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Together at the Altar Rail

It is time for the Catholic community in Britain to recognise that the other baptised partner in an interchurch family can lawfully be admitted to communion in the Catholic Church. I am not saying here that it should be done; I am just pleading that it should openly be recognised as canonically permissible.

It is now two full years since the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, issued by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity (CTS, 1993, f3.75), specifically recognised mixed marriage between baptised Christians as an instance of the "grave and pressing need" required by the Code of Canon Law for exceptional admission to communion (159, 160). The unique situation of interchurch families, united sacramentally by marriage as well as by baptism, is indicated by the fact that, apart from danger of death, it is the only specific instance of need which is given in the directory (although other possible instances are not of course excluded).

Yet some interchurch couples who pluck up courage to ask that the partner who is not a Catholic may be admitted to communion are still being met by astonishing answers. Two quite common ones from parish priests are "It is not possible", or "I have never heard of such a thing". Perhaps the most astonishing answer of all came from a bishop; one couple said he told them that "the directory doesn't apply over here".

There is now a staggering degree of unevenness throughout the country. In some parishes couples are able to receive communion together on a regular basis. In some dioceses the bishop will be "very happy" to admit the other Christian parent to communion on an occasion such as a child's First Communion. In other places couples are met with an absolute refusal, given in terms which imply they have no right even to ask.

What is the least that we should hope for, two years after the directory has appeared? Surely all Catholic ministers need to be aware that admission to communion is not only "permitted" but "commended" in certain circumstances and by way of exception (129), and that the just assessment of particular cases is what the directory requires of them (130). They should all be aware that the need of some interchurch couples to share communion is specifically recognised at the level of the Church worldwide.

For a long time now many interchurch families have felt protective towards those Catholic ministers who have admitted them to communion. They have sometimes been given permission to receive communion together, but at the same time have been asked to be discreet about it. They have sometimes been told: "Don't ask me; just come." They have been grateful for a pastoral response to their need to share communion, and have not wanted to embarrass those who have admitted them. They have realised that to apply the provisions of the 1983 Code of Canon Law on admission to communion to partners in interchurch families could be regarded by some as stretching canon law.

There have been many difficulties about this situation. For one thing, it conveys a feeling that something rather underhand is taking place. So the way in which the directory specifically applied these provisions to interchurch families came as a relief. The subject can be brought out into the open, and a genuine pastoral dialogue can take place.

There are genuine difficulties. "How can I know that there is a real need in the case of any particular couple?" asks a bishop. "It will open the floodgates", says another. "How can I admit you to communion when I have to refuse Catholics?" asks a third bishop (referring to divorced and remarried Catholics).

Let us tackle these and other difficulties in an open way. I think it is important that as a community we do not go on keeping quiet about this question of admission to communion for interchurch families. If we do, we are in effect saying it does not really matter much. But it does matter a very great deal to some interchurch families. The time-scale on which they operate is different from that on which the whole Church operates. Some interchurch families care - care desperately - that they share eucharistic communion in order to carry out better their mission as married couples and as joint educators of their children in the few years which are available to them, but they are made to feel that this desire is somehow unreasonable. And others would like to be able to feed their positive experience of sharing communion openly into the life of the whole Church, so that they could be a sign of hope in ecumenical relationships.

Interchurch families recognise that there are real difficulties for bishops and ministers and the whole Catholic community in admitting to communion. But please, please let nobody say any more that it is not possible.

Ruth Reardon