Is it legitimate for Catholics to assist at non-Catholic liturgies? – McHugh & Callan, 1958

“It expresses either faith in a false religious body or rebellion against the true Church.”

Photo by Andriy Tod on Unsplash

Editors Notes

In January 2023, the YouTube apologist Mr Michael Lofton made the following comments:

“[O]ne can attend an SSPX mass in some qualified cases (see the Monsignor Perl document we have discussed), as long as they do not formally adhere to the schism. If one formally adheres to the schism of the SSPX, then that is a grave sin. Same applies for an EO [Eastern Orthodox] liturgy, as I’ve stated before. In limited cases, one can attend an EO service, but if they formally adhere to schism, then that is a grave sin.”[1]

Setting aside his accusations of schism against the Society of St Pius X (which we reject), is this general claim about attending non-Catholic rites true? And if so, what are the “limited cases” in which one can attend such liturgies?

This is a fairly standard question, found in pre-conciliar treatments of moral theology.

However, given the way he discusses the topic in the comment above and elsewhere, it appears as though Mr Lofton has a broader set of cases in view than these moralists and commentators.

In order to provide some answers and to give an example of this treatment, here are some relevant sections from McHugh and Callan’s Moral Theology. McHugh and Callan – translators of The Roman Catechism – were a respected pair of Dominican theologians, and theirs is a standard two-volume work of moral theology.

The 1917 Code of Canon Law

The situation may be summarised in the following canon:

Canon 1258

§ 1. It is not licit for the faithful by any manner to assist actively or to have a part in the sacred [rites] of non-Catholics.

§ 2. Passive or merely material presence can be tolerated for the sake of honor or civil office, for grave reason approved by the Bishop in case of doubt, at the funerals, weddings, and similar solemnities of non-Catholics, provided danger of perversion and scandal is absent.”[2]

Canon 2316 contains a stark and disturbing warning:

Can. 2316

Whoever in any manner willingly and knowingly helps in the promulgation of heresy, or who communicates in things divine with heretics against the prescription of Canon 1258, is suspected of heresy.

It may be objected that this canon is irrelevant to groups like the Orthodox because (it is said), they are not heretics, but merely schismatics. We will address this in greater detail in the notes to follow this piece in due course.

In any case, we do not present this information or the above canon in order to accuse anyone in particular as being “suspect of heresy.” The nature of our current situation is almost universal confusion, and no doubt some have attended Orthodox liturgies in good faith, honestly believing that this is a legitimate course of action. We do not seek to judge such persons – merely to present information.


The extract below show the views that were held as mainstream on the eve of the modern situation – and how different they are to what is currently believed. We will make no progress until we recognise this fact.

If one “does not find these arguments convincing,” and thinks that these matters should change, then one is adopting the position of judging the pre-conciliar Church in her theology, doctrine and laws.

But we are not the measure of such things – they measure us. And if we reject them, then it is we, rather than the Church, that is found wanting.

Finally, it should be obvious that this extract and comments are aimed at Catholics. We intend no offence towards any Eastern Orthodox who might happen to read this, and would expect their opinions to be largely the same towards us.

That said, we do beg them to be reconciled to the Roman Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation.

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Follow on Twitter and Telegram:

Supporting The WM Review through book purchases
As Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases through our Amazon links. Click here for The WM Review Reading List (with direct links for US and UK readers).

Moral Theology

A Complete Course Based on St. Thomas Aquinas and the Best Modern Authorities 
McHugh & Callan

Online at Project Gutenberg
We have added some line breaks, rendered more relevant sections in bold, and indented the examples given.

961. Participation of Catholics in non-Catholic services may happen today in so many ways, and it is so difficult at times to draw the line between lawful and unlawful communication, that it is well before considering these cases to state the general rules that apply here.

(a) It is lawful to perform an act from which two effects follow, one good and the other bad, if the act in itself is good or indifferent, if there is a sufficiently grave reason for performing it, if the evil effect is not intended, and if the evil effect be not prior to the good effect (see 104).

(b) Circumstances vary in different localities and countries, and communication that would signify unity of belief in a place where Catholics and non-Catholics are very unequal numerically might be very harmless in a place where there is no great numerical difference. Offense to non-Catholics should not be given needlessly.

(c) In doubtful cases the decision whether or not a particular kind of communication is lawful or unlawful pertains to the Ordinary (Canon 1258).

962. Participation of Catholics in non-Catholic services is either active or passive.

(a) Participation is active when one takes a part or fulfils some function in an act that is an official expression of the worship and belief of a sect, even though this takes place outside a church, or is not open to the general public.

(b) Participation is passive, if one merely assists as a spectator, and not as a worshipper, at something pertaining to non-Catholic worship.

963. Sacred things in which communication is possible are of three classes:

(a) the chief acts of divine worship (i.e., Sacrifices, Sacraments, sacramentals);

(b) the secondary acts of divine worship (such as prayers, processions, vows, oaths, the Divine Office, hymn singing, scripture reading, etc.). In the Protestant denominations some one or other of these is, as a rule, the central or distinctive service, although some have other proper features of their own, such as the silent meeting of the Quakers, the seance of the Spiritualists, the march of the Salvation Army, the charity kiss of the Dunkards;

(c) places (e.g., churches, lodge rooms, cemeteries), times (e.g., days of feast or fast), and objects (e.g., images, badges, aprons, banners, robes), pertaining to divine worship.

964. It is unlawful for Catholics in any way to assist actively at or take part in the worship of non-Catholics (Canon 1258). Such assistance is intrinsically and gravely evil; for

(a) if the worship is non-Catholic in its form (e.g., Mohammedan ablutions, the Jewish paschal meal, revivalistic “hitting the trail,” the right hand of fellowship, etc.), it expresses a belief in the false creed symbolized;

(b) if the worship is Catholic in form, but is under the auspices of a non-Catholic body (e.g., Baptism as administered by a Protestant minister, or Mass as celebrated by a schismatical priest), it expresses either faith in a false religious body or rebellion against the true Church.

965. It is unlawful for Catholics to simulate active assistance in the worship of non-Catholics, for, while the non-Catholic rite would be avoided, something which appeared to be that rite would be done, and thus profession of faith in it would be given.

(a) Hence, it is not lawful to do an indifferent act which bystanders from the circumstances will have to conclude is an act of false worship. Thus, Eleazar would not eat lawful meat which was put before him in order that he might pretend to eat the meat of sacrifice after the manner of the heathen (II Mach., vi).

(b) It is not lawful to accept a false certificate of participation in false worship. Hence, the early Church condemned as apostates the Libellatics (i.e., those Christians, who, to protect themselves in time of persecution, obtained by bribery or otherwise a forged or genuine magistrate’s certificate that they had sacrificed to the heathen gods).

966. It is unlawful for Catholics to assist passively at non-Catholic worship, unless there are present the conditions requisite for performing an act that has two results, one good and the other evil (see 104); for even passive assistance frequently involves sin.

(a) Hence, the assistance itself must be really indifferent, that is, it must be a merely passive presence without any active participation in the service.

Examples: A person who stands in the rear of a Quaker meeting house as an onlooker assists passively; but one who sits quietly among the others present, as if in meditation, assists actively. A person who sits in a pew during a revival in order to see what is going on, assists passively; but, if he joins with the congregation in bowing, groaning, etc., he assists actively.

(b) The evil effect that may result from assistance (such as scandal and danger of perversion) must not be prior to the good effect; otherwise, evil would be done for the sake of good.

Examples: Titus, a non-Catholic, goes to Mass as a spectator, with his Catholic friend Balbus. He then asks Balbus to assist as a spectator at the services of his denomination, and thus see for himself that the latter is better. Balbus, in order to be courteous, consents. Here Balbus aims to show politeness, which is good, but the means he uses – namely, the impression he gives that he is not convinced of the superiority of his own religion – is bad.

(c) The evil effect (i.e., remote danger of perversion, unavoidable scandal) must not be intended or approved, but only permitted.

Example: Caius, a Catholic public official, has to attend funerals and weddings in Protestant churches as a mark of the public respect for notable persons. He knows that a few will take scandal at his action, but he wishes only to do his duty as an official, and not to offend anyone (see on Scandal).

(d) The cause of assistance must be in proportion to the kind of assistance. Hence, a greater reason is required for assistance on several occasions than on one, for assistance at infidel than at heretical services, for assistance at the primary than at the secondary act of worship, for assistance by a priest than for assistance by a layman, etc.

Example: Graver reason would be necessary to justify assistance at a non-Catholic funeral, if there were signs of anti-Catholicism manifested (e.g., flower designs and regalia of a hostile sect placed on the coffin), than if the service contained nothing offensive.

967. Cases of communication in false sacrificial rites are as follows:

(a) Active participation is had in such acts as the slaying and offering of victims, the burning of incense before idols, the eating of sacrificial banquets;

(b) Passive participation is had when one merely watches the rite of sacrifice without taking any part therein.

968. Cases of communication in the Sacrifice of the Mass are as follows:

(a) Active participation is had in such acts as taking the part of deacon in a schismatical Mass, assisting at a schismatical Mass with the intention of hearing Mass formally (i.e., of offering it with the priest). If on Sunday, one is where there is only a schismatical church, one is excused from the obligation of hearing Mass, and may not hear Mass in that church (Holy Office, December 5, 1608; August 7, 1704).

(b) Passive participation is had when one is present merely as a spectator, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, but giving no other signs of religious devotion. This is permissible under the conditions mentioned above (see 966), if there is no scandal, or danger of perversion (Holy Office, April 24, 1894).

969. Cases of participation in the Sacraments or sacramentals, real or reputed, are as follows:

(a) Active participation takes place when one receives a Sacrament from a non-Catholic minister, or offers one’s child to receive a Sacrament from such a minister, or contracts marriage in the presence of such a minister, or acts as sponsor at a non-Catholic baptism or confirmation or as the religious witness at a non-Catholic marriage, or answers in public non-Catholic prayers, or takes ashes blessed by schismatics.

(b) Passive participation is had when one merely looks on at the administration of a Sacrament or sacramental by a non-Catholic minister, without signs of approval or union in what is being done.

970. There are certain cases that seem to be active participations in Sacraments with non-Catholics, and yet are permitted by the Code. In reality, however, there is no active communication in those cases.

(a) Canons 886 and 905 allow the faithful to receive communion and absolution according to a Rite different from their own, so that one who belongs to the Latin Rite may lawfully receive in Communion a Host consecrated according to the Greek Rite, or go to confession to an Oriental priest. But in these Canons there is question of different Rites within the Catholic Church, not of those of non-Catholics.

(b) Canons 742 and 882 allow those who are in danger of death to receive Baptism and absolution from an heretical or schismatical minister, and theologians apply the same principle to Extreme Unction and the Viaticum. But there is no communication in non-Catholic ceremonies in these cases, for the Sacraments belong to the Catholic Church, and for the sake of the dying she authorizes non-Catholic ministers to act as her representatives, provided there is no scandal or danger of perversion.

971. Cases of participation in non-sacramental rites are as follows:

(a) Oaths and Vows. – Participation is active when one swears in words or by other signs which, according to local usage, manifest belief in the creed of some sect; it is not active, when the manner of the oath does not signify adherence to a false creed;

Example: If one is required to swear, by touching or kissing the non-Catholic Bible, as a sign of approval of Protestantism or Masonry, one may not consent. But, if the Government presents a non-Catholic Bible with no thought of Protestantism, there is no approval of Protestantism in the one who swears on that Bible, although, if the custom is not general, there might be scandal if no protest were made. A Catholic may bring his own Bible with him, or ask for a copy of the Catholic Bible.

(b) Services – Participation is active when one marches in an Anglican procession, plays the organ or sings at Y.M.C.A. services, joins in the prayers or responses offered in a Protestant church, etc. (Holy Office, July 6, 1889).

Participation is passive if one looks on during a rare visit, or listens by radio to the musical program broadcast from Protestant services, or if one is obliged to attend non-Catholic services habitually, not as a profession of faith, but as a matter of civil duty or of domestic discipline, as happens with soldiers or with inmates of public institutions.

Participation is not active if one adores the Blessed Sacrament carried in a schismatical procession which one meets by chance and unavoidably.

Examples: Titus belongs to the honorary guard of a state ruler, and has to accompany the latter to non-Catholic services on certain state occasions.

Balbus is tutor in a non-Catholic family, and is expected to take his charges to their church and back home on Sundays.

Claudia is a maid in a non-Catholic family, and is ordered to hold one of the children while it is being baptized by the non-Catholic minister.

In all these cases the presence at the services is purely passive, since the intention of the Catholic present is not to perform any religious duty, but only some civil or domestic service (see IV Kings, v. 18).

But, on the other hand, the martyrs during the reigns of Elizabeth and her successors refused to attend the Anglican services, because this was required by law as a sign of conformity to the Established Church – that is, an active presence was prescribed.

972. Cases of participation in religious places, times and objects are as follows:

(a) Places. – Participation is active when one orders one’s body to be buried in a sectarian graveyard, when one enters a schismatical or heretical church privately in order to visit the Blessed Sacrament or pray, when one offers up Catholic services in a non-Catholic temple, if these things are looked upon by the public as indications of identity of belief between Catholics and non-Catholics.

Participation is merely passive, if one visits non-Catholic places of worship out of curiosity in order to look at the pictures, hear the music or listen to or take part in a political lecture or debate.

In case of necessity, the Church permits Catholic services to be performed in the same building as that wherein non-Catholic rites are held, e.g., the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem which is used by various denominations (Holy Office, 12 April, 1704).

(b) Times. – Participation is active if one observes new moons, sabbaths, and days of fast as prescribed in the Old Law.

(c) Objects. – Participation is active if one wears the uniform of a condemned society, the ring or other emblem of Freemasonry, etc., or makes use of other insignia whose sole purpose is to indicate membership in some sect, unless it be evident that these are used for some other purpose (e.g., in order to act a certain part in a play).


As we expand The WM Review we would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content please do consider supporting us financially.

A small monthly donation, or a one-time donation, helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!

Monthly Gifts

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Follow on Twitter and Telegram:

Also on Gab!

[1] This was posted as a “Community Post” on Mr Michael Lofton’s YouTube Channel Reason and Theology, and is available here:

[2] The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law, in English Translation with Extensive Scholarly Apparatus, trans. Dr Edward Peters, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2001. All canons taken from this translation.

Leave a Reply