Matters arising : May we pray with non-Catholics?

Rev. Nicholas Mary, C.SS.R.

Fr. Nicholas Mary answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

Public prayer

As always, before we can answer a question adequately, terms must be defined and distinctions made. The general principle is clear, as Cardinal Newman writes:

From time immemorial, from the earliest ages, members of the Church have been forbidden communicatio in sacris [i.e. participation in religious rites] with those who were external to it. This prohibition is not intended as the expression of any judgment on this or that individual, but is a general and formal decision upon the position of non-Catholics as such. The sole question then is about the fact, the application of the principle, viz. What is communicatio in sacris? On this point there has been a difference of opinion, and in various times, places, dioceses and communities it has been answered variously.Letter to William Froude of 31 January, 1860 concerning the reception into the Catholic Church of Mr. Froude's daughter and eldest son.1

Active vs passive participation

The traditional discipline is summed up in Canon 1258 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which both states the fundamental principle behind it, and distinguishes between active and passive participation in the religious rites of non-Catholics:

§1. It is not licit for the faithful by any manner to assist actively or to have a part in the sacred [rites] of non-Catholics.

§ 2. Passive or merely material presence can be tolerated for the sake of honour or civil office, for grave reason approved by the Bishop in case of doubt, at the funerals, weddings, and similar solemnities of non-Catholics, provided danger of perversion and scandal is absent.2

 Neither the comparatively guarded (yet erroneous) language of the conciliar decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio §8 (“Communicatio in sacris is not to be considered as a means to be used indiscriminately for the restoration of Christian unity. There are two main principles governing the practice of such common worship: first, the bearing witness to the unity of the Church, and second, the sharing in the means of grace. Witness to the unity of the Church very generally forbids common worship to Christians, but the grace to be had from it sometimes commends this practice. The course to be adopted, with due regard to all the circumstances of time, place, and persons, is to be decided by local episcopal authority, unless otherwise provided for by the Bishops' Conference according to its statutes, or by the Holy See.”) nor the 1983 code's canon 844 §2, which speaks of the need to avoid the “danger of error or indifferentism,” can be said to influence the free-for-all that is the modern Catholic's embrace of ecumenical prayer and worship today.

Passive participation in detail

Inasmuch as the presence of Catholics at non-Catholic worship is an occasion of danger of perversion in the Faith, or of actively participating in a heretical or schismatical rite, or of giving scandal, then, as a decree of the Holy Office stated in 1719, it is “forbidden by the natural and divine law, in which there is no power to dispense, nor any connivance that can excuse.”3  The law of the Church merely reinforces what is already the natural and divine law in such cases.

However, absent these circumstances, and for a good enough reason, it is true that Catholics may be passively present at certain non-Catholic religious ceremonies. To remain passive at such occasions is socially easier than ever today, as so many who attend (for example) weddings and funerals have no religion, and simply sit and stand as decorum requires, remaining otherwise inactive. The eminent U.S. moral theologian Fr. F.J. Connell, C.SS.R. (1888–1967) clarifies what is permitted:

By passive or merely material assistance at a religious service is meant mere presence without contributing any word or action which could reasonably be interpreted as a concurrence in the religious aspect of the rite. Whenever a Catholic is permitted to assist passively at a non-Catholic public act of worship, he can and should perform those actions that common courtesy demands. He should uncover on entering the church (or keep his hat on when assisting at Orthodox Jewish services) and maintain a decorous silence; he should stand or sit with the congregation. Every one knows that these acts are simply marks of deference and consideration for the worshippers; they are not an approbation of the worship itself. Kneeling during Protestant services does not seem proper for a Catholic. Indeed, if the minister were a high-church Anglican, regarding himself as a true priest, a Catholic would have to regard the act of kneeling at the 'consecration' as idolatry. But, even apart from this case, the rule laid down by Bancroft, C.SS.R., should be known and followed by Catholics: 'In itself kneeling at religious worship implies a religious attitude, rather than one of mere respect and decorum, which is all that should be reasonably expected at religious services when a person does not adhere to the tenets and practices of a sect. Even if there is a custom looking upon kneeling merely as an act of politeness, it is not to be encouraged by Catholics... Not to kneel during non-Catholic services will not give offence ordinarily, for it generally happens that non- Catholics do not kneel when they attend Catholic services. There is no need for Catholics to be 'broad-minded' in a matter of this kind.' It must be emphasised that even merely passive assistance at non-Catholic public worship is not tolerated except for a grave reason, for normally it is a danger to the Faith and a source of scandal.4

In the January–February issue of Ite Missa Est we already noted that when Catholics visit the churches of oriental and other schismatic groups that have retained a valid priesthood and the Real Presence, “as Our Lord is sacramentally present, they should genuflect (or perform the prostration customary in the East), and may adore Him in silent prayer.” It should also be obvious that in cases analogous to those in which we would not attend the weddings or funerals of Catholics (e.g. of a divorced person attempting remarriage or the religious obsequies of a public sinner), we should likewise not be present at those of non-Catholics.

On such occasions, then, we may not join in the responses or even sing the hymns with the rest of the congregation. This vigorous refusal to pray publicly with non-Catholics was the discipline of the Church right up to the confusion of Vatican II, and was particularly steadfast in its practice in the English-speaking world.

Witness of the martyrs

The example of the martyrs of Britain and Ireland surely contributed to this firmness. Let us consider but one instance amongst many recorded in their acts of martyrdom.

Bl. George Nappier (1550–1610) was an English priest martyred in Oxford under James I. His testimony at the gallows was typical of the attitude of the martyrs (and of Catholics in general) towards praying with heretics. A fellow prisoner related the circumstances of his death:

The 9 November, being Friday, 1610, it pleased God to appoint the time in which the faith of Mr. George Nappier, priest, was to be tried in the furnace. Being brought, therefore, out of prison, and laid on the hurdle, with hands joined, and his eyes fixed towards Heaven, without moving any way, he was drawn to the place of execution. Where being taken off, and set on his feet, beholding the place where he was to suffer, he signed himself with the sign of the cross; and ascending the steps of the ladder with a cheerful mind, to receive his martyrdom, turning his face toward the people, having again signed himself with the sign of the cross, he began to speak as follows:

'Gentlemen, you must expect no great speech at my hands, for indeed, I intend none; only, I acknowledge myself to be a miserable and wretched sinner.’

And therewithal joining his hands with intention to pray, he was interrupted by a minister, who called to him, saying, ‘Nappier, Nappier, confess your treason.’ Wherewith, bending himself, and looking down towards him, he answered him, saying:

‘Treason, Sir! I thank God, I never knew what treason meant.’

To which the minister replied, ‘Be advised what you say, do not you remember how the judge told you, it was treason to be a priest?’ He answered the minister again.

‘For that I die, Sir, and that judge, as well as I, shall appear before the just Judge of Heaven, to Whom I appeal, Who will determine whether it be treason or no to be a priest.’

And withal, he protested, that none but Catholics can be saved. After these words, he desired that he might have leave to pray; whereunto, the minister replied, ‘Pray for the King!’ To which he answered:

‘So I do daily.’

‘But,’ said the minister, ‘pray for the King now.’ With that he lifted up his hands, and said:

‘I pray God preserve His Majesty, and make him a blessed saint in Heaven.’

Then he desired the company, that he might pray to himself. The minister interrupting him the third time, said, ‘Go to pray, and we will pray with you.’ To which he answered:

‘Sir, I will none of your prayers, neither is it my desire you should pray with me, but I desire all good Catholics to join with me in prayer.

So addressing himself to pray, he said, ‘In te Domine speravi, etc…’Bishop Richard Challoner, Memoirs of Missionary Priests, and other Catholics of both sexes, that have suffered death in England on religious accounts.5

Again Fr. Connell writes:

It is important to emphasise the reason of this prohibition. It is not precisely because the non-Catholic act of worship contains something false, for it could happen that the doctrinal content of a non-Catholic service would be entirely orthodox, fully conformable to Catholic teaching. The basic reason is that any form of public worship divorced from the authorisation of the Catholic Church is opposed to the divine plan. The Son of God delegated to His one true Church the exclusive right to determine the manner in which public worship should be offered, the persons entitled to conduct it, etc. Hence, any act of public worship lacking the authorisation of the Church is objectively displeasing to God, however excellent may be the subjective dispositions of those who perform it.Op. cit. p, 181. Similarly, if one has reached this position in conscience, it is wrong actively to participate in the Novus Ordo Mass, because it is “objectively displeasing to God, however excellent may be the subjective dispositions of those who perform it,” and one should attend it only for the same reasons and in the same way as one would a non-Catholic service. Though it does not lack authorisation by the Church authorities, it is the defective content of the rite and its intentional ambiguity (for ecumenical reasons) that lead us to this position that Archbishop Lefebvre reached, i.e. that though it is not per se invalid or heretical, it leads to heresy. “One cannot imitate Protestantism indefinitely without becoming Protestant,” as he said in Florence, Italy in 1975.

Private prayer

But what of private prayer with non-Catholics? Fr. Connell continues:

The distinction made above, between public and private acts of worship, is very important in this connection. Per se Catholics are not forbidden to take part in private acts of worship with non-Catholics—even though these latter conduct or lead the prayer or service—provided nothing is expressed or implied that is contrary to faith or morals. Thus the husband and wife of a mixed marriage could pray together, Catholic soldiers could join in supplication with their non-Catholic comrades under fire in a fox-hole, etc. The prayer would not necessarily have to contain anything specifically Catholic or even Christian; it could be a prayer to the one true God, the Father of all mankind, without any reference to the Holy Trinity or to Our Lord. A prayer of this nature could be recited by Catholics and Jews in common. However, if the prayer contains, either expressly or by implication, any statement opposed to Catholic doctrinal or moral teaching—for example, that all religions are equally pleasing to God, that man is justified by faith alone—a Catholic may not join in it. From this standpoint, it is well to note, some of the 'Negro Spirituals' may not be sung by a Catholic. Above all, it must be remembered that even when all the intrinsic conditions are fulfilled for lawful participation of Catholics with non-Catholics in private worship, there may be extrinsic circumstances which would render it sinful. Such are particularly the danger of perversion and scandal, which would usually be present if the communication of Catholics in private non-Catholic worship were habitual. Furthermore, the implication of essential unity between Catholicism and other religions must be carefully avoided.Op. cit. pp. 179–80. What is said of certain spirituals that present false Protestant notions of salvation in their lyrics is true of many of the Protestant or modern Catholic hymns sung at the New Mass.

Contemporary situations

Catholic pro-lifers might thus recite the rosary or certain other orthodox prayers with non-Catholic pro-lifers. Catholic choristers and musicians might perform (outside of public worship) works of non-Catholic sacred music that do not contradict the Faith in their texts. Catholic guests might join in the grace before or after meals recited by a non-Catholic host. Many other applications of this principle are possible as long as the the extrinsic circumstances which would render them sinful are avoided.

Beware of indifferentism

Finally, some prescient words of Fr. Connell on the spirit of the times. His warning seems immeasurably more urgent when we behold the indifferentism that afflicts the Catholic Church today:

We live in an atmosphere of indifferentism; we are constantly hearing such stupid statements as: ‘All religions are equally good.’ ‘It is deeds, not creeds, that count.’ ‘Everyone has the God-given right to practise any religion that appeals to him,’ etc., etc. Add to this the undeniable fact that many non-Catholics (including clergymen) are trying to break down the barriers between their sects and the Catholic Church, and even striving to induce Catholics to participate actively in their rites... In view of these conditions, we cannot relax our vigilance, we cannot allow our attitude toward communication with those of other religions in acts of worship to remain ambiguous. Our Catholic people must be emphatically warned that they may take no active part in non-Catholic worship, and they must be counselled to limit their merely passive assistance at such worship to the very minimum. Temporal advantages, such as the fostering of friendship with those of other denominations, the strengthening of business ties, and political prestige, which may be gained by a 'broad' outlook on attendance at non-Catholic services, offer a very inadequate compensation for the immeasurable tragedy of the weakening or loss of the one true Faith. Far from minimising the exclusiveness of the Catholic religion, our people should be instructed to proclaim it unhesitatingly whenever the occasion offers, and to let non-Catholics know that we consider them as deprived of the ordinary means of salvation, however excellent their intentions. Such is the attitude taken by Pope Pius XII in the Encyclical Mystici Corporis, where he speaks thus of those separated from the Catholic Church:

‘From a heart overflowing with love, We ask each and every one of them to be quick and ready to follow the interior movements of grace, and to look to withdrawing from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation. For, even though unsuspectingly they are related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer in desire and resolution, they still remain deprived of so many precious gifts and helps from Heaven, which one can enjoy only in the Catholic Church.’

View all articles from Ite Missa Est

  • 1 ward/volume1/appendices.html
  • 2 in English translation with extensive scholarly apparatus, (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2001).
  • 3 Canonical legislation in Theological Studies 3.4 (1942) p. 485.
  • 4 American Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. CXI, 3 (1944) pp. 181-2. Cf. Fr J. R. Bancroft, C.SS.R - Communication in Religious Worship with Non-Catholics, (Catholic University Press, Washington, D.C., 1943), pp. 161
  • 5John T. Green, Vol. II, (Philadelphia, 1839), pp. 34–5