Reading DW #5: Where Are We on the Eucharist?

Christ calls all people to unity, and a unity that is sacramentally both grounded and recognized in the one eucharist. The Declaration on the Way gives us signposts for the distance towards this unity that we have already travelled, and maps out some of the terrain that still lies between us.

Its description of eucharistic agreement between Lutherans and Catholics is briefer than the other sections, in part because the historical issues of dispute are fewer. In just six agreements, Catholics and Lutherans agree that the eucharist is to be highly esteemed (27), brings the church into participation in the Trinitarian life (28), is the memorial (anamnesis) of Christ’s sacrificial self-offering (29), in which Jesus is “present truly, substantially, as a person, and . . . in his entirety, as Son of God and a human being” (30). They agree that the eucharist is “a sacramental participation in the glorified body and blood of Christ,” that is God’s pledge for the remaking of the world (31). Finally, they agree that “the eucharist both mirrors and builds the church in its unity” (32).

These ideas will come as no surprise to most theologians or ecumenists, but if my undergraduates are any sign, they will be surprising to many Catholics. Many, if not most of us seem to have been taught that Lutherans don’t believe in the Real Presence, and so the language, especially in §30 isn’t what people might expect.

Of course, how we understand that Real Presence to take place is still something about which we differ (IV.C.2), and so there is still something to talk about here. As DW points out, however,

members of the international Joint Commission (1978) have suggested that this difference in understanding the mode of presence need not be church-dividing “if both sides were to profess the reality of the presence in a sufficiently clear and unambiguous manner and, further, if the mystery-character of the Eucharist and the eucharistic presence of the Lord were to be affirmed….” (DW, IV.C.2, quoting The Eucharist (1978), §§ 62-63).

For this to happen, Lutherans would have to not reject the language of transubstantiation as a “rationalistic attempt to explain the mystery of the presence of Christ in the sacrament,” recognizing it instead as an insistence on the reality of Christ’s presence.  Catholics would have to recognize in Lutherans a clear and deep belief in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, and would have to judge that Trent’s anathemas needn’t apply here (as has been done in the JDDJ regarding the canons on justification).

DW also argues that further dialogue is needed on the language of “sacrifice” regarding the eucharist. Although several ecumenical dialogues have shown that this hurdle can be overcome, DW rightly notes that the ways that Catholic and Lutheran laity and clergy are trained continues to make these differences seem church-dividing when they needn’t be (IV.C.1).

It also suggests that Lutherans and Catholics dialogue about the reservation of the consecrated elements, and on the adoration of these reserved elements (IV.C.3), and on whether there might be some intermediate steps towards communication in sacris that rightly respond to the unity that the confessions already have without denying the distance that still lies between them (IV.C.4).

Perhaps the most hopeful section of the document, the agreement on the Eucharist that has been reached by the dialogues over fifty years is nuanced, careful, and generous. Perhaps because the members of the dialogue have regularly been observers of the other’s eucharistic practice, they have been able to recognize in the other’s practice a unity that is not initially clear in the theology stemming from sixteenth-century polemics.

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