Can I go to a Methodist church since there are no Catholic churches nearby?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner, OSV News

Q: I recently moved to a rural area, and my current parish is now nearly an hour's drive away. There are no Catholic churches in my new area. There is, however, a Methodist church right across the street from my new home in easy walking distance. They are open for services on Sunday morning and Wednesday night. I know the two faiths are different in some key areas, but, as a Catholic, how wrong would I be if I simply went to this Methodist church? I asked a cradle Catholic friend about this, and they said as long as I go to Catholic Mass once a year, I’ll be considered active in the Catholic faith, but if I miss over a year I'll be considered a "lapsed Catholic," and that if I ever want to come back I'll be considered a "revert," and have to go through RCIA again. Could you comment and clarify? (Southern Indiana)

A: There are several questions within your question. To start with the first one: It is not wrong or sinful for a Catholic simply to attend a non-Catholic religious service on an occasional basis, not becoming a member. However, a Methodist Sunday or Wednesday service does not fulfill the Sunday obligation for a Catholic.

Deliberately missing Sunday Mass is in itself grave matter and a serious sin that needs to be brought to the sacrament of penance. The sinfulness of your personally potentially missing Sunday Mass in your own situation might be diminished due to mitigating factors. Is it truly impossible to attend the vigil or Sunday Mass, or is it merely inconvenient? In an extraordinary situation and not intended for Catholics who reside close to the parish, perhaps there is a Catholic hospital closer to you which has a priest who celebrates Mass there, or if you live near another state border, there may be a parish which is actually a shorter drive. You should also discuss this with the pastor of your parish; if you have serious difficulties in getting to Mass, he may commute the obligation to a different day or even to perhaps reading Sacred Scripture for a certain time; the pastor has the authority to decide on this commutation, but parishioners do not have the authority to make that decision on their own. A dispensation from the obligation is another decision to be made by the pastor.

Regarding the idea that a Catholic only needs to attend Mass once a year to remain "active," I think your friend might be a little confused. As noted above, Catholics are required to attend Mass every Sunday or Saturday vigil. But strictly speaking, a Catholic is only required to receive Holy Communion once per year (after the sacrament of penance if the Catholic is conscious of having committed a mortal sin in the past year). Among Catholics, this is sometimes colloquially referred to as the "Easter duty."

Naturally, we as Catholics are encouraged to go to confession and receive Holy Communion much more often than once a year! But if a Catholic for whatever reason discerns that he or she is not spiritually prepared to receive the Eucharist on a weekly basis, it is legitimate for him or her to fulfill the Sunday obligation by attending Mass without receiving Communion, as long as he or she receives Communion at least once during each Easter season. Of course, it is preferable to receive the grace of the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

While we might popularly use the term "active Catholic" to describe a Catholic who takes his or her faith seriously, technically "active Catholic" is not a category in canon law. Canon law does have some specific penalties such as excommunication that might restrict a Catholic from fully participating in the life of the church; and canon 916 reminds us that a Catholic should not receive Communion if he or she is conscious of having committed a serious sin that has not yet been absolved.

But once someone is baptized Catholic or formally received into the Catholic Church, he or she is always considered Catholic, even if one falls away from the faith or fails to practice it regularly. Nothing — not even neglecting the Sunday obligation -— can "de-activate" a person's identity as a Catholic.

Because of this, a lapsed Catholic who wanted to return to full practice of the faith would not be eligible for RCIA, that is, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. RCIA is primarily intended for unbaptized persons preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation. As such, RCIA would not be appropriate for a Catholic who has already been fully initiated or even one who was not previously confirmed; that person is not being brought into the Catholic Church since he or she is already a Catholic. In the majority of situations, all a lapsed Catholic would need to do to return to a full participation in the life of the church is sincerely repent and make a good confession; if that lapsed Catholic became “baptized” in another denomination after having been already baptized or received into the Catholic Church, he or she also needs to make a profession of faith before the pastor.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].