In Lake Wobegon land, where I teach, ecumenism is largely a Lutheran-Catholic affair, cemented by the shared sacraments of beer and ice-fishing. My students are not much concerned with the subtleties of the recent joint declaration on justification or with the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. They do, however, repeatedly wonder why they or their boy/girlfriends cannot receive Communion at Catholic liturgies if they are Lutherans. As a student in my Christology class recently put it, If we’re all part of the body of Christ through baptism, then why can’t we share his body together?
Her question was at once simple and deep. It demanded an honest, responsible answer. I started to talk about imperfect and full communion, the scandal of ecclesial division, the Eucharist as a sign of unity in faith. Doodling and sighing soon began; even allowing for the post-lunch slump, I was quickly losing their attention. So, utilizing sound pedagogical technique, I said the magic word guaranteed to end all student indifference: sex. Specifically, premarital sex. The room was instantly, electrically quiet.
To suggest there is a connection between premature eucharistic intercommunion and premarital sex may seem gimmicky, even somewhat blasphemous. It is nonetheless true, and my students and I were surprised by how well the connection worked.
First, premarital sex. It is untrueand pastorally ineffectiveto say that premarital sex is devoid of any goodness. Sex by its nature is unitive, and an unmarried couple may well find their love deepened in some real way by their sexual union (I exclude here transient and abusive relationships). Their necessarily incomplete love is not necessarily completely fruitless. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., who recently completed a term as head of the Dominican order, has said that the church should never instruct people not to love, but rather invite them to love better. Telling such couples that their sexual relationship is entirely bankrupt may contradict their experience and thus ensure a dismissal of church teaching as irrelevant and crabbed.
It is clear, though, that premarital sex is inherently flawed: not because the couple has yet to receive the proverbial piece of paper, but because it intrinsically falls short of the markwhich is one definition of sin. However filled with love it may be, premarital sex cannot signify and effect the complete and unreserved self-giving that is at the heart of sexual love. When my wife and I make love, we give each other all that we are, unconditionally and irrevocably, in the comedy and drama (and ordinariness) that is married sexuality. We do not say with our bodies what we have not already said with our hearts and our minds. We become one flesh, one body, only through marriage.
For this reason, I find the trend to increasingly long engagements incomprehensibleapart from the growing prevalence of premarital sex and cohabitation. My wife and I were engaged for nine months, and the closer we got to our wedding, the more we yearned for each other, sexually and spiritually. The interplay of distance and desire was at times almost unbearable over even that short period, and I consider it heroicbordering on the incrediblethat couples could be engaged for two or more years and remain chaste. Most, of course, do not. Premarital sex short-circuits and dulls the desire that helps draw lovers into marriage. It enables them to live in a no-man’s-land of guarded, reversible commitment and creates a fragile bond that can mask underlying problems.
This is where intercommunion meets up with sexuality. It is unavoidable that the baptized should feel the attraction of a common Eucharist, where they can be wholly at one with others and with Christ. What could be wrong about the members of the body of Christ sharing communion with one another? Even granting that such communion might not be complete, what could be wrong with celebrating the unity that already exists and fostering the unity that is on the way?
Just as with premarital sex, however, intercommunion apart from true unity in faith diminishes the desire for full unity and eventually corrodes the real unity that already exists. The ecumenical movement often speaks of the mutually necessary dialogues of truth and of love. Truth without love leads to harshness and violence, love without truth to sentimentality and compromise. Only together can each be brought to fullness of life. If in the past the churches often neglected the dialogue of love for monologues of polemic, it now seems that the dialogue of truth has been exchanged for a well-intentioned but misguided indifferentism toward the content of our faith. We effectively refuse to take our differences seriously. A Eucharist celebrated between churches divided on essential matters of faith and sacraments is inherently self-contradictory: how can we truthfully and lovingly share the sacrament of unity when we are divided over the truth of our faith in Christ?
We must instead allow the pain of estrangement to become literally intolerable and to compel us to unity, just as a holy sexual desire leads the engaged to marriage. The late Dominican theologian Jean-Marie Tillard never tired of saying that the contemporary ecumenical problem is no longer ecumenism’s desirability, but its urgency. How many Christians realize that our division and false unity make a mockery of the Gospel of reconciliation and communion before a world so desperately in need of such good news? How many Christians acknowledge the literal wounds that all of our communitieswithout exceptioninflict upon Christ through Eucharists at once divided and shallowly united? Have we not made our pain manageable, just as premarital sex numbs the ache for full union? Has not much that has been done in the name of ecumenism, however well-intentioned, made of Christianity an opiate of the baptized? In short, has not the eucharistic bread become a lotus flower, sapping our will to travel onward to our home?
What would happen if, to paraphrase the late Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Lutheran-Catholic married couples went to their pastors and bishops and demanded that the Eucharist no longer divide their domestic churches, that ecclesial division end? More provocatively, what would happen if the churches refused to celebrate the Eucharist until they could do so in the abundance of love and truth? Who would dare feel this pain of disunitysolely the consequence of human sinso deeply? Who would dare place themselves entirely before Christ and his will for the church, daring to die to whatever in their own identities was not essential to life in Christ and to live in the fullness of his truth?
Regarding premarital sex, one of my students said that true love waits. Is this not also true of intercommunion? Do we dare wait?