Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City distributes Communion during Mass in early May at Mexico City's Metropolitan Cathedral. (CNS photo/Ricardo Castelan, EPA)

Pope Francis has a knack for setting traditionalist teeth on edge with unscripted musings on sacred topics. He recently did it again when he seemed to suggest that a Lutheran could receive Communion in the Catholic Church after consulting her conscience.

The exchange came up during a prayer service last Sunday evening,  Nov. 15, at a Lutheran church in Rome that had invited the pontiff. And he used the occasion to engage in a question-and-answer session with some of the congregants.

One woman, Anke de Bernardinis, told Francis that she was married to a Catholic and that she and her husband share many “joys and sorrows” in life, but not Communion at church. “What can we do on this point to finally attain Communion?” she asked.

The question is fraught because the Eucharist is so central to sacramental Christianity and because of the Catholic belief that Jesus’ body and blood are truly present in a special way in the bread and wine consecrated by a priest—an understanding that was rejected by most Protestants after the Reformation, and which has been a source of division ever since.

Francis recognized the weight of the moment and joked that he was “afraid” to respond in detail on such a topic in front of his friend Cardinal Walter Kasper, a renowned German theologian who was also present.

The pope went on at some length to wonder whether the Eucharist should be thought of as an end point of ecumenism or as an aid on the journey together toward full denominational communion. Francis stressed that it was not his place to give permission for Protestants to receive Catholic Communion and that differences on doctrine remain.

But he noted that “life is greater than explanations and interpretations,” and he cited his own experiences in which Protestant friends said they also believe in the “real presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist.

The common baptism of believers was the key starting point, Francis said. “One Baptism, one Lord, one faith,” he repeated, concluding with this counsel to de Bernardinis: “Speak with the Lord and go ahead,” indicating that it was as much a personal as an institutional question. “I don’t dare say more.”

Of course others were quick to fill in that silence, mainly with criticisms.

“Once again Pope Francis, in being pastoral and kind, has muddled things up and confused the faithful,” wrote the Rev. Dwight Longenecker, a blogging priest who was raised Protestant and converted to Catholicism. It was an “unsatisfactory waffle from a successor of Peter,” Longenecker said, adding that Francis should have told the woman to become Catholic.

“Hard to avoid the conclusion that Pope Francis just effectively rewrote the Catechism, and destroyed a Eucharistic discipline that has existed since the Reformation,” wrote the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, another convert to Catholicism who later left for the Orthodox Church. “The Pope is refuting the magisterial teaching of his own Church, and not on a small matter either.”

Yet the assumption about the sharp dividing line on Communion isn’t quite right.

Bishop Denis J. Madden, an auxiliary bishop of the Baltimore archdiocese, noted in an interview that both Catholic canon law and the 1993 Ecumenical Directory provide for certain cases in which “intercommunion” is possible. Those circumstances are usually in cases of emergency or “grave necessity,” or with the permission of the local bishop or national hierarchy.

One crucial condition for a Protestant to receive Communion is that they genuinely believe in the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist.

That, in fact, is something that Lutheran and Catholic leaders agree on, said Madden, who last month issued, with his counterpart from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a major document summarizing 32 points of agreement between the two churches as they head toward the symbolic 500th anniversary of the Reformation, on Oct. 31, 2017.

“I don’t think we should jump to the point and say, ‘Oh come on, we’ll all just put our hands on each other’s shoulders and go to Communion together.’ No, there are still things we differ on,” said Madden, who noted there are other disagreements about ordination and the like.

“But what we try to say in this document is that while there are a number of things we differ on, they are not enough to keep us separated.”

As far as Francis’ implication that a Protestant believer could consult his or her conscience and decide to approach for Communion, Madden said that’s not completely out of bounds.

He recalled the episode at the 2005 funeral of Saint John Paul II, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — a theological straight shooter who would be elected Pope Benedict XVI a short time later — gave Communion to Brother Roger, a Swiss Protestant and founder of the Taize ecumenical monastic community in southeast France.

“Ratzinger was criticized for that, but he felt that Brother Roger believed in the real presence, that he was prayerful, that it was an appropriate setting for that particular time,” Madden said. “And he did not feel it was inappropriate.”

(It later came out that John Paul himself had repeatedly given Brother Roger Communion at Mass, though the monastic never converted.)

“If you have those times when there is shared communion that does not mean that everything is agreed upon,” Madden said. “There will always be time for debate and for parsing and so on. But then there comes a time when you have to look at what is the greater good.”

Edward Condon, a canon lawyer who writes for the Catholic Herald of Britain, made a similar point.

“While some have gone bonkers at the suggestion that the pope wants to give Communion to Protestants, the church already holds that this is not a simple question of can they or can’t they, but one of time, place, disposition, and belief,” Condon wrote in a column.

“These are not procedural hoops to jump through but necessary expressions of the seriousness of the Eucharist.”

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William Rydberg
5 years 8 months ago
Catholicism is a mass movement. Let’s face it, when the most sublime mystery of the Church is readily available to anybody who presents himself for Eucharistic communion at a Mass, provided they adhere to the decorum. That’s what you call mass distribution (forgive the pun). This is the way it has been since the early days because the Cities where many of the Churches were became so metropolitan (lots of Catholics) and people were coming and going to places where they might not be known locally... So what is it? This validly consecrated “Eucharistic” specie consisting of the matter of bread and wine is in reality the substance and mystery the body, blood, soul and divinity of the resurrected Jesus-God come in the flesh that is understood to be fully "God and fully man-except for sin..”. The second Person of the Holy Trinity, one God. Jesus who is a Divine Person, not a human person. In fact, anyone who presents themselves at St Peters in Rome or the local Catholic Chapel in the rough part of town (usually beside or in the local Good Shepherd Centre) gets that same Eucharistic specie. There are no ID checks, or confessional statements, so literally, only God knows who receives the Eucharist. With that said, its interesting that to my knowledge, the only statement in all the documents of Vatican II that comes closest to the style of previous Councils of the Church (i.e.: the style of docs in Vatican II are very different from other Councils, forgoing the substantial “Anathema Sit” format) is one statement taken from Lumen Gentium-The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. (As I understand it, “dogmatic” means nobody can exclude themselves citing “conscience”). In fact, its such a powerful statement :L.G. II 14: “...Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved…” Which naturally begs the question. Do people who accept the Eucharistic specie and remain outside of the Church fall under this..? I don’t know. I do know that when Jesus-God come in the flesh comes to judge and renew the creation, I will know for sure. Just my opinion
Sandi Sinor
5 years 8 months ago
It is not up to the men - mere human beigns - who run the Catholic church to decide who can be "saved". It is human men who decided that the Roman Catholic church is "necessary" - not Christ. Neither these men nor the institution they run are God. Nor is it the right of men to deny the eucharist to any person who follows Christ. If membership in the Roman Catholic church was "required", they would have to deny all the apostles, who were Jews, as well as people like Augustine, whose understanding of the meaning of the eucharist was quite different from the convoluted definition Aquinas, based on pagan philosophy.
William Rydberg
5 years 8 months ago
Sandi, by your response I am assuming that you are not a co-religionist. But for your information, the term "Dogmatic" has special meaning for Catholics. Dogmatic statements are to be understood in the "plain language" sense and are not meant to be understood as to be signifiers for meta-language. In essence, what you read is what it means.
Sandi Sinor
5 years 8 months ago
If by "co-religionist" you mean Roman Catholic, you are wrong. It's dangerous to make assumptions about those you do not know. I am Roman Catholic and have been all my life. Educated in Catholic schools, Catholic university, Catholic grad school. Theology and Philosophy were required courses. Calling anything "dogma" in this church is a tricky thing to try to do. One might recommend not using the term when discussing anything other than the creed.
William Rydberg
5 years 8 months ago
Sandi, By your own account, you have a deep background in American Catholic education . What do you think of Pope Francis's observation concerning the German Episcopate's visit and update to the Pope? One quote in relation to the German educational and advanced systems of social welfare, higher education, etc. support structures, that are well financed through (I suppose) the Concordat funding formulas, making them the richest Catholic Church on earth, yet seriously lacking in Church Sunday Mass attendence and also vocations to religious life of late: German Catholic Church might be slowly dying..: “...It is a sort of new Pelagianism, which puts its trust in administrative structures, in perfect organizations.” I would be interested to read your thoughts, being the product of top-class Catholic education, yet having unique views on the faith? Have we lost something, depending upon administrative structures such as schools to hand on the faith? I thought the faith was more personal than administrative structures? Can it be fixed?
William Rydberg
5 years 8 months ago
While waiting for your reply, I'll tell you my opinion... I myself think that the moneybags German Bishops for the last 75 Years (perhaps long before that) have forgotten what many of the Saints that have been parents have always known… That one cannot actually bring up their kids to be Catholic. One can bring up the kids in an environment in which they are exposed to Scripture and Tradition as well as the teachings of the Magisterium which is very important. They have to become practical Catholics themselves. I think that there is a lot to be learned by studying the RCIA phenomenon-the better programs at least! Incidentally, the American Church seems to have bought in to this German model, which is not that much of a surprise since an unpublished fact about the USA is that the largest Ethnic Group in the USA is of German Origin. Many Catholics are ethnic Germans... After all what could be more German than "....administrative structures, in perfect organizations..." Just my opinion...
Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 8 months ago
Last February my dear friend, Fr. Sebastian Muccilli, died. Seb had been my friend for more than 25 years. He had served 3 tours of duty in Vietnam as a chaplain, then as a university chaplain (Rutgers), a leader of a Catholic Peace movement (Pax Christi), a director of a hospice for dying children in Haiti, a VA hospital chaplain. By the time I met him, he had a young son that he had adopted from the hospice in Haiti. We met and bonded over our children and then our radical Catholicism. Like with Francis, the label "liberal" is way off the mark. Though he had the full support of our local bishop, many of the priests did not know what to make of him. He ministered to gays, lesbians, the poor, the imprisoned. He accompanied a death row inmate to his execution, anointing him just moments before he was killed (I'm pretty sure he wasn't "Catholic"). He welcomed all to his Masses at the chapel in the VA hospital and never refused communion to anyone. At the celebration of his 50 years as a priest, he had invited a woman Episcopal priest to share the altar with him. There were a few people who noisily walked out. The last couple of years Sebastian suffered from Parkinson's disease. He was cared for by 2 Baptist women who adored him. At his funeral I noticed the 2 women sitting in the back looking distressed. They had made the mistake of asking the officiating priest for "permission" to receive communion and were refused. As the communion line was winding down, I told them to GO! They made it just in time. I have never been so sure that I did the right thing.
joseph o'leary
5 years 8 months ago
I think you did. Thank you for sharing this.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 8 months ago
Pope Francis is fully orthodox in all his doctrinal statements. But, when it comes to Church discipline, I think Fr. Longenecker has it right in that Pope Francis, in these informal conversations, says things that confuses both the orthodox and the heterodox. Does anybody really know what the Holy Father thinks about who should receive communion? If the test is a belief in the Real Presence, does that mean that Catholics who say they think Communion is just a symbol (a lot of self-identifying Catholics mark this answer) are bound not to present themselves for Communion? A lot of evangelicals might be able to agree on the Real Presence (without understanding the philosophical underpinnings) - just based on the adamant and repeated statements of Jesus in John 6. Or does the state of one's soul ( at least an absence of awareness of mortal sin) matter? Scripture and Tradition clearly says yes. If a Catholic/Christian is, for example, having an affair or working in an abortuary, or an active member of the Mafia, or procures/promotes abortion, should they not present themselves for Communion? It seems prudent for the Holy Father to directly address this question rather than leave his position unknown. Perhaps, he will do this in his response to the recent synod? "Francis stressed that it was not his place to give permission for Protestants to receive Catholic Communion and that differences on doctrine remain." Is he being restrained by the Holy Spirit, his sense of synodality or his understanding of settled doctrine. Clarity would be welcomed here.
JR Cosgrove
5 years 8 months ago
Tim, You might get a kick out of this. The Lutheran view of Pope Francis. Frank, the Hippie Pope In this video the Lutherans provide the correct Catholic position.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 8 months ago
Thanks for the link. Very funny, and a little embarrassing to have Lutherans use the Catechism of the Catholic Church to correct us. I know it's satire but there's always a little truth in satire. Note I felt I needed to write my first sentence above.
joseph o'leary
5 years 8 months ago
I was not aware of the story of Brother Roger, then-Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II - made for good discussion after Mass today. Thank you.
Joseph Sasso
5 years 6 months ago
I like the thought that the church should be more personal and less administrative. From my perspective, Jesus was personal. The Didache of the Apostles made it administrative. .

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