Reformation Reconsidered: Of Good Fences, Closed Communion and Reunification

Regardless of what our separated brethren believe about their Lord’s Supper observances, they aren’t doing the same thing we are. They can’t.

Paolo da San Leocadio, “Christ With the Host”, late 15th century
Paolo da San Leocadio, “Christ With the Host”, late 15th century (photo: Public Domain)

“O sacrament of devotion! O sign of unity! O bond of charity!”
~ St. Augustine (
CCC 1398)

As a convert from evangelical Protestantism, I look on this year’s commemorations of Luther’s revolt with mixed emotions. No doubt, the Reformation’s schismatic ethos and the ensuing splintering of ecclesial unity was an epic disaster. But, for me, the legacy of Scriptural literacy and affinity from my evangelical past that carries forward into my Catholic present has been a spiritual boon. What’s more, it’s the very thing at the heart of all ecumenical contacts between Catholics and Protestants: Along with creedal affirmations and baptism, we together venerate the Bible as a prime point of contact with our Savior. “Ignorance of Scripture,” St. Jerome wrote, “is ignorance of Christ” (CCC 133) – a Catholic axiom that every one of our Protestant brothers and sisters can wholeheartedly endorse. We might have irreconcilable differences when it comes to Mary, Purgatory and papal authority, but our common love of God’s Word ought to bring us together.

And it often does. When Catholics and Protestants can put aside their differences and lap up the milk of Scripture together, it’s always a boon – and a tremendous witness to the world of our essential, invisible unity. However, that closeness can only go so far, and one of the sticking points is the Church’s rejection of intercommunion – that is, the firm teaching of the Church that Catholics are not to receive communion at Protestant celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, and the parallel proscription against non-Catholics receiving the Eucharist at Mass. We have, as the common parlance goes, a “closed table” as opposed to what most evangelicals know as an “open table,” wherein all are invited to fully participate in communion services across denominational lines.

Certainly, by contrast, the restrictive Catholic practice in this regard strikes many (both Protestant and Catholic) as intolerant and surely an obstacle to the full reunification of the Body of Christ. Indeed, an evangelical colleague of mine made that very point after I gave a talk on Catholic ecumenism earlier this fall. “How can you call me your brother in Christ,” Dave wrote me, “if you’re unwilling to invite me to your Eucharistic table?”

Fair enough, and by way of answer, I want to relate a brief anecdote.

Long before I was received into the Church, I visited Europe on a high-school junket. We visited five countries – the classic “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” kind of tour – and got in as many “off the bus, snapshot, souvenir, on the bus again” sights as we could. We slowed down a bit in Paris for a few days, which happened to include a Sunday. That morning, a Catholic member of our group, Dawn, invited the rest of us to accompany her to Notre Dame Basilica for Mass.

I’m pretty sure it was my first exposure to the liturgy, and I had no idea what was going on. It was in French to begin with, but even in English it would’ve been totally bewildering to my liturgically naïve, evangelical teen self. The vestments were strange, as were the choreographed movements of the folks up front, not to mention the congregation’s rote responses and automatic shifts in posture.

When it came time for Holy Communion, I fell in line behind Dawn and filed forward like everybody else – why not? I didn’t know any better, and it seemed like an upscale touristy thing to do (way better than a snapshot). A young priest held up a wafer before me and said something in French, and I innocently took it from him – I didn’t want to be rude.

As I turned to go with the Eucharist in my hand, the priest glared at me with eyes wide open, and I could see that the faithful were glaring at me as well. Confused, I turned to Dawn, who started making repeated motions with her hand toward her mouth. I finally caught on and consumed the host. Later, on the way back to our lodgings, Dawn tried her best to explain my faux pas and I felt terrible. It was my first Holy Communion, but it was a far cry from anything resembling actual communion with the Lord.

Clearly it was an innocent mistake borne of what we call “invincible ignorance,” but it’s exactly the kind of egregious ecumenical gaffe that the Catholic practice of closed communion is supposed to prevent. More than that, however, it’s a practice that startles us into action because it highlights the awful structural fragmentation of the global church. “The more painful the experience of the divisions in the Church which break the common participation in the table of the Lord,” the Catechism teaches us, “the more urgent are our prayers to the Lord that the time of complete unity among all who believe in him may return” (§1398).

Contrary to Dave’s assertion, we do invite non-Catholics to our Eucharistic table – that is, we welcome anyone and everyone to come to Mass, to participate in the liturgy with us, and to pray. That’s how I ended up in that pew in Paris. Nobody checked my Catholic I.D. card at the door. Nobody quizzed me on my grasp of transubstantiation. My error wasn’t that I was at the Eucharistic table, but only that I heedlessly partook of its sacramental fruits. Here’s how the U.S. Bishops put it in their 1996 Guidelines for the Reception of Communion:

We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters…. Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion.

Of course, even that requires some qualification because we do want our Protestant friends and family to receive Holy Communion with us, but only after they’ve embraced what that shared sacrament represents: A unity of belief and practice that is preserved and promulgated in the Roman Catholic Church. For Catholics, the Eucharist is not only a sacramental encounter with Christ, but also a pledge of fidelity. When we say “amen” before consuming the consecrated host, we testify to our belief in Jesus’ Real Presence before receiving him and to our conscientious surrender to him and the whole Catholic enterprise. How can we say “amen” to anything less? And how can we, in good conscience, encourage our beloved Protestant sisters and brothers, who are not so disposed, to pledge themselves to something they don’t affirm?

In this way, our closed table is true hospitality – and a mercy according to St. Paul. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord,” he writes the Corinthians. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (I Cor. 11.27, 29). The Catholic closed table is thus the preeminent sign of our respect for the beliefs of our separated brethren, which we also affirm when we visit their churches and politely refuse their communion.

What’s more, from our perspective, Protestant communion wouldn’t truly be Communion anyway – that is, it wouldn’t be the Eucharist, it wouldn’t be the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus under the form of bread and wine. There’s no tactful way to get around this. Regardless of what our separated brethren believe about their Lord’s Supper observances, they aren’t doing the same thing we are. They can’t. Their clergy aren’t ordained to do it – they aren’t ordained, that is, to sacramentally re-present in an unbloody manner the one sacrifice of Christ on Calvary – and they don’t have valid Orders to do so in any case (cf. CCC §1400).

This sounds so mean and backward, but it’s simply the awkward truth, and pretending it could be different only stalls real efforts at reunification – particularly at the grassroots level, where true ecumenism and reunification happens. I thought of this in late October when the Reformation quincentenary was getting a lot of press and I heard NPR’s Tom Gjelten story on it. “Many issues still divide Catholics and Lutherans,” Gjelten rightly reported. “But the churches are moving closer on one core question – whether they can celebrate communion together, a goal for some future Reformation anniversary.” Maybe, but only when the entire Lutheran world comes around to a Catholic understanding of what happens at Mass, which itself would entail a massive ecclesial reorientation regarding ordination, Church authority and numerous other matters. If all that took place, we’d hardly be talking about a separate Lutheran body any more. They’d all be Catholics! 

Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” (1914) gets at the dis-ease that all this represents. Frost and a neighbor are assessing and repairing a stone barrier between their properties. When Frost hints that the barrier should be allowed to erode away, the neighbor replies, “Good fences make good neighbours.” Frost, though, balks. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” he says, something “that wants it down.” With reference to sacramental division, that something is actually a Someone – it’s Jesus himself who demanded unity among his followers, as the Bishops remind us in their Guidelines. “We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit…will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us,” they write. “We pray that these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ’s prayer for us ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17:21).”

I think back to that French priest in Paris who glared at me in the Basilica. He must’ve known that I wasn’t Catholic, and it probably pained him to see me consume our Eucharistic Savior in such an ignorant and impious manner. Maybe, in charity, he prayed for me to come to a full knowledge of Eucharistic realism and, in time, to a full communion with the Catholic Church. I like to think that, and I like to think that someday, God willing, I’ll be able to thank him in person in Paradise for his well wishes and prayers.