Intercommunion: The Next Step in Theological Ambiguity?

A recent issue of the Italian daily Avennire suggests the next possible front in the effort to accommodate the sacraments to “pastoral” problems (at least as Cardinal Walter Kasper sees them): intercommunion.

The December 9 issue features a brief interview in which Kasper reflects on Pope Francis’s October 31-November 1 visit to Sweden to mark the launch of the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. Historians traditionally take Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 as the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Kasper was asked about progress on the next Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical document, and replied that, over the next “two or three years” he hoped for an understanding on “Eucharistic sharing in particular instances, especially regarding mixed marriages and families, which represent a most urgent pastoral problem in countries like, for example, Germany and the United States.”

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An understanding on intercommunion—especially in two or three years following half a millennium of misunderstanding—would be a miracle, something the same Cardinal Kasper warns “we should not expect.” He concedes that the “ways and places where full communion will be reached are in God’s hands,” although he apparently hopes Heaven will accelerate the schedule for the next ecumenical document.

One hopes that oneness might rapidly occur: the Lord prayed, after all, that his followers “be one” (John 17:21) at the Last Supper, their first Communion. That unity is precisely what the Master wanted as his last testament—the definitive covenant—made the night before he died. His Will is normative, something Protestants properly understood when the Reformers insisted on the “once-for-all” nature of Christ’s Sacrifice (which, however, perdures in time at every Eucharistic celebration).

But Eucharistic sharing presupposes a common faith, and that is just not there. Most generously, we can say that Lutherans diverge from Catholicism by a Eucharistic theology of consubstantiation (Jesus and bread) rather than transubstantiation (the bread becomes, is transformed into, the Body of Christ).

What is even more cogent, however, is that regardless of the theoretical truth of Lutheran Eucharistic theology, there remains the question: is there a “Eucharist” there at all? Are valid Orders to be found among Lutheran clergy?

If there is no real Eucharist to share in on their side, and no common understanding of the reality being shared in on our side, then what does “Eucharistic sharing” mean?

Back in the 1970s, the same quest for intercommunion was pushed in some circles vis-à-vis the Anglicans. They’re “almost” Catholics: the smells and bells, music and vestments seemed pretty Gothic. Only “rigid” theologians presumably questioned how we would “share” Eucharist with a group that had lost the Eucharist roughly four centuries ago, because that is when it lost valid Orders.

Advocates of intercommunion had introduced a subtle shift into their arguments. The Eucharist was no longer the real symbol of real ecclesiastical communion, the end we shared. Instead, it was a means—presumably each according to his understanding—that would drive us towards that ecclesial communion. (Pope Francis himself used an analogous approach when, answering a Lutheran woman in 2015 who asked him about intercommunion with her Catholic spouse, he equivocally described the Eucharist as “viaticum”—a technical term referring to the last Communion administered to a dying person—that might accompany those in mixed marriages on their marital way).

The progressive collapse of the Anglican Communion into ever deeper heterodoxy and the clear intent of St. John Paul II to impose theological order on the post-Conciliar Church eventually put an end to those quests. Eventually, those Anglicans who shared a common understanding of the Eucharist also found they shared a common understanding of a lot of other things with Catholics. They shared more with Rome than with Canterbury (or at least American Episcopalians), and swam the Tiber.

Does Cardinal Kasper now propose to renew those quests with Wittenberg?

What is the “most urgent pastoral problem” of which Kasper speaks? That the churches are divided? Yes, that is a grave scandal although—without being guilty of despair—the author suggests it is a breach unlikely to be healed in “two or three years” (particularly when much of the accommodation for Francis’s trip to Sweden occurred on the Catholic side).

Is the “urgent pastoral problem” that mixed marrieds cannot receive Communion together, at least occasionally? If that is the issue, well—it came with the territory: by its very nature, a mixed marriage introduces ecclesial division into the heart of the family. That is why the Church discouraged it.

There are, of course, theologians who advocate using mixed marriages (a politically incorrect term to them), like the Eucharist, as sacramental means to foster Church unity: Creighton University’s Michael Lawler, who calls them “ecumenical marriages,” is a prime example.

The Church has, of course, spoken of marriage as the “domestic church” or the “church in miniature.” Understood in that light, the nexus of marriage and the Eucharist is apparent, and marriage between Christians is inherently a sacrament. But, clearly, a mixed marriage’s ability to mirror the domestic church is inherently imperfect. The Church traditionally discouraged mixed marriage because of the lack of unity it introduces: if unity is a mark of the Church—including the domestic Church—then mixed marriages by their very nature blur the unicity of the Church.

What “pastoral problem” is the Eucharistic sharing supposed to address? Receiving the Eucharist is an act of love, and love presupposes a mutually shared good. But if there is no common understanding as to what the Eucharist is, nor its relation to the sacrament of marriage (which, in classical Lutheran theology, is no sacrament at all, but only a civil “estate”) then what good is being shared? And how can this union reflect the domestic Church when a Lutheran, faithful to his theological tradition, must concede that marriage per se has nothing to do with salvation because it is not sacramental?

One suspects that the whole discussion of Catholic-Lutheran intercommunion for mixed marriages continues to import an entire theology of ambiguity already bedeviling the question of recourse to internal forum solutions for the “divorced-and-remarried,” because a good Catholic and a good Lutheran are not likely to find “much there there” in their understandings of the ecclesiastical status of matrimony or of the reality of the Eucharist. So, are we to prescind from what each church teaches about marriage and the Eucharist and—wink and nod—root that whole “common understanding” of those realities on the basis of when one “talk[s] to the Lord and then go[es] forward.”

Cardinal Kasper clearly has in mind the American document, “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist,” developed by the USCCB’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. The document hopes to advance intercommunion in more areas: “Already local Catholic bishops, given the principles stated in §§ 129–31 of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity’s 113 Directory for the Application of the Principles and Norms for Ecumenism, can develop their considerations of “grave and pressing need” (§ 130) to receive the Eucharist. This should be done in light of (a) the full possibilities of the principles stated in the Directory and (b) the spiritual good of Lutherans well-disposed to receive the Eucharist, especially for those in Catholic-Lutheran marriages who attend church regularly, those who make retreats in Catholic retreat houses and similar venues, those gathered for ecumenical meetings, and so forth.”

That text, however, seems to be far more permissive than the Canon 844 § 4 of the Code of Canon Law, which envisages intercommunion with Protestants in “danger of death” or situations approved by a “diocesan bishop or conference of bishops” where “some other grave necessity” exists. I must admit that the “grave necessity” of receiving Communion at a voluntary retreat Mass is not immediately apparent to me.

Furthermore, as Jimmy Akin has noted (in his commentary on Pope Francis’s ambiguity over when a Lutheran spouse can communicate in a Catholic Church), the same Canon (§ 3) qualitatively differentiates the Orthodox from the Protestants, allowing the former recourse to Catholic sacraments on their initiative. The reason for the difference is simple: Catholics and Orthodox have no essential differences in their sacramentology. That is not true among Catholics and Protestants.

We should be careful about the quasi-nationalism of Kasper’s approach. The threats of “national churches” in Europe and their dissolution of Church unity was already felt in the past in the dangers of Josephism and Gallicanism. The Old Catholic movement, too, was largely a Germanic spinoff to create a self-determining national church. The pastoral need to address issues “in Germany and the United States”—societies where secularism is growing (and is much further along in Germany)—should be carefully measured against the pastoral need for doctrinal clarity of the whole Church.

As commentators on the divorce/remarriage issue observe, two people cannot be in “good faith” in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Germany, but in adultery in Pomerania, Poland: sin is not a geographical accident. And, if we need further proof of the ultimate irreconcilability of an ecclesiastical body in which doctrine and morality is a function of geography, we need only look at the Anglican “Communion.” What kind of “church” regards one as a good-homosexual-now-divorced-from-your-man-partner-bishop in New Hampshire but a heretic in Nigeria?

Is intercommunion the next wedge coming out of Walter Kasper’s penchant for 1970s theological oldies? His accommodation for divorce and “remarrieds,” after all, was not particularly new: it’s been a Kasper hobbyhorse since his 1977 Zur Theologie der christlichen Ehe. I must admit, I don’t think they’ve improved with age.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Pope Francis praying during a visit to the Lutheran church in Rome in November 2015. (Photo credit: Associated Press)


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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