The Roman Catholic Church is sometimes criticized for clarifying that Protestants should not partake of Holy Communion at Mass. There are significant doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants as regards not only Holy Communion but also the purpose of the Mass. Stated simply, Catholics believe that the bread and wine served as Holy Communion is mysteriously transformed into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharistic Liturgy during Mass. The Eucharist is the sacramental celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Holy Communion is the culmination of the Eucharistic Liturgy. Holy Communion is also referred to in Catholic terminology as the Real Presence (the teaching that Jesus Christ is present at and in the Eucharist in his body and blood, humanity and divinity, under the form of bread and wine)Protestants, generally speaking, do not share in this belief—at least not doctrinally.
All Protestants do not hold the same belief as regards Holy Communion. Some Christians maintain beliefs that are more similar to that of the Church– such as Lutherans–, while others maintain beliefs that are much further removed from Catholic beliefs–such as Baptists. For purposes of this essay I will not discuss the varying theological positions except to say that no other ecclesial community or church—save possibly the Eastern Orthodox—hold to a theory of Holy Communion that is identical with the Church. Consequently, Catholics and Protestants simply disagree on the Christological implications of Holy Communion. Logic then insists that if there is disagreement over the very nature of Holy Communion there is, in actuality, no unity of belief, and therefore no “communion” in the true sense of the word.
Many non-Catholics are proponents of the concept of intercommunion i.e., communion that is open to all confessing Christians regardless of their particular denominational affiliation. The Church concludes that intercommunion is a contradiction, as it does not represent true communion. The Roman Catholic Church is not the only church that practices closed communion. The Eastern Orthodox Church as well as certain Protestant churches such as Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod practice closed communion. Without addressing the exact substantive reasons that these groups practice closed communion, it can be assumed that these groups and the Church maintain similar procedural reasons for doing so.A commonly expressed sentiment by those discouraged from receiving Holy Communion prior to being “in communion” with the Church, is that they are being unfairly shut out of this “universal” sacrament. The argument runs that if a person truly believes that Jesus is calling him or her to partake in Holy Communion, he or she should be able to do so regardless of his or her particular Christian belief. “Communion is communion,” they say, and “who are you to deny a believer the right to partake in Holy Communion?” Egalitarian impulses can lead one to take umbrage at being shut out of the supposedly universal sacrament of Holy Communion. But is such reaction consistent with right reason? Is it not plausible the “unfairness” we sense is not accurately “unfairness” but instead a frustration symptomatic of our lack of unity of belief? And is it not equally plausible that when we promote intercommunion we lessen the chances that Christian unity will be realized because of a lack of “true communion” among Christians?
Before we begin to answer these questions we should first explore exactly what is meant when we use the term “communion”. Webster’s Dictionary defines communion as “an act or instance of sharing.” This definition in turn gives rise to the definition of communion which specifically incorporates the Christian definition of the sacrament of Holy Communion. But to define communion in such a manner is to engage in a certain degree of tautology and is wholly unsatisfactory. Therefore to understand specifically what we mean when we use the term “communion” we must apply some hermeneutical principles in order to draw forth from our shared Judeo-Christian history the true meaning of “communion.”
Examining the etymology of the word “communion” we find that it is translated from the Greekkoinonia. Koinoinia can be defined as a partnership or fellowship. Importantly, koinonia is used nineteen times in most editions of the Greek New Testament. For present purposes, the most important usage of the word in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians 10:16 (KJV) wherein the English word “communion” is used to represent koinonia. Specifically, St. Paul states “the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body, for we all partake of one loaf.”
For much of the English speaking world the King James Version of the Bible was the primary translation of the Bible in use for almost 400 years. As a result, it is likely that the vernacular of the term “communion” is derivative of the King James Version. This is significant because the language St. Paul uses is undeniably Christological. He speaks not of symbols, but rather uses a word that invokes a partnership or fellowship with both the body and blood of Christ. In the opening clause of 1 Corinthians 10:16 St. Paul says nothing of fellowship or interaction with other Christians; rather, he is speaking specifically of the relationship between the believer and the Lord, and how the two are joined by the consuming of the bread and wine. In the words spoken immediately following he states that this fellowship must not only be personal but in partaking of the communion with the body and blood of Christ we necessarily become one with each other at the same time we become one with Christ. Read in context this passage makes clear that there is both a personal and a social aspect of communion—both are necessary parts of the sacramental whole. Both are necessary for believers to be fulfilled and/or completed in the divine corpus in which they believe.
One cannot analyze the etymology of the word “communion” and ignore the context in which the word gained currency. Any attempt at a common understanding of what is meant by the term “communion” must necessarily assume that most Christians (and for that matter non-Christians) understand communion in light of the Greek word koinoinia. Thus the English term “communion” has a direct linguistic relationship to the Lord’s Supper instituted by Christ, and while the term can certainly have a secular meaning it is more than likely pregnant with a specific Christian meaning. Possibly most important of all is the fact that the term contains a historical, scriptural, and sacramental component which incorporates all Christians into one body through the act of consuming bread and wine in a sacramental context. Thus St. Paul is speaking of a “true communion,” and in doing so is passing on to the people of Corinth what the Apostles had learned about the Holy Communion from Jesus Christ himself. But what exactly is “true communion?”
Although the term “true communion” is not expressly defined by the Church, the teachings of the Church on Holy Communion clearly demonstrate a coherent de facto understanding of “true communion.” Stated simply, the definition of true communion requires that the communicants agree on the nature of that which is to be celebrated. Therefore, if Protestants (or Catholics for that matter) think that the bread and wine remain simply bread and wine throughout a Mass (or church service) there is not simply a difference of opinion but a fundamental disagreement on doctrinal teachings. One cannot have a fundamental disagreement on the nature of Holy Communion and still maintain that there is true communion.
This is in fact what Scripture teaches. St. Paul states in no uncertain terms that Christ is calling all Christians to unity, and most Christians believe that Christ does indeed will Christian unity. All are in agreement that we do not yet have Christian unity. And, one of the more significant—if not the most significant—area in which Christians are not unified surrounds the meaning of Holy Communion.
If there is no unity of belief, and no “true communion,” denying and/or ignoring the difference of belief does not cure the frustration. When Protestants seek to partake of Holy Communion at a Catholic Mass with no desire for true communion, an inherent contradiction occurs which the Church cannot endorse or deny. Hopefully, once one gets past the umbrage of being “left out,” one may inquire a little deeper and ask the question “why is this concept of true communion so important to the Catholic Church?”
It is insufficient to answer that non-Catholics have no right to demand concessions of a Catholic sacrament. Such an answer is neither going to persuade anyone nor even fully explain the reasons behind the Church’s position. Thus there will never be “true communion” if Catholics simply retort with “that’s the way it is – take it or leave it.” In order to fulfill Christ’s admonition that “we all be one,” we must be able to explain what we believe and why we believe. Thereafter we must discuss these beliefs with each other with honesty and most importantly with charity. To do anything less is to be less than what Christ is calling us all to be. So how now should Catholics explain the concept of “true communion” and its importance to the Church?
Let’s look first to the manner in which