For the Catholic Church, Oriental Orthodoxy and the Eastern Orthodox Church, full communion exists only between Christians who form a single church. Protestants understand full communion as instead a matter of practical relations among denominations that nonetheless fully retain their distinct identities.
The Catholic Church makes a distinction between full and partial communion. Where full communion exists, there is but one Church. Partial communion, on the other hand, exists where some elements of Christian faith are held in common, but complete unity on essentials is lacking. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church sees itself as in partial communion with Protestants, and in much closer, but still incomplete, communion with the Orthodox Churches.
It has expressed this idea in many documents. The Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council, 3 states: "... quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church ... men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect". The Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing documents of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope Paul VI, states:
"The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honoured by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter" (Lumen gentium 15). Those "who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church" (Unitatis redintegratio 3). With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound "that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord's Eucharist" (Paul VI, Discourse, 14 December 1975; cf. Unitatis redintegratio 13-18).
Full communion involves completeness of "those bonds of communion – faith, sacraments and pastoral governance – that permit the Faithful to receive the life of grace within the Church."
The particular Churches that form the Catholic Church are each seen, not as a separate body that has entered into practical arrangements concerning its relations with the others, but as the embodiment in a particular region or culture of the one Catholic Church.
The 28 May 1992 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of the Church understood as Communion expressed this idea as follows::
- The universal Church cannot be conceived as the sum of the particular Churches, or as a federation of particular Churches. It is not the result of the communion of the Churches, but, in its essential mystery, it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church.
The autonomous Catholic Churches in full communion with the Holy See are:
- Of Alexandrian liturgical tradition:
- Of Antiochian liturgical tradition:
- Of Armenian liturgical tradition:
- Of Byzantine (Constantinopolitan) liturgical tradition:
- Albanian Byzantine Catholic Church
- Belarusian Greek Catholic Church
- Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church
- Byzantine Church of Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro
- Greek Byzantine Catholic Church
- Hungarian Greek Catholic Church
- Italo-Albanian Catholic Church
- Macedonian Greek Catholic Church
- Melkite Greek Catholic Church
- Romanian Church United with Rome, Greek-Catholic
- Russian Byzantine Catholic Church
- Ruthenian Catholic Church
- Slovak Greek Catholic Church
- Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
- Of Chaldean or East Syrian tradition:
- Of Western liturgical tradition:
The Catholic Church sees itself as in partial, not full, communion with other Christian groups. "With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord's Eucharist" Catechism of the Catholic Church (838).
In fact, full communion is seen as an essential condition for sharing together in the Eucharist, apart from exceptional circumstances, in line with the second-century practice witnessed to by Saint Justin Martyr, who, in his First Apology , wrote: "No one is allowed to partake (of the Eucharist) but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined."
Accordingly, "Catholic priests are forbidden to concelebrate the Eucharist with priests or ministers of Churches or ecclesial communities which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church."
The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 122–136 indicates the circumstances in which some sharing in sacramental life, especially the Eucharist, is permitted with other Christians.
The norms there indicated for the giving of the Eucharist to other Christians are summarized in canon 844 of the Code of Canon Law as follows:
- §3. Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed. This is also valid for members of other Churches which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition in regard to the sacraments as these Eastern Churches.
- §4. If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgement of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.
Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches
Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians have an understanding of what full communion means that is very similar to that of the Catholic Church. Though they have no figure corresponding to that of the Roman Catholic Pope, performing a function like that of the Pope's Petrine Office for the whole of their respective communions, they see each of their autocephalous Churches as embodiments of, respectively, the one Eastern Orthodox Church or the one Oriental Orthodox Church. They too consider full communion an essential condition for common sharing in the Eucharist. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, as first among equals among the Eastern Orthodox autocephalous churches and their spiritual leader, though not having authority similar to that of the Roman Catholic Pope, serves as their spokesman. The Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria holds a somewhat similar position in Oriental Orthodoxy.
For the autocephalous Churches that form the Eastern Orthodox Church, see Eastern Orthodox Church organization. Their number is somewhat in dispute.
Other churches see full communion between them as meaning that their members may licitly participate in each other's rites, particularly in the partaking of the Eucharist in closed communion denominations, and involving also recognition of each other's offices of ministry as valid and thus, in most cases, interchangeability of ordained ministers. Importantly, the existence of full communion, as thus understood, does not presume that there is no difference in rites or in doctrine between the two Churches, but rather that these differences do not touch on points defined as essential.
The word "intercommunion" is sometimes used of this arrangement, which is much less close than the unity between Churches that share a common history, such as the Anglican Communion.
This understanding of "full communion" differs from that of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Christianity in that the churches that enter into such arrangements do not consider themselves as forming together a single church.
It is in the stronger sense of becoming a single church that the Traditional Anglican Communion sought "full communion" with the Roman Catholic Church as a sui iuris (particular Church) jurisdiction. Its membership is now deciding whether to accept the offer of full communion (again in the stronger sense) within the framework of personal ordinariates of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church.
Agreements between churches
The following groupings of churches have arrangements for or are working on arrangements for:
- mutual recognition of members
- joint celebration of the Lord's Supper/Holy Communion/Eucharist (these churches practice open communion)
- mutual recognition of ordained ministers
- mutual recognition of sacraments
- a common commitment to mission.
- Agreements completed
- The Anglican Communion, the Old Catholic Church, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India, and the Philippine Independent Church.
- The Churches of the Porvoo Communion
- The Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada
- The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ
- The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and each of the following: the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church and the Moravian Church in America.
- The Leuenberg Agreement, concluded in 1973 and meanwhile adopted by 105 Protestant churches such as the VPKB/EPUB (B), CČSH (CZ), ČCE (CZ), the 26 Swiss and 20 German regional Protestant churches federated in the SEK-FEPS (CH) and the EKD (D), Folkekirken (DK), EPU (F), UEPAL (F), PCI (IRL), CEV (I), CELI/ELKI (I), Alliance of Protestant churches in Luxembourg (L), PKN (NL), the Remonstrantse Broederschap (NL, D), Norske kirke (N), BELR (RO), BRR (RO), BUT (RO), EKAB (RO), CoS (UK), PCoW (UK), the Methodist churches throughout Europe (incl. UK and Ireland), the Moravian church (British, European-Continental and Czech provinces).
- The Moravian Church and each of the following: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church USA.
- The United Methodist Church with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
- The United Church of Christ and each of the following: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA, and the Reformed Church in America.
- The United Episcopal Church of North America and each of the following: the Anglican Catholic Church, the Anglican Province of Christ the King, and the Diocese of the Great Lakes.
- The Anglican Province of America has intercommunion with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Church of Nigeria.
- Agreements in progress
- The United Methodist Council of Bishops have approved interim agreements for sharing the Eucharist with the Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
- The Church of England is currently working toward full communion with the Methodist Church of Great Britain.
- Many of the Independent Catholic Churches are working toward full communion with each other and with the Old-Catholic Union of Utrecht.
- On Receiving Anglican clergy into the Catholic Church; How to become a Catholic; When an Orthodox joins the Catholic Church;On Participants in RCIA and Confirmation; My Return to the Catholic Church; etc.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 838
- Of the various Latin liturgical rites used within the Latin particular Church, even those associated not with a religious order but with a geographical area do not constitute separate particular Churches. Thus there is no "Ambrosian particular Church" corresponding to the Ambrosian Rite in use in Milan and neighbouring areas of Italy and Switzerland, nor is there a "Mozarabic Church" in those parts of Spain where the Mozarabic Rite is practised. In the Latin Church, governance is uniform, even where liturgical rite is not.
- Canon 908 of the Code of Canon Law; cf. canon 702 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches
- Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canons 908 and 1440
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