Cardinal Sarah Corrects Pope Francis on Intercommunion

Pope Francis made headlines when he recently told a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man, responding to her question about receiving Holy Communion with him, that she should “talk to the Lord and then go forward.” (Pray Tell reported here.)

Aleteia asked Cardinal Sarah, the African cardinal who is head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, to respond to the Pope’s comments. He did so with sharp words uncharacteristic of a curial official:

It’s not that I have to talk to the Lord in order to know if I should go to Communion. … It’s not a personal desire or a personal dialogue with Jesus that determines if I can receive Communion in the Catholic Church. … . A person cannot decide if he is able to receive Communion. He has to have the rule of the Church: i.e., being a Catholic, being in a state of grace, properly married [if married].

Cardinal Sarah also overstated, which is to say misstated, the Catholic Church’s official policy on intercommunion:

Intercommunion is not permitted between Catholics and non-Catholics. You must confess the Catholic Faith. A non-Catholic cannot receive Communion. That is very, very clear. It’s not a matter of following your conscience.

Cardinal Sarah seems to be aware that the official policy is in fact not quite that clear and does allow for exceptions. But he mischaracterizes the exceptions by oddly limiting things to Anglicans:

Sometimes, an Anglican who is very far away from his church for a very long period of time and who desires to receive Communion, can participate in Mass and receive Communion in the Catholic Church, where there is no sin, and he is properly married.

It’s not that Sarah has a particularly ecumenical disposition toward Anglicans. He expressed the prohibition on Catholics receiving Communion in an Anglican church with these choice words:

[I]n the Anglican church is it not actually the Eucharist because there is no priesthood. … [A] Catholic cannot receive communion in the Anglican church, because there is no Communion; there is only bread. The bread is not consecrated, because the priest is not a priest.

So there you have it.

I suppose some might try to cite the Second Vatican Council in support of the Cardinal, for even as the Council opened up a path of dialogue, it certainly did not recognize the validity of Anglican orders. But the language Cardinal Sarah uses is of a sort not to be found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

The Council opened up a new way for Christians to talk to one another, a new way for Catholics to talk to and about Christians of other traditions. It was a small beginning, but it pointed in a new and different direction and set the Catholic Church on a new path. The idea was that this would lead to as yet unforeseen possibilities.

It is a shame that Cardinal Sarah chooses words that are so different in spirit from those of the Second Vatican Council



  1. Agreed. Sadly, it is increasingly clear that the Cardinal was mis-assigned to his current post. His ability to discern nuances and to speak prudently about contentious issues is plainly very limited. I don’t know what to say about his evident unconcern about flatly contradicting the Holy Father in public. I am concerned that this has reached a political level, in which a coterie of opponents to the Pope’s general direction have been so successful in bucking each other up that they don’t feel the need to be deferential when they disagree with him.

    Also, sadly, I can see Sarah being exploited by those who want to drive a wedge between the Pope and the people, by casting the Pope as a purveyor of false teaching. This is really a problem, responsibility for which is shared by the news outlet as well as the Cardinal.

  2. It strikes me that both the Pope and the Cardinal get some things right and some things wrong. The Pope is right in that there are a variety of exceptional circumstances in which a non-Catholic can receive sacraments in a Catholic Church and that an exercise of prudence is required in determining when those circumstances pertain. But I think it is unfortunate that he seemed to cast this as a matter of individual conscience. Church law, at least, makes the bishop of arbiter of these cases, not the individual. So the Cardinal is correct that this is not a matter to be determined by the individual’s conscience but by Church law as interpreted by the bishop. But he seems somewhat surprisingly ignorant of what that Church law is and, unlike the Pope’s obvious tentativeness in making his reply, couches his statements apodictically.

  3. But the language Cardinal Sarah uses is of a sort not to be found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

    Some of us who yearn for clarity from our shepherds would consider that a net positive. 😉

    And, in my experience at least, if the future of the Church is to be influenced greatly by Africa, we in the “first world” can expect a lot more of this sort of plain speaking in the next few decades.

  4. It may be that Cdl Sarah’s approach may, (un)wittingly, be furthering what appears to be a larger agenda of Pope Francis: that people (including prelates and curial officials) stop automatically taking or portraying papal statements as oracular.

  5. First, Cardinal Sarah’s first language is not English. That probably accounts for some of the perceived negative tone. Second, his predecessor by two, Cardinal Arinze, uses language of a similar clarity and what I would call frankness but never in a way that one could characterize as being unwelcoming, only honest (why should we make it seem as if things are otherwise, not only in terms of receiving Communion-or not- but also in terms of the barriers between us and other Christian communities?). Cardinal Burke is much the same way.

    His Eminence is correct, if unclear, that one must profess the Catholic faith in the sacraments to receive the sacraments (CIC 844 §4). What he doesn’t say is that it doesn’t mean that they must be received into the church, but given the teaching last reiterated in Lumen Gentium of necessity of full communion, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t also receive confirmation or in the case of an Orthodox faithful, be received into full communion with the church, if you believe the sacramental teaching…

    This perhaps is a stretch on what His Eminence said, but I think one could argue that Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Old Catholic faithful are already Catholic, and it’s already permitted expressly with respect to the discipline of the other churches.

    I wonder if he mentions Anglicans due to their communion’s prominence as a casual example. And Apostolicae curae is wicked complicated but what he said, I think, has to be treated as the norm, other things as historical exceptions.

    I also agree to the implication that His Eminence undercuts the hyper-papalist positions…

    1. Matthew Roth cites Sarah, Arinze, and Burke as examples of prelates who speak with “clarity” and “frankness.” It’s fair to say that these three men bring a similar mindset in regard to theological/doctrinal issues. I’d suggest that what admirers take to be “clarity” and “frankness” might also be seen as an inclination to oversimplify questions of complexity that ought to be approached with more nuance.

      In many cases, one might wish the solution to a problem were simple and clear, but wishing it were so and pretending it’s so doesn’t make it so. My sense is that the traditionalist approach to a great variety of questions — of doctrine, morality, liturgy, social issues, ecclesial politics, etc — is often the result of a desire to make things simpler than they really are. Admirers (others of a similar mindset) see this is as clarity when it’s often not.

      By way of analogy: If Johnny is failing math class, one might well conclude that the problem is that he’s not studying enough. A statement of utter clarity: if he’d study more, he would not fail. Now widen the frame and imagine that Johnny has recently transferred from a different school with less effective teachers, which is the result of the school’s location in a region of higher poverty and so a lower tax base, and that Johnny’s transfer was precipitated by the divorce of his parents. Saying that Johnny would pass math if he studied more remains a statement of utter clarity; but it also completely fails to comprehend the situation.

      Too often when I read “frank,” “clear,” “tell it like it is” statements by leaders and commentators, it’s not that they’re lying or utterly false. It’s that they lack a nuanced view of the topic that would offer far greater understanding.

  6. Well, Cardinal Sarah didn’t mention all the exceptions found on the last page of the Missalettes, but since the Orthodox, Polish National and Assyrian Church of the East’s discipline doesn’t allow their members to take Catholic Communion, it’s pretty much a moot point. Of course, I believe if someone is in danger of death and ask for it of their own volition and profess the Catholic faith regarding the same, non-Catholics can approach a Catholic priest if a minister of their own Church isn’t available. I agree it’s not as simple as “follow your conscience.”
    As for his remarks on Catholics receiving Communion in an Anglican service, here is the relevant paragraph of Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism:
    “Though the ecclesial Communities which are separated from us lack the fullness of unity with us flowing from Baptism, and though we believe they have not retained the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Orders, nevertheless when they commemorate His death and resurrection in the Lord’s Supper, they profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and look forward to His coming in glory.”
    Cardinal Sarah’s remarks are blunt and lacking in the floweriness of the Vatican II prose, but isn’t “we believe they have not retained the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Orders” pretty much equivalent to his remarks? Maybe not as diplomatic, and not accounting for the fact some Anglican priests had an Old Catholic or Eastern Orthodox bishop participate in their ordination to ensure valid orders but essentially the same point? Does ecumenism mean sweeping our differences under the rug, pretending they’re not there?

    1. @Jay Edward:
      UR 22, that is, the portion quoted here, is out of context. It ends with the admonition that these varying approaches therefore must be the subject of dialogue, not with the statement that they are grounds for a firm and final exclusion. Flowery? Not really. Rather precise, I’d say.

  7. Many devout, practising Catholics seem to regard Holy Communion as a “thing.” This unfortunate notion is reinforced by the words used in connection with this sacrament – take, make, receive and even confect. But surely the reality of Holy Communion is the shared life? We are made sharers of the Life of the Blessed Trinity by our Baptism. This shared Life, ie Communion, is expressed, focused and strengthened in us in various ways, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist when we take our part. This holy communion is a fact for all Christians, and it involves not only a life shared with God but also with all other Christians. Whom does God exclude?

    I’m not accusing Cdl Sarah of believing that the Sacrament is a Thing, but I think he reckons the existing Communion of Christians too narrowly. Particularly when a couple confidently and gratefully shares the Christ-life in their married life, the communion already exists and needs the Bread of Life, and they are entitled to share it together. As pope Francis has more than once reminded us, real life circumstances trump abstract theories and doctrines.

    Those who choose to exclude others might well consider this stanza from a poem by Edwin Markham

    “He drew a circle that shut me out.
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
    But Love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle that took him in.”

    1. @Mary Wood:
      Wonderful comment Mary. Pope Francis is helping us to broaden our vision of Church and communion beyond what’s become to some a religious Water Buffalo Lodge. I’ve come to believe that his public comments are carefully chosen and purposeful, meant to stir up the Spirit and make us consider and reconsider why we do what we do.

    2. @Mary Wood:
      thank you for saying something sensible, about , what, too easily becomes, an abstract, connected to nothing, debate….,and how does the church “police” all these rules?…really, priests don’t know who is taking communion from them…
      gert anckaert

  8. Excellent point, Mr.Hudock

    Another viewpoint (in response to Mr. Hazell):

    – currently 16% of the world catholics are African (so, not sure the future trend of the world church will be dominated by Africa)
    – unlike other world regions (e.g. CELAM for south/central americas or the FABC for asian bishops) there is no African equivalent; currently, only a couple of the larger nations have functioning episcopal conferences….again, impact on any future trends
    – Sarah – reality is that Francis is trying to de-emphasize the curia heads (such as Sarah) and move decisionmaking to synods and regional episcopal conferences (implementing Francis’ experience with CELAM). So, doubt that Francis puts much stock in what folks such as Burke, Sarah, or even Arinze said. (keep in mind, even Benedict had to get Arinze out of Rome because of his tendency to alienate folks)
    – suggest that much of the older African bishops all followed the same pattern – trained in Rome for years; served in some cases only a brief time in their own countries; and then were called to positions in Rome. Not sure that they even represent or reflect the needs and feelings of the African Church. Their experience is in the first world and the Vatican – they did not serve in the peripheries and they will be slowly replaced which will impact the exact point that Mr. Hazell was making.

    (just for you, Kathy)

  9. Excellent comment at # 12, Barry.

    Ecumenical issues are by nature fraught with complexity. It is very interesting to read what then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 1993 to Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann in Bavaria. This was about the evangelisch (i.e. Protestant or Lutheran) tradition, but I think it applies also to the Anglican tradition:

    “I reckon as one of the important results of ecumenical conversations particularly the realization that the question of the Eucharist cannot be restricted to the problem of ‘validity.’ Even a theology along the lines of the concept of succession, as is in force in the Catholic and in the Orthodox Church, should in no way deny the saving presence of the Lord in the Evangelical Lord’s Supper. The place of the Eucharist is of course seen differently within the framework of the ecclesiology of the Reformed tradition from how it is seen in the Catholic and Orthodox tradition. There is no doubt that the dialogues still have a great deal of work before them here. Yet this difference, and the questions it implies, cannot diminish what has so far been found on the path of ecumenism.” (in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, Ignatius 2005, p. 248.

    Between Ratzinger and Sarah a great gap is fixed. The difference in both tone and content is quite stark. Ratzinger is aware of what V2 made possible and what new paths have opened up since V2, even as he is quite cautious. I have the impression that Sara is in over his head, doesn’t know what he’s talking about, is unaware of these discussions. He comes across as one of those whom Pope Francis regularly scolds for being fundamentalist.

    By contrast – three cheers for Ratzinger! His statement on the “saving presence of the Lord in the Evangelical Lord’s Supper” is important.


  10. Fr. Ruff to your last point and taken from the flite back from Africa:

    “When asked if the church should alter its opposition to use of condoms, especially in Africa, where the spread of HIV-AIDS continues, he answered that “the question seems too small to me.” Here’s some of the rest of his answer:

    “This question makes me think of what they asked Jesus one time: ‘Tell me, master, is it licit to heal on the Sabbath?'” Francis continued”Malnutrition, exploitation of persons, slave work, lack of drinking water,” he said. “These are the problems.”

    “I do not like to descend into reflections that are so casuistic when people are dying,” he continued. “I would say to not think if it is licit or not licit to heal on the Sabbath. I say to humanity: Make justice, and when all are healed, when there is not injustice in this world, we can speak of the Sabbath”

    Using this quote as an analogy to the issue of ecumenical/Anglican and eucharistic sharing. Suggest that he sees responses such as Sarah’s to fit into the *casuistic* category – thus, missing the context, point, etc. And to my post above, it would appear that Francis would see African leaders more concerned with what is viciously hurting their own people – malnutrion, disease, lack of clean water, lack of crops, financial inequality, misuse of natural resources, etc. long before you focus on this question.

    Mary Wood – agree. Have posted often that too many folks grew up with and have never grown from the idea of eucharist as a *thing* – eucharist is an *action* by the community. Things have to be protected; defended, stored in tabernacles, etc. Actions free us to take, offer, bring, share, nourish, etc.

  11. There are Eucharistic doctrines and disciplines that are an important feature of Catholic faith. And then there are Eucharistic practices…how the faithful recieve and understand the doctrines and disiciplines. One “dirty little secret” about Catholicism is that not even all priests and bishops agree on even the most important matters including who may receive communion and who may benefit from its grace. The Old Guard subscribes to a Eucharistic theology that gives as much attention to the way the celebrant positions his fingers on the chalice and post communion ablutions as to the meaning of the real presence. It’s about rubrics and prohibitions more than about “take and eat”, “take and drink”. For them the Eucharistic species requires protection from those whose offenses might cause suffering to the Lord. Was the betrayer not among those with whom Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup? Did not all the others who just received “first communion”, save John, abandon Jesus in his hour of suffering? Did “the rock” not deny even knowing him within hours of taking communion? Did Jesus give himself to the disciples as a reward for their fidelity to all his teachings? If this was not the case then why would it be so now? It is my experience that ordinary Catholics have a far different notion of conscience than that espoused by learned clerics. But the latter, sadly, seem to think that salvation hinges on the laity complying with their understanding of all things Roman Catholic. So much for Matthew 25.

  12. Interesting side note from Massimo Faggioli at dotCommonweal. Guess one could contrast Francis and Sarah with Francis in the position of Chenu, Rahner, Congar:

    Pertinent quote:

    “What strikes me about the Catholic church of today, especially when considering the debates at the recent synod, is how history (church history, the history of doctrinal developments, the history of institutions like marriage) is used, or, if you will, not used, when making arguments about doctrine. This is unfortunate. Perhaps the globalization of Catholicism has complicated things. But then that’s all the more reason to make time for history. That there’s so much of it is a good thing, and the best way to ensure development of doctrine is to explore its depths.”

    Suggest that Sarah has no idea about the history of this issue.

  13. I imagine we will be surprised then when Jesus asks us at that moment we recognize Him face to face …

    “What part of ‘Do this in remembrance of Me’ did you not understand?”

    Yes Cardinal Sarah, it is that you have to talk to the Lord in order to know if you should go to Communion. And if we take that generous request of His seriously, then our response might be “Lord, I am not worthy…” …at that point the Catholic Church has to get out of the way of the conversation.

    1. @Ed Nash:

      One might also suppose that He could ask of Anglicans, Lutheran, etc.

      “What part of “This is my body”, and “Unless you eat of the of the flesh of the Son of Man” did you not understand…

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