Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 30, 2003
The church from the Eucharist
Encyclical expresses yearning for greater Christian unity
By GLEN ARGAN
Although some have seen Pope John Paul's recent encyclical The Church From the Eucharist as throwing cold water on ecumenism, the encyclical is filled with a yearning for greater Church unity.
This fact was picked up on by Ann Riggs, director of the U.S. National Council of Churches' Faith and Order Commission. Riggs, in an article on the NCC website, points out several similarities in the papal approach to the Eucharist with those of Protestant churches.
The pope highlights the role of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist and makes the connection between "the Eucharist as remembrance and Eucharist as anticipation of the final fulfillment of all things," Riggs wrote. The encyclical also links the Eucharist with the quest for peace and justice, and addresses the personal and community relationship to Christ that is formed in the Eucharist.
These are all Protestant concerns and to see them reflected in a major papal document "is a sign of tremendous ecumenical success," she said.
In the encyclical, the pope makes the point that "The celebration of the Eucharist cannot be the starting point for communion; it presupposes that communion already exists" (n. 35). Here, in the encyclical's fourth chapter, The Eucharist and Ecclesial Communion, Pope John Paul emphasizes that to receive the Eucharist, one must already be in communion with the Catholic Church - one must be a Church member and one must be free from mortal sin.
Once such communion exists, the Eucharist can be a source for deepening the communion. But if the communion does not exist, the Eucharist cannot create it.
The pope quotes St. Augustine who said, "Whoever receives the mystery of unity without preserving the bonds of peace receives not a mystery for his benefit but evidence against himself."
So the pope's - and the Church's - stand is quite clear: There should be no intercommunion with other Christian communities that do not have a valid sacrament of Holy Orders.
The pope does not see this as a dampening of the ecumenical impulse, however. What he says is that "our brothers and sisters of different Christian confessions . . . have a right to our witness to the truth" (n. 46). Witness to the truth is the real cause of deeper unity among Christians. Diluting or ignoring the truth will hinder, not hasten, ecumenical progress.
The pope reiterates his ecumenical commitment, quoting from his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint on ecumenism: "And yet we do have a burning desire to join in celebrating the one Eucharist of the Lord, and this desire itself is already a common prayer of praise, a single supplication" (quoted in n. 44).
Still, the ban on intercommunion raises the issue of why the Church allows, in certain specific circumstances, non-Catholic Christians to receive the Eucharist. "The intention is to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer," he says (n. 45).
This doesn't really answer the question nor does the pope answer it later in the encyclical. The answer would, however, seem to be that the Eucharist is given to these people because they are, in some real sense, part of the Roman Catholic communion. Despite their membership in another Christian community, they belong to the Catholic Church. At least, this is the explanation given by British Catholic theologian Aidan Nichols.
One can understand why the pope doesn't say this - to explain this notion of anonymous Catholics would have taken some doing and, even so, would have raised the hackles of members and leaders of other Christian communities.
This issue, moreover, is a sidelight in chapter four - the main points are that unity must be based on truth and that this teaching signals a yearning for Church unity, not a brushing aside of its importance.