Caught unawares by this spur-of-the-moment question, Pope Francis’ immediate reply was to suggest that the woman should follow her conscience. It was the type of pastoral response that has become a trademark of Pope Francis, but it would be a mistake to believe his intention was to introduce a new Church teaching. His pastoral response does, however, signal that ancient barriers may well be in the process of reform.
Most Roman Catholics are probably aware that Protestants should not receive communion at a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist. But few probably know the reason why. Likewise, it is also fair to suggest that Catholics attending a Protestant service are often uncertain whether it is proper to receive Eucharist in a Protestant church.
Amid this uncertainty, I suspect a common response today from both Catholics and Protestants is to feel less conscience-bound to refrain from eucharistic sharing at each other’s gatherings.
The question of shared Eucharist is becoming particularly relevant as we begin the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation. It is of particular concern for Lutherans and Roman Catholics, and especially for those in mixed marriages, many of whom hold increasing hope that shared Eucharist will some day become the reality.
Actually, there are already some occasions when Protestants may be permitted to receive Roman Catholic Eucharist. These situations, though rare, are detailed in canon 844 of the Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church. The same canon addresses times when Roman Catholics may receive the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church. Here is exactly what the canon says on these topics:
(Can. 844 §2) Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.
(Can. 844 §3) Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed. This is also valid for members of other Churches which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition in regard to the sacraments as these Eastern Churches.
(Can. 844 §4) If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.
(Can. 844 §5) For the cases mentioned in §2, 3 and 4, the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops is not to issue general norms except after consultation at least with the local competent authority of the interested non-Catholic Church or community.
Roman Catholic theology is more inclined to suggest that eucharistic sharing is a sign of the unity we hold — one bread, one body, one Lord of all. On the other hand, Protestants, while they broadly agree with Catholic canon law restrictions regarding the Eucharist, are comfortable acknowledging that the Eucharist is indeed a means to the unity we seek.
Given the remarkable advances achieved by Lutherans and Catholics in their 50-plus years of ecumenical dialogue (as outlined in Lutherans and Catholics on the Way), it might be fair to say that on our journey together we are more than halfway there. Patience is the ecumenical virtue that keeps us optimistic. Given that prayer is the soul of the ecumenical movement, it remains incumbent upon Catholics, Lutherans and all Christians to pray with determination for the yet to be fulfilled prayer of Jesus in John’s Gospel, 17:21, “that all may be one.”
Each of us should have that spirit of longing demonstrated by the Lutheran woman who approached Pope Francis. There can be no easing up or turning back in the common pursuit of fulfilling this prayer of Jesus.
(Fr. MacPherson, SA, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto.)