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Ecumenism and the Eucharist

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.

Pope Francis speaks during a visit to Christuskirche, a parish of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, in Rome in this Nov. 15, 2015, file photo. (CNS photo/Massimiliano Migliorato, Catholic Press Photo)

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.

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).


  1. I am skeptical about the denial: they carefully say there is no “commission” not that any consider whatsoever is not happening. There are also two communities in Italy experimenting with an ecumenical service, one in Turin, and another claiming they have Francis’ permission. How many previous denials have there been on other issues which turned out to be true. In regard to generally permitting communion for protestants, Cardinal Walter Kasper has publicly stated that it is being worked on and “coming soon.”

  2. Francis by his words and actions simply relegates doctrine to be inferior to progress and mercy that has no end.

    As in the previous post, it’s just a matter of time under this papacy. Unity at the cost of truth.

  3. I would like to see some explanation, interpretation, theological expertise on what exactly is meant by “church”. As in, “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)”. Does church mean faith alone, thereby all Christians are the church, or does it mean just the RCC? If Paul can speak of the Church are we to also interpret this as those who believe before the faith developed into what we consider the Church today? I know this can be rather nitpicky, but it really is important when speaking in ecumenism between sects. If the RCC can deny Communion to a catholic who believes in the Eucharist but is sinful, then how can the RCC sanction the reception of those who do not believe in the Eucharist as the true body and blood of Christ?

    I would very much like to see divisions within the Christian faith to be healed, where Catholic can love and embrace Protestant, where there is no more suspicions or separations, but making an amalgam (feet of iron and clay) of the faith to achieve this I don’t think this is what ecumenism should really be about.

    • Underlying your comment seems to be the false belief that the Catholic Church is “just another Christian sect.” To the contrary, the Catholic Church is the one and ONLY true Christian church, clearly and unambiguously established by God through God the Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, during his public ministry on earth. It remains to this day the ONLY church which can properly trace its lineage and teachings in an unbroken line going all the way back to Jesus Christ.

      We are certainly called to unity, but not via “peace at any price.”

    • Your questions are poignant and presented as a means to reconciliation. Praise God.

      To touch on one of your points, lets view how God impresses on the matter.

      Colossians 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

      Ephesians 4:15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,

      1 Thessalonians 1:10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

      Scripture interprets scripture and we often find a broader context than the specific verse! Someone will have a better perspective, yet it opens a door.

  4. Tosatti’s angst has merit. The idea of such a Liturgy does not. Dr Huizenga’s quote of Luther’s insistence on the truth of the Eucharistic Presence is insufficient because Luther repudiated the doctrine of Substantiation and replaced it with the strange notion of God being “under” the Bread. That is akin to a spiritual blessing not the Real Presence. Huizenga’s defense of the Real Presence v other Protestant denominations is thus non ad rem though well intended. Transubstantiation was surprisingly questioned by Cardinal G Mueller in The Mass 2010, “The uniformity of this confession [of faith in Transubstantiation] is not dependent on the Aristotelian distinction of substance and accidents” (The Mass, p. 196). It certainly is dependent. Aquinas demonstrates the essential difference between substance and accidents that is essential to the doctrine, as did Paul VI. “Some even say that the doctrine of transubstantiation, based on an antiquated philosophic notion of substance, should be so modified that the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist be reduced to a kind of symbolism, whereby the consecrated species would be merely efficacious signs of the spiritual presence of Christ and of His intimate union with the faithful members of His Mystical Body”(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis, n. 26) The doctrine has been recently questioned by other Catholic prelates. Proposal for such a doctrinal Liturgical change has relevance to Daniel 12:11, “From the time that the regular sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation is set up”.

  5. A Catholic is more or less obligated to accept the “emphatic denial” at face value. And that should be the end of the public discussion. Why? Because if true, the matter is gossip. If the denial is accurate, persisting in denigrating it is a grave sin: calumny.

  6. Paradox? St John Paul II made at least two mistakes when expressing the value of ecumenism, then saying that ALL non-Catholic Christian faiths were “fundamentally flawed”.

  7. “On the cheap”?

    I get the idea, but quite seriously, a committed Christian will believe what we believe about the Eucharist in spirit if not in letter. Whereas many, many baptized Catholics welcomed do not even pretend to do so.

    Who then is welcome?

    If evangelicals, for instance, are in fact our brethren renewed by sanctified grace, are they not “qualified” to partake of the Lord’s body, misconceptions aside? As much so as fornicating college students who line up every Sunday because they have Catholic baptismal certificates and a sense of duty if not a sense of faith?

    This is not to be contentious but to ask questions I see nowhere being answered. Someone can think everyone is going to Heaven and partake worthily; someone questions transubstantiation and they are unworthy? Something may be askew here. The full range of issues around communion is not being faced but ignored.

  8. Protestant belief is not benign and harmless as most Catholics believe it is…My child growing up was whipped for making the sign of the cross and turned against me because of my Catholic belief ( By her Protestant side of the family) Even as a grown adult now will have nothing to do with me….The awful things taught against The Blessed Mother ….There is definitely a culture of hate within Protestantism….I realize this isn’t true for all Protestant people..But it is definitely more prevalent than is realized…..I think great care should be taken not to condone a theology that is TOTALLY against GOD and the teaching of Jesus Christ……We need to stay our course and those outside must turn to the truth……

    • Thank you for opening truths door. God’s word, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the shed blood of Jesus Christ give us peace with God.

      John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

      John 17:17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

      John 8:32 And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

      John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

      2 Timothy 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

      John 4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

      1 John 3:18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

      Psalm 25:5 Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.


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