Bread of life is food for unity
The Tablet, Editors10 November 2016 Last week’s photograph of Pope Francis embracing the female leader of the Church of Sweden, Archbishop Antje Jackelén, was a stark reminder not only of how close the Catholic Church has come to other denominations like the Lutherans, but also how far apart they still are. The same could be said of the Pope’s meeting with Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. In both cases the issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood stands like a locked gate on the path to further church unity. Is there nothing else that could be done to narrow the gap between the denominations?
This year, when the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is being commemorated with such warmth, there is one other source of division that could be looked at again – the Catholic Church’s rules regarding the admission to Holy Communion of members of other Churches. The line drawn now looks somewhat arbitrary. Permission may be given as a one-off on uniquely special occasions, including for instance when a Catholic and a non-Catholic are marrying during a nuptial Mass. Such an example raises the obvious question – why only then? Why does the theological iron curtain, lifted just for once, descend on the same couple next day?
The same applies to funeral Masses, where permission may be granted for the non-Catholic partner of the deceased to receive Communion, but only on that occasion. A similar case arises during, say, an ecumenical conference, where Catholic and non-Catholic Christians have shared in communio but are then told they may not share in Communion.
Regarding Eucharistic teaching, the test applied by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in its agreed documents on the subject is surely the only one necessary: “Before the Eucharistic prayer, to the question ‘What is that?’, the believer answers: ‘It is bread.’ After the Eucharistic prayer to the same question he answers: ‘It is truly the body of Christ, the Bread of Life.’” That must be enough. It is understandable that those unable to make such a declaration should not receive Holy Communion on such terms, but nor would they want to.
It is also relevant that the Church no longer regards members of other Churches as formally guilty of the sins of heresy or schism. Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ exhortation regarding marriage and family life, declined to repeat the traditional bar to receiving Holy Communion applied to couples in irregular marriages, provided they were in good faith. Why should non-Catholics in good faith deserve less?
The statement of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, One Bread One Body, issued in 1998, is still the standard guidance, but it recognised that norms can be changed. The statement also declared that the Catholic Church needed to repent of its own contributions to Christian disunity. It is fair to ask whether the continued ban on members of other Christian denominations receiving Holy Communion might have become one such contribution.