I have a couple of sticky-notes here on my computer terminal. One says “bishops meeting” and the other “Lutheran communion.” If I indulge myself in the first one I’ll just get angry and my day will be spoiled. Our United States bishops met in Baltimore this week and among other things produced a 32-page document stating that pornography is a mortal sin. The main achievement of the meeting was the approval of an updated “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a guide to voters issued before every presidential election. Actually this is the 2007 text with a new introduction. The Bishop of San Diego stirred the meeting some when he pointed out that this is not 2007 and that new issues and difficulties need to be addressed—as in, “we have a new pope” who was just here weeks ago with some timely approaches to preaching and emphases. Commentators noted the beginnings of new alignments within the conference between “John Paul II bishops” and “Francis bishops.” Again I return to my quote from Pius XI in 1925 that only a few learned men read church documents. I make my annual donation to the Sierra Club in November to replenish the trees.
The “Lutheran communion” note to myself involves a somewhat involved question-and-answer session during a papal ecumenical visit to an Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Rome last Sunday. National Catholic Reporter seems to have the most detailed account of an exchange between Pope Francis and a Lutheran woman who expressed to him her frustration that as a Lutheran she could not receive the Eucharist with her husband. The pope responded in a lengthy and metaphorical excursus and, at the end, seemed to indicate that that not even he himself could presume on the woman’s conscience in her decision of whether or not to receive Catholic Eucharist.
I suggest you read the actual exchange liked above, because it reveals a great deal about the Pope, how he thinks, how he expresses himself, and what his own inclination and prejudices may be. In the exchange here it seems to me that the Pope is more than a little burned out with the verbal bureaucracy of the Church, particularly the part he sees each day. There is considerable humor in his comment to the young boy that he dislikes protocol, but particularly telling is his like for children, as they “don’t make up questions in the air.”
This then raises the issue of who does make up the “questions in the air” that seem to annoy him. The context of the Lutheran woman’s question may give us a clue. The Pope has recently concluded an arduous three-week synod on the family where there was a great deal of legal fussing and fighting about who can and cannot receive communion without harm to the legal concept of the marriage bond. As a papal encyclical summarizing the Synod is expected, it would not be preposterous to suppose that some of this wrangling continues in the composition of the draft. I did research this morning from a number of Canon Law sites (most independent of official Church entities), and the certainty and arrogance of some of them is truly stunning, essentially equating the 1983 Code (in use at the present time) with Holy Writ, which it is not.
The Canon in play during the Pope’s conversation is 844, which addresses if and when baptized Christians of other traditions may receive Catholic Communion, and vice versa. This is a very lengthy theological and canonical discussion that we probably don’t need on a Friday afternoon. Suffice to say that Pope John Paul II called for the strictest interpretation limiting interfaith communion (or communio in sacris); in the late 1990’s you may have noticed the socially peculiar “non-invitation” statement of Holy Communion reception in missalettes and hymnals. The concern of the official Church at that time was the danger of casual intercommunion without full understanding of the commitment involved.
Francis, on the other hand, takes a different approach to aspects of Church Law and structure. “Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always make reference to Baptism.” These were his words to the Lutheran woman, his Lutheran hosts, and certainly to Catholics at large. As he has throughout his reign Pope Francis has striven for a return to the basics of faith: Baptismal identity, prayer and good works, particularly on behalf of God’s poor. He is not overturning the importance of creedal identity (Catholic vis-à-vis Lutheran) nor is he calling for bonfires for texts and directives. But he is centering the Church again on basic priorities and attitudes. It was Jesus himself who taught that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and from what I read a goodly number of Catholics need to be reminded of that.
Something that fascinates me is that the Pope gave an example of a solution he knew about, an Episcopal bishop who celebrated his tradition's Eucharist with his own assembly and then attended Roman Catholic Mass with his wife and children. Francis commented that “this was a way of participation in the Lord’s Supper [for the couple].” And, he never gave a direct answer to the woman, either, indicating that whatever her decision she needed to make it in an honest fashion in conversation with her God.
If the amount of hammering that Francis is presently enduring from the Catholic right about this and a number of other of his pastoral directives is any indication, we as a Church are not used to this depth of intimate decision-making with God. It would seem there is a thirst for certitude and direction, a love of the black-and-white that is often mistaken for true religion. Ironically it was the Lutheran reformation of the 1500’s that emphasized the “here I stand” of Christian existence. With the Feast of Christ the King this weekend, we reflect upon judgment before God as a matter of degree: how much did you love? How to drive a lawyer crazy.