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Francis on Communion: The Pope's deeper questions, and ours

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 19, 2015

In responding to the Lutheran woman who asked how she could receive Communion with her Catholic husband (see my earlier analysis), Pope Francis raised a profound question. It is a question which could easily stimulate further development in the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist itself. I wish to turn my attention to this profound question now.

Consider this key section of the pope’s comments:

I think that the Lord told us the answer when He gave us this mandate: “Do this in memory of me.” And when we share the Lord’s Supper, we remember and we imitate, we do the same thing that the Lord Jesus did. And there will be the Supper of the Lord, the final banquet in the New Jerusalem. … However on the path, I wonder – and I do not know how to answer, but I make your question my own – I wonder, is sharing the Lord's Supper the aim of the path, or the way of walking together?

This question that he makes his own is actually the chief focus of his remarks throughout. It is also the question of which he said, “I leave this question to the theologians, to those who understand”—not, of course, meaning it is up to the theologians to decide the matter for the Church, but meaning that Pope Francis believes more theological study of this question is necessary. He also admits that this particular line of inquiry lies outside his own competence as a theologian. It is a question that he has not exhaustively explored.

Yet you can see the broad issue this question raises: If the Eucharist is both a sign of unity and the operative means of unity (by incorporating us into Christ), then how much preliminary unity must be attained before the Eucharist can be shared? If the Eucharist is both the central sign of our faith and the food for our journey into deeper faith, then how perfect must we already be before we are able to sit at the Lord’s table?

Stock Responses

A woman wrote to me yesterday to raise this question in another form. She did not understand why the Church would not allow non-Catholics attending Mass to receive the Eucharist. She explained that when those she knew well came to Catholic weddings, for example, they were a bit put off. They said it was as if they were invited to share in the joy of the couple and then told they were not worthy to participate. This pushes the central question raised by Pope Francis in one direction only, and I would presume that such persons do not even begin to understand either the nature of the Eucharist or the range of challenges it poses. Still, this concern is hardly irrelevant.

Clearly there is no shortage of people who respond in this way, but I suspect most of my readers will respond by pushing the question in the other direction. As serious Catholics, we at least try to understand the deep reality of the Eucharist. We grasp, at least in some dim way, that attending Mass, culminating in the reception of Communion, is a transformative participation in the passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord, including our own progressive assimilation into Christ Himself.

But we may push the question too far in the opposite direction by our habitual (and by now traditional) assumption that a full adherence to Catholic doctrine, along with a juridically complete membership in the Church, ought to be demanded (along with freedom from mortal sin) before admission to Communion can be granted. It should be obvious that these criteria represent a standard that even those who are clearly within the Church typically do not meet. Once juridically in the fold, Catholics are free to receive Our Lord in ignorance of the nature and riches of the Eucharist, while refusing to accept certain Catholic teachings, and even in a state of serious personal sin. Except in cases of grave scandal—which in our time are typically ignored anyway—the Church herself leaves the decision to receive Communion to the discretion of her (frequently ignorant and wayward) children.

The first point to be made, then, is that if we are immediately convinced that our own instincts derive from a perfect grasp of the question Pope Francis has raised—the same question that he recognized he himself was not ready to answer—then our understanding is most likely formed more by our perception of the Eucharistic discipline of the past few generations—that is, by our perception of rules which are often observed only in the breach—rather than by a deep theological exploration of the issue.

A Parallel Case?

It is not impossible, I think, to come up with an analogous case in which a developing sacramental understanding, applied under different circumstances, has resulted in a relaxation of certain restrictions. We have a very minor example of this in the near-elimination of the fast required before reception of Communion in the twentieth century, coupled with the deliberate fostering of very frequent communion. But a more telling example may be the Sacrament of Penance.

In the early Church, penances were often quite severe. Serious sins (murder, adultery, etc.) often required a penance that was at once onerous, public and prolonged, before readmission to Communion. By prolonged, I mean that penitents could be barred from the Sacrament in serious cases for a year or more. Gradually, however, a growing awareness of two sacramental realities led to light medicinal penances that brought the penitent back to Communion almost instantly.

One aspect of this awareness was a deeper appreciation of the sacramental power of Christ. It is Our Lord Himself at work in the Sacrament of Penance. Our own penances serve mostly to corroborate our acceptance of His sacrifice through sacramental grace. The second aspect is perhaps more to the point. A growing conviction that, whatever else Communion may be, it is also indeed food for the journey, a sacrament which is somehow ordered not only to the perfect, but to the process of perfection.

There may be an insight for us here. The Eucharist ought not to be taken lightly by anyone. It ought to be reserved at least to those who have a genuine desire to make progress in Christian perfection. Now, no matter what rules one establishes (formal membership in the visible Church, a profession of Faith, a fast, freedom from grave public sin, and freedom from serious private sin), it is impossible to guarantee the proper disposition even within the visible body of the Church herself.

At the same time, it is reasonable to deny Communion to those who give evidence of a lack of interest in perfection as defined by Christ and the Church—whether by disdaining Catholic doctrine, Catholic moral teaching, Church authority, or the basic reverence due to the sacramental action of Jesus Christ.

The Significance of Spiritual Trajectory

Trajectory is perhaps the most important aspect of spirituality. Both personally and culturally, we are all hampered by our spiritual blindness and sinful tendencies. The key questions are: In what direction are we trying to go, and in what direction are we actually going? With this in mind, we might look at the question of trajectory which seems to lie at the root of the question Pope Francis has raised. Our evaluation of such trajectories will always influence the strategies we pursue, and so the rules we make.

During the years of frank hostility between various Christian bodies, the whole question of intercommunion was almost reflexively settled in terms of those obvious divisions. And without question, when the divisions were fresh, they were accompanied by a great deal of personal defiance of Christ and His Church, even if those in defiance did not see it that way. But while some Catholics may still kick at the goad of ecumenism, it is or ought to be clear to even the casual observer that Our Lord, who prayed so earnestly “that all may be one”, is not pleased by mutual acrimony and condemnation among His disciples when—how shall I put it?—they have been confused by history.

The Second Vatican Council developed and expounded an important strain of prior Catholic insight when it described the manner in which the goods Our Lord provided for our salvation are found even outside the Catholic Church, even though their fullness exists only in the Church—which is both their ultimate repository and their necessary guarantor. Our understanding of the unfortunate divisions among Christians has grown more sympathetic as our recognition of these “goods” has increased.

When we add an  increasing awareness of the common enemy—Godlessness, secularization—mutual respect among Christians has grown, and with it an increasing desire for unity. This desire, which can certainly be betrayed by sacrificing truth, must obviously be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Inescapably, then, modern Catholic thinkers have reflected more on the implications of the Eucharist as both the aim and the path, both the consummation of spiritual progress and its mainspring.

Back to Pope Francis, but with no conclusion

In this light, I return again to Pope Francis—though we must recall throughout this discussion that his remarks were informal, off-the-cuff:

It is true that in a certain sense sharing means saying that there is no difference between us, that we have the same doctrine…but do we not have the same Baptism? And if we have the same Baptism, we should walk together…. ‘This is my body, this is my blood’, said the Lord, ‘do this in memory of me’, and this is a viaticum that helps us to walk together…. To your question I respond only with a further question: what can I do with my husband, so that the Lord's Supper accompanies us as we walk together? It is a problem to which each of us should respond.

Francis then quoted a pastor friend who said: “We believe that the Lord is present there. He is present. You believe that the Lord is present. So what is the difference? Ah, these are explanations, interpretations.” The core issue, as Pope Francis summarized it, is that “Life is greater than explanations and interpretations.” As always, Pope Francis desires to free us from the limitations of our own understanding, especially as codified in what we might call the “shorthand” of rules. For even when the purpose of a rule is the legitimate promotion of union with God, every rule inescapably retains the potential to separate some whom Our Lord desires to see joined.

“One faith, one baptism, one Lord” is the starting point, said Pope Francis. He confessed uncertainty about all the permutations. If we are honest with ourselves, I think we need to admit that neither are we as certain as we like to think. Obedient always to past definitions and even, while in force, to current disciplines, we need to grow in our capacity to revere the mystery. This will inescapably diminish our tendency to rely too much on rules, as if they provide the ultimate definition of faith.

I closed my earlier analysis as follows:

[W]e may have here a rather interesting specific example of the type I requested a few days ago when I wrote “The Pope on Christian Humanism: To understand, we need concrete applications”. Is this an example of what Pope Francis means when he says the Church must transcend mere rules? If so, this example makes it clear that he does not mean the Church should transcend the principles of her Faith.

It is too soon to draw any conclusions about whether or how Catholic discipline on the Eucharist might change in the future. I am not advocating anything other than the development of a stronger habit of study and meditation on the Faith, with less reliance on instinctive shortcuts. I certainly do not claim to have highlighted all the relevant considerations here. But I suspect the stimulation of such a habit is the most positive aspect of this pope’s unusual style of leadership. To me, Pope Francis has a remarkable ability to both annoy and prompt deeper reflection, at one and the same time.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 16 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: DrJazz - Nov. 24, 2015 4:52 PM ET USA

    The ignorance of Lutheran beliefs expressed in some comments is truly astounding. Lutherans do not teach the same doctrine about Communion as other Protestants. Contrary to one of the comments, the Lutheran term "consubstantiation" most certainly does indicate that the Lord is present in the Eucharist. Dr. Mirus explained it in his original (Nov 16) article. He also wrote that there is an enormous problem with the term for Catholics. When debating fine points, one should understand the article.

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Nov. 21, 2015 4:33 PM ET USA

    Perhaps there's a difference between practice and essence. The stumbling block here is not deep theology. Protestants look at the "Communion" as a kind of memorial - and they have scripture to support their view. The Church (and Greek Rite) believes in "real presence." If Protestants took communion with us, they would not be celebrating the same sacrament. I think serious Protestants remember Luther and share his very restrictive view of the sacraments. Was he right?

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Nov. 21, 2015 1:29 AM ET USA

    I would have preferred to hear Pope Francis answer this Lutheran woman by saying, "Why not solve the problem by coming home to the Catholic Church?" Simple and direct.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Nov. 20, 2015 11:21 PM ET USA

    First; no one can fully "adhere" to church doctrine, however we can fully "accept"that doctrine. Second; no one is "free to receive our Lord" if we "refuse to accept certain" doctrine or are in "serious personal sin". The church specifically rejects that "free"dom. Also no one fully understands the "nature and riches of the Eucharist". This is just the problems with part of one paragraph.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 20, 2015 10:56 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis has spoken of rigid young priests: "When a youngster is too rigid, too fundamentalist, I don't feel confident (about him). Behind it there is something he himself does not understand." But the priesthood involves mystery. What is the point? Dare we criticize the "rigidity" of the obedient child cognizant of his mother's love? "Listen to mom; do what she says." Is there no place for child-like certitude among priests? Is there no place in today's church for sanguine confidence?

  • Posted by: mcomstoc6740 - Nov. 20, 2015 10:34 PM ET USA

    Dear Dr. Mirus, While I usually appreciate your essays, this one is most objectionable. Cardinal Sarah has just written a much more definitive response to th Holy Father's muddled response. And Cardinal Burke's new book promises to be the same. Peace

  • Posted by: billG - Nov. 20, 2015 7:50 PM ET USA

    "We have a very minor example of this in the near-elimination of the fast required before reception of Communion in the twentieth century" This "relaxation" has had dire consequences when coupled with Communion in the hand and standing. The belief in the Real Presence has fallen off precipitously since these innovations / relaxations. (I know - Post hoc, propter hoc, but also res ipsa loquitur - A not so "minor example" of unintended and bad consequences.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Nov. 20, 2015 3:51 PM ET USA

    I think this is an excellent analysis and discussion of the Pope's remarks. Pope Francis does have a remarkable ability to annoy, but a complete reading of his remarks does prompt deeper reflection. Psalm 19 affirms Dr. Mirus' point about the possibility of being too secure in our obedience to current rules: "The precepts of the Lord are right...in them your servant finds instruction...But who can detect all his errors? From hidden faults acquit me."

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Nov. 20, 2015 3:50 PM ET USA

    St Paul said those who eat and drink without discerning the body and blood of the Lord, eat and drink judgement on themselves. That's more than a "rule." Protestants with protestant beliefs like "consubstantiation" don't believe the body of the Lord is present in the Eucharist. It would be gravely contrary to the good of souls to give permission for people to eat and drink judgement on themselves. Is it a question of protestants that do hold Catholic beliefs on the Priesthood and Eucharist?

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Nov. 20, 2015 12:57 PM ET USA

    it may seem simplistic on the surface, but St. Paul's admonition "whoever eats and drinks unworthily eats and drinks judgement on themselves" addresses the problem thoroughly. The "rules" exist to prevent unworthy reception. That the Church has failed to teach what worthy reception is causes most of the problems Jeff noted. Luther rejected many of the Church's teachings. How can we know what a Lutheran woman understands? If she rejects Church teaching, is it worthy reception?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Nov. 20, 2015 11:19 AM ET USA

    St. John Bosco's vision showed the Church under attack but finally finding safety by securely attaching itself to devotion to the Eucharist and the BVM. All others then found safety by attaching to the Church. JPII advanced our devotion to the BVM. Maybe what Pope Francis is doing will fulfill St. John Bosco's vision. I pray that is so.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 19, 2015 10:50 PM ET USA

    Our pastor recently stated words to the effect: the essential part of the Mass is the Son's act of love (sacrifice) to the Father, and we are invited to participate. We unworthy baptized have been granted "power to become the sons of God." This is a mystery. The pope did not mention this essential characteristic of the Mass- the Sacrifice of God offering God to God. Without THIS sacrifice ON THE ALTAR there is no Mass. Lutherans reject the Mass. Without the Mass how can there be communion?

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Nov. 19, 2015 10:29 PM ET USA

    Even Catholic children must be able to distinguish between the Eucharist and ordinary bread before First Communion; adults as well must be able to distinguish between protestant "communion" (ordinary bread) and the Eucharist. You are making a heroic effort to interpret Pope Francis' comments in some Catholic way, and I don't disrespect that. I'm not the theologian you are, however I am not satisfied by this essay. Protestantism is quite a substantial heresy and does impair Eucharistic Communion.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 19, 2015 5:02 PM ET USA

    mr_fps7692 and loumiamo: Sometimes I wonder why I get up in the morning! Infallible Magisterial teaching on faith and morals defines the content of the faith. The question of who can receive Communion under what circumstances and how often is a matter of disciplinary regulations—RULES—which can and do change over time. Making the best rules to use in any given situation depends on a prudent evaluation of the connection between the proposed rule and the desired result. We can learn much from good rules, but it is a grave mistake to confuse them with the essentials of the faith. That has always been one of this Pope's chief lessons. I regret that I was so unclear that you could not see the point I was trying to make.

  • Posted by: mr_fps7692 - Nov. 19, 2015 4:49 PM ET USA

    This statement is very disappointing:"If we are honest with ourselves, I think we need to admit that neither are we as certain as we like to think. Obedient always to past definitions and even, while in force, to current disciplines, we need to grow in our capacity to revere the mystery. This will inescapably diminish our tendency to rely too much on rules, as if they provide the ultimate definition of faith." Catholic's obedient to the Deposit of Faith & Morals is not following a set of rules!

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Nov. 19, 2015 4:48 PM ET USA

    The Pope is simply recycling RFK's 60's slogan which boils down to "why not?" And the answer is because we've already answered that question as in the Act of Faith. Accept it or not. True Catholics do, not perfectly, but we accept 100%. NonCatholics or CINOs want to go to Jesus their way. They'd rather keep their pride than follow "the way/truth/life." We can pray for them, evangelize them; we can't change the rules. The wedding banquet guest in Matt 22 was still thrown out for doing it his way.