Non-Catholics at the table: now or never?

Non-Catholics at the table: now or never? Thomas O’Loughlin This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in The Tablet on 21July 2018 under the title: Eucharistic Hospitality: Don’ t deny the promise of future glory.


Lady van Aefferden wished, not unnaturally, to be buried beside her late husband, Colonel van Gorkum, who had died in 1880, but law and fear of scandal prevented it. She was a Catholic and could not be buried in the Protestant section of the cemetery in the Dutch town of Roermond were he had been interred; she could only await the resurrection alongside fellow Catholics.

So before she died she made it clear that she did not want to be buried in her family’s tomb; instead she chose a burial plot in the Catholic section of the cemetery as close to her husband’s grave as possible. The result is a most unusual pair of tombstones. Set back to back, they clasp hands in stone over the wall that divided the Protestant graves and the Catholic graves.

The monument cocked a snook at the bitter divisions of the time, and made a mute but powerful statement that reality is richer and more complex than legally-defined borders and categories, and, given that it’s a grave marker, asserted that Christian divisions are a legacy of past blunders rather than something with eschatological reality.

I was reminded of these linked tombstones when I heard the latest round, this time from Germany, in the search for an answer to the question ‘can a non-Catholic share in the table at a Catholic Eucharist?’

I use the form ‘share in the table’ because the more common ‘take communion’ or ‘receive communion’ itself employs the category of the Eucharist as a sacred commodity that Vatican II sought to move beyond in declaring that the Eucharist ‘is an action of Christ himself and the church’ (Canon 899,1).

The German bishops used the phrase that ‘Eucharistic communion and church fellowship belong together’ and so could not see any way towards an open invitation. They then fell back on a legal framework of ‘grave spiritual need,’ one-off ‘admittance’ using the ‘internal forum’ and leaving it to the discretion of individual bishops.

It is all so reminiscent of the debates following One Bread One Body in 1998. Apart from the fact that few except canonists understand all the ins-and-outs of these ‘solutions,’ the whole approach leaves many just feeling tired. Some do enjoy using the issue as a political football between liberal and conservative wings of the church; alas, whenever the Eucharist is thus used, as it has often been, it is the faith of the whole People of God that suffers.

Others, remembering that once you start debating what ‘grave’ means, know that it is no answer at all. Meanwhile those outside Catholicism are often scandalised either by the notion that anyone should act so proprietarily about the table at which all are guests or by the casuistic approach to a mystery. I well remember the Anglican who was shocked at the logic chopping when told she could not receive in her husband’s parish on a Sunday but that she could when holidaying in Spain provided she was ‘morally certain’ she could not find an Anglican celebration!

This exasperation could be heard in the voice of the Lutheran woman who asked the Pope in 2015 if there could be movement on sharing the Lord’s Supper? The Pope’s reply was to ask himself: ‘“Is sharing the Lord’s Supper the end of a journey or is it the viaticum for walking together?” I leave the question to the theologians, to those who understand.’

This is significant in two respects. First, the logic of One Bread One Body and some more recent statements is, in effect, eschatological: only when we have perfect communion can we have sacramental sharing – but that such fellowship belongs to the same moment on the future horizon when sacraments cease. The pope’s mention of viaticum and then of a common baptism takes the opposite tack.

Second, the widespread opinion that this was a question closed for theological discussion is not one shared by Pope Francis: he explicitly invites new studies of the issue. So what new approaches could be considered?

New Approach 1: Sisters / Brothers in the Spirit We humans continuously form fictive families. We speak of human fraternity; being welcomed as one of the family; any nation that speaks of fraternity and equality views itself as a notional family; while a great leader is ‘the mother’ or ‘father of the nation.’ The language of ‘family’ is often the highest value rhetoric that groupings, large and small, wish to apply to themselves. A monastery is an outstanding case of the fictive family theme with the abbess/abbot (from abba = father) and the sisters / brothers.

But even these fictive families at the heart of our tradition are but reflections of the fictive family that is the liturgy. There we join as brothers and sisters, act as a family, and are commanded to engage in eucharistic activity as a family: Orate fratres. The liturgy-performing family is, to outsiders, simply a ritual manifestation of an anthropological phenomenon.

But to us, it is the work of the Spirit who transforms us from being a random collection of individuals with shared ideas into a single family who, as sisters and brothers, cry out ‘Abba, Father’ (cf. Gal 4:6). Our family ties are not merely some legal consequence of our common baptism, but the creating work of the Spirit, there and then, when we actually gather. The transforming Spirit is active in our gatherings, each and every one of them, linking us to every other member of the gathering and empowering our worship.

If the Spirit has made each of us, all baptised, into sisters and brothers, is it appropriate that we would exclude any member of the Spirit-formed family from full participation in the very activity for which the Spirit has transformed us?

New Approach 2: The Grammar of Meals There are some things in life we cannot change; and facing this fact – dull as it seems – is, for me, part of being an adult. I must have nourishment and hydration, or I die. But nourishment involves my acting in society: only through human teamwork can we eat. Robinson Crusoe, the ideal individualist, is a great story, but entirely fanciful. Just as we work together to gather food, so we collaborate to cook it. If you live alone in a bed-sit there is still the network that made the cooker and generated the electricity!

The fact is that humans do not simply eat together, we share meals. Indeed, it is this meal-sharing that is distinctively human. We may act in pacts as hunter – gatherers, but we eat as meal sharers with a culture. Moreover, there is an inherent structure to this sharing which we can label ‘the grammar of meals.’

Even in the most elaborate meal with imposed conventions, there are basic codes that are common human property – and when they are transgressed we both know it and know that there is something wrong. A simple example is that we place common food mid-way between the sharers, we stretch the food so that all get a share and have conventions about guests such as ‘family hold back.’

This has implications for liturgy because the Eucharist has, to say the least, the form of a meal, and so the grammar of meals applies. Can I allow you to be present at our meal and then refuse to share the food with you? Can you be at the table and not be offered food to eat and a cup to drink? If you are at the table and refuse my offer, I will be offended and wonder why you are there at all. Likewise, if you are there and express a willingness to eat, then can I be a human host of the divine banquet and respond with what would be brutish behaviour anywhere else?

Because we confess that we can be elbow to elbow with the Lord around his eucharistic table, we have to accept that the grammar of meals applies there.

New Approach 3: … on earth, as it is in heaven … Each day we pray, in the present tense, that the Father’s ‘will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’ Moreover, we see any expression of this will being an anticipation of the End. Constituted as a community of memory, Christianity is unremittingly futurefocused. What we pray for now is that which we shall enjoy in its fullness in heaven. Moreover, we instantiate this in the Eucharist when refer to it as ‘the promise / taster of future glory.’

We normally think of this relationship in terms of the present leading to the future, but in liturgy – as the sacramental presence of the future now – the future also determines the present. Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all share the one loaf (1 Cor 10:17)

So, will non-Catholic Christians have a full share in the heavenly banquet? If you answer ‘no’; then that solves the problem: they should be excluded now. If you reply kerygma); then it is that heavenly table which we should be imitating next Sunday.

Moreover, such an approach would enhance our mission showing that the Good News creates a space of gracious welcome. It would remind us that in the liturgy we perform the unified world we want to see; we do not simply reinforce the fractured world we have inherited.

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  1. Chris McDonnell says:

    The witness to ecumenism of Br. Roger of Taize, whose anniversary is on August 16th, will remain a lasting tribute to his life.

    Although never formally received into the Roman Catholic Church, he frequently attended Mass at Taize, receiving the Eucharist alongside others. He did on occasion receive from both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

    Maybe there is a simple lesson for all of us to learn, that the Christ of the Eucharist is not defined by the label of who we are but of what we need, sustenance for our journey.

  2. Dr. Aaron Milavec says:

    Dear Tom and Chris,

    Very much like your opening story of Lady van Aefferden.

    To this I would want to recall for Chris the decision reached at Taize by the monks and by the bishop of the diocese: When the Sunday Eucharist is presided over by a Catholic priest, then all those who have made the week-long retreat together (sharing their prayers, their struggles, their lives) should be invited to take communion at the same table together irrespective of their denominational adherence. “It would be unnatural and counterproductive to celebrate the final Eucharist as a divisive experience.”

    Consider also how the ecumenical agreements drafted in the 80s made provisions for the Orthodox and some Protestants as well to regularly take Communion within a Catholic Eucharist when access to their own denomination services was not readily available.

    And how about Christmas and Easter celebrations at my home church in Cincinnati when visitors swelled the crowds and filled the aisles? Our pastor never hesitated to give Communion to any and every visitor who approached the altar, knowing full well that many were Protestants. When I asked him about this, he quoted 2 Tim 2:19: “God knows [even when I do not] those who belong to him.” Neat!

    However when the rite of matrimony was revised after Vatican II, no provisions were made for allowing both spouses in the case of a mixed-marriage to take Communion together. At Taize, however, they would admittedly have the right to do so. At a church I visited in Paris, they would do the same.

    I know one mixed marriage where the Catholic spouse takes his “food for the journey” from the priest and shares it with his spouse who remains behind waiting for him in the pew. He does this quite openly. Not in a spirit of defiance, but with the dignified certainty that “anyone who loves me must also love my spouse.”

    Prior to the Last Supper, Jesus says, “I have longed to celebrate this Passover with you.” This alerts us to the fact that, even at this point, Jesus was still thinking and acting as a faithful Jew. Since he doesn’t dismiss the women, this alerts us to the fact that the women named in the Gospels that travelled with the men down to Jerusalem were surely also present. When Jesus declares, “one of you will betray me,” this alerts us to the fact that, when Jesus presides, even grave sinners like Judas are not singled out and excluded in advance.

    Jews in Galilee had no secular meals as we have today; hence, Jesus’ practice of blessing and breaking bread was a routine practice in all his meals. Jesus was no Padre Pio who recited his prayers in a low voice with a profound reverence. Nor did Jesus dazzle his disciples with his melodious liturgical chants. Rather, Jesus was singularly remembered because he dared to eat “with tax collectors and prostitutes.” Note that biblical purists have tried to clean up Jesus’ reputation by surmising that these were FORMER tax collectors and FORMER prostitutes. Mark Twain famously said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

    Hands down, Matthew’s Gospel came from a community that had a purist and exclusivist agenda. Matthew 15 artfully presents Jesus as enforcing this agenda when he refuses to make room for the needs of a Canannite woman who knelt before him repeatedly begging, “Lord, help me!” Jesus is not pleased! He begins by giving her the silent treatment. Then when his own disciples plead with him to get rid of her by helping her, Jesus explains to them why he cannot: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt 15:24, 10:1-4). But this woman does not give up, and Jesus roundly humiliates her by saying,“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” The “children’s bread” here is a Jewish coded reference to God feeding his chosen people with Torah come down from heaven, and “the dogs” is a coded reference to the despised Gentiles.

    The woman is amazing. She knows how to decode Jesus’ message to her. She does not try to refute Jesus. Rather, she surprises everyone by accepting Jesus’ judgment that she is a worthless “bitch” who has no right to sit at the final banquet with the children of God. Thus she says, “Yes, Lord, [I agree with you] but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” When Jesus marvels at “her faith” and heals her daughter, this is proof positive that Jesus has just changed his mind and changed his message. Thus, those who follow in his footsteps will henceforth have to amend their exclusivist agenda just as Jesus did.

    So, Tom, your story of Lady van Aefferden artfully demonstrates how a determined woman could manage to bend the rules and get to “sleep” next to the man she loves while awaiting the resurrection. The purists and the exclusivists did not get “the last word.” And this part of your message pleases me and, I would dare to say, it surely pleases Jesus as well.

    In a field hospital, innocent bystanders are treated for their wounds no matter what faith they profess or what profession they practice. Someone embracing a “field hospital” mentality might include a female Muslim [or a gay couple] in his Holy Thursday foot washing rites. Why so? As a sign and symbol for himself and for his flock that God’s grace cannot be neatly restricted within our most precious purity codes.

    Hence, I am not impressed by the harsh rhetoric of Cardinals Burke and Pell when they adamantantly insist that Pope Francis must “toe the line” and absolutely exclude ALL the divorced and remarried from receiving Communion just as did JPII. And I detest those bishops who want to exclude all LGBTQ Catholics along with their supporters from eating at the Table of the Lord. I want to challenge these same cardinals and bishops to at least be ethically consistent by announcing a Communion ban upon all Catholics who harbor evil thoughts and promote evil deeds against gays and lesbians.

    As for myself, I want to throw in my lot with Jesus. I want to sit and eat with him among the prostitutes and tax collectors. In the end, Jesus’ table fellowship teaches me that the Catholic purists and exclusivists do not get to determine who gets fed by God. As long as Jesus is alive and well in my Eucharistic gatherings, they will never get the last word.

    So I take the unnamed Canaanite woman and Lady van Aefferden as my “patron saints.” I gather that you, Tom, might be inclined to do the same. . . .

    Fraternally, Aaron

  3. Mary Wood says:

    I find it troubling that Catholic articles on sharing Holy Communion never think in terms of intercommunion – they do not consider the possibility of receiving the sacrament in a a church of a different denomination. I am not referring to the Orthodox churches, but the Anglicans and “free churches” in our own towns. They are usually very ready to welcome and share their Eucharist with”all who love the Lord Jesus.”

    These fellow Christians are not accepted as being “in communion” with the Church of Rome. So, what are they doing in their services of Holy Communion? Nothing? Really? Have you ever attended one? How dare we say their rite is merely symbolic?

    And what is Holy Communion anyway? Surely, in essence, it is sharing, being incorporated into the Life of the Blessed Trinity? The consecrated Bread and Wine are the focus of that mystic incorporation.

    God bless us all, every one.

  4. Mary Cunningham says:

    May I respectfully suggest that Dr.Gabriel Daly’s piece,
    ‘Eucharist: Doing the truth with Christian Faith’
    published here on July 27th 2017, contributes a powerful, clear, and theologically grounded case, for sharing Holy Communion with all Christians.

    It can be accessed by a search at the top right of this web site

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