Good Parents Say “No”: Pope Francis on Lutherans and the Eucharist


Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church, “have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders.” It is for this reason that, for the Catholic Church, Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1400

Catholic ministers administer the sacraments licitly to Catholic members of the Christian faithful alone, who likewise receive them licitly from Catholic ministers alone…” – 1983 Code of Canon Law, Can. 844 §1.

The rules pertaining to the reception of the Holy Eucharist are well-established, and not a mystery to any catechized Catholic. Put simply, to approach Holy Communion, one must have observed the prescribed Eucharistic fast, must be in a state of grace (free from all mortal sin), and must be Catholic.

The separation between ourselves and the various Protestant denominations on any number of doctrinal and dogmatic matters are significant. I’m not going to spend time on those here, since others, more qualified than I, have been exploring these issues for nearly 500 years. There’s no shortage of source material on the topic. I will instead say only this: there are good reasons why it has never been the Catholic practice to give Holy Communion to anyone who doesn’t meet the criteria stated above — certain exceptions made for those in danger of death who can express sufficient belief in the sacramental mysteries notwithstanding.

This is basic stuff. Catholicism 101.

Which is why all Catholics should find it incomprehensible that Pope Francis, when confronted with a question from a Lutheran woman about whether she could receive the Eucharist with her Catholic husband, has such a hard time just reiterating Church teaching. Here’s what he said last weekend:

Question: 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?

Pope Francis: The question on sharing the Lord’s Supper isn’t easy for me to respond to, above all in front of a theologian like Cardinal Kasper! I’m scared!

I think of how the Lord told us when he gave us this command to “do this in memory of me,” and when we share the Lord’s Supper, we recall and we imitate the same as the Lord. And there will be the Lord’s Supper, there will be the eternal banquet in the new Jerusalem, but that will be the last one. In the meantime, I ask myself — and don’t know how to respond — what you’re asking me, I ask myself the question. To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path or is it the viaticum [provisions] for walking together? I leave that question to the theologians and those who understand.

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? If we have the same Baptism, shouldn’t we be walking together? You’re a witness also of a profound journey, a journey of marriage: a journey really of the family and human love and of a shared faith, no? We have the same Baptism.

When you feel yourself to be a sinner – and I feel more of a sinner – when your husband feels a sinner, you go to the Lord and ask forgiveness; your husband does the same and also goes to the priest and asks absolution. I’m healed to keep alive the Baptism. When you pray together, that Baptism grows, becomes stronger. When you teach your kids who Jesus is, why Jesus came, what Jesus did for us, you’re doing the same thing, whether in the Lutheran language or the Catholic one, but it’s the same. 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 my body. This is my blood. Do it in remembrance of me – this is a viaticum that helps us to journey on.

I once had a great friendship with an Episcopalian bishop who went a little wrong – he was 48 years old, married, two children. This was a discomfort to him – a Catholic wife, Catholic children, him a bishop. 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. 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?

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?” — “Eh, there are explanations, interpretations.” 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. 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.

You may also find it helpful to watch the video (with subtitles), since this conveys more of the mood and tone of the answer:

There’s a lot of thinking out loud in the text above, and not a little circumspection. But there’s also a great deal of context that paints a pretty clear picture. It’s a very odd thing indeed when the chief guardian of the Catholic Faith doesn’t, by his own admission, know how to answer questions about the Eucharist – the most important treasure of Catholicism.

Worth noting in the Holy Father’s comments is his use of language pertaining to a “banquet” or “supper” – but not a word about sacrifice. This conceptualization of the liturgy and the Eucharist which is confected within it as principally a meal is, again, more attuned to Protestant sensibilities than authentically Catholic ones. The Church has always, or at least until the imposition of the new order of Mass in 1969, expressed the true nature of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a number of more authentic ways: the same sacrifice of Calvary, re-presented in an unbloody manner under the appearance of bread and wine; Christ as sin-offering and saving victim, the Lamb of God, the true holocaust offered upon the altar of oblation as a sacrifice for our redemption, etc. While the Last Supper is indeed where the Mass — and the Eucharist along with it — was instituted, it was on The Cross that it came into its fullness. The recognition that at every Mass we stand before The Cross with Mary, Mary Magdalene, and St. John, and that the Holy Communion we receive is Christ in the saving action of His passion and death, inspires in us a reverence for the Eucharist that imagining a mere sharing of bread at a re-enacted Passover meal does not.

Also revealing in the pope’s remarks is the anecdote in the penultimate paragraph about the Episcopalian bishop who “went a little wrong.” The identity of this man is transparent, given the details. It was Bishop Tony Palmer (may God have mercy on his soul), a known friend of Cardinal Bergoglio even before his election, who was, as indicated, married to a Catholic woman. Not mentioned by Francis, but widely reported on elsewhere, was the fact that Tony Palmer (who died in a motorcycle accident in August of 2014) was told not to convert to Catholicism by Jorge Bergoglio:

At one point, when Palmer was tired of living on the frontier and wanted to become Catholic, Bergoglio advised him against conversion for the sake of the mission.

“We need to have bridge-builders”, the cardinal told him.

It’s a bit difficult to process, isn’t it? To be told to ignore the promptings of heaven and not become Catholic by the very man who would later become the Vicar of Christ? And to have that same man, upon his elevation to the Petrine Throne, not then come to his senses and encourage the man to finish the journey home?

This is an important indicator in understanding the way Pope Francis views the relationship between Catholicism and other denominations. Time and again, we find evidence that he sees no important distinction between being Catholic and being non-Catholic, and certainly no urgency in embracing the fullness of truth in Christ’s Church, outside of which there is no salvation. This is not the first or only example; we’ve covered this before. As further evidence, this video of John & Carol Arnott, “Founding Pastors of Catch The Fire (formerly known as the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship) and overseers of the Partners in Harvest Network of Churches” shows the Protestant couple gushing about how during their meeting with Pope Francis he told them he has no interest in their conversion.

This matters not only as it pertains to doctrinal integrity, or the salvation of souls (as if there are any larger concerns than these for the successor of St. Peter) but specifically in reference to the way the Eucharist is becoming, through the lens of this pontificate, a means to an end, rather than the end in itself. I have noted before that both Pope Francis and Cardinal Kasper are fond of saying that the Eucharist is “not a prize” for “the strong” or “the perfect” but rather a “source of strength” or “a powerful medicine and nourishment” for the weak. While the Eucharist undoubtedly serves this purpose for those in a state of grace who receive it with the proper disposition, this reduction of the sacrament to a spiritual balm that is given indiscriminately to those in need of help leads to only one conclusion: it should be given to…everyone. Regardless of their worthiness to receive it. It’s breathtaking to see 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 so thoroughly ignored.

Going back to his answer, when Francis says, pertaining to the varying beliefs on the Eucharistic presence, “Eh, there are explanations, interpretations. Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations.” he appears to be speaking dismissively about the differences between the concept of consubstantiation, which Martin Luther used to describe his flawed understanding of the Real Presence, and the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation. And yet, the former belief was condemned and anathematized in Canon IV of the Council of Trent:

If any one saith, that, after the consecration is completed, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are not in the admirable sacrament of the Eucharist, but (are there) only during the use, whilst it is being taken, and not either before or after; and that, in the hosts, or consecrated particles, which are reserved or which remain after communion, the true Body of the Lord remaineth not; let him be anathema.

None of what we have discussed so far is insignificant. But the final paragraph gives us cause for much deeper concern, inasmuch as it indicates not just the pope’s thinking, but a program of action. Let’s look at the relevant section again:

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.

In much of the commentary I’m seeing — commentary trying desperately to square the papal circle — the focus is on the first “dare”. The pope says he wouldn’t dare “allow this.” What is “this”? Permission for Lutherans to receive the Eucharist in Catholic churches. He says that it is “not my competence.” This, as Fr. Z noted Monday, is technically correct. In what I can only suspect is an attempt to quell a panic, however, Fr. Z tries to make it sound like this is where the question stops:

A lot of people become angry and confused about some things that Pope Francis says… and doesn’t say… and then says and doesn’t say at the same time.  It’s frustrating to try to figure him out.  For example, he tends to speak in derogatory terms about doctrine and law, as if they are not important.  BUT… BUT… he doesn’t actually say that they aren’t.

There is the tone with which he speaks and there are the words with which he speaks.  We are left to untangle the knot.

That said, for this issue the Pope made a clear statement:

“I wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence.”

Before anyone gets out onto the ledge outside the window, read that again and repeat it to yourself.  The Pope is not saying that Lutherans can go to Communion.

This is also, if we’re being legalists about it, correct. The pope has not explicitly given permission to Lutherans to receive Communion. But — and this is a supersized “but” — he’s not telling them not to, either. In fact, he’s insinuating that it’s up to them. The final three sentences give the implicit permission to do just that:

“One baptism, one Lord, one faith.” Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.”

Oh, but you must say something more, Holy Father! It is your solemn duty to do so. Good parents, whether they like it or not, have to say “no” to their children when they are doing something that will harm themselves. Even if the child really, really wants to do it.

Of course, we shouldn’t be too surprised by this, even if we find the reality of it rather shocking. We’ve already received plenty of warning that this is what he believes. We saw it in his favor for Kasper throughout the synodal process (and even in the statement above), along with his refusal to distance himself from the so-called “Kasper Proposal”. We saw it in his refusal to reassure the better part of a million Catholics who sent him the filial appeal. We saw it in his latest interview with Eugenio Scalfari, when Francis said, “the de facto appraisals are entrusted to the confessors, but at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced who ask [to receive Communion] will be admitted.” We saw yet another signal in the recent article from Fr. Spadaro, close confidant of Pope Francis, in which he indicated that the Synod has left the door open to Communion for the divorced and remarried – an article which Vatican watchers believe is indicative of the mind of Francis on the topic.

Why am I speaking here about Communion for the divorced and remarried when the topic is Communion for Lutherans? Because it’s all of a piece. 1 Corinthians 11:28 makes it clear how we must approach Holy Communion: “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” What Francis, Kasper, and others have been advocating is the idea that this examination is not necessary. That rather than being fearful that we “eat and drink judgment (or condemnation) against” ourselves if we receive the Eucharist unworthily, we should see it as the very means by which we may be strengthened on our “journey.” This is an outrageous form of utilitarianism, in which we use God — our first beginning and final end — to accomplish some other, lesser thing. If our worthiness to receive Him is treated as a matter of no importance, how can this be viewed as anything other than elevating the concerns of man — and man himself — above God?

Of course, this sort of humanism might produce other indicators – say, excessive concern for the material well-being of the poor, distribution of resources, or care for the environment – over and above concern for the salvation of souls.

We are at a point where it becomes almost impossible to believe that Pope Francis is doing these things by accident. His ideology is interwoven with Catholic belief, but it also works at cross-purposes with it. Statements like the one made to the Lutheran woman above, or the stalking horses floated to the media through surrogates like Scalfari, indicate that he feels constrained by the limits of his office in accomplishing his agenda. One priest — one of the new “Missionaries of Mercy” no less — recently issued an open letter to Pope Francis, warning him that if he continues to try to move against the doctrines of the Church, God will stop him, and he will “either die or be incapacitated, much as Pope Sixtus V dropped dead before he could accomplish his own will on a matter also touching on marriage and divorce…” And yet, all appearances are that Francis is too clever to try something like that. Instead, he’s figured out how to beat the limitations placed on him by papal infallibility. His method never violates the letter of the law, while savaging it in spirit. He does not invite the enemy in, he merely opens all the doors in the enemy’s full view.

In a piece on the pope’s comments to Lutherans by Rome-based journalist Edward Pentin, a source within the Vatican puts it plainly:

The Holy Father’s words have been causing widespread concern in Rome, leading some to go as far as to describe them as an attack on the sacraments. “The Rubicon has been crossed,” said one source close to the Vatican. “The Pope said it in a charming way, but this is really about mocking doctrine. We have seven sacraments, not one.”

Later that same day, Pentin tweeted this:

At the risk of being repetitive, I’ll say it again: Pope Francis is doing damage to the Church that will take a very long time to repair, and more and more Catholics are waking up. He is also exposing, once and for all, the divergence of post-conciliar ideology from the battle-tested bastions of Catholic orthdoxy. Fr. Regis Scanlon recently said — in reference specifically to Humanae Vitae, contraception, and issues related to marriage — that the Church “must begin where She left off in 1968 and move forward with those who are Catholic.”

That’s going to have to happen – but it can’t just be limited to life issues and sexual teachings. It’s also going to have to include the areas of doctrine, liturgy, and praxis as well.

Pray for Pope Francis. Pray that God will shine the light of truth on him, so that he realizes what he is doing, and what the consequences are. And pray for his successor, that he will be both holy and wise, but also courageous, and deeply rooted in the Church’s traditions. He’s going to have a big job ahead of him, and it isn’t going to be pretty trying to unbreak what’s being broken.

We live in dangerous times.

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