I've been asked whether it is permissable for a Catholic to attend
Protestant services. Some have indicated that this was a sin. I disagree.
Some schismatic Lefebrvists in the past have insisted to me that this was a sin because the Church prohibited it, quoting from Pope Pius XI, Mortalium Animos
"it is clear that the Apostolic See cannot on any terms take part in their [pan-Christian] assemblies, nor is it anyway lawful for Catholics either to support or to work for such enterprises; for if they do so they will be giving countenance to a false Christianity, quite alien to the one Church of Christ."
I assert that this canonical discipline is not entirely immutable. Such disciplinary norms were necessary in 1928, and are certainly still necessary today insofar as Catholics are prohibited to "give countenance to false a Christianity.
" Likewise, the 1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 1325 forbade Catholics to engage in debates or conferences with non-Catholics without the permission of the Holy See. That the law explicitly stated that permission could be given by the Holy See shows that this was never meant to be immutable dogma, but a canonical discipline that can be dispensed or abrogated in certain situations. The 1917 canon seems to be at least partially abrogated by Paul VI, NOSTRA AETATE, 1965:
"The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men."
... as well as the 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 755.
§1. It is above all for the entire college of bishops and the Apostolic See to foster and direct among Catholics the ecumenical movement whose purpose is the restoration among all Christians of the unity which the Church is bound to promote by the will of Christ.
§2. It is likewise for the bishops and, according to the norm of law, the conferences of bishops to promote this same unity and to impart practical norms according to the various needs and opportunities of the circumstances; they are to be attentive to the prescripts issued by the supreme authority of the
Pope John Paul II affirmed in his encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia
, number 30:
"It is unthinkable to substitute for Sunday Mass ecumenical
celebrations of the word or services of common prayer with Christians from the aforementioned ecclesial communities, or even participation in their own liturgical services. Such celebrations and services, however praiseworthy in
certain situations, prepare for the goal of full communion, including eucharistic communion, but they cannot replace it”.
Note that the "ecumenical celebrations of the word or services of common prayer" and even "participation
in their own liturgical services" are called "praiseworthy in certain situations.
" So situationally dependent, such services are not prohibited, nor sinful, but "praiseworthy." Yet it is emphasized that they "cannot replace" Sunday Mass.
Moreover, if by "active participation" in Protestant services, one gives "countenance to a false Christianity
" which means the appearance of approval
to doctrines and practices contrary to the Catholic faith, then such active participation
in this sense is prohibited. In such instances, we act contrary to our faith which we are obliged to profess always, in our words and deeds. The Catholic profession of faith is fundamentally different than Protestant ecclesiology, epistemology, and with regard to many theological doctrines and liturgical practices. We must always avoid countenance to Protestant beliefs and practices which are contary to Catholicism.
Catholics can, however, in certain situations
"observe" Protestant services for educational and ecumenical purposes to deepen one's understanding of that particular ecclesial community, and to foster all that can lead to unity and harmony, all the while being careful not to give even the appearance of approval of a false Christianity. So, one must act prudently, weighing the ecumenical value against the risk of giving countenance to a false Christianity.
Pius XI's words are not contrary to ecumenism, but rather protect the Church from a false or misguided ecumenism which confuses the identity, purpose, and mission of the Catholic Church which possesses the fullness of truth and communion with Jesus Christ with something less.
The goal of ecumenism is to bring all into fullness of communion with Jesus Christ in "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic" church as we profess every Sunday. We do this through honest and charitable dialogue, fervent prayer, and challenging our Protestant brothers and sisters to seek the truth. Dialogue for the sake of dialogue is fruitless. It must be an honest dialogue seeking the truth and the intention of Jesus Christ.
The following excerpt from the Pontifical Council for Fostering Christian Unity
is also significant:
"In liturgical celebrations taking place in other Churches and ecclesial Communities, Catholics are encouraged to take part in the psalms, responses, hymns and common actions of the Church in which they are guests. If invited by their hosts, they may read a lesson or preach." (Pontifical Council for Fostering Christian Unity, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, Ch.IV , par. 118, Mar 25, 1993, approved by Pope John Paul II)
It is also important to note that in the same document, the Church continues to caution against indifferentism:
"Each party [of a mixed marriage], while continuing to be faithful to his or her Christian commitment and to the practice of it, should seek to foster all that can lead to unity and harmony, without minimizing real differences and while avoiding an attitude of religious indifference." (ibid, par. 148)
So, while in certain situations taking part in Protestant services is "praiseworthy," and "encouraged" we must always avoid "coutenance to a false Christianity."
Portions of the above answer comes from discussions with Peter Howard, STL, Dir, of Communications, Diocese of Colorado Springs, which can be read in full here:Participation in Protestant Services
(10 Dec 2004)Participation in Protestant Services -- PART II
(13 Dec 2004)