Pope Francis recently answered a Lutheran woman’s question regarding the possibility of her taking Communion with her Catholic husband at Mass.
His remarks, which he made at an ecumenical meeting in a Lutheran church, have raised eyebrows.
What the woman asked
This is what the Lutheran woman said:
My name is Anke de Bernardinis and, like many people in our community, I’m married to an Italian, who is a Roman Catholic Christian. We’ve lived happily together for many years, sharing joys and sorrows. And so we greatly regret being divided in faith and not being able to participate in the Lord’s Supper together. What can we do to achieve, finally, communion on this point?
What might the pope have said?
Of course, one response would be, “Become Catholic.” But if popes said that routinely when they were in a Lutheran church, they wouldn’t be invited to Lutheran churches and would lose this form of outreach to other Christians.
Intra-Christian unity proceeds slowly. Being too explicit right up front is a little like saying “Marry me!” on the first date.
So you wouldn’t really expect Pope Francis to explicitly propose swimming the Tiber in this particular context.
He could have said, “Study and pray—especially pray for the day when Christian unity is restored and we can have full sharing at the Lord’s table.”
Or he could have said, “It is a profound sadness that, because of the differences that divide us, we cannot presently share the Eucharist. This does not mean that you and your husband cannot share and celebrate the aspects of the Christian faith that we have in common, and you can work to overcome the obstacles that remain.”
There are all kinds of brief responses the pope might have made.
Presumably, he didn’t have to take the question at all. Papal questions are regularly screened to keep the pope from being put in the position of commenting on something he doesn’t want to address.
Since he took the question, Pope Francis apparently wanted to address this issue—he felt he had something useful to say about it.
What the pope said
The pope’s response is hard to summarize. His answer was somewhat stream-of-consciousness.
After joking that the question of sharing the Lord’s Supper was hard for him to answer—particularly in front of a theologian like Cardinal Kasper (who, as the former Vatican head of ecumenical affairs, was there)—he reflected on the role of the Lord’s Supper in the Christian life.
He noted that we will all receive it at the eternal banquet in the New Jerusalem, but he had questions about intercommunion here on earth, saying:
To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path or is it the viaticum [provisions] for walking together?
Goal or assistance?
Here he refers to two views of intercommunion. The first would make it the goal of ecumenical dialogues. In other words, we need to restore full unity in faith, and the crowning result of that will be sharing the Eucharist.
The second view would be that sharing the Eucharist is something Christians of different confessions should do now as a way of fostering growth in Christian unity (walking together).
The pope does not decide between these two views, the first of which is the one the Holy See has consistently maintained. Instead, he says:
I leave that question to the theologians and those who understand.
The fact he speculates on this question in public, in an ecumenical setting, could be viewed as a source of concern.
Even if he thought the question of eucharistic sharing needed to be further explored, is this the right context to be discussing that? It seems to carry several risks. One is that the pope could look like he’s not backing the Catholic position.
Apparently, Pope Francis thought such risks were worth taking.
Doctrine and baptism
Pope Francis goes on to say:
It’s true that in a certain sense, to share means there aren’t differences between us, that we have the same doctrine—underscoring that word, a difficult word to understand—but I ask myself: but don’t we have the same baptism?
The first part of this acknowledges the principle supporting the Church’s historic position on intercommunion: that sharing in the Eucharist means holding the same doctrine, so that people who disagree with Church teaching, especially its infallibly defined teaching, should not be receiving the Eucharist at Mass.
Pope Francis acknowledges the legitimacy of this principle, but he appears to ask whether it is the only relevant principle and whether the common baptism that we share could affect the situation.
It’s surprising the pontiff didn’t take this occasion to refer to something that would make the point that baptism does have an effect on the question of intercommunion.
The Church does permit—and has for some time—intercommunion in limited circumstances, on the basis of our common baptism.
Canon 844 §§2-3 of the Code of Canon Law describes the particular requirements for when baptized non-Catholic Christians can be admitted to the Eucharist, confession, and the anointing of the sick.
More on that below.
Pope Francis reflected further on baptism, though it is somewhat difficult to follow his train of thought. The impression is that he was answering off the top of his head, which can result in hard-to-follow answers, at times, for anybody.
Returning to the subject of the Eucharist, he says:
The question: and the [Lord’s] Supper? There are questions that, only if one is sincere with oneself and with the little theological light one has, must be responded to on one’s own. See for yourself.
This is true. The question that springs to mind is the one every Catholic must ask before receiving Communion: Am I in a state where I can receive worthily?
Only the individual knows whether he has fulfilled the requirements, and however much or little theological knowledge he has, he needs to apply it before going to Communion.
That’s not to say that a person can simply “discern” that it’s okay for him to go to Communion. Canon 844, among others (such as canon 915), provides limits on who can receive Communion and when. It is only when such canons do not impede an individual that the question of one’s personal judgment comes into play.
Pope Francis continues:
This is my body. This is my blood. Do it in remembrance of me—this is a viaticum that helps us to journey on.
This echoes his point about the Eucharist being assistance for the journey rather than exclusively a goal. The principle certainly applies to the life of the individual believer—Jesus means to strengthen us through the Eucharist throughout life, not just give us admission to the banquet at the end of time.
Whether the principle applies in the same way to the ecumenical movement is a separate question.
An illustration involving a bishop
Pope Francis then tells a story about a bishop “who went a little wrong.”
According to this translation, the bishop was an Episcopalian, and his wife and children were Catholic. However, another translation omits the reference to it being an Episcopalian bishop and, in the commentary, takes it to be a reference to former Catholic bishop Jeronimo Podesta.
He accompanied his wife and children to Mass on Sunday, and then went to worship with his community. It was a step of participation in the Lord’s Supper. Then he went forward, the Lord called him, a just man.
It is unclear what this means. It could mean that the Episcopalian bishop “went forward” to receive Communion at a Catholic Mass. It could mean that he “went forward/onward” in his walk with God and became a Catholic or somehow addressed the fact that he had gone “a little wrong.” The latter is suggested by the second translation, which reads, “Then he went forward, then the Lord called him [to realize] ‘I’m not right.’”
Answering a question with a question
I’m not sure what to make of the pope’s story about the Episcopalian bishop who “went a little wrong,” and he doesn’t seem to draw any decisive lesson from it. Instead, he tells the woman:
To your question, I can only respond with a question: what can I do with my husband, because the Lord’s Supper accompanies me on my path?
I can only respond to your question with a question: what can I do with my husband that the Lord’s Supper might accompany me on my path?
Pope Francis thus invites the woman to explore what she and her husband can do either because the Eucharist accompanies her in some sense or so that it might accompany her.
If the former translation is correct, he might be suggesting she explore how the closeness of Christ in the Eucharist (or perceived closeness, given the Eucharist’s invalidity in Lutheran circles) might better inform her marriage.
If the latter translation is correct, he might be inviting her to consider becoming a Catholic to be able to receive the Eucharist with her husband.
Or he might mean something else entirely. It isn’t clear what he is trying to say.
What’s the difference?
Whatever he is inviting the woman to do, Pope Francis considers it a matter that must be sorted out individually. He says:
It’s a problem each must answer, but a pastor friend once told me: “We believe that the Lord is present there, he is present. You all believe that the Lord is present. And so what’s the difference?”
The pastor he refers to is, apparently, a Protestant who believes in the Real Presence.
“So what’s the difference?” could mean, “So what’s the difference between the Catholic position and mine?” Or it could mean, “So why can’t we have intercommunion?”
Pope Francis responds to the question by saying:
Oh, there are explanations, interpretations.
He appears to mean that there are different understandings of the Real Presence, which is true. The Catholic position is not just that Christ is present in the Eucharist but that the bread and wine become his body and blood (transubstantiation).
Not everyone who believes in the Real Presence shares that view. A common Lutheran formulation is that Christ is “in, with, and under” the bread and wine; Orthodox sometimes use the term transubstantiation, but sometimes they understand the Real Presence differently; Anglicans have a range of views; etc.
The pope then says:
Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always refer back to your baptism. “One faith, one baptism, one Lord.” This is what Paul tells us, and then take the consequences from there.
By this, I assume he means that our fundamental unity as Christians (“one Faith, one baptism, one Lord”) is more significant (“life is bigger”) than the divisions that exist among Christians on particular questions, such as the precise way the Real Presence works.
This isn’t to say that the divisions aren’t important or that they don’t genuinely divide us, just that they don’t deprive us of the common status of being Christians.
The way we should proceed is thus to recognize our common identity as Christians, despite our differences, and work to figure things out from there (“take the consequences from there”).
Pope Francis’s ultimate answer
Returning to the woman’s original question about intercommunion, Pope Francis concludes by saying:
I wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.
This is a strong statement. “I wouldn’t ever dare allow” is an emphatic way of saying that he can’t give the woman permission to take intercommunion. In fact, if you watch the video, he uses his vocal inflection to add extra stress to the point that he cannot give permission.
He also cites a reason: It’s not his area of competence. He appears to be using this admission to signal that he’s not refusing to give permission out of ill will. Instead, he recognizes that he’s not an expert in the relevant area and considers it too important an area to make further pronouncements without consultation.
A matter for experts
Why might Pope Francis think that consultations with experts would be needed to answer the woman’s question? Why not simply say, “Sorry, but we can’t offer you Communion as a Lutheran”?
Because the situation isn’t that simple. The current Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983 by St. John Paul II, allows for Communion to be given to Lutherans in some circumstances.
This woman’s case doesn’t meet the criteria named in the Code, but Pope Francis may be wondering if it would be possible to give Communion in additional circumstances beyond those mentioned in canon 844.
For example, canon 844 §4 states that Communion, confession, and anointing of the sick can be given to Protestants who share the Church’s faith in these sacraments (note that qualifier; it’s an important one) only “if the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it.”
However, according to canon §3, danger of death or other grave necessity is not required to grant these sacraments to Orthodox Christians. They only need to “seek such on their own accord and [be] properly disposed.”
One could ask whether it would be theologically possible to modify the Code so that danger of death or grave necessity isn’t required for Protestants who share the Church’s faith in these sacraments, allowing such Protestants to receive them on terms like those that presently apply to the Orthodox.
That’s a delicate question, and it would require consultation and deliberation among experts.
So it’s understandable why Pope Francis would punt on the question due to it not being within his personal area of expertise.
A general answer
He thus gives a general answer referring to the common elements of our Christian identity, saying, “Talk to the Lord and then go forward.”
In this case, “go forward” does not mean “go forward and receive Communion.” He’s just said he can’t give permission for that. “Go forward” means “proceed on the basis you discern after speaking with the Lord,” and that can mean all kinds of things.
It could mean “proceed to become a Catholic” or “proceed to receive the Eucharist at Mass” or anything in between. The Pope isn’t telling her what course of action she should pursue. He’s pointedly not telling her that, and he’s expressly not giving her permission to receive.
He appears to feel this kind of general answer is all that it’s possible for him to offer, given the limitations of his expertise. Thus he says, “I don’t dare to say anything more,” for he would be moving beyond his personal competence.
It’s good that Pope Francis considers the subject important enough not to go further and to leave technical matters like what may be possible in the future to be explored by those who are competent in these areas.
It’s also good that he recognizes the limitations of his own expertise, despite the fact he is pope.
Indeed, watching the video shows him being somber and seeming to struggle at points, particularly when he is speaking most directly to the woman’s question.
However, it is not easy to piece together his line of reasoning, and at some points it isn’t clear what he was trying to say.
As someone who answers questions live on a regular basis, I know what it’s like to struggle with an answer. You can have an idea what you want to say and yet have difficulty putting it into words.
That happens to everyone. “Even Homer nods,” as they say.
Because of the cautions Pope Francis makes during the course of his answer, I don’t view it as the earthquake that some took it for.
Is the pope giving permission to Lutheran spouses to take Communion at Mass? No. He expressly says he’s not.
Is this a portent of an imminent shift in Catholic doctrine or sacramental practice? No.
Is it possible that the current rules regarding when Communion can be given to other Christians could one day be tweaked? Yes. It’s imaginable that a pope might one day decide that any baptized Christians who share the Church’s faith respect to Communion, confession, and anointing could receive those sacraments on the same basis that Orthodox Christians can.
Are the pope’s remarks a sign that this—or anything like it—is going to happen any time in the foreseeable future? No.
Could the pope have answered more clearly? Yes. One might argue that, if the pope were going to struggle with the question as much as he did, he would have been better advised not to take it. But these things happen, and there is no reason to see this as a sign of an impending doctrinal or sacramental earthquake.