Rumors were swirling that an “Ecumenical Mass” was being devised in the Vatican, either at Pope Francis’ express direction, or, at least, with his tacit approval. Marco Tosatti, who first reported it, stands by his report, even though the Vatican issued an emphatic denial earlier this week.
Coming to a definitive judgment about what was really happening appears impossible at the moment. But that such a plan was, or is, being considered by someone somewhere with the Pope’s ear is certainly plausible, given the Pope’s friendly words and overtures to our separated brethren. In matters ecumenical he’s made a pivot back to the west (and thus Protestantism, evangelicalism, and pentecostalism) after Pope Benedict’s pivot to the east (and thus Orthodoxy). The idea Tosatti reported seems to have concerned the production of a liturgy that could be celebrated jointly with Catholics and (at least) Lutherans, given how close the two confessions are on the Eucharist. Indeed, similar rumors were swirling when the Pope visited Lund, Sweden, to commemorate the Reformation.
Ecumenism remains an imperative for all Christians, since the divisions that mar the body of Christ on earth are simply intolerable, given not only our Lord’s very words in his high priestly prayer in John 17 that all those who believe in him may be one, but also because all Christians—of whatever confession or tradition who are rightly baptized with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are truly united to the one and only Jesus Christ, whose risen and ascended body is undivided in heaven.
Ecumenism for Catholics is rooted in a concept called “Christus Totus,” which is the conviction that the whole Christ consists of Jesus Christ as Head and the Church as his Body. The concept is in turn rooted in Scripture, as in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Christ is the head of the Church, his body…we are members of his body” (Eph 5:23, 30). Just as in the sacrament of marriage man and woman become one flesh, so too is the relationship of Christ with his Church (Eph 5:31–32), Christ and the Church are one; we are Jesus and Jesus is us. The Catechism quotes, among others, a pithy saying of St. Joan of Arc: “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 §795).
So Christians are united already in heaven by their baptismal incorporation into the risen and ascended Jesus Christ. Ecumenism, then, for Catholics, involves seeking and achieving that heavenly unity on earth in the Eucharist. But that’s a grave difficulty given the irreconcilable convictions Christians of various confessions hold concerning the Eucharist, which involves even what to call it. Protestants generally prefer “the Lord’s Supper” or “Holy Communion” instead of “Eucharist” (which of course means Thanksgiving) as the latter suggests the ritual is something we do, some sort of work we offer to God to propitiate him.
Lutherans, for their part, affirm that the elements really are Jesus in some way, asserting a sort of “consubstantiation” in which Jesus is present “in, with, and under” the elements of the bread and wine, without going too deeply into the metaphysics of the matter. In 1527 in his tract That These Words of Christ, “This is My Body,” Etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics, Luther himself wrote,
Our adversary says that mere bread and wine are present, not the body and blood of the Lord. If they believe and teach wrongly here, then they blaspheme God and are giving the lie to the Holy Spirit, betray Christ, and seduce the world. One side must be of the devil, and God’s enemy. There is no middle ground.
Among Western Christians, then, Lutheran doctrine comes closest to Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist.
Even with Lutherans, however, there remains a large gulf, and that gulf is decidedly wider between Catholic eucharistic doctrine and the beliefs other Protestants hold on what they prefer to call “The Lord’s Supper,” who generally deny Christ is in any way present within the elements of the ritual themselves.
And so the German Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Rainer Maria Woelki, had tossed a mug of the coldest Kölsch (Cologne’s legendary beer, best consumed on the shore of the Rhine in the shadow of the cathedral) on the idea some days prior to the Vatican’s rejection of Tosatti’s claims. Relying on a German report, the British publication The Catholic Herald reported:
Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne said there is “no basis” for such a service because the denominations “do not agree on the central issues” around the Eucharist.
The cardinal explained in the Kölner Express that for Catholics, the Eucharist is not just a common meal; it is the true Body and Blood of Christ in the transubstantiated gifts of bread and wine. Protestants do not have this understanding.
The Real Presence is an “incontrovertible certainty” for Catholics, he said. As long as these differences exist, there can be no “common supper”.
Cardinal Woelki pointed out the obvious, perhaps insuperable, difficulty: Catholics and Protestants simply do not agree on the nature of the Eucharist.
But it’s not simply Eucharistic doctrine that separates us. One is tempted to say it is everything else, too, in spite of our heavenly baptismal unity in Christ. It’s important to point out that even were it possible to have some sort of intercommunion service, coming to a common agreement on the nature of the Eucharist would be necessary but not sufficient. For both confessional, magisterial Protestantism and Catholicism have doctrinal systems; to accept a certain doctrine of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper implicates everything else, from the nature of ordained ministry (for instance, are the ministers of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper properly priests, or not?) to the operation of grace (that’s why Protestants aren’t keen on the name “Eucharist”) and the very character of the Church. It’s not just eucharistic doctrine, but all doctrine, that is at issue, and if doctrine, then practice too.
Because a church’s practices and doctrine form a coherent unity, serious magisterial Protestants and Catholics alike believe that there is a unity of pulpit and altar. For Catholics, salvation history centers on Christ from creation to eschaton and culminates in each and every Eucharist as the fulfillment of Scripture’s story of salvation history. But the divine Word is received not only in the liturgy of the Eucharist but the liturgy of the Word as well. And so the Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum 21 teaches us this: “[E]specially in the sacred liturgy, [the Church] unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.” There is therefore a unity of preaching and Eucharist, a unity of ambo and altar, a unity often proclaimed by a church sanctuary’s very architecture when ambo and altar match in design. (The unity of ambo and altar also a good reason for deacons and priests to preach from the ambo and not, well, ambulate elsewhere.)
And if there is unity of ambo or pulpit (where a Christian body’s doctrinal beliefs about Jesus Christ are articulated) and the altar (where that Christian body’s convictions about the Lord’s Supper come into most intimate play), it wouldn’t make sense to permit other Christians who reject what that body teaches from its pulpits to receive at their altar (or, if some prefer, communion table). It’s not so much a matter of not believing what a particular Church or ecclesial body believes about the Eucharist—though it is that, but broader; it’s a matter of engaging in an inconsistency, or even a subtle lie, as it’s rejecting the ambo or pulpit but accepting the altar. One might say it divides Christ, as the understanding of the Christ proclaimed from a pulpit is at least in part rejected while the Christ of the altar or table is accepted. As one of my friends, a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor once succinctly put it to another friend of mine, a Catholic priest, “If someone doesn’t believe what I preach from my pulpit, why would he wish to commune at my altar?”
Attempts to achieve Christian unity are noble things, for those outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church who are baptized properly are indeed Christians. Yet unity cannot be had on the cheap. Achieving Eucharistic unity on earth can only be had on the basis of a mutual search for necessary and obligatory truth, that we all may be one.