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Thomas Ryan, CSP Answers:
As a baptized Roman Catholic who is now a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, can I still receive communion in the Catholic Church without disrespecting the Church’s policy?
The sensitivity you express in the phrase “without disrespecting the (Catholic) Church’s policy” is admirable. As you have witnessed, the various denominations do have different policies. Why? Because they attach different significance/meanings to receiving Holy Communion.
For example, for Catholics as well as for Eastern Orthodox, sharing in the one bread and cup is an expression of unity in faith, worship, mission, and governance. For most Protestants, sharing the Eucharist with other Christians is not so much a sign of unity realized as a means of getting there, of growing together more deeply into unity. A case can be made for either approach, but the simple fact is, the two different approaches result in different policies.
So if you now see yourself as a member of the ELCA, then you are called to both act consistent with its policy, and to respect the policies of other churches–including the Catholic Church and it’s guidelines on eucharistic sharing. As you can see, when you make a decision to leave one church and join another, it has implications for your relationship with the church you left. When you consciously decide to leave a community, how “honest” would it be for you to still receive what is understood as the sacrament of full unity in the community you chose to leave?
That said, the Catholic Church is not an always ‘yes’ or always ‘no’ on this question. In the words of Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism:
“As for common worship, however, it may not be regarded as a means to be used indiscriminately for the restoration of unity among Christians. Such worship depends chiefly on two principles: it should signify the unity of the Church; it should provide a sharing in the means of grace. The fact that it should signify unity generally rules out common worship. Yet the gaining of a needed grace sometimes commends it.
“The practical course to be adopted, after due regard has been given to all the circumstances of time, place and personage, is left to the prudent decision of the local episcopal authority….”(8).
Thus, there are normally guidelines in every diocese relative to concrete practice at the parish level, and local pastors should be familiar with them.
For further information, read our answer on the difference between Catholic and Lutheran belief in communion.