18 July 2018 | by Thomas O'Loughlin
Communion and non-Catholics: don’t deny the promise of future glory
Lady van Aefferden wished, not unnaturally, to be buried beside her late husband, Colonel van Gorkum, who had died in 1880, but law and fear of scandal prevented it. She was a Catholic and could not be buried in the Protestant section of the cemetery in the Dutch town of Roermond where he had been interred; she could only await the Resurrection alongside fellow Catholics.
So, before she died, she made it clear that she did not want to be buried in her family’s tomb; instead, she chose a burial plot in the Catholic section of the cemetery as close to her husband’s grave as possible.
The result is a most unusual pair of tombstones. Set back to back, they clasp hands in stone over the wall that divided the Protestant graves and Catholic graves.
The monument cocked a snook at the bitter divisions of the time, and made a mute but powerful statement that reality is richer and more complex than legally defined borders and categories, and, given that it’s a grave marker, asserted that Christian divisions are a legacy of past blunders rather than something with eschatological reality.
I was reminded of these linked tombstones when I heard the latest round – this time coming from Germany – in the apparently interminable search for an answer to the question: “Can a non-Catholic share in the table at a Catholic Eucharist?” I deliberately say “share in the table” rather than “take Communion” or “receive Communion”, because these expressions employ the category of the Eucharist as a sacred commodity – and the Second Vatican Council moved us beyond that when it declared that the Eucharist “is an action of Christ himself and the Church” (Canon 899, 1).
In their much discussed and disputed guidelines, the German bishops speak of “Eucharistic communion and church fellowship belonging together”, and so are unable to see any way towards an open invitation to Lutheran spouses joining their Catholic partners at the Eucharist. They fall back instead on a legal framework of “grave spiritual need” and the use of the “internal forum” to permit “admittance” in occasional circumstances, the precise elasticity of which is left to the discretion of individual bishops.
The debates around the German bishops’ guidelines is reminiscent of the tortuous parsing of the “general norms on sacramental sharing” issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of England and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland in 1998, One Bread One Body. Apart from the fact that few people except canonists understand all the ins and outs of the “solutions” to various “difficult pastoral situations” that can be teased out of these norms, the whole approach leaves many priests and parishioners feeling weary and exasperated.
Some seem to enjoy using the issue of eucharistic hospitality as a political football, to be wrangled over by liberal and conservative wings of the Church; whenever the Eucharist is thus used, as it has often been, it is the faith of the whole People of God that suffers.
Meanwhile those outside the Catholic Church are often scandalised that anyone should act so proprietorially about the Lord’s table, to which all are invited – or they are dispirited by such a casuistic approach to a sacred mystery. I will never forget the appalled look on the face of an Anglican wife of a Catholic parishioner when told that she could not receive Communion with her husband on a Sunday but that she could when they were on holiday in Spain, provided she was “morally certain” she could not find an Anglican service to attend instead.
This exasperation could be heard in the voice of the Lutheran woman who asked Pope Francis in 2015 whether there could be some movement from the Catholic side on the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. By way of reply, Francis wondered aloud: “Is sharing the Lord’s Supper the end of a journey or is it the viaticum for walking together?” He went on: “I leave the question to the theologians, to those who understand.”
The logic of One Bread One Body and of more recent statements by bishops’ conferences and their theological advisers is, in effect, eschatological: only when we have perfect communion, the argument goes, can we have sacramental sharing – and so such fellowship belongs to that moment on the future horizon when sacraments cease.
The Pope’s reference to viaticum and of “walking together” – of a common baptism – takes a very different tack. Clearly, Pope Francis does not share the view that the question of eucharistic sharing is closed: he explicitly invites theologians to fresh reflection on the issue.
So what new approaches could be considered? We humans continuously form fictive families. We speak of human fraternity; of being welcomed as “one of the family”.
A nation that speaks of fraternity and equality views itself as a notional family; and a great leader is described as “the mother – or father – of the nation”. The language of family is often the highest value that a group, whether large or small, applies to itself. A monastery is an outstanding case of a fictive family, with the abbess/abbot (from the Aramaic abba meaning “father”) at the head, and the rest of the community as the sisters/brothers.
But even these fictive families at the heart of our tradition are but reflections of the fictive family that is the liturgy. There we join together to worship God as brothers and sisters, act as a family, and are commanded to engage in eucharistic activity as a family: Orate fratres – “Pray, brethren”. The liturgy-performing family is, to outsiders, simply a ritual manifestation of an anthropological phenomenon. To Christians, however, it is the work of the Spirit who transforms us from being a random collection of individuals with shared ideas into a single family who – as sisters and brothers – cry out: “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6).
Our family ties are not merely some legal consequence of our common baptism, but the creating work of the Spirit, there and then, when we actually gather. The transforming Spirit is active in our gatherings, each and every one of them, linking us to each and every other member of the gathering and empowering our worship. And if the Spirit has made each of us, all the baptised, into sisters and brothers, is it appropriate of us to exclude any member of the Spirit-formed family from full participation in the very activity for which the Spirit has transformed us?
And here is another approach to consider. There are some things in life that we cannot change; facing this fact – dull as it seems – is, for me, part of being an adult. I must have nourishment and hydration, or I die. But nourishment involves my acting in society: only through human teamwork can we eat. The tale of Robinson Crusoe, the ideal individualist, made a great story, but it is entirely fanciful. Just as we work together to gather food, so we collaborate to cook it. If you live alone in a bed-sit, you still rely on the network that delivers the pizza.
Humans do not simply eat together, we share meals. Indeed, it is this meal-sharing that is distinctively human. We may act in packs as hunter-gatherers, but we eat as meal-sharers with a common culture. Moreover, there is an inherent structure to this sharing, which we might call “the grammar of meals”. In the simplest or most elaborate meal, there are basic codes that are common human property – and when they are transgressed we instinctively recognise that something is wrong. A simple example is that we place common food midway between the sharers; we divide up the food so that all get a share; we have conventions when guests are present, such as “family hold back”.
All this has implications for liturgy because the Eucharist has, to say the least, the form of a meal, and so the grammar of meals applies. Can I allow you to be present at our meal and then refuse to share the food with you? Can you be at the table and not be offered food to eat and a cup to drink? If you are at the table and refuse my offer, I will be offended and wonder why you are there at all. Likewise, if you are there and express a willingness to eat, then can I be a host of the divine banquet and yet respond with what would be brutish behaviour on any other occasion? Because we confess that we can be elbow to elbow with the Lord around his eucharistic table, it surely follows that we have to accept that the grammar of meals applies there.
Each day we pray, in the present tense, that the Father’s “will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven”. Moreover, we see any expression of this will being an anticipation of the End. Constituted as a community of memory, the Church is unremittingly future-focused. What we pray for now is that which we shall enjoy in its fullness in heaven. Moreover, we instantiate this in the Eucharist when we refer to it as “the promise [or taster] of future glory”. We normally think of this relationship in terms of the present leading to the future, but in liturgy – as the sacramental presence of the future now – the future also determines the present.
So, will non-Catholic Christians have a full share in the heavenly banquet?
If you answer “No”, then that solves the problem: they should be excluded now. If you reply “Yes” (see, for example, Matthew 8:11 and Luke 13:29 for two expressions of this theme in the kerygma), then it is that heavenly table which we should be aiming to imitate at the gathering next Sunday.
Moreover, such an approach would enhance our mission to show that the Good News creates a space of gracious welcome. It would remind us that, in the liturgy, we perform the unified world we want to see; we do not simply reinforce the fractured world that we have inherited.
Thomas O’Loughlin is professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham, and president of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain. His most recent book is The Rites and Wrongs of Liturgy: Why Good Liturgy Matters (Liturgical Press, £11.99; Tablet bookshop price, £10.79).