Church leaders express disappointment with papal encyclical on Eucharist

April 30, 2003

Church leaders and ecumenists around the world are expressing various degrees of dismay and disappointment over an April 17 papal encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church of the Eucharist) that offers no hope of sharing the sacrament with other Christians in the near future.

Saying that he hoped to rekindle the 'amazement' of Roman Catholics with the 'real presence' of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, Pope John Paul II made it clear that members of other churches were not welcome to communion in the Roman Catholic Church, nor were Roman Catholics free to take communion outside their own church, except in highly unusual situations.

The encyclical, an authoritative explanation or teaching on important church doctrine, also reminded church members that divorced Roman Catholics who remarry may not receive communion. In the encyclical the pope did, however, restate a 'burning desire' to join other Christians in celebrating the Eucharist, and paid tribute to 'significant progress and convergence' in ecumenism.

Still, the Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), in a statement issued in Geneva, regretted that 'many years of ecumenical dialogue' had not resulted in a new stance by the Vatican on the issue of the Eucharist. Roman Catholics, 'while respecting the religious convictions of these separated brethren, must refrain from receiving the communion distributed at their celebrations,' according to the encyclical.

Some leaders of the Lutheran federation hoped more progress would have been made on this issue after the LWF and the Roman Catholic Church signed, in 1999, a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification, one of the most divisive issues at the time of the Reformation.

Many Protestants see inter-communion as a means of fostering the ultimate unity of the church. Traditional Roman Catholic teaching, however, holds that the sharing of the Eucharist is something that is appropriate once Christian unity has been reestablished, a view affirmed by the pope.

Pain or joy?

'It is clear that for some the encyclical's reiteration of our still existing disunity will give pain. Some have hoped that as we have been able to articulate greater unity in our understanding of the apostolic faith it would be possible for greater openness in sharing of the Eucharist among the Christian communities,' said Dr. Ann Riggs, director of the NCC's Faith and Order Commission, in a reflection on the NCC web site(

'For some it will give pain as the Pope reiterates here that for the Catholic Church Eucharistic openness, beyond the needs of specific individuals in particular cases of urgent need and under specific conditions, there are limits which cannot be transgressed and from which it is not possible to give dispensation,' Riggs wrote.

She added, 'In reading this Paschal message, in the ecumenical community we can choose to be discouraged by how long the path is before us. Or we can join with Pope John Paul as he reiterates his own reflections from Ut unum sint: 'And yet we do have a burning desire to join in celebrating the one Eucharist of the Lord, and this desire itself is already a common prayer of praise, a single supplication. Together we speak to the Father and increasingly we so ‘with one heart.''

'I must say I fail to see how Ecclesia de Eucharistia takes notice of the enormous progress made by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) or our Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue here in the United States (ARC-USA),' said Bishop Christopher Epting, the Episcopal Church's deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations. 'That is particularly disappointing, given all the years of work by these bodies since the Second Vatican Council. '

More theological work

In London, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said, 'I welcome the affirmation of the Eucharist as a place of God's presence and action and also welcome the Pope's reaffirmation of his 'burning desire' for common Eucharistic celebration. This is an area of work which continues to be important for relations between Anglicans and Roman Catholics and we continue to work theologically on this together.'

A somewhat hopeful statement from the Anglican Communion Office (ACO) in London said that the pope 'has chosen an appropriate moment to draw the attention of all Christians to the central place of the Eucharist in the life of the Christian faithful, and eloquently expressed afresh the Roman Catholic understanding of this Sacrament. He speaks of his personal experience of the celebration of this Sacrament as a way of introducing a theological exploration of its importance in the life of the Church, and of the boundaries of its proper celebration, which include a restatement of the existing limitations on Eucharistic sharing as defined by the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church.'

The statement, signed by the Rev. Gregory Cameron, ACO director of Ecumenical Affairs, said that 'we very much hope that this encyclical will be adopted for study by the instruments of dialogue set up mutually by the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church--namely, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), and the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and

Mission (IARCCUM). From this study, we will hope to understand more fully the way in which the ecumenical commitment expressed in this encyclical, and by both our churches, may be carried forward to the point where a fuller eucharistic sharing may be initiated between Roman Catholics and Anglicans.'

Tangible evidence needed

Prof. J. Robert Wright of the General Theological Seminary in New York, a veteran participant in the official dialogues with Roman Catholics for many years, said in an interview that he was 'delighted to notice that the pope still has a burning desire for communion with the separated Christians in separated churches but I look forward to seeing tangible evidence of the additional leadership that he will give in seeking that goal.'

Wright said that it was 'significant that the pope has issued this particular encyclical at this point in the ecumenical movement when, in so many ways, the Roman Catholic ecumenical dialogue with other churches is not proceeding with much speed.' He said that the encyclical might even 'accelerate that dialogue among leaders of his church who are obliged to follow his lead, no matter what their personal feelings may be.' He hopes that the pope's commitment would 'translate into a fire among those who are leaders in Roman Catholic ecumenism in his name.'

Yet Wright said that he fears that 'the prohibitions in encyclical will simply reinforce the impression that this particular pope has nothing new to contribute to the momentum for church unity across the spectrum of the churches…If anything it could dampen even the hopes of those in his own church who have worked so hard for this. Unfortunately in text the burning desire is dampened if not almost extinguished in the restrictions he places on that desire, with regard to his own church and other churches with regard to communion.'

The Rev. Finlay Macdonald, moderator of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, said that the pope 'is simply reinforcing the traditional view that those who do not accept Catholic teaching should not receive the mass. In this sense he is not saying anything new.'