Ecumenical Sensitivity in the RCIA

The lex orandi of the Roman Catholic Church says something very important about her lex credendi in the case of the reception of baptized Christians into full communion. The rite for reception, including its introductory directions, has something to tell us about the RC church’s belief in ecumenism.

No. 475, for example, says this: “Any appearance of triumphalism should be carefully avoided.” One should consider “the ecumenical implications” of the rite. No. 479 says this: “One who was born and baptized outside the visible communion of the Catholic Church is not required to make an abjuration of heresy, but simply a profession of faith.” By this is meant the Nicene Creed (recited together with the congregation) plus this: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” Period.

The suggested General Intercessions (no. 496) state that the candidate “has already been united to Christ through baptism” and prays for “all who believe in Christ and for the Communities to which they belong, that they may come to perfect unity.” Note the wording – not that those separated from the RCC may join her, but that all the Christian Communities might come into unity. (I’ve heard about a TV program called “Home to Rome” – has anybody told them that they’re misrepresenting the Roman Catholic faith?!) Another intercession prays for the Church or Communion of the candidate, “that it may always grow in knowledge of Christ and proclaim him more effectively.” Note the wording – not that it will come back to the Catholic Church.

Ecclesiologists of the strict observance will insist that Lutherans and Methodists and such folks aren’t a church, they’re an ecclesial community. Only those of us with apostolic succession and communion with Peter are a church, properly speaking. I suppose they have a point – and they could cite the distinction between “Church” and “Communion” in that last intercession. But I have it on good authority that it’s OK to use “church” to refer to other Christians. When Cardinal Walter Kasper was at St. John’s to give a Diekmann lecture, in a friendly lunch and discussion with our SOT community, he said that “of course we use church in ordinary conversation. Such distinctions are for technical theological discourse.” Well that’s a relief. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. Now I can use ELCA and UMC in good conscience without feeling obligated to substitute Evangelical Lutheran Ecclesial Communion of America or United Methodist Separated Community. This will make it a lot easier to announce in the parish bulletin where next year’s prayer service during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will take place.

Every so often we’ll get a comment on this blog to the effect that “Protestants should join the real Church” or “Why should the True Church compromise with heresy?” We promptly delete all such comments. I guess you could say that we’re zealous about upholding the true teachings of the Church and stomping out error.



  1. In the south, we have many Protestants who attend Catholic Churches with their spouse and for years and never ask to be received into the full communion of the Church. Some continue to rear their children Catholic even when the Catholic spouse dies! We try to respect them and not put them down. At our Rite of Election, we had a Lutheran Representative from the Georgia Ecumenical Commission to witness it. Our bishop emphasized that those of other denominations should not in any way diminish the importance of their past Christian formation. The majority of our Catholics marry Protestants, so this is ecumenism on a grassroots level. I go to many Protestant funerals of spouses of parishioners frequently.

  2. One slight correction in your distinction between church and ecclesial community. A Church has apostolic succession and valid sacraments, but does not necessarily have to be in communion with Peter. The Orthodox churches are considered churches. Recall Pope John Paul II speaking of the “two lungs” of the Church. Ecclesial communities would have valid baptism but no apostolic succession and other valid sacraments. For instance, some (not all) Anglicans and Lutherans can claim apostolic succession, but their orders are not considered valid.

    1. Good point, Fr. Costigan! I actually had that in the back of my mind but (excuses, excuses) one wants to be brief on a blog. I should have chosen better wording.

  3. As one who works both in Christian initiation and ecumenism, let me urge a little bit of caution here. The term “ecclesial community,” like “subsists,” was used at V2 NOT to exclude but to include as many Christian traditions as possible in what was said about elements of the Church found outside the Roman Catholic Church. Further, the phrase was not intended to say which groups were church or not, with the specific example of the Salvation Army given which does not think of itself as “church.” Today it is being interpreted, thanks to Dominus Iesus, in the way Chris, my former student, says. But history is a helpful thing and I would suggest all look at Paul Turner’s BECOMING CATHOLIC by Liturgical Press for what I consider the most helpful discussion of this. Pax, Max

    1. A lot of the credit for my interest in these subjects is a direct result of Max’s class at the alma mater. So, if you are looking for someone to blame for my comments…

  4. In 2007, the CDF issued a document re-iterating Dominus Iesus that Protestant denominations are not true churches but ecclesial communities (while the Orthodox are):
    ‘According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense.”
    Signed by Pope Benedict XVI.

    1. The head of CDF which issued this clarification just made a speech on 3/6 in Ontario concerning the Anglicanorum coetibus (titled “Five Hundred Years After St. John Fisher: Benedict’s Ecumenical Initiatives to Anglicans”). Headline summaries have picked up the line from the speech where Cardinal Levada says “Union with the Catholic Church is the goal of ecumenism.” Its context is important and I’ve been watching for the full text to appear. Found it at

  5. This strikes me as the “I’m OK, you’re OK” brand of ecumenism. As a Catholic, I believe that I am a member of the ecclesial community instituted by Peter, and those who are not Catholic are not.

    I realize that my understanding might be flawed, but I accept that other Christian groups (and non Christian religions) have a portion of the revealed Truth of God. Some have a more complete portion, and other have a less complete portion. However the most complete portion is contained in the Catholic Church (or I would not be Catholic).

    Ecumenism that does not endeavor to draw non-Catholics into a more complete understanding of God’s revealed Truth (culminating in acceptance into the Catholic Church), is not charitable in my opinion.

  6. This comment is intended to be more wit than wisdom.
    When I was received into the Church I sent rubric 475 to my receiving priest, the one Fr Anthony cites: “Any appearance of triumphalism should be carefully avoided.” He wrote back, “Damn. That spoils all our plans.”
    But what I want to comment on is the serendipity of a juxtaposition. In this posting we hear Cardinal Kasper say “Such distinctions are for technical theological discourse.” Theologians drone on, but who pays attention to them? Then in “Anyone You Know Here?” I had the feeling that we were supposed to take the list seriously because there were theologians on it. Theologians are our source of wisdom. There has been the custom of referring to a “dual magisterium,” meaning ecclesiastical and academic. But what to do when they become a “dueling magisterium”? Even in my early days, I sometimes wondered about the statistical improbability of the bishops always being wrong and the academics always right.

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