Did Pope Francis say Lutherans can take Communion at Catholic Mass?

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Pope Francis gives Communion at the end of the first mass of his visit to Cuba in Havana's Revolution Square, September 20, 2015.  Photo courtesy REUTERS/Claudia Daut

Pope Francis gives Communion at the end of the first mass of his visit to Cuba in Havana's Revolution Square, September 20, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Claudia Daut

(RNS) 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.


READ: Catholic bishops revise voter guide after debate over ‘Pope Francis agenda’


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.)


READ: Pope Francis ‘prepared to battle’ on Vatican reform, senior cardinal says


“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.”

LM END GIBSON

Video courtesy of Catholic News Service via YouTube

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  • Lorne Ranger

    Quad est demonstrated.

  • Dominic

    Dear Holy Father,
    Please refrain from off the cuff answers to doctrinal issues, since your willingness to please seems to outweigh your intelligence and the exalated job you hold.
    Time and again you have inferred a monumental change of infallible doctrine with sweet, loving quips that could never truly come to fruition.
    Let this woman convert to Catholicism and view Communion as the Transubstantiated Matter it becomes at consecration. Do not allow her to hope for a gift that she has not the right to receive.
    Catholicism is nothing to be ashamed of.

    Thank you.

  • Bernardo

    My Lutheran mother-in-law received communion a number of times at our RCC church. Guess what, the world is still here. Such inanity over a tasteless wafer and cheap wine!!

  • Ted

    It’s funny how converts – like Longenecker and Douthat – are so ready and willing to tell everyone, right up to the Pope, how we’re all doing Catholicism wrong.

    Learn some humility, folks. If you think religion is a set of rules that set you apart as someone special, then you’ve missed the entire point of the Gospel. You’re thinking of the Pharisees.

  • Ruben

    Ted, I’m sure that while composing your reply you never, not once, considered that these “converts” were catechized in that way, and never, not once did you consider that you were not catechized in the same way. If you believe that their thoughts of religion are extreme, maybe your’s are extreme as well. I see by your remark about the Pharisees that you are judging these people. By whose gospel are you judging? The gospel according to Ted… I really don’t know how you were catechized, but it sure is different to the way I was. I don’t judge you for that because I can’t… I’m a sinner as well, unless the gospel of ted makes you god.

  • Bernardo

    Dominic,

    Guess what? Even after your tirade about my mother-in-law who died many years ago, your eucharist is still a tasteless wafer and cheap wine. Tis better that way anyway since no one wants to be labelled a cannibal. t

  • Observer

    Lutherans believe in the real presence of Christ in communion. The doctrine is called “Sacramental Union” . The Pope appears to have understood this and allows for differences understanding. Open communion for those Christian who believe in the real presence would be a real ecumenical step. The two churches profess the three ecumenical creeds. The biggest issue Lutherans had with the Roman Church’s communion practice was denying wine to lay communicants. However that has been changed since Vatican 2. Years ago the Roman Church would not recognize a Lutheran baptism or marriage, However that changed.

    Drop the term Protestant and discuss the specifics of each denomination. Protestant in modern English means not Roman or Orthodox and is the equivalent of “other” Christians.

    As far as being in perfect communion, no two Christians no matter which denomination has the same understanding of Christianity.

  • HEB

    I’ve taught at a Catholic college for all my adult life, but I can’t go for communion at my college chapel. At the beginning of every academic year we have the ‘Mass of the Holy Spirit’. One year there was a notice telling us that non-Catholics shouldn’t go for communion, because Catholics believed in the Real Presence and thought it was important—unlike the rest of us. I haven’t gone since then.

    Sometime back a colleague, who was a priest, told me that there would be no problem if I were just someone coming in off the street. But as an officially non-Catholic member of the faculty, I shouldn’t go for communion and ‘embarrass’ him or other priests celebrating. I don’t get it: if Christ is really and objectively present, what’s the problem? If I ‘eat and drink my damnation’ (which I don’t believe) that’s MY problem. I do philosophical theology and have publications on the Real Presence doctrine—pro. But no matter.

    What ever is the point?

  • Jane

    You should apologize to Bernardo for your childish insult. Or is that not the Christian way to behave?

  • Ben in oakland

    Here’s the point

    My religion is better than yours. My version of God is better than yours. Ergo….

    I am better than you.

  • Ben in oakland

    For those so-called Christians who use their bibles and beliefs as weapons against people they generally despise, it IS the Christian way to behave.

  • Mara319

    So, what’s your problem, Bernardo?

  • HEB

    That won’t do. If I assert ‘P’, whatever it is, and you assert ‘Not-P”, then I hold that my belief is ‘better’ than yours. It’s quite another thing to say that because you hold beliefs that are false, because my beliefs are better than your beliefs, you can’t do this, that or the other thing. To hold a belief is precisely to hold that it’s better than the alternatives, and that believers are, from the epistemic point of view, better than people who reject that belief. It’s another thing to hold that false beliefs should bar one from participation.

  • matlow

    Hello. Please allow me to simplify by using the analogy of a sporting code. In this case baseball.

    If anyone wishes to participate fully in this game they must play to a given set of rules regardless of who they are. If these rules are not understood then it is highly likely the enthusiastic hopeful will not be allowed to play on the team.

    This does not make those who know and play by the rules BETTER. It’s just that they are playing the game authentically in the prescribed way. Those who are unaware of the rules may sense an air of superiority from those who know the rules but this is misplaced sensitivity. This is not to say there aren’t players out there who think they’re better, unwarranted of course, but the fact remains there are a set of rules that define the particular character of the game. Those who know the rules and refuse to acknowledge and play by them due to personal preference similarly will not be included on the team.

    Catholicism is simple, but…

  • matlow

    The priest colleague of yours gave poor advice.

    The conundrum comes down to the founding beliefs of the Catholic Church, that it attributes its historical lineage back to the apostles of Jesus, specifically Peter. It is the only church that has ever done so, and while it has been widely disputed, it reserves this identity – and consequently its teachings, which can be quite specific and stringent, mainly to preserve the authenticity of its faith.

    Jesus wishes everyone to approach him but not all will accept his teachings which carry conditions. Repent and sin no more is an example. Jesus then gave Peter authority to be a fisher of men and to be the maker of rules Catholic-wise.

    Bread and wine becoming the actual body and blood of Jesus is little understood, but the authentic reception of such requires [a mystery of] faith. Unworthy, unfaith-ful reception is prohibited and compliance with disobedience in this matter is to be avoided. I welcome you to seek further.

  • Jay

    You sound very much like a pharisee. We know their end.

  • Jay

    Converts to the Roman Tradition, often have no historical knowledge of Catholic tradition (which included Representation, Consubstantiation, Transubstantiation and more). How arrogant of human beings to think they can explain God/Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic Meal. The Eastern Orthodox have long avoided such foolishness. “This is my Body; This is my Blood.” Believe it. Receive it. Christ’s Word is enough.

  • Jay

    I’ll gladly be labeled a heretic if that means I may remain faithful to Christ Jesus above human philosophies. To Christ be the glory.

  • Jay

    No, Pope Francis did not say “Lutherans can take Communion in a RC Church.” He also did not say “Roman Catholics” can universally receive Holy Eucharist in a Roman Catholic Church. Time to grow up, RC’s and smell the ecumenical coffee as Francis is doing. One Body; Christ’s Body. By Baptism, MADE one body. Not only should all Christian “receive” Christ’s Body, but they ARE Christ’s Body, in truth, fact and reality.

  • Lucas

    Mara why do you even think he has a problem?

  • Lucas

    The Muslims say that about their hero too. Like theirs, yours is just another delusion.

  • Lucas

    It’s all superstitious hooey gooey anyway.

  • Lucas

    No we don’t. It’s hard to prove.

  • Sven

    In other news, followers of the Grate Hare Crasha ate jumbo gumbo with boar cheese in Crasha’s honor in truth, fact and reality. No reely.

  • Dominic

    I will apologize to Bernie when the dreg stops her immature insults of a most holy ritual, Jane. His mother in law means nothing to me.

  • Dominic

    Then be glad. Wrong, but glad !

  • Dominic

    Why would teaching at a Catholic College permit you to receive a Catholic Sacrament? If you don’t believe as the Catholics teach, then you have no place in their rituals. It’s not discrimination….you have kept yourself outside the truth.

  • Dominic

    Exactly. In all matters of Faith and Moral teachings, Catholics reign supreme.

  • Bernardo

    Fact and reality? Give us a break!! But then maybe you are a cannibal?

  • HEB

    Bad analogy. Having players on the field who don’t play by the rules disrupts the game and ruins the fun for both spectators and other players. Having non-Catholics go for communion doesn’t make any comparable difference. No one is worse off and non-Catholics are better off. I call that Pareto optimal.

  • Jane

    Your bad, Dominic. You owe him an apology. You have set a bad example. Stop being hateful and insulting. Show love instead.

  • Gord

    Not really. Catholicism is struggling to avoid decline, and having to do major PR to dodge bad press from all the abuse cases and now fraud too.

    The RC church is just organized crime. In bed with the mafia. The only thing they are supreme at is protecting their own, from justice.

  • Dominic

    Yeah, OK.

  • David

    Not all Lutherans would concur that it is permissable to communion with Roman Catholics even if there is common agreement on the real presence. Rome still denies central teachings of Holy Scripture such as salvation by grace and not works. When Rome renounces Trent and adopts Article IV of the Augsburg Confession then we can talk.

  • Bernardo

    And the Last Supper,the basis of the eucharist? It was not an historic event. See http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php/016_Supper_and_Eucharist

    An excerpt:

    “At the same time, Luedemann concludes that the portrayal of Jesus celebrating such a ritual on the night before his death is not historical. He is clear that there is “no generic relationship” between any actual final meal and the Lord’s Supper understood in cultic terms. He also denies the Passover character of the supper as a Markan creation. Like Meier (below), Luedemann does accept the saying (Mark 14:25) about drinking wine in the kingdom of God as authentic. He concludes: (this saying) “hardly came into being in the early community, for in it Jesus does not exercise any special function for believers at the festal meal in heaven which is imminent. Only Jesus’ expectation of a the future kingdom of God stands at the centre, not Jesus as saviour, judge or intercessor.”

  • Gord

    No, not outside the truth, but in it. The outsiders have not believed the Catholic god myth -which is a reasonable position for the outsiders, given that the myth isn’t even in internal agreement. Only the deluded believe it.

  • Gord

    As you should be. Very shamed, that is. You have yet to defend your positions with anything other than insults and falsehoods. Shame on you, seriously.

  • Garson Abuita

    The “end” of the Pharisees is that they evolved into rabbinic Judaism, which is the form of Judaism almost exclusively in existence today.

  • HEB

    I didn’t claim it was ‘discrimination’ or suggested that I was entitled to receive communion because I taught at a Catholic college. I simply don’t see the point of excluding anyone for any reason. Who benefits? And how? Whatever is the point?

  • Sabelotodo2

    This pope keeps mingling and conversing with real people down in the trenches, which riles those “elevated ones” (priests, bishops, cardinals, etc.) who need to stand apart as law-givers.

    That seems to be the great divide in Christianity: do you line up with the law-givers and gate-keepers, creating ever-heavier burdens for the masses to bear, or do you line up on the side of Grace–God’s free-flowing love and goodwill toward all who will simply seek it–regardless of their past, their frailties, their “brand.” Grace isn’t something that can be earned or achieved. The pope seems to line up with the later group, and actually he’s not unique in the Catholic Church. Some 40+ years ago I was part of a Romanc Catholic divorce recovery group called Beginning Experience Weekend. We were invited to list all the sins weighing us down from the past, cast them into the bonfire, and–after examining our conscience, to receive the Eucharist, regardless of our church affiliation–very…

  • Dominic

    Defend what position? There is only one, which is non-debateable; Only Roman Catholics are permitted to receive the Catholic Holy Eucharist. The Pope cannot even change this.
    So drop the exchange….. it’ll never happen.

  • Gord

    No Dominic, and first apologize on your knees to Bernardo for your insults.

    After that, we’ll get into your silly delusion. But apology first, and like others have said here, shame on you, Dominic, for your vicious insults.

  • Dominic

    Apologize? You’ve got to be kidding.
    My delusions surpass your imagined intelligence.
    I feel not a whisper of shame in denouncing fools.

  • Patricia Hanssen

    Pope Benedict did unexcommunicated Martin Luther as he said we are saved by grace alone and that Luther was correct! I was a Catholic and converted to the Lutheran faith 45 years ago and we do believe that Christ’s body and blood are in our bread and wine.