Would #PopeFrancis welcome Protestants to the Eucharist?

Pope Francis has developed a reputation for his fresh take on some long-standing Roman Catholic traditions. The debate between Ross Douthat and a number of Catholic theologians illustrates the range of reactions to the Pope’s revisions. You can now add another controversy to the list. It isn’t altogether clear, but the Pope appears to have encouraged a Lutheran woman to go forward to take the Eucharist with her Roman Catholic husband. The issue arose as Pope Francis was addressing a group of Evangelical Lutherans in Rome. One woman asked: 

My name is Anke de Bernardinis and, like many women in our community, I am married to an Italian, who is a Roman Catholic Christian. We have 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 together in the Lord’s Supper. What can we do to achieve, finally, communion on this point?

The Pope’s off-the-cuff reply did not explicitly permit the woman to receive the Eucharist with her husband, but neither was it forbidden. Here’s the most important part of what the Pope said (read the rest here):

To your question, I can only respond with a question: What can I do with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper accompanies me on my path? It is a problem that everyone has to 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 baptism. “One faith, one baptism, one Lord.” This is what Paul tells us, and from there take the consequences.

I would never dare to give permission for this, because it’s not my jurisdiction. “One baptism, one Lord, one faith.” Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.

Four questions come to mind. 
  1. Does the Pope see substantial differences between Catholic and Protestant theologies of the Eucharist? In my reading, the Pope’s recollection (and affirmation?) of his pastor-friend’s comments at best muddles the difference between the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and the various Protestant understandings of what happens at the Lord’s Table. Without getting into the particulars, it is remarkable that a Pope would make a remark that could be interpreted as disregarding the difference between Catholic and Protestant Eucharistic theologies. To suggest that the doctrine of Transubstantiation is a matter of interpretation and that the really important thing is that “the Lord is present” regardless of how you parse it out seems to me to strike at the heart of Roman Catholic doctrine and worship. Definitely not the sort of thing you would expect the Pope to say. 
  2. Would Francis permit this Lutheran woman to go forward and receive the Eucharist in a Roman Catholic Mass? He certainly doesn’t forbid it, which seems to me to imply permission. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “This one is above my pay grade. Who am I to bar one who has faith in Christ from the Lord’s table?” Again, this is a stunning thing for a Pope to say.
  3. What are the implications for global Christian unity? For centuries, Catholic refusal to admit Protestants to the Lord’s Table symbolized the division of the global Church. The Pope’s answer seems to imply a radical change in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. In the view of this Protestant pastor, it is a welcome change. Christ prayed fervently for the unity of his Church. The Lord’s Table is central to that unity. This move by Francis has potential to be highly significant as a step toward global Christian unity. 
  4. What exactly did he mean? As the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has the responsibility to clarify his muddled comments. He should take the time to reflect and make a clear pastoral statement on the issue. Would he admit Protestants to the Eucharist? The lack of clarity is not helpful. He needs to say what he thinks about this matter. 

2 thoughts on “Would #PopeFrancis welcome Protestants to the Eucharist?

  1. Forgive me but to Orthodox it is not “a meal” nor sustanance but God Himself.
    I see what the pope says but yet again he takes no lead.
    It's simple. If one wants to partake of the life of God they must put themselves under an Orthodox Bishop.
    The splitting church was not in the East…
    christian … Come Home.


  2. So I watched the video carefully. I can understand Italian. Sometimes there are issues with English translations that make someone appear to say something one did not.

    As I hear his speaking, it seems to me the key issues revolve around jurisdiction.

    Specifically, who is in charge of the Lord's table, and what is the pope's jurisdiction to speak to questions of discipline around the Lord's table within and beyond the established teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

    If it is Jesus himself who invites and presides at the Table, the pope is saying he has no jurisdiction to tell someone whom Christ invites and admits via baptism and common faith in the real presence that such a one CANNOT come.

    As pope in the Roman Catholic Church, he is also saying he has no jurisdiction to issue a permission to come and receive when his own Church does not allow it.

    In that I hear him saying he has no jurisdiction, unilaterally, to change the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on this matter, either. So he is not doing that.

    At the same time, he's also recognizing he has no jurisdiction over Lutherans or other Protestants. So he cannot provide any authoritative direction for such persons. And he does not try to do so.

    Still, we are united with Christ, all Christians everywhere, in baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the Lord's Supper is our viaticum, our meal on the way that sustains us in saving grace initiated at baptism. This is standard and established Roman Catholic teaching.

    So– if Jesus is one Lord, and we are all baptized into the one Lord, and you as a Protestant hear Jesus calling you to receive that which sustains you in the same baptism into the same Lord, within your own theology must you not follow the direction of the Lord?

    The pope here has said exactly what he can say, consistent with the teachings of both bodies involved (Roman Catholic and Lutheran). He grants no permissions, because the Lord is in charge, not him, and where he can grant permissions is only within his own church consistent with its doctrines, and not for others.

    This is all he can say for now. He has pushed everything as far as it can go without other actions taking place. He doesn't need to clarify anything. He has made clear the core issues involved for Roman Catholics and Lutherans (and, by the way, for Anglicans and Orthodox and United Methodists and Presbyterians, all of whom also affirm real presence and with all of whom we share in one baptism, as we all acknowledge).

    What this opens the door to, now, are further conversations about what it would take for permissions to be granted.

    And these will be important, and I hope healing, conversations to begin.


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