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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

“Church Fellowship is Eucharistic Fellowship, and vice versa”: common ground or bone of contention?

by John R. Stephenson

Professor of Historical Theology at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, Ontario

No theologian has yet arisen within the churches belonging to or sympathetic with our International Lutheran Council to equal Dr Hermann Sasse (1895-1981) of blessed memory. During the last quarter century of his life, Sasse produced an impressive body of literature explaining and assessing the major changes undergone by the Roman Catholic Church immediately prior to, during, and after the Second Vatican Council, understanding these writings not only as sometimes appreciative, sometimes critical commentary on the doings of another church body, but also as a dialogue in love between long estranged “separated brethren.” Sasse’s deeply researched and carefully thought-through contributions offer us a reliable template as we currently engage, separately from the Lutheran World Federation, in international and national conversations with the Church of Rome.

Sasse grasped that the longstanding breach of church and altar fellowship between the Roman Catholic Church and the adherents of the Augsburg Confession had not in fact destroyed all relatedness rooted in both sides’ common baptism into the mystical body of Christ. He noted in 1961, as feverish preparations were under way for the holding of the Second Vatican Council, that:

… what happens in one sector of Christendom affects all the others. For there is a solidarity of sin and guilt, of divine judgment and human suffering which still binds together those who confess Christ as Lord and Saviour, even if other bonds have been broken. (Hermann Sasse, “The Second Vatican Council,” Reformed Theological Review  XX, 2 [June, 1961]: 40.)

Sasse also expressed this insight more positively, as he registered how:

It is one of the great discoveries of Christendom in this century of revolutionary changes that in spite of all divisions and separations the Christians and the churches of whatever denomination are bound together by the strange solidarity of a common history. They experience the same joys and disappointments, successes and failures, opportunities and frustrations. Great spiritual movements, healthy or unhealthy, spread through the whole of Christendom irrespective of denominational borders. It is by no means so as it was believed forty years ago that the fall of one church means the rise of another. They are all confronted with the same enemies, the same emergencies. Together they rise, together they fall. (Hermann Sasse, “Holy Church or Holy Writ. The Meaning of the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation” [1967], 4.)

In this epoch of mass apostasy, increasingly virulent secularization, and the dangers associated with resurgent Islam, we can surely all resonate to what Sasse wrote to Augustin Cardinal Bea, whom he met in Rome shortly after the Council:

I have especially learned from you one thing, namely that we are all together in the same boat, that we are all together the disciples crying, “Lord, help us, we are perishing,” and that we all have the one Lord with us who can rule over storm and waves. (Hermann Sasse, Letter of 1967 to Augustine Cardinal Bea; qtd in Hermann Sasse: A Man for our Times?, 205.)”

Apart from the reality of the mystical union, which the Holy Spirit enacts without respect to the boundaries of external church fellowship, we might be inclined to suppose that whom the Church of Rome admits to her altars is her business and not ours. Mindful of Robert Frost’s principle that “Fences make good neighbours,” we might simply follow the maxim of not poking our noses into other people’s affairs. But the state of deep, interacting relatedness wrought by the Holy Spirit, and the just-quoted truths enunciated by the blessed Sasse, not to mention the obligations we acknowledge towards those of our separated brethren with whom we enter into ecumenical conversations, preclude our taking this easy way out. As a matter of fact, “Nostra res agitur—it is our business” works both ways: what we do affects them, and vice versa. John Donne’s “No man is an island entire unto itself” somehow leaps to mind.

As he pondered the tragic rout of German Lutheranism in the centuries following the Reformation, which led in the nineteenth century to the Church of the Prussian Union becoming the largest church body in German Protestantism, and in the twentieth to the overwhelming majority of German Lutherans being subsumed in the umbrella Evangelical Church of Germany, Sasse fought a lonely battle contending for the truth that “Eucharistic fellowship is church fellowship—Abendmahlsgemeinschaft ist Kirchengemeinschaft,” and vice versa. We are all aware that this principle is bitterly contested in Western Christendom as a whole, and even within our own churches, especially as it issues in the imperative that our altars should be closed to those who do not share our confession. Even though the principle advocated by Sasse at great personal cost is a minority position in many parts of the world, we should remember that truth is not decided by majority vote, and that Truth Himself cut a lonely figure as He stood taciturn before mocking Pilate.

Until the last years of his life, Sasse could count on the fact that the principle whose defense made him a solitary figure in German and wider Protestantism was still firmly, perhaps well-nigh unanimously upheld by the Orthodox Church of the East and the Roman Catholic Church. To my best knowledge we have few formal contacts with Eastern Christendom, but we are much affected by the turmoil that has brewed within the Roman Church since the Second Vatican Council, which especially since the change of popes five years ago has morphed from so to say a simmering pot into a boiling cauldron emitting jets of scalding water in all directions. Moreover, we are currently engaged in formal relations with Rome that are intended, in the providence of God, to be beneficial to both sides.

Among the many controversies that have erupted among our Roman Catholic separated brethren during the turbulent papacy of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the one that began when the reigning pope gave an odd reply to a German “Lutheran” woman married to an Italian who asked him why she could not receive Holy Communion when attending church with her husband. Even though the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church gave a clear negative response to her query, the pope’s reply was contorted, to say the least:

I leave this question to theologians, to those who understand. It is true that in a certain sense sharing means saying that there is no difference between us, that we have the same doctrine—stressing that word, which is a difficult word to understand. But do we not have the same Baptism? And if we have the same Baptism, we should walk together….  You believe the Lord is present, …And what’s the difference? There are explanations and interpretations, but life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. … There are questions that only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has, must be responded to on one’s own. See for yourself. …I would never dare give permission to do this as it is not my competence.* One Baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and go ahead. I dare not say any more. (Retrieved from , 7 May 2015.)

It strikes me that leaving to visitors of another confession to decide for themselves whether or not to commune at an orthodox Lutheran altar would entail a grave dereliction of pastoral duty on the part of the celebrant. While the answer given by the reigning pope to the German “Lutheran” (EKD?) woman in November 2016 caused grave disquiet among Roman Catholics faithful to CCC, even greater commotion has erupted in light of the recent (spring 2018) proposal by the majority of Roman Catholic bishops in Germany to admit the Protestant spouses of practising Roman Catholics to the sacrament of the altar. The qualifications made to the proposal, that such admission take place on a “case by case” basis, in light of “pastoral accompaniment,” when the Christian of other confession “shares the Catholic understanding” of the Blessed Sacrament, and when the celebrant ascertains “deep spiritual need,” cannot fail to ring a bell with many pastors of our fellowship who, willingly or unwillingly, allow for “pastoral exceptions” whose invariable upshot is the practice of open Communion. Having served just out of seminary in a liberal district of the LCMS, the proposal of the German bishops causes me to suffer from déja-vu all over again—been there, done that, and got the teeshirt, and yet—tragically—I cannot claim always to have carried out my office with integrity under those circumstances.

Seven German bishops, mainly from Bavaria, declined to go along with the proposal to move from de facto to de jure “eucharistic hospitality,” and exercised their right to appeal over the head of the German bishops’ conference to Rome, which resulted in a meeting between representatives of both sides of the argument and the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is known that, while absent from the meeting, Pope Bergoglio took a keen interest in the proceedings, declining to reassert the historic Roman Catholic position, instead commending the German bishops for their ecumenical approach and urging them to continue their internal discussion until such time as they can come to unanimous agreement on the matter. Given the top-down rather than “diffuse” exercise of authority in the Roman Catholic Church, it is apparent to all observers within and outside that church body that the largest church body in Christendom no longer holds to the ancient principle that “church fellowship is altar fellowship, and vice versa.” Which means that as the ILC and its member churches approach their next discussions with their Roman Catholic counterparts, their interlocutors are no longer bound to the careful definitions and explanations set forth in the CCC promulgated by John Paul II on the basis of the painstaking labours of his long-time associate and immediate successor, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. Are our conversations held therefore with confessional Christians or with protean protestants of liberal stripe?

Some of the commentary offered on the German proposal and Rome’s refusal to support the minority protest has labelled what can only be described as a meltdown of the historic Roman Catholic—in fact, Catholic in the wider sense of the word—position as somehow “Lutheran.” Given that the generic Protestantism proffered by the increasingly apostate EKD would be deemed by most (uninformed) Germans as “Lutheran,” and that many Italians would be understandably ignorant of the distinction between (orthodox) Lutheranism in particular and the infinite varieties of “Protestantism” in general, it is understandable that the traditionalist minority of Roman Catholics, for whom Dr Martin Luther remains a pantomime bogeyman, should (mis)use terms in this way. But we could charitably, and helpfully, point out that the Reformer and those of his co-religionists faithful to his heritage could furnish considerable assistance to our distressed Roman Catholic separated brethren in the time of confusion they are currently going through. For as he refused church and altar fellowship with the fathers and founders of Reformed Christendom, Luther gave truly Catholic testimony as he explained the link between profession of singular doctrine (made up of interrelated but distinct articles) and the consummation of ecclesial communion in the most holy sacrament of the altar. Orthodox believers, pastors, and theologians of our worldwide fellowship cannot withhold sympathy from the Dutch Cardinal Willem van Eijk (who had a friendly encounter with LCC’s outgoing synodical president, Dr Robert Bugbee, at a meeting of the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops a year or so ago) as he has appealed to the reigning pope clearly and unambiguously to reiterate the historic position of the Roman Catholic Church, even while we must charitably ask the good cardinal to reconsider his position that we teach “consubstantiation” and hold to the heretic Martin Bucer’s view that the real presence depends on the attitude of the communicant! ( retrieved 8 May 2018.)

Without poking our noses into other people’s business, mindful of the Spirit-wrought mystical union that shows no respect to confessional boundaries, and encouraged by the words of Sasse quoted at the beginning of this paper, the pastors and people of the ILC must respectfully request their Roman Catholic counterparts to reaffirm the scriptural, historic, upper and lower case C/catholic conviction that church fellowship is altar fellowship, and vice versa. May the Lord grant that the Roman Catholic Church not degenerate into the world’s largest Liberal Protestant church body—Heaven help us, there are enough, nay too many of those already!  

* Disingenuous words from one who has on other occasions reminded his internal critics that his office possesses “full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church”! See CCC 882.