Fr. Richard McBrien has an article at the National Catholic Reporter on the subject of ecumenism. His desire for Christian unity is admirable. He is right that we should feel a sense of urgency for healing the open wound in the Body of Christ that is marked by the division among Christians. However, the remedy he advocates for healing this wound would not heal it, but, rather, infect it.
Fr. McBrien calls for “intercommunion” or “eucharistic sharing.” He writes:
If anything could bring us out of our collective lethargy, I suggested in the column of 40 years ago, it would be the experience of intercommunion, or eucharistic sharing. Once we begin celebrating the sacraments together, especially the Eucharist, Christians would see that the ecumenical movement “means more than friendly handshakes and occasional joint prayer services.”
The problem is, in general, we cannot celebrate the sacraments together because we do not mean the same thing by those sacraments. This would not lead to unity, because unity cannot be based on a lie, and we would by lying by our actions. We would be expressing a unity that is not reflected by reality.
Fr. McBrien goes on to assert that Catholics have overemphasized the unitive aspect of the Eucharist:
But Catholics have tended to take a more one-sided view of St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology of the Eucharist and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the subject.
Catholics traditionally stress that the Eucharist is a sign of unity, and as such intercommunion, or eucharistic sharing, is prohibited. But the Eucharist, as both Aquinas and Vatican II insisted, is also a means of grace -- the grace of unity.
However, the unitive nature of the Eucharist is a much more ancient tradition than Vatican II or Aquinas. In his Letter to the Philadelphians (ca. 110), St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote shortly before his martyrdom:
Make certain, therefore, that you all observe one common Eucharist; for there is but one body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with his blood, and one single altar of sacrifice—even as there is also but one bishop, with his clergy and my own fellow servitors, the deacons. This will ensure that all your doings are in full accord with the will of God. (4)
Since we have been talking about St. Cyprian of Carthage recently, let’s look at his thoughts on the subject. In his work, The Unity of the Catholic Church (ca. 249-258), St. Cyprian wrote:
So too the sacred meaning of the Pasch lies essentially in the fact, laid down in Exodus, that the lamb - slain as a type of Christ - should be eaten in one single home. God says the words: 'In one house shall it be eaten, ye shall not cast its flesh outside.' The flesh of Christ and the Lord's sacred body cannot be cast outside, nor have believers any other home but the one Church. (Chapter 8)
Fr. McBrien invokes Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) as a basis for “shared eucharist”:
The council implicitly laid the foundation for intercommunion, even if it did not openly endorse it, when it declared that common eucharistic worship “should provide a sharing in the means of grace.”
“The fact that (the Eucharist) should signify unity generally rules out common worship. Yet the gaining of a needed grace sometimes commends it” (Decree on Ecumenism, n. 8).
However, it is important to look closely at what the document says and why it says it. Here is a larger selection from the passage which Fr. McBrien quotes (from the translation at the Vatican website):
Yet worship in common (communicatio in sacris) is not to be considered as a means to be used indiscriminately for the restoration of Christian unity. There are two main principles governing the practice of such common worship: first, the bearing witness to the unity of the Church, and second, the sharing in the means of grace. Witness to the unity of the Church very generally forbids common worship to Christians, but the grace to be had from it sometimes commends this practice. The course to be adopted, with due regard to all the circumstances of time, place, and persons, is to be decided by local episcopal authority, unless otherwise provided for by the Bishops' Conference according to its statutes, or by the Holy See.
Fr. McBride indicates that the Council “implicitly laid the foundation for intercommunion, even if it did not openly endorse it,” as if there was some sort of covert agenda toward intercommunion. However, the text of the document does not bear out his assertion. Because the Eucharist is such a strong signifier of the unity of the Body of Christ and his Church, faithfulness to that witness “very generally forbids” intercommunion. However, there are selected times when grace commends this practice, and later in the document the Council explained those particular circumstances.
The document uses the terms “churches” and “ecclesial communities.” Churches, such as the Eastern Orthodox churches, have the sacraments in their fullest:
These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments and above all, by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy. Therefore some worship in common (communicatio in sacris), given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not only possible but to be encouraged. (15)
Because of their continuous link through apostolic succession, which gives them a valid priesthood and a valid Eucharist, it is possible to have common worship with these churches.
However, ecclesial communities lack one or more of the sacraments, do not have apostolic succession, and therefore, do not, from a Catholic perspective, have a valid priesthood or Eucharist. This section is particularly important:
Though the ecclesial Communities which are separated from us lack the fullness of unity with us flowing from Baptism, and though we believe they have not retained the proper reality of the eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Orders, nevertheless when they commemorate His death and resurrection in the Lord's Supper, they profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and look forward to His coming in glory. Therefore the teaching concerning the Lord's Supper, the other sacraments, worship, the ministry of the Church, must be the subject of the dialogue.
Because we have different understandings of the fundamental doctrines listed above, the first mentioned of which is the Lord’s Supper, we need to begin with dialogue on the Eucharist, not with intercommunion. However, it is the desire of our separated brothers and sisters to commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection in the Lord’s Supper that is a good starting point for that dialogue.
These distinctions between churches and ecclesial communities were reiterated in Dominus Iesus, which Pope Benedict XVI, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, promulgated in 2000.
Fr. McBride laments the current state of ecumenical affairs, but there is actually much activity in this field. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who recently passed away, was a Lutheran pastor who worked very hard for unification of Lutherans and Catholics before and after he later became a Catholic priest. He also worked very closely with Evangelicals such as Charles Colson in the initiative, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Anglicans and Catholics have increasingly opened jointly operated schools in the United Kingdom. A Dominican priest, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, wrote a book on the Eucharist for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lenten series.
Toward the end of his article, Fr. McBrien writes:
Whether we like it or not, intercommunion has been happening on a regular basis at Sunday Masses and in the liturgies of other Christian churches, and particularly at weddings and funerals.
The incidents of such unofficial and essentially private forms of eucharistic sharing have become so common in fact that in some Catholic churches, and especially on public occasions when the bishop is present, priests feel compelled to remind the non-Catholics in the congregation that they are not to come forward for Holy Communion.
Comparable warnings are not given in Protestant and Episcopal churches. On the contrary, their tendency is to welcome all baptized Christians to the reception of Communion.
Fr. McBrien seems to conceive of the Church’s view of the Eucharist as a game of cosmic “keep away” – the children’s game where two children toss a ball (or some other desired object) over the head of a third child who is being mercilessly taunted. However, this is not the case.
But let us take Fr. McBrien’s admiration of grass-roots efforts at intercommunion and eucharist sharing seriously. Let us do so by people of different faiths going for Eucharistic adoration before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. Let us show our separated brothers and sisters the grace to be received from “spiritual communion” where, physically distant from Christ in the Eucharist, we ask him to come into our hearts.
If we do these things, then we will live out Christ’s call to unity and fulfill the goals of the Decree on Ecumenism, which says that our common baptism “envisages a complete profession of faith, complete incorporation in the system of salvation such as Christ willed it to be, and finally complete ingrafting in eucharistic communion” (22). But for now, we can only envisage that future ingrafting.