Last week I spoke to a Protestant woman who wanted to know why she could not receive the sacrament of reconciliation from a Catholic priest. Similarly, I hear sometimes from Protestants who want to know why they cannot receive communion in a Catholic Church. I think these kinds of questions are usually sincere and evidence a desire to “get along” with Catholics, and to affirm our common Christian faith. These Protestants want to know why the Catholic Church seems to hold them at arms length, to refuse their overtures of peace.
What lies beneath this question is an often unstated assumption about the meaning of the Church and the sacraments. For many Protestants, the great variety of Christian belief and practice is proof that God doesn’t insist on absolute uniformity. All that matters is a personal relationship with Jesus. Differences over Church government or sacraments are so many flavors of ice cream. The eighteenth-century revivalist George Whitefield may have been the first Protestant to give voice to this point of view. He said:
I saw regenerate souls among the Baptists, among the Presbyterians, among the Independents, and among the Church [i.e., Anglican] folks — all children of God, and yet all born again in a different way of worship: and who can tell which is the most evangelical. . . It was best to preach the new birth, and the power of godliness, and not to insist so much on the form: for people would never be brought to one mind as to that; nor did Jesus Christ ever intend it. (Cited in Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, 2003: 13-15)
For the evangelical Protestant, “The Church” consists simply in all the faithful souls who believe in Jesus. A Protestant who thinks like this, and who wants to commune and worship with Catholics, may even feel himself to be quite magnanimous. He’s “letting Catholics into the club,” as it were. He is conceding that Catholics, too, have a true faith in Christ. So when the Catholic Church says, “No, we’re sorry, you can’t come to communion,” the Protestant assumes we are writing him off completely, that we are denying he is really a Christian.
The first thing to say in response is that Catholics by no means reject our Protestant brother and sisters, nor do we deny that they have received God’s saving grace. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council repeatedly affirmed that elements of truth and sanctification are found among non-Catholic Christians, and that their communities “have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation.” (Unitatis redintegratio)
The problem, rather, is that Catholics do not share the Protestant conception of Church. Whitefield was just plain wrong. In Sacred Scripture, we learn that Christ founded one Church, in which there is but one faith and “one baptism.” (Ephesians 4:5, Ephesians 5:23, Matthew 16:18) When St. Paul writes on the Church, he insists on both doctrinal and liturgical uniformity. (1 Corinthians 1:10, 11:16) The unity of the Church is not simply spiritual or emotional, but visible and concrete. (1 John 2:19) The principal expression of this visible unity is the Eucharist. (1 Corinthians 10:17)
From the Catholic point of view, the Eucharist is something like a flag or standard that proclaims, “Here is the Church” (in that very robust sense of Church). In the confessional, likewise, the priest is a kind of icon of Christ as well as Christ’s minister. He is the visible representation of that authority: ” Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.” (John 20:23) To receive these Sacraments is to say, “I believe the Church that offers me these sacraments.”
The Catholic Church doesn’t say to Protestants, “you’re not a Christian,” but rather, “you’re missing something. You are missing that full, visible communion with Christ’s faithful to which we are all called.” (John 17:21) In fact, if the Church were to admit non-Catholics to communion it would be like saying that visible unity in Christian belief is neither possible nor desirable. It would be to affirm Whitefield’s unbiblical definition of Church.
When Protestants ask me about receiving Catholic sacraments, I usually ask them a question: Do you believe everything the Church teaches? Do you understand that taking the Eucharist is a pledge of your faith and obedience to the Catholic Church? If you do believe that, then why on earth aren’t you a Catholic? But if you don’t believe that, then why would you want to testify by your actions to a faith you reject? Once I put it in these terms they usually rethink their objections.