I saw recently that a joint commission of Bishops and Theologians representing both the Catholic Church in the United States and the Evangelical Lutheran Church In America (ELCA) are forwarding to Rome and to the General Convention of the ELCA) a proposal authorizing Eucharistic sharing between Lutherans and Catholics in recognition of the significant doctrinal agreements that have been reached in the fifty years of Ecumenical dialogue since the Second Vatican Council.
I must admit that I was startled at the proposal. (“Startled” doesn’t mean that I don’t like it, only that—much like the “Francis Agenda” at the recent Synod on the Family, I am amazed how fast the Church is ready to move in this papacy.) There are significant issues to be addressed, not the least of which is the Elephant on the Coffee Table of Valid (Apostolic) Orders. The Catholic Church believes that during the Reformation the Apostolic Succession of the Lutheran hierarchy and ministry was “lost.” This is a serious question because the authority to preside at the Eucharist, to forgive sins, to confirm, to ordain, and to anoint the sick depend—in Catholic theology—on the minister of the sacrament standing in an unbroken succession of clergy whose ordinations can be traced back to the Apostles.
Now frankly, the Apostolic Succession is a highly complex issue. Can only bishops ordain priests? There are historical precedents before the Council of Trent (and I believe there is even one within the century after Trent) where the Catholic Church recognized ordinations conducted by a presbyter (priest). (Ironically I came across this information about forty years ago in a series of essays by theologians and historians who were involved in the same Lutheran Catholic dialogue process that is making the recommendation of Eucharistic sharing,) If priests can validly ordain, then Apostolic Succession has been retained in the Lutheran Church. Moreover, in some strains of Lutheranism, most notably the Swedish, the office and ministry of Bishops was maintained in continuity with the pre-Reformation Church. The argument was made by Catholics that in rejecting the Eucharistic doctrines of the Catholic Church, most notably Transubstantiation and Eucharistic Sacrifice, even those Episcopal Churches in the Lutheran Communion suffered a break in the Apostolic lineage. But again, things are much more complex. Recent ecumenical dialogues have established that there is no essential difference between the Catholic formula of Transubstantiation and the Lutheran doctrine of Consubstantiation. As Catholics are bound to the doctrine of the Real Presence and not essentially to the doctrine of Transubstantiation (which is only one way of explaining the Real Presence) there is quite a bit of room for accord here. Actually Transubstantiation and Consubstantiation are, at the root, essentially the same when one understands the difference between Thomistic (Scholastic and neo-Scholastic) thought in the Catholic Tradition and the Neo-Platonic or Augustinian philosophy espoused by Luther and the theologians who followed him. When Luther says that the bread and wine remain bread and wine but Christ is truly Present “in, with, and under” the forms of bread and wine he means what we Catholics mean in saying that whle the “accidents” of bread and wine remain unchanged, their substance is transformed into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity (and, though we forget to add it, humanity) of Christ. The physical and chemical properties of bread and wine remain bread and wine.
While we have come a tremendous distance in a common understanding, I am not hopeful that this proposal will be accepted by Rome. (I think the ELCA will be all over it like ants at a picnic.) The highly sensitive issue of Apostolic Orders has not been addressed and a solution has not been found for it. More important are the unspoken agendas. Rome, even after Vatican II, can’t seem to move away from an “unconditional surrender” approach to Ecumenism. With Rome you pretty much have to buy the whole ball of wax and we have some issues here. We won’t even bring up the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin or purgatory. Women’s ordination is a stumbling block all of its own. Katholic Krazies will go berserk about this proposal as the ELCA supports “a woman’s right to choose” as well as Same-Sex marriage. And of course most of the Krazies just hate ecumenism in general because they get a lot of their energy just from hating.
In the end it is a huge fuss over nothing. I see Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians and even the odd Greek Orthodox coming up the aisle in our Church for Holy Communion every Sunday. My Methodist sister-in-law even has permission from the local Catholic bishops to receive Holy Communion. She is at mass with my brother every Sunday. Used to run the kid’s choir in the parish. Hardly anyone in town knows that she technically isn’t a Catholic. And hey—Catholics in the Lutheran Church: I know we aren’t supposed to go to Communion but I’ve seen priests—even fairly uptight ones that like to get all dolled up like Cardinal Burke—kneeling at the Lutheran rail. Most Catholics don’t have a clue about the prohibition and it wouldn’t stop them if they did. As in so many ways, the faithful are out in front while the magisterium puts their mitered heads in the sand and the theologians all wriggle and moan like they need a laxative.
So am I condoning Eucharistic Sharing with Lutherans? Don’t have to any more than I have to condone the sun coming up in the East. It is just a fact of life. Sure the krazies are beside themselves, “goin’ to fight it with everything in me” one writes. But the words of Jesus remain: ut unum sint.
Now, for another matter. I am taking a few weeks off while on a secret mission. keep me in your prayers and I will keep you in mine.