In 1999, as a senior in a public high school abiding within the buckle of the Bible Belt, I attended my local parish’s Catholic-Lutheran celebration of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” In the context of common prayer, the clergy signed a copy of this document, in which Catholics and Lutherans articulated “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ” (No. 5). One of the theological bugaboos of the Reformation was no longer an insurmountable obstacle to the unity of the church.
Recently, the two religious bodies have once again released a highly significant document, “From Conflict to Communion,” this time discussing how Lutherans and Catholics might commonly commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Pope Francis has also announced that he will attend an ecumenical gathering to remember the Reformation in Sweden on Oct. 31, 2016, the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. To those with even a basic grasp of Reformation history, attendance by a Roman Catholic pope (once depicted in Lutheran Bibles as the Whore of Babylon) at an event connected with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s protest against ecclesiastical corruption is certainly notable.
This is not the first unanticipated ecumenical moment in the pope’s recent biography. At the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rome, a woman asked the pope about the sorrow that she experienced because she could not receive the Eucharist with her Roman Catholic husband. Pope Francis’ response was that of a pastor, observing that among Lutherans and Catholics there is first and foremost a mutual baptismal identity. And between husband and wife there is a sharing in the sacramental life of marriage such that the graces enjoyed by husband and wife alike in their religious traditions overflow into family dynamics. Pope Francis then addressed the question of eucharistic presence, seemingly advising (although careful to note that he had no competence to change doctrine or discipline in this regard) the woman to look into her conscience and determine whether she saw Christ really present in the eucharistic species. From there, the Holy Father said that he would say no more.
One of the gifts of Pope Francis’ pastoral interviews is that he is genuinely answering the questions of those before him. But in this case there is a possibility for confusion that requires some theological assessment. Is the pope really saying that there are no restrictions on eucharistic intercommunion as long as one believes in the real presence?
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