In an overly simplified and I think ultimately unhelpful view of things, Catholics and Protestants are in fundamental disagreement about the Eucharist. According to this mindset, the lack of doctrinal unity prevents intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants except in extremely rare emergency situations.
There is a bit of overlap, to be sure – the blue circles are not entirely separated from each other. But there is a line dividing two ways of looking at Eucharist. There has been some convergence as a result of ecumenical dialogues, and some Protestants have come closer to the Catholic position – and of course Martin Luther emphatically affirmed the Real Presence and the transformation of bread and wine. The vertical line is dotted rather than solid. But the line is there. The large red arrows show that the basic thrust of each position goes in opposing directions.
There is a heated discussion just now among German Catholic bishops about the possibility of non-Catholic spouses in a mixed (or “confession-uniting”) marriage being permitted to receive Communion at Catholic Mass in individual cases. (Pray Tell reported here and here.) I don’t claim to speak for bishops on either side of the German dispute. My concern is for English-language commentary on the issue that reflects the unhelpful view of Eucharist portrayed above.
In a piece on the German dispute at the Catholic Herald titled “German bishops at war” – I don’t necessarily hold the author responsible for the polemical title – freelance writer Jon Anderson writes this:
The more fundamental problem with intercommunion is that, even if the form is similar, different religious communities often have very different understandings of what Communion means. The same issue can apply with other sacraments like baptism or marriage. For example, the Catholic Church recognizes baptisms as valid if they are in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – but, crucially, this has to involve an actual belief in the Trinity. The Church doesn’t recognize Mormon baptism, even though it uses the same words, because Joseph Smith’s theology denies the Trinity.
The same issue applies with Communion. Either the sacrament is the Body and Blood of Christ, or it is not. If it is viewed simply as a symbolic remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, that is another thing entirely.
The problem with this commentary is that it blows all out of proportion the importance of doctrinal formulations coming from the very worst time for Christian unity – the sixteenth century. In response to Protestant reformers, the Council of Trent did not put forth a comprehensive view of the Eucharist. It condemned errors and defensively defined counter positions. The emphasis on all sides was on what divides rather than what unites. For Catholics, this meant emphasizing the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice offered by a validly ordained priest in which bread and wine are transubstantiated.
The point is not that Trent was wrong. I accept that there is no error in Trent’s formulations. But even if what Trent said about sacrifice and real presence is true, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to say about Eucharist, that Trent can’t be put in a larger context, that Eucharist can’t be viewed today from a broader and more ecumenical attitude.
When people like Jon Anderson pluck a particular doctrine out of context and frame it in a black and white manner – “either it is or it isn’t” – one must ask just how important the doctrine really is in the whole scheme of things, just how unchangeable the doctrinal formulation is, and above all, what other, more important issues go missing in the focus on a historical doctrinal formulation.
For heaven’s sake, the Mass is so much more than a celebration of Catholic doctrine on real presence, sacrifice, and priesthood! What about Christ’s death and resurrection, his living presence in the church, our sharing in his life, our unity with others in Christ? What about the Kingdom of God and the heavenly banquet in which we share? What about conversion of life, discipleship, and the call to serve? What about gratitude (the literal meaning of “eucharist”) for the unearned gift of salvation?
Someone will say those things are all fine, but they’re “soft” and vague. The real meat, the substance, is in the doctrine. Nope. Nothing doin’. They’re the whole point. Read the above paragraph again. Why did God send his Son to earth, if it wasn’t for all those things? And here’s the good news for ecumenism: on the really important things, Christians are very much united.
I would attempt to picture the building blocks of a fuller view of Eucharist like this:
The difference in views between Catholics and Protestants is not denied. The differing views are still there – as small dots in the red shapes above. The differences aren’t the starting points, and they’re certainly not the most important points. They are historical understandings that are put within a much larger context shared by all Christians.
And this is important: the blue circle encompassing the whole is the common baptism shared by all Christians. (OK, not quite the Mormons, as Jon Anderson points out.)
At the Chrism Mass this year, Pope Francis said this:
“We must be careful not to fall into the temptation of making idols of certain abstract truths. They can be comfortable idols, always within easy reach; they offer a certain prestige and power and are difficult to discern.”
In our discussion of what unites and what divides Catholics and Protestants about Eucharist, let’s not make certain abstract truths into idols. Let’s look at the bigger picture. We might find that the differences between us are smaller and less important than we thought.