Eucharistic Sharing: Revising the Question

By Vanderwilt, Jeffrey | Theological Studies, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Eucharistic Sharing: Revising the Question


Vanderwilt, Jeffrey, Theological Studies


UNITED STATES PRESIDENT Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, received Holy Communion in the township of Soweto, outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 29, 1998, during Sunday Mass celebrated at Regina Mundi Roman Catholic Church. As Clinton spoke to local residents, he referred to the building as "this great shrine of freedom" since it had been a center for resistance to apartheid during the previous decades of struggle. (1)

When asked why he permitted Clinton to receive Communion, the parish priest, Fr. Mohlomi Makobane, replied: "You can't quiz the president of the United States before the Mass whether he believes in Catholic doctrine, and you can't send him back to his pew when he comes up to receive Communion." The view of the South African Catholic Bishops (prior to Vatican intervention) was that non-Catholics normally would not receive, "but a special circumstance can be said to exist on occasions when Christians from other churches attend a Eucharistic celebration for a special feast or event." (2)

The international reaction prompted frequent NPR and ABC political correspondent, Cokie Roberts and her husband, to remark: "You know the world's gone crazy when Bill Clinton gets in trouble for going to Holy Communion." (3)

In my brief note on eucharistic sharing, I have three goals: to articulate the current norms, to discuss three of the more important theological problems associated with these norms, and to present four modest proposals to revise the question.

THE CURRENT NORMS

For every Christian Church, the norms for eucharistic sharing express multiple values that churches must uphold. For Protestant Christians, these values include hospitality, unity by stages, and recognition that the Eucharist is Christ's and not our own. For Catholics, these values include unity, apostolic succession in ministry, validity, and the recognition of pastoral necessity. For Orthodox and other Eastern Christians, these values include communion, economy, and the reconciliation of schism. (4)

General Principles of Interpretation

Canonist John Huels has explicated the purpose of disciplinary norms for the administration sacraments. In the first place, he states, the purpose of the law is not to injure, wound, or embarrass the men and women who approach the sacraments in good faith and are doing so in accord with the dictates of conscience. In the second place, the purpose of the law aims to protect the fundamental structures of the sacraments and to promote the possibility of communion among Christians by upholding good order among us. (5)

Unitatis redintegratio

Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis redintegratio spoke of communicatio in sacris in reference to eucharistic sharing and other acts of shared worship. The council's concern was to open the possibility of shared worship which until that time had been prohibited to Roman Catholics. The bishops commended communicatio in sacris but warned against an indiscriminate (indiscretim) use of the practice. (6) To say that communicatio in sacris is "not to be used indiscriminately" is not to say that it should "not be used at all." According to John Huels, the decree amounts to saying: "Don't use the Eucharist as an ecumenical tool." (7) Additionally, to say that communicatio in sacris provides now divided Christians with a modest sharing in the means of grace is not to say that we should only one-sidedly share in the means of grace. Sharing the sacraments must flow in both directions from Catholic to non-Catholic and vice versa. Finally, communicatio in sacris does not mean we should be miserly and share mere morsels of the means of grace. Sharing in sacramental life must always reflect the abundance of God's mercy.

Canon 844

The present, controlling norms for eucharistic sharing are set out in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 844. …

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