Catholics in Communion with Lutherans?

Posted by Veronica Wilson on

Perhaps more than any papacy before his, Pope Francis has a way of making headlines, and stirring things up a bit. Provoking both thought and discord, the Holy See has suggested that Lutherans can receive the sacrament in a Catholic church.

During a prayer service in November, hosted by the Lutheran Church in Rome, the pontiff engaged in a question-and-answer period. Prompted by a woman's question, Pope Francis considered her plight.

The woman claimed she was a Lutheran, but she was married to a Catholic. The couple was devoted to the Lord, but practiced their faith in different churches, because Catholic doctrine refused her Communion. The woman indicated the couple had shared life's vicissitudes faithfully, but longed to celebrate Communion together.

Francis thought for a moment, perhaps understanding his answer could cause a riot in the streets. He jested that another attendee, Cardinal Walter Kaspar, was giving him pause. Cardinal Kaspar is a well-regarded theologian, who would see through any flaws in doctrine.

The Sacrament of Holy Communion is paramount in Catholic doctrine. The Eucharist takes on the mystical presence of Jesus, and is reserved for those who have accepted the Church, and the tenets thereof. Most Protestant religions celebrate Communion, but do not agree that the body and blood of Christ are present in the host and wine.

In a fashion similar to Jesus, when faced with the adulteress about to be stoned, the pontiff's answer could be difficult to answer satisfactorily. He recalled conversations with many Protestant friends, who expressed their belief in the mystery of Christ residing within the Communion elements. Francis said, “ is greater than explanations and interpretations,” declaring each individual needs to examine their heart before accepting Communion. "One Baptism, one Lord, one faith," he said citing Baptism as the key starting point of faith. “Speak with the Lord and go ahead.”

Stunned silence filled the room. It did not take long for critics to fill the silence. One outspoken priest, Rev. Dwight Longenecker, was raised Protestant, but converted to Catholicism later in life. Rev. Longenecker writes in his blog, “Once again Pope Francis, in being pastoral and kind, has muddled things up and confused the faithful.”

Other critics charge him with "effectively [rewriting] Catechism and …Eucharist disciple" that has been in place since the Reformation.

However, Baltimore auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden has unveiled Catholic Canonical Law and an Ecumenical directory from 1933, which explain that "intercommunion" is possible and allowable by the Vatican. However, a local bishop or member of the national Church hierarchy must sanction the event unless it is an emergency of some sort.

Madden together with an Evangelical Lutheran wrote the “Statement of Agreements” as well as “Agreements in the Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogues—Elaborated and Documented." It speaks to 32 ways the two churches agree on doctrine. This major report will be presented next autumn at the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Madden cautioned, “But what we try to say in this document is that while there are a number of things we differ on, they are not enough to keep us separated.”

Church history shows that then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would soon serve as Pope Benedict XVI, provided Communion to Swiss Protestant and founder of an ecumenical monastic community, Brother Roger, of Taize, at St. John Paul II's funeral. Although there was a stir at the time, we later learned that John Paul had administered Holy Communion to Brother Roger during Mass on several occasions.

The Catholic Herald of Britain writer and canon lawyer, Edward Condon, has been vocal in his reluctance to jump to conclusions. He writes, “While some have gone bonkers at the suggestion that the pope wants to give Communion to Protestants, the church already holds that this is not a simple question of can they or can’t they, but one of time, place, disposition, and belief. These are not procedural hoops to jump through but necessary expressions of the seriousness of the Eucharist.”

Vatican sources say Pope Francis is ready to battle, as he continues to espouse unity, love and kindness among the religions and peoples of the world.