Still `sham' if Catholics take Eucharist outside own church

There can be little doubt but that the One Bread One Body document issued by the Bishops' Conferences of these islands yesterday…

There can be little doubt but that the One Bread One Body document issued by the Bishops' Conferences of these islands yesterday will anger many people, and not just members of the Protestant churches.

Whereas it gives a clear and simple exposition of the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and its central significance for members of the church, and allowing for what Father Lane yesterday described as the "breaking new ground" elements, it is in the main nothing more than a restatement of the rather legalistic traditional Vatican position.

That can be summarised simply. Catholics should never take Communion in a Protestant church, and Protestants (including Anglicans) should never receive Communion in the Catholic Church except in case of death or of "grave and pressing need".

There is much talk of pain and brokenness in the document. There is extensive reference to documents from such inter-denominational bodies as the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) and the Anglican-Methodist International Commission (as well as various Vatican documents since and including the Council of Trent). The bishops even express repentance and ask forgiveness for any responsibility they may have "for the continued dividedness of Christ's disciples in our countries", and say they recognise their "failures in love and compassion, in the search for truth and justice". But despite all this they barely budge towards a more generous interpretation of the theology of the Eucharist. It is well dressed but much the same.


Such a generous theology exists, and within the Catholic Church. For instance writing in this newspaper last January the theologian Father Gabriel Daly said "when Catholics approach the altar in their own church today they might do well to reflect that though they may share a common faith, they almost certainly do not share a common theology".

And on the claim that eucharistic sharing should take place only when church unity has been achieved, he said he couldn't help but reflect that "it is rather like telling sick people that they can have their medicine only after they have recovered their health". That essentially however remains the position of the Catholic bishops in these islands, allowing for those exceptional "unique occasions".

Father Daly is just one of an increasing number of theologians within the Catholic Church who express dissatisfaction with the Vatican's position on the Eucharist.

But outside the realms of theology, in the world most of us occupy, there is probably an even greater impatience with the church on this issue. It is becoming every bit as much a threat to its authority as Humanae Vitae proved. More and more Catholics, lay and clerical, are going their own way, satisfied in conscience that it is right and proper to take Communion with their fellow Christians at Protestant church services. Just recently at the ordination of Rev Lynda Peilow in Christ Church Cathedral, a Catholic priest in attendance took Communion before a packed congregation.

In doing so, however, he and such Catholics are still indulging in "a sham", to quote a memorable phrase. Following the publication of yesterday's document it would still be "a sham" for the President, Mrs McAleese, to take Communion at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. As it would also be for the former US ambassador, Ms Jean Kennedy Smith, to do so.

It would still not be permissible for a Presbyterian such as Mr David Trimble to receive Communion at Mass were he so inclined, as he might have been at the funeral Mass for Omagh bomb victims in Buncrana.

More tragically perhaps, in terms of the powerful message it would send, it would not be permissible for the President and Northern Ireland's First Minister to take Communion together in say, St Anne's Church of Ireland Cathedral in Belfast, as they could.

Mrs McAleese, it seems, would have no problem in conscience in doing so, (having taken Communion at Christ Church on December 7th last), while both she and Mr Trimble would be welcome under the terms of the "open table" approach to Communion of the Protestant churches. But, as a Catholic, Mrs McAleese should "remain faithful to the discipline of our church", the bishops say in the One Bread One Body document.

And the British Prime Minister, Mr Blair must continue to desist from receiving Communion at Mass along with his Catholic wife, unless he is in Tuscany. At the document launch in London yesterday Cardinal Hume said it was permissible for Mr Blair to receive Communion at a Catholic Church while on holiday in Italy as there was no Anglican church nearby. His doing so in the circumstances complied with Canon Law 844, the cardinal said.

But surely we, the people of these islands, had a right to expect a more ecumenical document on this divisive issue, considering what have been the shocking consequences of division in the churches for all of us. At a time when the politicians in these islands have made superhuman efforts to understand and overcome the bitter divisions of our people, so frequently underscored by religion, surely we have a right to demand that our churches work with greater urgency towards overcoming their differences.

The irony indeed is that these same politicians have been urged for years to get around a table and work out an agreement by the very churchmen who themselves have made comparatively little attempt to advance their own situation.

Yes we have had reports from various commissions and directories but while the climate between the churches has improved the reality on the ground is hardly adequate.

And while all churches bear some responsibility for the continuing divisions, the Catholic Church's problem with Anglican Orders has been allowed to become a major obstacle.

It is not enough for the Catholic bishops to say "we are very much aware that this is a sensitive question, and one which can be a source of hurt to ministers in other communities with whom we seek to work as friends in the name of Christ", and more or less leave it at that. It is not enough to admit "we know only too well that the Catholic Church's understanding of itself and our convictions about who may and may not be admitted to Holy Communion can and do cause distress both to other Christians and to some Catholics". And to continue that "it is not, however, the church's norms on sacramental sharing which cause division: these norms are simply a reflection and consequence of the painful division already present because of our Christian disunity". If the Catholic Church's norms are not the cause of division on the matter of Communion, what is? The other denominations all have an "open table" policy whereby all Christians are welcome to receive, after all.

And is it not at the very least insensitive by implication to the Protestant churches to say it is permissible in circumstances for Catholics to receive Communion etc. in Eastern Churches as they "possess true sacraments".

Whereas One Body One Bread is a lucid exposition of the Catholic understanding of Eucharist, it is in many ways a regrettable document. It may have been published in response to a request that national bishops' conferences do so, in the Vatican Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 1993, but it is difficult to see how it will advance relations between our churches one whit. Indeed the opposite is more likely. Better were it not published at all and leave well enough alone.