Communion For All, Even For Protestants
In addition to the divorced and remarried, for Luther’s followers as well there are those who are giving the go-ahead for the Eucharist. Here is how “La Civiltà Cattolica” interprets the pope’s enigmatic words on intercommunion
by Sandro Magister
ROME, July 1, 2016 – In his way, after encouraging communion for the divorced and remarried, in that it “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” Pope Francis is now also encouraging Protestants and Catholics to receive communion together at their respective Masses.
He is doing so, as always, in a discursive, allusive way, not definitional, leaving the ultimate decision to the individual conscience.
Still emblematic is the answer he gave on November 15, 2015, on a visit to the Christuskirche, the church of the Lutherans in Rome (see photo), to a Protestant who asked him if she could receive communion together with her Catholic husband.
The answer from Francis was a stupefying pinwheel of yes, no, I don’t know, you figure it out. Which it is indispensable to reread in its entirety, in the official transcription:
“Thank you, Ma’am. Regarding the question on sharing the Lord’s Supper, it is not easy for me to answer you, especially in front of a theologian like Cardinal Kasper! I’m afraid! I think the Lord gave us [the answer] when he gave us this command: ‘Do this in memory of me’. And when we share in, remember and emulate the Lord’s Supper, we do the same thing that the Lord Jesus did. And the Lord’s Supper will be, the final banquet will there be in the New Jerusalem, but this will be the last. Instead on the journey, I wonder – and I don’t know how to answer, but I am making your question my own – I ask myself: “Is sharing the Lord’s Supper the end of a journey or is it the viaticum for walking together? I leave the question to the theologians, to those who understand. It is true that in a certain sense sharing is saying that there are no differences between us, that we have the same doctrine – I underline the word, a difficult word to understand – but I ask myself: don’t we have the same Baptism? And if we have the same Baptism, we have to walk together. You are a witness to an even profound journey because it is a conjugal journey, truly a family journey, of human love and of shared faith. We have the same Baptism. When you feel you are a sinner – I too feel I am quite a sinner – when your husband feels he is a sinner, you go before the Lord and ask forgiveness; your husband does the same and goes to the priest and requests absolution. They are ways of keeping Baptism alive. When you pray together, that Baptism grows, it becomes strong; when you teach your children who Jesus is, why Jesus came, what Jesus did, you do the same, whether in Lutheran or Catholic terms, but it is the same. The question: and the Supper? There are questions to which only if one is honest with oneself and with the few theological lights that I have, one must respond the same, you see. ‘This is my Body, this is my Blood’, said the Lord, ‘do this in memory of me’, and this is a viaticum which helps us to journey. I had a great friendship with an Episcopalian bishop, 48 years old, married with two children, and he had this concern: a Catholic wife, Catholic children, and he a bishop. He accompanied his wife and children to Mass on Sundays and then went to worship with his community. It was a step of participating in the Lord’s Supper. Then he passed on, the Lord called him, a just man. I respond to your question only with a question: how can I participate with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper may accompany me on my path? It is a problem to which each person must respond. A pastor friend of mine said to me: ‘We believe that the Lord is present there. He is present. You believe that the Lord is present. So what is the difference?’ – ‘Well, there are explanations, interpretations…’. Life is greater than explanations and interpretations. Always refer to Baptism: “One faith, one baptism, one Lord”, as Paul tells us, and take the outcome from there. I would never dare give permission to do this because I do not have the authority. One Baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and go forward. I do not dare say more.”
It is impossible to gather a clear indication from these words. Of course, however, by speaking in such a “liquid” form Pope Francis has brought everything into question again, concerning intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants. He has made any position thinkable, and therefore practicable.
In fact, in the Lutheran camp the pope’s words were immediately taken as a go-ahead for intercommunion.
But now in the Catholic camp as well an analogous position statement has come, which presents itself above all as the authentic interpretation of the words Francis said at the Lutheran church of Rome.
Acting as the pope’s authorized interpreter is the Jesuit Giancarlo Pani, in the latest issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” the magazine directed by Fr. Antonio Spadaro that has now become the official voice of Casa Santa Marta, meaning of Jorge Mario Bergoglio himself, who reviews and adjusts the articles that most interest him before their publication.
Taking his cue from a recent joint declaration of the Catholic episcopal conference of the United States and of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Fr. Pani dedicates the entire second part of his article to the exegesis of the words of Francis at the Christuskirche in Rome, carefully selected from among those most useful for the purpose.
And he draws the conclusion from them that they marked “a change” and “a progress in pastoral practice,” analogous to the one produced by “Amoris Laetitia” for the divorced and remarried.
They are only “small steps forward,” Pani writes in the final paragraph. But the direction is set.
And it is the same one in which Francis moves when he declares – as he did during the return flight from Armenia – that Luther “was a reformer” with good intentions and his reform was “medicine for the Church,” skipping over the essential dogmatic divergences between Protestants and Catholics concerning the sacrament of the Eucharist, because – in the words of Francis at the Christuskirche in Rome – “life is greater than explanations and interpretations.”
So here are the main passages of the article by Fr. Pani in “La Civiltà Cattolica.”
On intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants
by Giancarlo Pani, S.J.
On October 31, 2015, the feast of the Reformation, the Catholic episcopal conference of the United States and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America published a joint declaration that summarizes the history of ecumenism over the past half century. [. . .] The text was released after the closing of the synod of bishops on the family and in view of the shared commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. [. . .]
The document concludes with a significant positive proposal: “The possibility of occasional admission of members of our churches to Eucharistic communion with the other side (communicatio in sacris) could be offered more clearly and regulated more compassionately.” [. . .]
The visit of Pope Francis to the Christuskirche of Rome
Two weeks after the promulgation of the declaration, last November 15, Pope Francis visited the Christuskirche, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Rome. [. . .]
During the meeting, there was also a conversation between the pope and the faithful. Among the various contributions was that of a Lutheran lady, married to a Catholic, who asked what could be done so that she could participate together with her husband in Eucharistic communion. And she specified: “We have lived together happily for many years, sharing joys and pains. And therefore we are very much hurt by being divided in faith and not being able to participate together in the Lord’s Supper.”
Responding, Pope Francis posed a question: “Is sharing the Lord’s Supper the end of a journey or is it the viaticum for walking together?”
The answer to this question was given by Vatican II, in the decree “Unitatis Redintegratio”: “Yet worship in common (communicatio in sacris) is not to be considered as a means to be used indiscriminately for the restoration of Christian unity. There are two main principles governing the practice of such common worship: first, the bearing witness to the unity of the Church, and second, the sharing in the means of grace. Witness to the unity of the Church very generally forbids common worship to Christians, but the grace to be had from it sometimes commends this practice. The course to be adopted, with due regard to all the circumstances of time, place, and persons, is to be decided by local episcopal authority.”
This position is reiterated and expanded by the instructions for the application of the principles and norms on ecumenism of 1993, approved by Pope John Paul II, where it says: “The sharing of spiritual activities and resources must reflect this twofold reality: 1) the real communion in the life of the Spirit that already exists among Christians and is expressed in their prayer and in liturgical worship; 2) the incomplete character of this communion on account of differences of faith and because of ways of thinking that are irreconcilable with a full sharing of spiritual gifts.”
The instructions therefore place the accent on the “incomplete character of the communion” of the Churches, from which follows the limitation of access to the Eucharistic sacrament. But if the Churches recognize each other to be in apostolic succession and admit each others’ ministers and sacraments, they enjoy greater access to the sacraments themselves, which in any case, according to the document, must not be general and indiscriminate. Sacramental sharing instead remains limited for the Churches that do not have a communion and unity of faith on the Church, apostolicity, ministers, and sacraments.
Nonetheless, Catholic theology wisely maintains guidelines of ample breadth, in such a way as to consider case by case – as the decree “Unitatis Redintegratio” recalls – with a discernment that belongs to the local ordinary. In this sense, at least after the promulgation of the instructions, it can no longer be said that “non-Catholics can never receive communion in a Catholic Eucharistic celebration.” It is interesting to note how the same logic of “pastoral discernment” has been applied by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (nos. 304-306).
Can there be shared participation in the Lord’s Supper?
At this point it comes back to Pope Francis, who continues: “But do we not have the same baptism? And if we have the same baptism, we have to walk together. You [the pope is referring to the lady who posed the question] are a witness to a journey that can be profound, because it is a conjugal journey, truly a family journey, of human love and shared faith. [. . .] When you feel that you are a sinner – I too feel I am quite a sinner – when your husband feels that he is a sinner, you go before the Lord and ask forgiveness; your husband does the same and goes to the priest and requests absolution. They are ways of keeping baptism alive. When you pray together, that baptism grows, it becomes strong. [. . .] The question: and the Supper? There are questions to which only if one is honest with oneself and with the few theological lights that I have, one must respond the same. [. . .] ‘This is my body, this is my blood,’ said the Lord, ‘do this in memory of me,’ and this is a viaticum that helps us to journey.”
But then can there be shared participation in the Lord’s Supper? In this regard the pope has made a distinction: “I would never dare give permission to do this because I do not have the authority.” Then he added, recalling the words of the apostle Paul: “One baptism, one Lord, one faith (Eph 4:5), and he exhorted, continuing: “It is a problem to which each person must respond. [. . .] Speak with the Lord and go forward.”
Here there comes into play the Church’s main mission, also formulated in the Code of Canon Law as “salus animarum, quae in Ecclesia suprema lex esse debet” (cf. 1752). The necessity of a concrete evaluation on each individual case is absolutely reiterated from that which is the primary mission of the Church, the “salus animarum.” By virtue of which, in the face of extreme cases, access to the life of grace that the sacraments guarantee, above all in the case of the administration of the Eucharist and of reconciliation, becomes a pastoral and moral imperative.
The pastoral approach of Pope Francis
The pope’s position seems to be a reaffirmation of the instructions of Vatican II. But there is no overlooking the fact that a change has taken place, and it can even be understood as progress in pastoral practice. In fact Francis, as bishop of Rome and pastor of the universal Church, in reiterating what was affirmed by the Council inserts that practice within the historical journey that the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue carried out with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation and of the Eucharist. The 1993 instructions already noted that “in certain circumstances, by way of exception and under particular conditions, admission to these sacraments can be authorized and even recommended for Christians of other Churches and ecclesial communities.”
Moreover, ten years before, the Code of Canon Law dictated the conditions under which the faithful of Churches born from the Reformation (Lutherans, Anglicans, etc.) can receive the sacraments in particular circumstances: for example, if they “cannot approach a minister of their own community and seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed” (can. 844 § 4).
Pope John Paul II, in the 2003 encyclical letter “Ecclesia de Eucharistia,” clarified several points in this regard, asserting that “these conditions, from which no dispensation can be given, must be carefully respected, even though they deal with specific individual cases,” like that of “the danger of death or some other grave necessity.” The intention of these clarifications is always the pastoral care of persons, with special attention that this not lead to indifferentism.
Here it must be made clear that if on the one hand the prudential and restrictive measures that the Church set up in the past were based on sacramental theology, on the other its pastoral mission and the salvation of souls that it has at its heart reveal the value of the Lord’s grace and the sharing of spiritual goods. Pope Francis has expressed particular attention for the problems of persons in the “communicatio in sacris,” in the light of the developments in Church teaching from the Council to the 1993 instructions on principles and norms of ecumenism, from the 1999 joint declaration on the doctrine of justification to the 2013 text “From conflict to communion,” up to the latest declaration of 2015.
This is a matter of small steps forward in pastoral practice. Norms and doctrine must be guided ever more by the evangelical logic of mercy, by the pastoral care of the faithful, by attention to the problems of the person and by the enhancement of the conscience illuminated by the Gospel and by the Spirit of God.
A link to the article by Fr. Giancarlo Pani in “La Civiltà Cattolica” of July 9, 2016:
The joint declaration of the episcopal conference of the United States and of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America cited by Pani:
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.