I was having a lovely conversation of late with a woman who personally struggled with explaining to her non-Catholic relative the Catholic Church’s restrictions on eucharistic inter-communion among churches that are in schism (e.g. Protestant-Catholic). ‘Well, she’s not going to burn in hell for it,’ she said.
The USCCB has a good summary approach to this question, with the requisite nuances, and there are lots of excellent historical, theological and pastoral treatments of this issue out there that do a far better job than I ever could explaining it. But as she and I spoke, I was ambushed by a memoir and blinded by an insight into this thorny issue (though here that insight is still rather inchoate).
My Dad is an Orthodox Christian. In the 1980s I came to know his pastor and would have lunch with him on occasion to talk theology and such. One time, he mentioned how much it grieved him to not be able to offer me Holy Communion. I agreed. But he quickly added something I found at the time to be utterly captivating as an insight: ‘But isn’t it appropriate, Tom, that this estrangement would inflict such pain, since it mirrors the real, profound and painful divisions that have broken the Body of Christ over the centuries. Embracing this ache of ex-communication, this pain of schism, this wound of division, and filling it with Christ’s own longing for unity becomes a powerful redemptive offering we can lift up to the Lord. Remember, we’re people of the Crucified — it’s only from the midst of tragedy that our redemption dawns.’
That last line is what hit me most. And after I left my conversation with that woman it struck me that our modern culture abhors the inescapably tragic character of life this side of Paradise, and often seeks facile, or even brutal solutions in an attempt not to redeem tragedy, but to eliminate it.
What struck me also was that calling for open communion as a remedy to the tragedy of Christian disunity is facile, a cheap road to redemption, an easy fix.
It strangely reminds me of the story of a man who, many years ago, shared with me the excruciating journey in his marriage from his own adulterous infidelity to a final healing reconciliation with his wife. He said, ‘up front my solution to the reconciliation process was, let’s have sex now as a sign that all is well. But she was absolutely clear – it will only be after a very long and very hard road of healing, forgiving, recovering trust and reconciling our souls that I will even consider reconciling our bodies.’ By analogy, both Orthodox and Catholic Churches view Eucharistic communion as the consummation of a unity achieved first by way of a much harder and much deeper journey of reconciliation that will require much painful communication, heart-rending forgiveness and recovering of trust.
Unity in the Church is above all else the work of God, and as we know that God-given gift of reconciling unity was achieved by Christ precisely on the cross; on that Tragic Tree.
An article I read yesterday contained a quote that further deepened my insight:
The best response I’ve found to a vision of a world without the Fall comes from Pope Benedict XVI, who once said that what Christianity brought into the world was a radical challenge to the Greek aesthetic. In the Passion of Christ, argues the pope, the Greek aesthetic of ideal beauty had not been rejected but rather overcome by a broader vision that included brokenness and suffering. In the cross, he concludes, the beautiful gains “new depth and realism,” showing us both the nobility of man and his fallenness.
Our ecumenism must strive for a ‘new depth and realism,’ where fractured humanity gathers at the foot of the Cross.
So next time a non-Catholic rightly grieves the inability to share in our Communion, feel free to say with deepest feeling: ‘I know, it’s such a tragedy.’
Let us pray and work and suffer for the deep healing of the Body of Christ that we may indeed one day be one Body, healed of all division.