A priest theologian has questioned the Catholic veto on Eucharistic hospitality, saying that as Christians “if we talk about unity, but do not eat together, we are not being truly human”.
– Inflexibility on sharing Communion “is a question that has caused hurt to people”
Thomas O’Loughlin, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham in the UK, reflected in La Croix July 6 on the Catholic Church’s banning of Catholics from participating in Protestant Eucharists and of Protestants from taking part in Catholic ones.
O’Loughlin wrote that the Catholic Church’s insistence on doctrinal uniformity – believing what the Church believes – as a prerequisite for taking part in Communion “is a question that has caused hurt to people”.
“This Catholic no-go attitude” for non-Catholics “creates deep hurt and tension at official levels in relations between church-leaders. But it also creates tensions in mixed-denomination households every Sunday where partners want to worship together, but one or the other feels excluded”, the theologian lamented.
– New inspiration from Pope Francis
But what to do about that pain the veto on intercommunion causes to real flesh-and-blood Catholics and Protestants, not to mention the “doubt” and the “cloud” – in O’Loughlin’s words – that the doctrinal uniformity prerequisite casts over ecumenical progress?
The theologian had two ideas.
The first, to remember that all doctrine – liturgical doctrine included – is not like “the laws of physics” – axiomatic and immutable – but instead “changing and developing with our human situation”, just like the rest of Creation.
The second – related – point the theologian made was the new impetus Pope Francis gave to the possibility of Eucharistic hospitality in a 2015 visit to the Lutheran parish in Rome, where the pontiff wondered out loud: “Is sharing the Lord’s Supper the end of a journey or is it the viaticum for walking together?”
On that occasion, the Pope threw down the gauntlet to theologians to evaluate the merits of his argument that “if we have the same Baptism, we have to walk together” with common food for the journey, and that life – the Eucharist included – “is greater than explanations and interpretations”.
That papal challenge is exactly what O’Loughlin has taken up in his latest book Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians, and in La Croix he gave a taste of his arguments there.
The theologian began with the conviction that “we humans do not simply eat together; we also share meals. Meal-sharing is distinctively human; and this sharing has an inherent structure”.
“This has implications for the Eucharist because, to say the least, its form is a meal. Can you be present and I refuse to share the food with you? To do so makes my own act contradictory: I act in a non-human way”, O’Loughlin continued.
He asked: “Could such behavior ever be worthy towards anyone, much less someone whom because of baptism I already am willing to address as “sister” or “brother”? Family meals must promote reconciliation by sharing or they are dishonest – and, as such, they are unworthy of worship”.
O’Loughlin concluded his reflection with a call to fix the “ulcer of division” Christians experience especially around the altar, and that much by “re-imagining the meal Jesus bids his followers to share in his memory”.
A big part of that re-imagining must involve rethinking the notion that the deposit of all doctrine – not just the liturgical – “is a fixed body of ideas”, the theologian affirmed, describing the illusion of doctrinal immutability as “a real threat to the proclamation of the gospel”.
After all, O’Loughlin said, “at the heart of the gospel is the news that God has done something new in Jesus of Nazareth”, and perhaps thinking more on that fact can inspire the Catholic Church to rethink its Eucharistic practice.