two-thirds Catholic nation like Brazil – to say nothing of the stern disciplining of the bishops that could reasonably be expected from Rome. Indeed, Catholics have every reason to be outraged by such violations of the “right of Christ’s faithful to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church’s life in accordance with her tradition” (Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 11). But as it seems that many have lost any sense of this tradition in the first place, it becomes increasingly pressing that we recover it.

Those wishing simply for “traditional sources” on the matter may skip to the bottom.

Study for St. Paul Preaching in Athens, Raphael (c. 1515).

Communicatio in Sacris: An Old Question

The claim that we find ourselves in a “new situation,” or a “modern context” that arrived at some recent (?) juncture, is often fielded in defense of the notion that Catholics and non-Catholics should be at liberty to join together in worship services of one kind or another. Pinpointing the exact commencement of this “new context” is notoriously difficult (read: fallacious), but in any case, it must be pointed out that the Church’s lived experience in the midst of peoples with vastly different religious backgrounds – some of them with deeply embedded socio-cultural histories stretching back hundreds, even thousands of years – is anything but “new.”

From Christ’s Ascension to date, the Church has always been so surrounded in one locale or another, and her Gospel has likewise proven to be an affront and stumbling block to many outside her communion (cf. 1 Cor 1:23). As Christ’s Mystical Body on Earth, she has ever stood as the continuation of His Incarnation through time and space, an irruption of that Divine Fact within human history, set forever on course to make ultimate and infallible claims upon all men, in all places, for all time. This is the legacy of the apostles and Catholic missionaries in every century.

[Error #59:] Christ did not teach a defined body of doctrine applicable to all times and to all men, but rather began a religious movement adapted, or to be adapted to different times and places. (Condemned by Pope St. Pius X, Lamentabili, 1907.)

The specific question of participating with non-Catholics in divine worship is nothing new, either. That Catholic discipline in this regard may be found in the Gospels, the New Testament Epistles, and down through the writings of saints and popes in every subsequent century is testament to this fact.

Indeed, some particularly fascinating passages may be found between the 16th and 19th centuries, as Protestantism metastasized and the Age of Exploration found Catholic missionaries in all manner of “new contexts” across the globe. It is therefore telling to find the question of communicatio in sacris frequently and authoritatively addressed by popes, Roman congregations under their direction, and Catholic catechisms that appeared with greater frequency after the Ecumenical Council of Trent. As might be expected, each of these refers to the “constant and uniform” doctrine and discipline of the Church in prior ages as they address the question.

So there is really nothing “new” about the Church’s context per se – she is still called to be a light to the nations, a city on a hill, a lamp on a stand – but it might be argued that one feature does set our contemporary period apart from earlier ones: the tragic and widespread lack among Catholics of any robust sense of continuity with their past, and in many cases, a lack of genuine Catholic faith as a result.

A defect in Catholic faith is in fact the essential characteristic underlying the current crisis that afflicts the earthly Church in so many sectors, as Pope Benedict XVI recently observed. That this crisis of faith has in turn widely evacuated any notion of right worship from the minds of many Catholics – lay and cleric alike – could likely be demonstrated simply by reading the local diocesan newspaper during the so-called “Week for Christian Unity.”

Indeed, without a lived awareness of the fact that true worship is our primary duty, and without that same hearty conviction of our faithful forbears regarding the inestimable worth of the Church’s true worship, it is difficult – if not impossible – to explain to a modern Catholic why occasions of communicatio in sacris are gravely serious matters, indeed with eternal significance.

Many simply won’t get it.

But we must try to explain, for it concerns what is Most Holy.

Defining Communicatio in Sacris

Communicatio in sacris (“communication in sacred things”) is a term with a rather wide nomination in the Catholic tradition, historically employed to address any common sharing between Catholics and non-Catholics in religious acts. The term was used interchangeably with communicatio in divinis (“communication in divine things”) until roughly the mid-18th century, when communicatio in sacris became the norm.

Although similarly designated in the documents of Vatican II (“worship in common”) and the 1983 Code of Canon Law (“participation in sacred rites”), the term communicatio in sacris has been more recently interpreted in a more restrictive sense in some sectors – to denote only sacramental sharing. Although sharing in the administration of a Sacrament would certainly fall within the classical understanding of communicatio in sacris, no formal redefinition to this restricted sense has been issued, and the term is here used in its historically broader sense.

Necessary Distinctions

Because communicatio in sacris may be used to describe any number of concrete activities (which may or may not include the administration of a sacrament), the Church traditionally made certain distinctions when assessing particular instances of “sharing in sacred things.”

The first distinction is simply the religious profession of the participant, whether the acting person is a Catholic or a non-Catholic. The second distinction would be the character of the religious action itself, whether it is a “Catholic thing” or a “non-Catholic thing.” The third distinction is the type of participation in question, whether “active” or “passive.” Active participation was traditionally understood as involving personal assent to the religious action as manifested through external signs of engagement such as communal singing, ritual gestures, corporate responses, etc. Passive participation was understood as that whereby one is merely present during some religious act, but without assenting to it through exterior signs of engagement; the participant is only in attendance, “just there,” as it were.

With these distinctions in mind, we limit ourselves now to the question of joining in public acts of worship with non-Catholics: sharing in some communal action of divine worship according to some prescribed form, typically under some leader(s). For the sake of brevity, we will hereafter refer to this simply by the term “worship.”

However, before proceeding to detail the traditional Catholic discipline in this regard, it will be necessary to offer a brief outline of certain fundamental Catholic doctrines that inform and govern it, since all Catholic discipline (orthopraxy) must flow from objective doctrinal reality (orthodoxy).

Transfiguration, Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1311).

Doctrines Informing the Discipline

  1. To worship God is a duty incumbent upon all men, inscribed in the created order itself (natural law) and commanded by God’s Revelation (divine law).
  2. Divine Revelation has throughout history prescribed and sanctioned one single tradition of corporate worship which alone is right, true, and pleasing to Him.
  3. This right worship is perfectly and exclusively retained in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, established by Christ as His Body to this purpose.
  4. Outside this Body of the Catholic Churchare found those who are unbaptized, heretics, schismatics, apostates, or excommunicants.
  5. Worship offered outside the Catholic Churchis false worship, deviating from that form that alone has been prescribed and sanctioned by God

(As a brief outline only, citations are not offered for these points. One may more than satisfy oneself as to their verity by consulting the resource offered at bottom.)

Catholics at Non-Catholic Worship?

In considering the question of Catholics joining in non-Catholic worship, the constant and uniform testimony of Scripture and Tradition must be maintained: Catholics may never actively participate in non-Catholic worship. This prohibition follows chiefly from the First Commandment in light of the fact that all non-Catholic worship is false, actions standing contrary to right faith and in violation of both natural and divine law. Such acts are therefore objectively disordered, independent of the subjective culpability of those who engage in such worship.

A second, closely connected reason for this discipline is that of making a lie by demonstrating a false religious unity: for a Catholic to join in non-Catholic worship is to manifest a certain unity with that community, contradicting the true unity of the Church. This leads to a third reason of scandal: Catholics who actively engage in false worship give the objective impression that such disordered acts are permissible, even laudable, and in this way endanger right faith (on the part of Catholics) and confirm non-Catholics in their error. A final reason for this prohibition is that it involves an omission of fraternal charity: by engaging in false worship, the Catholic fails in his duty to mercifully instruct the ignorant, admonish the sinner, and share the Gospel.

It is therefore doctrinally indefensible to admit of a discipline – alien to the constant and uniform tradition of the Church – that would permit (much less encourage) the active participation of Catholics in non-Catholic worship. That many Catholics today do so anyway (sadly, often encouraged by priests, bishops, and popes) is neither contested nor excusable. We leave questions of culpability to the God, who alone judges hearts; however, we may certainly condemn actions that run contrary to what has been believed “always, everywhere, and by all.” When such actions violate what is holiest, highest, and best, it becomes even more pressing to act.

Furthermore, it should be noted that traditionally, if Catholics might be permitted a certain passive participation in occasions of false worship, this was admitted only if the instance was: 1) an extraordinary circumstance, 2) commended by some grave reason, and 3) not overtly scandalous. The cautious qualifications here reflect the gravity of the act in question and recognition of the fact that any form of worship is informed by the beliefs of the worshipping community, demonstrating and effecting their religious unity as well. Thus for a Catholic, even passive participation in non-Catholic worship is a question that must be weighed with great caution.

One typical example given for such potentially permissible passive participation is that of a Catholic attending the non-Catholic funeral of a close relative or friend, provided that fraternal charity truly compels it and there be no danger of scandal or harm to right faith. Even here, it is noteworthy that such participation was only ever admitted as a possibility, and on the assumption that the person was seeking the direction of legitimate pastors in good faith, in order to act well.

As sketched above, such restrictive criteria for a truly Catholic discernment are seen to depend above all on appreciating the real gravity of the moral evil involved – false worship – and on the potential danger to man’s most precious gift of faith, the violation of which is the most grievous of sins (cf. Summa II.II.10.3).

Non-Catholics at Catholic Worship?

In considering the question of non-Catholics joining in Catholic worship, such situations have always varied widely. From the disciplina arcani of the early Church to the present situation of the Underground Church in China and elsewhere, disciplinary norms in this regard must remain subject to the current general law of the Church as well as the careful, prudential judgment of the local ordinary.

The most desirable disposition would be that of welcoming non-Catholics to attend Catholic worship, provided that the integrity of the rites themselves is respected and that there is no danger of scandal or infringement of the rights of the Catholic faithful. This general disposition springs from the hope that non-Catholics, being exposed to right worship, may respond to the graces prompting them to become Catholic. This dynamic is displayed most beautifully in the lives of certain saints, particularly in that of Augustine the Manichee being moved by liturgical chant and the preaching of the holy bishop St. Ambrose.

Right worship itself is a cause of grace. This is primarily because every celebration of the Catholic Church’s official public worship (e.g., Holy Mass, Divine Office, funeral rites, etc.) stands as a corporate manifestation of Christ’s Mystical Body – these are His acts for the glorification of God, that of the totus Christus: Christ the Head joined with His Body, the Church. Participation in right worship is therefore the most significant of all human endeavors – what one could term a “near occasion of grace.” The truly pastoral hope, therefore, is that by granting to non-Catholics at least some proximity to right worship, they might respond to this grace and enter this Body.

However, lest we leap to a false premise embedded in the so-called “pastoral theory” of liturgy, the worship of the Church is in essence an action given by God and ordered to His glory – therefore, it only secondarily effects other ends, such as the religious instruction or fellowship of the congregation. Acts of divine worship do these human-oriented things only “accidentally,” and they are not for those purposes, however noble. Thus, to instrumentalize rites of worship to serve other ends, using them (or creating them!) to suit man’s ideas, projects, and programs, entails a perversion in the order of worship: it places man at the center, rather than God.

This is the major reason for excluding non-Catholics from any liturgical office or public ceremonial role in Catholic worship: such would invert the primary function of liturgy, using the rite to serve man in his anthropocentric aims at “honor,” “fellowship,” and the like. Furthermore, such inclusion of non-Catholics in liturgical roles does violence to the integrity of the rites themselves, since these are actions of the Church: Catholic rites are performed by Catholics. To violate this norm is to manifest a false unity, contradicting the dogma of the unity of the Church.

Novel Forms of Worship?

Especially after the Second Vatican Council, a wide range of novel worship forms began appearing on the Catholic scene: pseudo-rites and para-liturgies with modifiers like “ecumenical,” “interdenominational,” “interreligious,” etc., fashioned to serve the express purpose of “uniting” disparate religious traditions in various shared acts of worship.

It is beyond the scope of this article to address all such instantiations. However, given the traditional Catholic doctrine and discipline outlined above, it seems evident that from the bare fact of these rites being novelties composed as instruments to serve other ends alongside the glorification of God as He has revealed, they should be rejected out of hand. Another reason is found in recognition of the fact that such forms almost always involve some omission or diminution of certain points of Catholic doctrine (if not overt contradictions of the same) in order to achieve some “least common denominator” of mutually agreeable religious beliefs.

A robust sensus catholicus would thus be suspicious of any worship service requiring a modifier composed of four or more syllables. “Catholic” ought to be enough.

Conclusion and Call

That deviations from the traditional Catholic praxis described above have often characterized the period following the Second Vatican Council is well known. Yet as the underlying doctrine remains true, manifest violations of the same must be corrected. Ambiguous conciliar texts, subsequent pastoral guidelines of a non-doctrinal and non-binding nature, recent canons and catechisms allowing for mutually contradictory interpretations, and scandalous examples set by postconciliar prelates of every rank therefore stand in need of correction, in light of the constant and uniform testimony of Scripture and Tradition.

It is clear that faithful Catholics everywhere must reject occasions of heteropraxis in this area as actions contrary to right faith, destructive of the unity of the Church, scandalous, and uncharitable to our non-Catholic neighbors who deserve better than our placid false assurances that “we’re all really doing the same thing.”

Furthermore, in the midst of the current crisis, it is the author’s opinion that more is being asked of the Catholic faithful than simply forming our own consciences and following them in our own private activity. Our priests and bishops sorely need to hear from us, too; they need our loving encouragement and support and, at times, our humble exhortations to guard the Deposit – above all, to guard the integrity of right worship. For, to reference St. Benedict: Nothing may be placed before the Work of God – that is, the Church’s solemn worship.

Helpful Resource

For simpler access to traditional Catholic doctrine and discipline regarding communicatio in sacris, we’ve pulled together a tidy packet of “Readings from the Catholic Tradition” on the subject: a dozen pages of clear, pertinent excerpts arranged by source type (Scripture, councils, fathers, popes, catechisms, and more) with primary source citations to assist further research.

The packet intentionally omits sources postdating 1965 (with one exception: the current Code of Canon Law) in order to highlight a key question: What justification can be made for abandoning perennial Catholic discipline in this matter, so closely aligned to many underlying dogmas of faith? One must attend closely to any “the pope recommends it” line of reasoning, for current events would betray a similar pattern: a novel liturgical discipline clamors for adoption, with apparent papal support, while traditional doctrine remains “unchanged” – albeit with added pastoral norms suggesting some “deeper understanding” of what is in fact a contradiction of Catholic doctrine in practice.

“Hence, also, that understanding of its sacred dogmas must be perpetually retained, which Holy Mother Church has once declared; and there must never be recession from that meaning under the specious name of a deeper understanding. …If anyone saith that it is possible that to the dogmas declared by the Church a meaning must sometimes be attributed according to the progress of knowledge, different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.” (Vatican I, Dei Filius)

Find the topical readings packet on our resource page, prayerfully ponder it, then perhaps put it to work. Start a family discussion, share it over coffee with your pastor, write your bishop, etc. In all cases, beg for an answer to the question: what changed?

And bravo the restoration!


Editor’s note: The above was originally published at Whispers of Restoration and is reprinted here with permission.

3 thoughts on “Worship with Non-Catholics: Can You Do It?”

  1. I very much appreciate the resource packet you have provided for free. It is difficult in conversation with loved ones to simply claim “what the church has always taught” and hope for the best with google and contemporary articles.


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