Rumors are running rampant that intercommunion with Lutherans is on the table as Pope Francis travels to Lund, Sweden to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this Monday and Tuesday. On one hand, extraordinary ecumenical expectations prior to some event often appear overblown after the fact, as when some speculated that Pope Benedict might in some way “rehabilitate” Martin Luther during his 2011 journey to Germany. Benedict reminded people that ecumenism is a matter of truth, not politics and gesture:
Prior to my visit, there was some talk of an “ecumenical gift” which was expected from such a visit. There is no need for me to specify the gifts mentioned in this context. Here I would only say that, in most of its manifestations, this reflects a political misreading of faith and of ecumenism. In general, when a Head of State visits a friendly country, contacts between the various parties take place beforehand to arrange one or more agreements between the two states: by weighing respective benefits and drawbacks a compromise is reached which in the end appears beneficial for both parties, so that a treaty can then be signed. But the faith of Christians does not rest on such a weighing of benefits and drawbacks. A self-made faith is worthless. Faith is not something we work out intellectually and negotiate between us. It is the foundation for our lives. Unity grows not by the weighing of benefits and drawbacks but only by entering ever more deeply into the faith in our thoughts and in our lives.
Indeed, whatever kind things Pope Francis might be saying about Luther and Lutherans in the present moment, Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio often expressed sharp criticisms of Luther and the wider Reformation, as in 1985:
Starting from the Lutheran position, if we are consistent, there remain only two possibilities from which to choose in the course of history: either man falls apart in his anguish, and he is no longer anything at all (and this is the conclusion of atheist existentialism), or man, basing himself on that same anguish and corruption, makes a leap in the void and declares himself superman (this is the option of Nietzsche). […]
The Lutheran perspective, since it is founded precisely on the divorce between faith and religion (it in fact conceives of faith as the only salvation and accuses religion—acts of religion, piety, and so on—of being a mere manipulation of God), generates divorce and schism; it entails all the forms of individualism that, on the social level, affirms their hegemony.
In any event, while the saga of Amoris Laetitia suggests Pope Francis desires a wider distribution of the Eucharist than current law and practice permit, we should be skeptical that he will do anything drastic regarding intercommunion in Lund. Drastic isn’t his style; if he desires some sort of intercommunion, he would drive it subtly, from the margins—not in an official way but practically.
Whatever might come of Lund, intercommunion is now high on the ecumenical consciousness and so it’s important to address again why the Catholic Church (except in the most limited circumstances permitted by canon law) does not permit it, nor why certain other Protestants do not permit it, including conservative Lutheran bodies like the Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Synod, and the Evangelical Lutheran synod. For Catholics and certain conservative Protestant bodies, the rationale is the same: the Eucharist (or “the Lord’s Supper” or “Holy Communion”, terms Protestants would prefer) is the sacrament of unity, and unity involves doctrinal agreement, as Sacred Scripture makes clear. There is thus a necessary unity of pulpit and altar, as the same Jesus Christ comes to his people in both preaching of a church’s teaching as well as the elements of Holy Communion.
It seems in any controverted theological question nowadays, people fail to ask what a thing is before engaging whether people should be able to engage in the thing. Two examples to wit: advocates of women’s ordination to the priesthood often fail to reckon with the nature of the priesthood, while advocates of gay marriage often fail to reckon with the nature of marriage. In each instance an ideological concern for equality overrides any philosophical concern for reality.
Eucharistic unity is exclusive
Questions of intercommunion, then, must involve reckoning with what eucharistic communion is—not just theories and theologies of the Eucharist (e.g., mere symbolism vs. transfiguration) but also what the Eucharist is for the Church and her members in its practice. And Scripture and Tradition teach the Eucharist is not only the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ come down from heaven on the altar but also the real sign realizing unity on earth.
In 1 Corinthians 10, the Apostle Paul, seeing the Church as the allegorical continuation of the new Israel fulfilling her mission of redemption in the world, presents warnings from Israel’s history. The ancient Israelites engaged in deep sin, especially idolatry, while eating and drinking the supernatural Christ(!) who accompanied them, and God struck them down. Paul tells the Corinthians, “Now these things were are warnings for us.” Admonishing the Corinthians to shun idolatry, he then writes:
Therefore, my beloved, shun the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the practice of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? (vv. 14-18).
For Paul, then, Eucharistic unity is exclusive. Sharing the sacred meal of a god is participation in that god, whether the God of Israel or a pagan god. Eating the Eucharist is eating the one Christ, and that means one cannot eat of the table of other gods than His.
But aren’t Protestants baptized into the one Christ? Are not Protestants Christians? Yes, indeed. Ephesians 5:21 and following teaches that Christ and the Church are one, and so the Catechism teaches:
Christ and his Church thus together make up the “whole Christ” (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ. The saints are acutely aware of this unity:
Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself. Do you understand and grasp, brethren, God’s grace toward us? Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members; he and we together are the whole man . . . the fullness of Christ then is the head and the members. But what does “head and members” mean? Christ and the Church. [St. Augustine, In Jo. ev , 21, 8: PL 35, 1568]
Our redeemer has shown himself to be one person with the holy Church whom he has taken to himself. [Pope St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job , praef., 14: PL 75, 525A]
Head and members form as it were one and the same mystical person. [St. Thomas Aquinas, ST III.48.2]
A reply of St. Joan of Arc to her judges sums up the faith of the holy doctors and the good sense of the believer: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” (CCC, 795ff)
Thus the Catechism teaches that Protestants are our brothers and sisters, quoting Unitatis Redintegratio 3.1:
However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church. (CCC, 818)
If both rightly baptized Protestants and Catholics are baptized into the one and only Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, ascended into the heavens, would it not stand to reason that we should share the Eucharist on earth to reflect the real and true unity we have in heaven?
Eucharistic unity is imperative
Paul, I think, would answer “no,” as the Catholic Church also responds “no.” Why? Because for Paul, unity is also a matter of doctrinal agreement.
The problem in Corinth which prompted Paul to put pen to paper is factionalism rooted in error. The Corinthians are divided because they are rallying around human personalities. Paul writes, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor 1:11-13).
Apollos is the man Paul mentions most in the letter (cf. 1 Cor 3:4-6, 4:6), and it’s likely that he’s the source of the Corinthians’ errors and division. Acts 18:24ff indicates that Apollos, a Jew from Alexandria, though fervent in speech and learned in the Scriptures, hadn’t had Christian baptism (he knew only the baptism of John the Baptist) and that Priscilla and Aquila had to explain the way of God to him “more accurately,” implying he was deficient in his understanding of Christian teaching. No wonder some of the Corinthians went so far as to deny the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15:12), if Apollos with the Hellenistic outlook bequeathed to him in Alexandria suggested to them that the body was unimportant.
It’s probably Apollos whom Paul has in mind when he reminds the Corinthians that the orators of this age are nowhere, that “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor 1:20). The Corinthians are divided into factions because they are fascinated with human wisdom and thus some are rallying around Apollos as a champion. And so from first to last, from the discussion of Christ crucified in the first chapter to Christ resurrected in the last, Paul’s chief concern in 1 Corinthians is unity, found in the crucified and risen Christ.
Now as history has shown time and time again, cults of personality, error, and schism go hand in hand. Thus Apollos’ strong personality attracted Corinthian followers to his warped teaching and caused division. And so Paul counters by emphasizing Christ, truth and unity. And so in the first chapter Paul employs that conceptual pattern in admonishing the Corinthians: “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10).
Note the pattern in Paul’s words here: in the name of (1) the Lord Jesus Christ he calls for (2) agreement and (3) no dissensions but unity in having the same mind. Christ, truth, and unity form an ironclad triad. For Paul, then, unity requires sharing the same mind, even the mind of Christ. That’s doctrinal agreement, to be sure, but it’s even more than the most dogmatically rigid amongst us today would assume. It’s not just affirming official doctrines but living them as the air we breathe, for ultimately Catholic doctrine flows from the source who is Christ.
Eucharistic unity is doctrinal
If we take Paul seriously, then, the unity the Eucharist represents and enacts in chapter 10 (“we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”) would require doctrinal agreement, being of the same mind. And thus logic requires the inference that Paul would not have those who reject the Church’s teachings share in the sacrament of earthly unity, the Eucharist.
It’s not just that the sacrament is some sort of semiotic sign signaling something, however. It’s true that the Eucharist “proclaim[s] the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26), but as a holy meal involving Christ’s very body and blood itself, it’s also a matter of life and death for communicants. In 1 Corinthians 11 we learn that some are getting sick and dying because they’re taking the Eucharist unworthily (v. 30) and that the Corinthians face further divine condemnation for such (v. 34). Their liturgy has become a mockery of the Lord’s death, as some are feasting and imbibing while others go hungry and suffer humiliation (vv. 20-21).
For Paul, the mess that the mass in Corinth has become is not merely a matter of morals, as if their practice alone needs correction. Rather, the truth—the doctrine—is that the Lord’s death which the Eucharist represents and indeed presents has meaning because it is something. The doctrinal truth flows from its reality. And the doctrine is this: The Lord’s sacrificial death levels people; all are sinners now saved, and so there should be no sin or division. All stand under the cross.
We see in 1 Corinthians, then the classical roots of what’s called the unity of pulpit and altar. The idea is that the same Jesus Christ comes to His people both in the Scripture, preaching and teaching of the Church (pulpit) and in the Eucharist (altar). And thus pulpit and altar should agree, as it were; sharing in the Eucharist from the altar involves believing the teaching the Church has proclaimed from its pulpits. Taking the Eucharist means believing the doctrine. And so the Second Vatican Council teaches in Dei Verbum:
The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body. (par. 26)
Adverting to this passage, in Verbum Domini Pope Benedict writes, “The profound unity of the word and Eucharist is grounded in the witness of Scripture, attested to by the Fathers of the Church, and reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council.”
Intercommunion, then, presents problems. First and foremost, Paul’s teaching is that the Eucharist is dangerous and deadly when taken wrongly, and it is no loving act of unity to give someone something that may prove lethal. Second, opening the Eucharistic table to those who reject a church’s doctrine involves a certain lack of integrity. It suggests either that Christ were divided, that the Christ who comes in the Eucharist is different than the one that comes in the preaching. And it follows in the third place that intercommunion is deceptive, suggesting not only that a real unity exists where it is in fact lacking but also that the truth of Christ ultimately doesn’t matter. It would suggest a church doesn’t take its own teaching seriously.
Smart Protestants get this. At a convivial gathering I once introduced a Lutheran minister of the Missouri Synod to a priest of my acquaintance. As the evening wore on, I found the two engaged in jovial conversation centered on their mutual agreement on their mutual refusal of the Eucharist to each other. I heard my Lutheran friend exclaim, “Right! If you don’t believe what I preach from my pulpit, why would you want to commune at my altar?”
Sharing communion together now would involve papering over real differences and thus engaging in serious self-deceit, while displaying to the world a false, facile, and fragile unity that ultimately suggests truth is irrelevant and holds the precious body and blood of Christ cheap.
But that is not the final word, for we Catholics must regard Protestants as our sisters and brothers if we are to believe the Church’s teaching, and so energetic ecumenism must remain a real priority. We dialogue theologically while we work together in the world’s trenches as stages on the way. Sharing the Eucharist in truth is the goal, achieving on earth the unity we share in Christ in heaven.