Q. I read that the Church decreed at one time that anyone who prayed (and maybe ate) with heretics was automatically excommunicated. Is this true?
A. You are likely referring to Communicatio in sacris, the Latin term roughly translated ‘Communion in sacred things.’ This is not something intrinsically evil. Therefore, while active participation in non-Catholic religious functions is on the whole discouraged, under given circumstances, it may be permitted or useful.
Thus, friends and relatives may, for good reasons, attend a funeral or be present at a marriage or a baptism, without causing scandal or lending support to the non-Catholic rites, provided no active part be taken in them: their motive is friendship, or maybe courtesy, but it nowise implies approval of the rites.
Non-Catholics are admitted to attend all Catholic services but not to receive the sacraments, and Catholics should not receive Protestant communion.
There was and still is an excommunication for priests to “con-celebrate” with non-Catholic ministers, either in a Catholic Mass or a non-Catholic liturgy. I am not aware of there every being any excommunication for the faithful. For example, I hope Catholic spouses in mixed-faith marriages would pray and eat with their Protestant spouse. And it has never been forbidden to attend Protestant funerals, etc. unless it would be a danger to one’s faith or give scandal.
Q. Is it true that one must have permission from a bishop before one engages in a conversation about matters of faith with Protestants?
A. That is quite false; indeed, the opposite is true. Our Catholic faith impels us to want to share the truth with others; this missionary impetus is given to us by our baptism, not permission from the bishop. The only restriction would be not to endanger one’s own faith, e.g. attending Protestant Bible studies. But one can and should always engage in conversation with others about the faith, including Protestants. Again, we hope Catholics share their faith with a non-Catholic spouse or neighbor.
The only occasion where the larger church is involved is in what might be called Ecumenical Dialogue, where matters of faith are debated on a much wider and official scale, such as the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This is something done by the Vatican, not even by a local bishop, and not by the lay faithful. But laity can always participate in what might be called ecumenical activities on an unofficial level, i.e. anything that encourages fellowship and good-will with our non-Catholic brethren, like doing works of charity together, and participating in community prayer services on Memorial Day, Patriot Day, etc.
Write to Ask the Register online or at 3700 Sheridan Blvd, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.