The Lord’s Supper is one of the most important practices in the Presbyterian and Roman Catholic traditions. Yet these two historic branches of the Christian faith believe differently about the bread and the cup. Many people wonder if Presbyterians can take communion in a Catholic church.
Presbyterians can’t receive the Eucharist in a Roman Catholic Mass. Catholicism teaches that Presbyterians aren’t part of the true church (1 Cor. 10:17) and to partake in the bread and cup would be to invite judgment upon themselves, even death (1 Cor. 11:29). Exceptions to this rule are extremely rare.
What’s the difference between Presbyterian and Catholic communion? What are the rare exceptions by which a non-Catholic Protestant, like a Presbyterian, can receive it? Keep reading to learn more.
Presbyterian and Catholic communion compared
To understand why the Catholic church prohibits Presbyterians from receiving communion, it’s important to understand how the traditions view the bread and cup differently. The comparison chart below is a starting point to help people understand the similarities and differences. (Also see Presbyterian vs Roman Catholic; What’s the Difference?)
|Name||Mostly referred to as The Lord’s Supper or communion; a small number of Protestants use the term Eucharist||Often referred to as The Eucharist,” from the Greek work meaning “to thank”; it’s also referred to as Holy Communion and the Lord’s Supper|
|Nature||It’s an ordinance, not a sacrament; an ordinance isn’t a means of grace, only Christ’s death on the cross enables the forgiveness of sin||It’s a sacrament, not an ordinance; a sacrament is a means of grace, and Christ’s sacrifice is re-presented in the Eucharist|
|Participants||Christians; many Presbyterian churches allow non-Presbyterians Christians to participate||Christians (i.e. Catholics)|
|Confession||Participants are encouraged to confess their sin to God prior to consuming the elements||Participants have to have gone to Confession after last mortal sin; (1) There must be an urgent reason (e.g. imminent death), (2) it must be impossible to go to confession first, (3) the person must be a Christian, and (4) the must commit to go to confession as soon as possible.*|
|Elements||Sometimes called the “Spiritual Presence” view, it holds that Christ is present in the elements in a spiritual way, not a physical one||Transubstantiation; the bread and wine are literally transformed into the actual body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ|
|Grace||It is not a means of grace||It is a means of grace|
|Fasting||There is no formal recommendation regarding fasting||Participants must avoid food and drink for at least one hour after consuming the elements; exceptions are made in some cases for the elderly and for those who require medicine***|
|Exclusions||Non-Christians||Non-Catholics; those excommunicated from the Catholic church|
*Confess as soon as possible [Code of Canon Law 916]: “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.”
**The bread and cup are Jesus’ body and blood [Code of Canon Law 899]: “The eucharistic celebration is the action of Christ himself and the Church. In it, Christ the Lord, through the ministry of the priest, offers himself, substantially present under the species of bread and wine, to God the Father and gives himself as spiritual food to the faithful united with his offering.”
***Fast for an hour [Code of Canon Law 919]: “A person who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before holy communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine.”
Bishops disallow non-Catholic particpation
Who, other than church members in good standing, can take communion at a Catholic church, has often been the subject of discussion and debate. Church leaders have addressed the issue more in recent decades. (Also see Presbyterian vs Episcopalian: What’s the Difference?)
This may be due to a rise in ecumenical partnerships, which has exposed more people to the Catholic church. In 1996, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops articulated instructions about who can receive the Eucharist:
“Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion. Eucharistic sharing in exceptional circumstances by other Christians requires permission according to the directives of the diocesan bishop and the provisions of canon law (canon 844 §4, emphasis added).
Members of the Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Polish National Catholic Church are urged to respect the discipline of their own Churches. According to Roman Catholic discipline, the Code of Canon Law does not object to the reception of Communion by Christians of these Churches (canon 844 §3).”Guidelines for the Reception of Communion 
While some suggest that having a “closed table” communion, as opposed to an “open table” format, hurts the Catholic church’s relationship with other professing Christians, Catholic doctrine has been, and always will be, non-negotiable. (Also see Can a Catholic Go to a Presbyterian Church?)
Exceptions for Protestants are rare
Under rare circumstances, Protestants such as Presbyterians are able to receive the Eucharist. While it’s an unlikely event, it’s possible when the right circumstances are met. According to Canon Law, the parameters are:
“If the danger of death is present or other grave necessity, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or the conference of bishops, Catholic ministers may licitly administer these sacraments to other Christians who do not have full Communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and on their own ask for it, provided they manifest Catholic faith in these sacraments and are properly disposed.”Code of Canon Law 844
Why would a Presbyterian want to take communion in a Catholic church? Many Protestants, Presbyterians included, are uncomfortable receiving communion in a Catholic Mass because they don’t believe Jesus spoke literally when he said that the bread was his actually body and the cup was his actual blood. (Also see Presbyterian USA vs Presbyterian Church in America: What’s the Difference?)
Nevertheless, some Presbyterians would take communion in a Catholic church if they were allowed, even if they disagreed with the theology. The reasons they would want to do this vary:
- Perhaps a member of a Presbyterian church is marrying a member of a Catholic church and the wedding is in a Catholic church and includes the Eucharist
- Perhaps a Presbyterian family or friends are visiting a loved one who is a member of a Catholic church and wants to fully participate in the Mass
- Perhaps the only church in a particular area of the world is Catholic and it’s the only place a Presbyterian has to go to hear Scripture, worship Christ, and be with other professing Christians
Exception for Eastern Orthodox are infrequent
Members of the Eastern Orthodox Church have the same convictions about the Lord’s Supper as Catholicism. Because of this, Orthodox church members can receive the Eucharist under the right circumstances:
“Catholic ministers may licitly administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist and anointing of the sick to members of the oriental churches which do not have full Communion with the Catholic Church, if they ask on their own for the sacraments and are properly disposed.
This holds also for members of other churches, which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition as the oriental churches as far as these sacraments are concerned”Code of Canon Law 844
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