In Christian ecclesiology, full communion is a relationship between church organizations, groups, and individuals that mutually recognize their sharing the essential doctrines of Christianity and "are able to recognize in one another the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in its fullness". Thus a profession of faith is required of people wishing to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, even if they have been members of a separate church whose sacraments the Catholic Church considers to be valid. Being "in full communion with the Catholic Church" is incompatible with denying what it has definitively proposed as its teaching on faith and morals.
For the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Church of the East, full communion exists only between Christians who form a single church. In a weaker understanding of the phrase, "full communion" is instead a matter of practical relationship between denominations that fully retain their distinct identities.
As a practical matter for most Catholics, this affects whether or not a member of one Church may partake of the Eucharist celebrated in another, and for priests, whether or not they may concelebrate the Eucharist with priests of another Church. In each case, if the two Churches are in full communion, then they may.
Full and partial communion
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 distinction in documents such as Unitatis redintegratio, the Second Vatican Council's decree on ecumenism, which 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 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).
Universal and particular Churches
In Catholicism, the "universal Church" means Catholicism itself, from the Greek adjective καθολικός (katholikos), meaning "universal". The term particular church denotes an ecclesiastical community headed by a bishop or equivalent, and this can includes both local dioceses as well as autonomous (or sui juris) particular churches, which include other rites such as the Latin Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches.
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.
A 1992 CDF letter to Catholic bishops expressed this idea as: "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."
List of Catholic churches in full communion
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 Catholic Church of Croatia and Serbia
- 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:
Churches in partial communion
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.
Sharing in the Eucharist
As a practical matter for most Catholics, full communion means that a member of one Church may partake of the Eucharist celebrated in another, and for priests, that they may concelebrate the Eucharist with priests of another Church.
Intercommunion usually means an agreement between churches by which all members of each church (clergy with clergy, or laity with laity, respectively) may participate in the other's Eucharistic celebrations or may hold joint celebrations.
The Catholic Church in fact has entered into no such agreement. It allows no Eucharistic concelebration by its clergy with clergy of churches not in full communion with it.
In fact, apart from exceptional circumstances, the Catholic Church sees full communion as an essential condition for sharing together in the Eucharist, in line with the 2nd-century practice witnessed to by 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."
The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, indicates the limited circumstances in which Catholics may receive the Eucharist from clergy of churches not in full communion (never if those churches are judged not to have valid apostolic succession and thus valid Eucharist), and in which Catholic clergy may administer the sacraments to members of other churches.(nn. 122–136)
The CCEO indicates that the norms of the Directory apply also to the clergy and laity of the Eastern Catholic Churches.
Orthodox, Oriental, and Eastern 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, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic 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.
The Oriental Orthodox churches are:
- Armenian Apostolic Church
- Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
- Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
- Syriac Orthodox Church
The Church of the East is currently divided into churches that are not in full communion with one another. The Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East divided in the 20th century over the former's limitation of the post of patriarch to members of a single family and due to the adoption of the New Calendar by the former. There is movement towards reunity, but they are not in full communion with one another at present. The Chaldean Catholic Church shares a similar history with both, but is currently in full communion with neither. The Catholic Church, of which the Chaldean Church is part, allows its ministers to give the Eucharist to members of Eastern churches who seek it on their own accord and are properly disposed, and it allows its faithful who cannot approach a Catholic minister to receive the Eucharist, when necessary or spiritually advantageous, from ministers of non-Catholic churches that have a recognised Eucharist. The Guidelines for Admission to the Eucharist between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East explicitly apply these rules, which hold also for the Ancient Church of the East and all the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches, to the Assyrian Church of the East. "When necessity requires, Assyrian faithful are permitted to participate and to receive Holy Communion in a Chaldean celebration of the Holy Eucharist; in the same way, Chaldean faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, are permitted to participate and to receive Holy Communion in an Assyrian celebration of the Holy Eucharist".
Churches such as those of the Anglican Communion see full communion as meaning that their members may licitly participate in each other's rites, particularly in the partaking of the Eucharist. By definition, open communion denominations accept outsiders, but an arrangement of full communion authorises their members to participate in the Eucharist of the other church or churches involved in the arrangement. It sometimes also involves interchangeability of ordained ministers. The existence of full communion, as thus understood, does not presume that there is no difference in rites or doctrine between the denominations concerned. Thus, for the Anglican churches that are party to the Bonn Agreement of 1931 with member churches of the Union of Utrecht of the Old Catholic Churches, full communion does not require from either communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith.
This understanding of "full communion" differs from that of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Christianity, which consider that full communion between churches involves them becoming a single church, as in the case of the particular churches "in which and formed out of which the one and unique Catholic Church exists",
An arrangement such as the Bonn Agreement between churches that maintain their separate identities is sometimes spoken of as "intercommunion", which is much less close than the unity between national/regional churches that share a common history, such as those in the Anglican Communion.
It is in the stronger sense of becoming a single church that in 2007 the Traditional Anglican Communion sought "full communion" with the Roman Catholic Church as a sui iuris (particular Church) jurisdiction, but in 2012 declined the possibility offered by Pope Benedict XVI to join a personal ordinariate for former Anglicans in full communion with the see of Rome.
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 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 adopted by 105 European Protestant churches, since renamed the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe.
- 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 African Union Methodist Protestant Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church.
- 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.
- The Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland have established full communion and are working toward interchangeability of ministry.
- 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 Methodist Church of Great Britain is currently working toward full communion with the Church of England and the United Reform Church.
- Many of the Independent Catholic Churches are working toward full communion with each other and with the Old-Catholic Union of Utrecht.
- 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 particular Church in those parts of Spain where the Mozarabic Rite is practiced. In the Latin Church, governance is uniform, even where liturgical rite is not.
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