More off the cuff remarks by Pope Francis are lighting up discussion boards and the blogosphere. The topic du jour is the reception of communion by Lutherans and Catholics. A more detailed report by Joshua J. McElwee can be found on NCR.
Ecumenical commissions have been taking place for decades, carefully dissecting doctrines in hopes of finding common ground for issues such as inter-communion. Doctrine is what divided us, so focusing on doctrine is a necessary starting point. Doctrine can also bring dialogue to a stand still.
Despite what the critics of Francis say, our pope is no light-weight theologian. The glaring difference between our current pope and his two predecessors is that Francis consistently chooses a pastoral approach over black and white rules and regulations. His comments yesterday model how to interpret church teachings in light of the needs of women and men in the pews. He nudges us to return to the core of the Christian faith journey.
“There are explanations, interpretations,” said the pope. “Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always make reference to Baptism.”
“‘One faith, one baptism, one Lord,’ Paul tells us,” Francis continued. “From there, grab hold of the consequences.”
“I will not ever dare to give permission to do this because it is not my competence,” he said. “One Baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and go forward. I do not dare to say more.”
Francis knows he can’t simply offer a carte blanche eucharistic welcome for all Christians. Can you imagine the tangle of ecclesial lace he would face from bishops and priests who feel duty-bound to patrol their communion lines? The recent synod showed the disagreement among bishops around the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics and communion. It’s sadly ironic when the eucharist, the sacrament of unity, becomes a source of division; when doctrine trumps pastoral needs.
The key, I think, is in the words “Speak with the Lord and go forward”. The pope is acknowledging the role of individual conscience with the important caveat of discernment. An informed conscience requires the hard work of seeking deeper understanding so we can make a heartfelt assent in faith. Respecting this conscience is a sign of an adult church that treats women and men as adults, allowing for the grace of God to flow freely.
Communion is not a reward for the sinless and pure. If it was, our communion lines would be sparse indeed. Francis asks the important question,
“Is sharing the Lord’s Supper the end of a path or is it the viaticum for walking together?”