151. Eucharistic Hospitality? Between a Catholic “Yes” and a Roman “No”

July 1st, 2018

“Can a non-Catholic be given the Eucharist in the Catholic Church?” When asked this question by a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man during his 2015 visit to a Lutheran Church in Rome, Pope Francis gave a convoluted answer, the gist which was “perhaps yes”, “perhaps no”, “I don’t know”, and “look at your conscience”. This was a personal question highlighting a more general and thorny issue. In times of increased ecumenical friendliness, when reconciliation among Christians is often portrayed as a given, people are asking why that purported unity is stopped by the Catholic Church when it comes to the Eucharist. This is especially true in countries like Germany where many couples are made up of Lutheran and Catholic spouses (and are therefore called “inter-confessional” families), who live together during the week and yet are divided on Sunday.

A Predominantly German Concern
This issue made headlines recently. In a nutshell, this is the background story: on 22 February of this year, the German Bishops’ Conference announced the publication of a pastoral guide on the sharing of the Eucharist by inter-confessional couples, providing some openings for the admission of the Eucharist to non-Catholic partners. The proposed opening was not yet generalized – it would have had to be decided on a case-by-case basis by individual bishops. Controversy arose immediately. In the weeks that followed, seven German bishops addressed the Vatican to seek clarification on an initiative that they believed violated the unity of the Church and undermined standard Catholic doctrine concerning the sacraments.

Pope Francis exhorted the German bishops to continue in dialogue and possibly reach a unanimous decision. A unanimous decision was not reached and, therefore, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e. the Vatican office responsible for doctrinal issues) made it clear with a letter endorsed by the Pope himself that the text presented by the Bishops’ Conference raises considerable problems. The resulting decision: “The Holy Father has come to the conclusion that the document is not ripe for publication”.

A Specifically “Roman” Response
In the Vatican letter, the two main reasons for stopping the process are listed as follows:

 a. The question of admission to communion for evangelical Christians in inter-confessional marriages is an issue that touches on the faith of the Church and has significance for the universal Church.

b. This question has effects on ecumenical relations with other Churches and other ecclesial communities that are not to be underestimated. 

Here are some brief remarks. First, the Vatican reaffirms that, in dealing with the Eucharist, one touches on “the faith of the Church”, one of the main tenets of what Roman Catholicism stands for. Given the fact that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium  11), the pastoral issues raised by inter-confessional couples need to be addressed within the dogmatic framework of Eucharistic doctrine, not at the expense of it, nor even at the relaxing of its parameters. Rome can be very flexible and nuanced (i.e. “catholic”) when it comes to discussing justification, conversion, mission, etc., but the Eucharist is what constitutes the sacramental self-understanding (i.e. Roman) of the Catholic Church and is one of its pillars. Rome could, therefore, sign the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Lutherans without changing its eucharistic doctrine and practices, thus showing flexibility on the one hand and rigidity on the other. In 2016, the Pope could speak words of reconciliation and unity at the joint commemoration of the Protestant Reformation with the Lutherans in Lund (Sweden), but those kind words have no effect on the “real” unity around the Eucharistic table. Francis was very ecumenical then, and now he is very “papal” and “Roman”.

Secondly, the Vatican letter also shows concern that the openings envisioned by the German bishops would have an impact on other realities, such as couples formed by, say, Catholic and Methodist, Catholic and Anglican, or Catholic and Baptist spouses, thus paving the way to wide-spread and unwarranted Eucharistic hospitality. This “domino effect” is something that Rome is not prepared to accept if the doctrinal essence of the Catholic Eucharist is imperiled. Again, Rome can be very soft and adaptable in many respects, but the Eucharist is the core of its “Roman” identity and so it is strictly safeguarded.

In spite of the fact that Francis is perhaps the most ecumenical Pope that the Catholic Church has ever had, for the time being, no Eucharistic hospitality is on the horizon. And this is not by accident. This decision reflects the nature of Roman Catholicism, which is catholic in attitude only insofar as the Roman structures are maintained and reinforced. Rather than submission to biblical teaching, it is the dialectic between the “Roman” and the “Catholic” poles that governs the self-understanding and the policies of the Roman Catholic Church.

97. Turkey, Gateway To Inter-religious Dialogue and Ecumenism

December 12th, 2014

Pope Francis’ visit to Turkey (28-30 November 2014) was significant for a number of reasons. The two most outstanding reasons concern the ability of the Roman Catholic Church to engage in “dialogue”: that is dialogue with Islam and dialogue with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The former takes the form of inter-religious dialogue, the latter is primarily an expression of ecumenism. Turkey is a threshold into the Muslim world. The country borders Syria and Iraq, places where Islamic fundamentalism threatens the sheer survival of the local Christian communities. Turkey is also the historical see of the “second Rome”, i.e. Constantinople, an influential center of Eastern Orthodoxy. The focus of the visit was therefore twofold: to foster mutual understanding with the “moderate” Islam and to advance the ecumenical agenda with Constantinople.

Your Prayers for Me

Pope Francis had several meetings with various Muslim leaders. In each of them he stressed the commonalities between Christians and Muslims in terms of them worshipping the All-Merciful God, having Abraham as father, practicing prayer, almsgiving and fasting, and sharing a religious sense of life that is foundational for human dignity and fraternity. In addressing Muslims, the Pope used the language of brotherhood and focused on what they have in common. This same approach was used in Turkey.

One interesting albeit striking element emerged as he spoke on 28 November to the Department for Religious Affairs in Ankara[1]. After referring to the common themes that we already mentioned, he said: “I am grateful also to each one of you, for your presence and for your prayers which, in your kindness, you offer for me and my ministry”. Pope Francis is used to asking for prayers for himself and to thanking people who pray for him. But in this case he was speaking to Muslims and he nonetheless thanked them for their prayers for him. It seems that in this case he went further than simply underlining commonalities in basic theology and spirituality. He went as far as recognizing Islamic prayers as legitimate, and even useful acts of intercession. Should a Christian be thankful to Muslims for their prayers? Are these prayers accepted by God? Didn’t the Pope unwarrantedly stretch the inter-faith theology that assumes that all prayers are pleasing to God and answered by Him? Didn’t he further blur the distinction between the Christian faith and the Muslim religion by implying that Christians and Muslims can pray for each other as if God accepts their respective prayers as they are?

Back to the First Millennium

The other focus of the visit was to strengthen the ecumenical relationships with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. According to the Roman Catholic principles of ecumenism, the Eastern Orthodox churches are close to “full communion” with Rome because they profess the same apostolic faith, they celebrate the same Eucharist and they have maintained the apostolic succession in their priesthood. From a theological point of view, the role of the papacy is the only imperfection that inhibits them from full communion. The papal office as it developed after the schism of 1054 AD makes Eastern Orthodox churches unwilling to accept the primacy of the Roman Pope as it stands. In their view, certain monarchial aspects of the Petrine ministry that were introduced in the Second Millennium (e.g. the infallibility of the Pope as he speaks ex cathedra) go against the collegiality principle of Orthodox ecclesiology.

Being aware of these complexities and yet wanting to promote an ecumenical breakthrough, Pope Francis said that he is willing to envisage a way forward: the Roman Church is open to concede that in order to enter into full communion with Rome, Eastern Orthodox churches need to accept the Papal office as it was understood and practiced in the First Millennium when the Church was still “undivided”. This is not a new idea – even Joseph Ratzinger was in favor of it – but it is important that Francis made it his own[2]. It seems that the way forward is to first go backwards. The Roman Church is willing to exercise its catholicity, i.e. being flexible enough to accommodate a different point of view, all while maintaining its distinctive outlook without renouncing any of it. This suggestion needs to be worked out historically and theologically. What exactly were the forms of the papacy in the First Millennium? How can they be implemented after so many centuries? How can an institution such as the Papacy that the Roman Church couched with dogma (i.e. the infallibility) be diluted for non-Catholic Christians? How can one be cum Petro (with Peter) without being sub Petro (under Peter)?

While ecumenical theologians have some homework yet to do in this field, a final comment is warranted. In the end, even the Protestant Reformation was a cry to go back to the written Word of God, i.e. Sola Scriptura! In calling for a new season under the rule of the Jesus Christ of the Bible, the Reformation beckoned the church to re-discover the Scriptures and re-submit to them. Back to the Word was a way of saying: back to Jesus Christ, back to the Gospel! The Catholic Church of the XVI century was however unwilling to receive this challenge and wanted a way forward without giving thought to the need of going backward. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) imagined a renewal without a reformation, a way forward without having to go backward. Now, Rome is ready to go back to the First Millennium and fully embrace the Eastern Orthodox churches. Why not go a bit further than the First Millennium? A return to Sola Scriptura should be the real starting point for a much needed breakthrough.