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The Pope's advice to a Lutheran woman with a Catholic husband on receiving the Eucharist

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 16, 2015

Personally, I would prefer Pope Francis to be less prone to shifting spiritual questions to the internal forum in order to escape a clear and consistent exposition of the principles involved. That’s how I’m built. But I can anticipate violent reactions and glaring headlines in response to Pope Francis’ advice to a Lutheran woman who wished to receive Communion with her Catholic husband at Mass. To respond appropriately, some clarifications are in order.

For example, the Pope’s permissive approach may (but definitely should not) result in irresponsible headlines, such as: “Pope says everyone can decide for himself whether to receive Communion in Catholic churches”. In reality, the case presented to the Holy Father was somewhat special. Of all Protestant bodies, Lutherans are the closest to Catholics in Eucharistic faith, and that closeness has increased in high-level ecumenical meetings in recent years.

As readers probably know, the Church permits intercommunion under certain circumstances for Catholics and Orthodox. This is two-way intercommunion, in that not only can the Orthodox receive Catholic communion under certain circumstances, but so can Catholics receive Orthodox communion where there is a special need. In a similar way, if the Church ever formally approves a one-way intercommunion, this would most likely pertain to Lutherans. In such a case, a Lutheran might receive Catholic Communion, but a Catholic could never receive Lutheran Communion.

It is important to recognize that, in his response to the question, the Pope touched on the variables which would, in fact, make this possible. The first variable: “But do we have the same Baptism?” This is a rhetorical question to which the answer is Yes. The second variable: “You believe the Lord is present.”

Lutherans and the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

This second variable is significant because the Lutheran Church is the only Protestant body that believes the Eucharist is more than a symbol or a sign. Lutherans (insofar as they hold the official teachings of their church) believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. Historically, they explain this as “consubstantiation”—the idea that both the substance of the bread and wine and the substance of the Body and Blood are present at the same time.

Catholics see the enormous philosophical problem presented by “consubstantiation”. Even for a mystery, consubstantiation violates the fundamental principle of identity or non-contradiction. That is why the Church has insisted on the word “transubstantiation” as sufficient to protect the truth in question. The substance of the bread and wine ceases to exist, and is replaced by the substance of the Body and Blood. But despite the philosophical limitations, Lutherans do believe Christ is substantially present in the Eucharist.

Of course, whatever they believe, Lutherans do not actually have a Eucharist in which Christ is substantially present, because they do not have the priesthood which is necessary to confect the Eucharist. So obviously it would be a repudiation of the faith for any Catholic who understood this to receive the Lutheran Eucharist. But it does not involve any repudiation of the Christian faith for a Lutheran to receive the Catholic Eucharist.

Consequently, what Pope Francis has placed in the internal forum—leaving the decision to the woman herself—is a question which has typically been settled by disciplinary practice (rules on sharing of Communion). This has been true even when the fundamental principles of faith involved are such that the discipline could, in fact, be changed without undermining the Catholic Faith. The Pope even referred to this disciplinary issue by citing the way it is universally explained today: “It is true that in a certain sense sharing means saying that there is no difference between us, that we have the same doctrine—stressing that word, which is a difficult word to understand.”

Though these were off-the-cuff remarks, and the text is hardly crystal clear, Francis apparently goes on to conclude that a common baptism and belief in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist makes the question close enough to be placed in the internal forum, that is, to be decided through a person’s own mature reflection on his or her faith, with the aid of spiritual counsel.

The Francis Effect?

Yet at the same time, Pope Francis confesses a certain trepidation at sorting out all relevant theological issues. He admits that he personally lacks the expertise, and even says “I’m scared” to go into it deeply. He then states his conclusion:

There are questions that only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has, must be responded to on one’s own. See for yourself…. I would never dare give permission to do this as it is not my competence. One Baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and go ahead. I dare not say any more.

In other words, Pope Francis is not prepared to settle this question in a universal way, but in the case of a Lutheran woman of faith who is married to (and attends Mass with) a Catholic husband, he is willing to refer it to a conscientious use of the internal forum. In this way, perhaps, he is showing a significant mercy.

Should this rattle us a bit? Yes, I think it should. Does it raise important questions? Yes, I think it does. Does this have implications for the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried? We might think so, but in fact the two cases turn on very different principles, so when my colleague Phil Lawler introduced this question, I would have placed a question mark after his title!

More to the point here, does this decision of Pope Francis justify headlines about the baby, the bathwater, and the horror of heresy? Presumably it would if we were talking about the unbaptized and/or those who do not believe in Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist. But in the specific case at hand, given the principles the Pope enunciated for its resolution, the answer is No: Such headlines, such alarms, are not justified.

Moreover, I think we 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.

I refer to the preference I stated at the outset. But it is also essential to recognize that, in this particular case, Pope Francis seems to have kept the relevant principles of faith very firmly in mind.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: VICTORIA01 - Nov. 24, 2015 9:36 PM ET USA

    Stpetric, you expressed very concisely what I was trying to put down in a comment. Thank you. "The nuances and distinctions you make are going to be lost on vast numbers of people, both in and out of the Church; - "It's awfully wearying to have to dig through the pope's pronouncements in order to find the Catholic teaching in them." [And to be left with an empty shovel.]

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 18, 2015 10:06 AM ET USA

    Randal Mandock: I was using ordinary speech, I assure you. You are quite right to note that no Protestant denomination constitutes a "Church" in the theological sense of the term. Sometimes, however, I find it easier to get to the issue at hand without belaboring this point. In common parlance, all of the sects worship in "churches", all "go to church", and all are called (and usually call themselves) Church. Such shorthand is all I intended.

  • Posted by: claire5327 - Nov. 18, 2015 3:22 AM ET USA

    Pleaase, pray for our Pope, he is only a human like we are! Whoever is his Spiritual Director or Father Confessor should tells him with love and companssion for the Kingdom of Heaven that the Pope must learn how to think more and speak Less. If speaking is to be a must, first do some quick internal discernement before letting words out! He needs to do that before Bad Things Come to our Church! Discernment of Spirts is the Core of St. Ingnatius' Spiritual Exercises ~ He should masters it!

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Nov. 17, 2015 11:46 PM ET USA

    When the Pope admits he is leaving things to theologians to present he should do just that. To admit that he is not a theologian, to admit things are in their purview, and then to make an - almost - doctrinal statement is irresponsible.

  • Posted by: velazquez37031 - Nov. 17, 2015 7:46 PM ET USA

    This could have been my story. I asked several priests about taking communion when I was Lutheran and their answers were remarkably similar to the Pope's, although one said no. I took communion and was welcomed along with my Catholic husband and children to our parish of more than 12 years. I also learned what it means to be Catholic and converted. My understanding has grown, and I would counsel my younger self differently, but I cannot regret being led into the church by the True Presence.

  • Posted by: stpetric - Nov. 17, 2015 7:26 PM ET USA

    You are working hard to put the most orthodox possible interpretation on the pope's comment about communion. Fair enough; in filial respect and obedience, we owe him that. BUT... 1) The nuances and distinctions you make are going to be lost on vast numbers of people, both in and out of the Church; and 2) It's awfully wearying to have to dig through the pope's pronouncements in order to find the Catholic teaching in them.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Nov. 17, 2015 6:53 PM ET USA

    because they do not have the priesthood which is necessary to confect the Eucharist - more to the point Lutherans do not accept the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. Pope Francis is pastoraly juggling with live hand grenades. I hope he has sense enough to leave the pins in them.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 17, 2015 5:55 PM ET USA

    Thanks for the insights, Jeff. My point is specific to the terminology- "make a mess of things" etc. Unprecedented. But like Pope John, Pope Francis seems to dismiss much of the vigilance and confidence of the past in favor of some sort of meeting point with the world and separated Christians. Unfortunately the evidence shows many continue to move away from the Church, and it appears with Francis the Church is poised to move further still from traditional moorings. This is troubling.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 17, 2015 3:29 PM ET USA

    When did the Lutheran Ecclesial Community become a Church? A Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. According to Holy Writ and Catholic "doctrine" (sic), "apostolic" means to be founded by one or more of the Twelve. The Orthodox Christian Churches qualify on this count. Regarding "sacramental union" versus transubstantiation, I agree with you. I was substitute teaching our apologetics course on Sunday and stressed a distinguishing characteristic of our Church: logikhn latreian (Rom 12:1).

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Nov. 17, 2015 12:20 PM ET USA

    "To respond appropriately, some clarificattions are in order." Might be a good idea to c&p this last sentence of ur first paragraph into ur draft file, as it seems Pope Francis is determined to have all commentators trot it out as a sort of universal preamble for all stories about his public remarks. And lest we forget the example of the 12, if we find Francis too upsetting for us, "to whom shall we go"?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 17, 2015 11:22 AM ET USA

    garedawg: The Anglican Church is pretty mixed, ranging from the Anglo-Catholics who hold essentially Catholic doctrines, to a purely symbolic or "spiritual" interpretation of Christ's Presence. It is hard, I think, to find a clear teaching. On further study, I've also found that many Lutherans reject consubstantiation, believing that Luther's teaching of "sacramental union" entails the irradiation of the receptive soul by Christ upon reception of Communion. But it seems clear that the Lutheran Church rejects a purely symbolic or memorial interpretation of the Lord's Supper, embracing some sort of substantial Presence of Christ.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Nov. 17, 2015 11:01 AM ET USA

    My understanding is that the Anglicans also have the same beliefs about the Eucharist. I grew up Episcopalian, and our pastor very sincerely thought that he was distributing the Body and Blood of Christ at Communion ("It is our strange and true belief!" he used to say). But perhaps there is a wider diversity of belief among the Anglicans than there is among the Lutherans.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 17, 2015 11:01 AM ET USA

    koinonia: I would not agree that there is nothing like this in the history of the papacy. There have certainly been other popes who have been very unsettling, most recently John XXIII! Pope Francis has argued that we tend to be too prone to settle every question with a rule, and then we use the rules as a kind of shield against serious and merciful engagement with those whom the rules exclude. In any case, at its best, such "unsettlement" prompts rethinking things at a deeper level. But, yes, there is a risk; we have too often seen unsettlement as an excuse for going the way of the world.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 17, 2015 7:54 AM ET USA

    There is a problem. The Holy Father promotes unsettling. "Make a mess of things." The spirit is disturbing. "Thus then, Venerable Brethren, for the Modernists, both as authors and propagandists, there is to be nothing stable, nothing immutable in the Church."- Pascendi. It is difficult not to wonder about this with Pope Francis. "Make a mess..." There is nothing remotely close to this in the history of the papacy. And faithful folks are nothing at present if not unsettled- like it or not.