Lutheran View of the Mass / Catholics & Lutheran Worship

Pastor Ben Maton (Lutheran – Missouri Synod [“LCMS”] ) serves at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. His words will be in blue.

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At one point, after documenting the Lutheran Confessions’ repudiation of the papistic mass, you claim this “jaded view” of Lutherans puts them “in the incoherent, odd position of agreeing that Catholicism is Christian, despite the fact that its central rite is utterly non-Christian (and, far beyond that, anti-Christian, as it is idolatry, blasphemy, etc.).” If that’s true, RC’s have put themselves in the equally incoherent and odd [position] of agreeing that members of “separated communities” are Christian despite the fact that they, from a RC view, in an utterly non-Christian matter lack the central rite of the Christian church. Unless I am missing something that is precisely Rome’s claim – those who lack the central rite in an utterly non-Christian manner are yet members of Christ:

For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. …it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian. (from Vatican II, Decree on Ecumenism: Unitatis Redintegratio.)

So, says Rome (and her sons who in dialogues like this one graciously and honestly address people like me as a “brother in Christ”), those who lack the mass, the church’s central rite are yet Christian. Yes, given it’s centrality, to lack the papistic mass as Lutherans do must be (should be!) as devilish and abominable in a RC’s eyes as it is to have it and it’s “manifold idolatries” in a Lutheran’s. Indeed, I’m sure RC’s have come up with all kinds of nasty things to say about Lutherans who intractably reject what they view as their church’s central rite … probably about as nasty as the things Lutherans have said about that central rite as a horrible abomination. And yet, both sides, incoherent or odd as some might see it, still manage to recognize God at work to make and sustain Christians in the other’s communion through things like baptism, the Word, etc.

God is good!

Your Brother in Christ,

Ben Maton

November 16, 2007

Interesting, but I must respectfully disagree again, and deny that the two positions regarding other Christians and their worship are identical in essence. The Lutheran, following Luther, defines the Catholic mass as an abomination, idolatry, sacrilege, devil-worship, worship of Baal, etc. Anything goes. The mass was used as a justification of theft, plunder, and banishment. The same attitude is not confined to the 16th century, because it is enshrined in the Lutheran confessions that are binding today on all “orthodox” Lutherans (certainly this is the case in LCMS circles).

The Catholic attitude towards Protestant and Lutheran worship is quite different, so that there is really no “equivalence of disdain” here. I was asked once by an evangelical Christian:

How does a Protestant fit into the picture when Jesus says that unless a man eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, there is no life in you [Jn 6:53]? Since a Protestant believer has not done this, then what are we to think about not having life in us? We obviously do have the life of God through the Spirit.

I replied:

Very good question, as always. Karl Keating actually cited this verse in a letter to me when I was a Protestant, and arguing for “central” doctrines, “secondary doctrines,” and “peripheral doctrines” — his point being that the Eucharist must therefore be pretty important in the overall scheme of things!

As you note, it doesn’t mean that Protestants aren’t Christian, lack grace or the Holy Spirit, etc. Nor do we teach that one can’t be saved without partaking in the Eucharist in the full sense of the word. So Catholics must interpret the verse in light of those facts. Personally, I think Jesus is using hyperbole simply to illustrate the essential and overwhelming importance of communion and — beyond that — the sacramental principle.

When taken in the larger sacramental sense, Protestants receive the sacramental benefits of baptism and marriage, both of which we acknowledge as valid sacraments for Protestants, and they also receive grace from the Sacrifice of the Mass and the accompanying prayers, etc. So implicitly, we believe that Protestants benefit spiritually from the Real Presence even if they don’t believe in it. And they obtain grace from partaking in communion at their services, even if the Real Presence is lacking (and many Protestants, of course, think it is lacking). A reverential, holy disposition is very pleasing to God. I always took Communion very seriously as a Protestant, even though I didn’t accept Transubstantiation for a second in those days, and I think God accepts that for what it is worth — which is indeed a lot.

A Protestant clergyman asked me a similar question recently

Exactly what is meant when a non-Catholic goes forward at communion to be blessed, but not partake? What if such a person- like myself- openly disagrees with some of the church’s teaching and is not seeking reception into the church?

And I replied:

If they approach the altar with an attitude of solemnity and reverence, even if not agreeing with all that we believe takes place there, we honor that and believe that such a person can receive a “spiritual communion” and/or a blessing from the priest, should the latter decide to do that (a sacramental, not a sacrament, which has a positive effect insofar as the person receiving it is properly disposed and receptive).

I think it would be much the same as when I attend a Protestant service. I recognize that I disagree with the conception they have of Holy Communion, but I respect my surroundings and appreciate the piety and worship being expressed by my Protestant brothers and sisters.

Catholics do believe that agreement in doctrine is required in order to partake of Holy Communion, which is why we have closed communion (like some Protestant denominations; e.g., Missouri Synod Lutherans do).

That is just my own attitude, which, of course, carries no weight at all. But I think it reflects the approach of the Catholic Church herself, in how it regards Protestants. For evidence of that (with lots of citations from Vatican II), see my paper, “How Catholics View Protestants.” The distinction is a rather large one: between “good and better” (the Catholic view) and “bad vs. good” (the Lutheran view). For the Lutheran confessions, the Catholic Mass (in and of itself) is a “bad” thing, through and through (or else why the extreme language in describing it?). 

But for the Catholic (particularly in the documents of Vatican II), Lutheran (and general Protestant worship) is a good, yet incomplete thing, lacking fullness, but not intrinsically wicked and evil and idolatrous (and all the rest). This is a gigantic difference. Yes, both sides see deficiencies in the other, with regard to Holy Communion and worship. But how those differences are interpreted and described, and how they are defined in essence, are vastly different.

No one need take my word as to whether this accurately reflects the Catholic view. Presumably, Pope Benedict XVI will be a good source, too. Writing as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, he clarified Catholic thought on exactly this question, in a chapter of his book Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (edited by Stephan Otto Horn and Vinzenz Pfnur; translated by Henry Taylor, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), where he responded to questions from a Lutheran bishop. The bishop asked:

“Ecclesial communion, into which each individual is introduced by faith and by baptism, has its root and center in the holy Eucharist.” Would one not have to conclude from [this] that Churches and ecclesial communities who … “have not preserved a valid Eucharist” are cut off from the root and the heart of ecclesial fellowship – although we have previously stated together that – despite the divisions that exist – we are received by baptism and by faith into a fellowship with one another, whose heart is the gospel of Jesus Christ himself? (p. 244)

Cardinal Ratzinger replied:

Of course the fellowship with Jesus Christ himself, and with his saving Word, based on baptism, is and remains as important as it was portrayed by the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism; no one intends to call that into question. The “eucharistic ecclesiology” that is taken up in the document presupposes baptism and reinforces the Christological center. Besides, I reckon as one of the important results of ecumenical conversations particularly the realization that the question of the Eucharist cannot be restricted to the problem of “validity.” Even a theology along the lines of the concept of succession, as is in force in the Catholic and in the Orthodox Church, should in no way deny the saving presence of the Lord in the Evangelical Lord’s Supper. The place of the Eucharist is of course seen differently within the framework of the ecclesiology of the Reformed tradition from how it is seen in the Catholic and the Orthodox tradition. There is no doubt that the dialogues still have a great deal of work before them here. Yet this difference, and the question it implies, cannot diminish what has so far been found on the path of ecumenism. (p. 248)

The present pope, in the same book, states also, concerning apostolic succession:

[T]he burdensome question of [apostolic] succession does not detract from the spiritual dignity of Evangelical Christianity, or from the saving power of the Lord at work within it. (p. 251)

This is Catholic ecumenism and our view of Lutheran worship and God’s graces present within it. In stark contrast, Martin Luther wrote:

As the greatest of all abominations I regard the mass when it is preached or sold as a sacrifice or good work, which is the basis on which all religious foundations and monasteries now stand, but, God willing, they shall soon be overthrown . . . my greatest sins were that I was so holy a monk, and so horribly angered, tortured, and plagued my dear Lord with so many masses for more than fifteen years . . .

Accordingly, I have advised and still advise people to abandon religious foundations and monasteries and their vows and come forth into the true Christian orders, in order to escape these abominations of the mass and this blasphemous holiness, i.e., “chastity, poverty, and obedience,” by which they imagine they are saved. (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, [written in 1528], LW 37: 370-371)

Yet (here is the hope for some ecumenical progress and increased unity) Luther also writes other passages which seem remarkably similar to Catholic beliefs on the sacrifice of the mass, leading one to suspect that he perhaps misunderstood that doctrine and condemned something other than what it actually is. In commenting on Christ’s words “This is my body” he stated:

It is as if he were saying, “I am the Head, I will be the first to give himself for you. I will make your suffering and misfortune my own and will bear it for you, so that you in turn may do the same for me and for one another, allowing all things to be common property, in me, and with me.” (The Blessed Sacrament [written in 1519], LW 35:54-55; some argue that Luther later repudiated this view, but that is contradicted by the fact that this tract was published in thirteen German editions and one in Latin by 1525)

The Catholic writer James F. McCue thinks he has identified the foundational reason for Luther’s disdain of the Catholic Mass (i.e., as he understood it to be):

Luther’s objection to the sacrificial conception of the mass is therefore basically the same as his objection to what he takes to be the Roman Catholic doctrine of works. Both doctrines change the Christian into one who earns his salvation from God, whereas Luther insists that the Christian life is from beginning to end a reception in faith of the forgiveness of a gracious God. Instead of coming to the mass to receive from God through Christ, Roman Catholics come to the mass to give something to God in order to win his favor. The Roman view, according to Luther, obscures the fact that God is already gracious to us, and that if he were not, there would be nothing that we could do about it. (in Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue I-III, edited by Paul C. Empie and T. Austin Murphy, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, from 1965 dialogues, 62)

He derives this opinion from Luther’s statement in his Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Holy Mass (written in 1520):

Out of the sacrament and testament of God, which ought to be a good gift received, they have made for themselves a good deed performed, which they then give to others and offer up to God. (LW 36:49)

But, on the other hand, McCue points out that Luther may have been (at least in 1520) affirming something very much akin to a correct understanding of the Catholic sacrifice of the mass, while at the same time strongly repudiating that doctrine by name. As with so much of Luther’s thought, this is fascinating and surprising. Hence, McCue makes his startling analysis:

[E]ven in A Treatise on the New Testament we still find that the main elements of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the mass as a sacrifice are being affirmed at the same time that Luther is launching his attacks against it [he had cited a long passage in pp. 57-60 which he now quotes excerpts from] . . . Though Luther insists “that we do not offer Christ as a sacrifice, but he offers us,” at the same time he asserts what a Roman Catholic would think is thereby denied. That is, in the mass we offer “ourselves, and all that we have.” And this sacrifice “we are not to present before God in our own person. But we are to lay it upon Christ and let him present it for us.” “That is, we lay ourselves on Christ by a faith in his testament and do not appear otherwise before God with our prayer, praise, and sacrifice except through Christ and his meditation.” “So it is that I also offer Christ, in that I desire and believe that he accepts me and my prayer and praise and presents it to God in his own person . . . Thus it becomes clear that it is not the priest alone who offers the sacrifice of the mass; it is the faith which each one has for himself.” . . . “through it [faith], in connection with the sacrament, we offer ourselves, our need, prayer, praise, and thanksgiving in Christ and through Christ; and thereby we offer Christ to God . . . we move Christ and give him occasion to offer himself for us and to offer us with himself . . .” So far as I can see there is nothing which the Roman Catholic position requires that Luther does not here maintain. The dogmatic assertion that the mass is a sacrifice is simply a compendium of all this.

We are thus led to the paradoxical result that in the very work in which Luther launched his famous attack on the doctrine that the mass is a sacrifice he was in fact holding that doctrine . . . the position which Luther attacked was not the one which Roman Catholicism was defending, and that in substance Luther was actually holding the Roman Catholic position. (in Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue I-III, ibid., 71-72)

McCue then comes to the defense of Luther and offers a sympathetic Catholic interpretation of how and why Luther erred in this way (and I wholeheartedly agree, based on his analysis, and what I know about the excesses and corruptions of that period):

It is not quite enough to say that this is a caricature of the Roman Catholic understanding of the mass. It is a caricature, but it was not created by Luther or the other reformers. It is a caricature that developed within Roman Catholicism, and which to some extent is still to be found there. Luther took Roman Catholic practice as a genuine incarnation of Roman Catholic doctrine: the meaning of the mass as “sacrifice” he read off from the lived piety of his day. In this he erred I think; but the way was prepared by the indifference of Roman Catholic theologians to the problem of the relation of theology to the concrete life of the Church. When theologians who defend the sacrificial concept of the mass seem not to be disturbed by the development of a sub-Christian understanding of sacrifice within Roman Catholic piety, then there is at least some justification for thinking that the piety does express the doctrine. It is a very natural assumption, though in a surprising number of cases it turns out to be false, that practice and doctrine will agree, and that the meaning of the latter is best understood by means of the former.

. . . the fact that Roman Catholic theologians — both before Luther and after him — did not think that it was an essential part of their theological responsibility to criticize the status quo in light of the Church’s norm and ideal helped to create a situation in which such misconstruction was possible.

In recent years there have been significant developments from both sides. Among Roman Catholics, the liturgical movement has taken seriously the responsibility of making practice express doctrine. . . . It is neither fortuitous nor a sign of heretical tendencies on the part of liturgists, that practically all of the changes made have been in the direction called for by Luther. (Ibid., 73-74)

Lutheran scholar Kent S. Knutson continues the ecumenical, conciliatory theme in the same work, in reference to the discussion of sacrifice of the mass:

I suspect that both Lutherans and Catholics are willing to agree that responsibility for the 16th century controversy rests on both sides and Lutherans interested in dialogue with Catholics recognize both the possibility and the necessity of re-evaluation of their position. (Ibid., pp. 167-168)

The joint statement of the Lutheran and Catholic theologians demonstrated considerable common ground indeed:

Catholics as well as Lutherans affirm the unrepeatable character of the sacrifice of the cross . . . The events are unique; they cannot be repeated, or extended or continued. Yet in this memorial we do not only recall [past events. God makes them present through the Holy Spirit, thus making us participants in Christ (1 Cor. 1:9)

Further, the Catholic affirmation that the Church “offers Christ” in the mass has in the course of the last half century been increasingly explained in terms which answer Lutheran fears that this detracts from the full sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. The members of the body of Christ are united through Christ with God and with one another in such a way that they become participants in his worship, his self-offering, his sacrifice to the Father. Through this union between Christ and Christians, the eucharistic assembly “offers Christ” by consenting in the power of the Holy Spirit to be offered by him to the Father. Apart from Christ we have no gifts, no worship, no sacrifice of our own to offer god. All we can plead is Christ, the sacrificial lamb and victim whom the Father himself has given us. (Ibid., pp. 189-190; see also the Catholic Catechism‘s section on the mass: #1345-1383)

Lutherans and Catholics may also have more in common even with regard to eucharistic adoration, than many on either side realize. In the same ecumenical work, Lutheran theologian Arthur Carl Piepkorn described Lutheran belief (i.e., in the opinion of Hans Grass, whose view he is summarizing) as follows:

Between the consecration and the reception the elevation and adoration of the sacrament are appropriate expressions of our awed acknowledgment of the riches of this divine gift and our reverent, humble, and salvation-seeking thanksgiving that the body and blood of Christ are present for us to receive. (Ibid., 137)

In pondering what to make of consecrated elements not consumed by congregants, he notes:

Since the words of institution make us certain of the “real presence” only with reference to their use, we cannot answer the question if the “real presence” persists with an unequivocal yes or no. At the very least we cannot treat the remaining elements as profane or irreverently . . . we may not have an unequivocal kind of certainty at this point, . . . [but] In our day the peril of casual profanation of that which is holy is an unquestionably greater threat than superstition. (Ibid., 137)

Piepkorn likewise had stated a few pages earlier (summarizing the thought of Peter Brunner):

[T]he elements that remain were actually bearers of Christ’s body and blood, creatures that Christ took up into the sacramental union. They thus have a right to be handled reverently. Luther had grave misgivings about mixing consecrated and unconsecrated elements and insisted that nothing remain after a celebration. If the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence is valid, the propriety of this procedure cannot be contested.(Ibid., p. 133)

Again, in outlining the views of Jurgen Diestelmann, Piepkorn continues, citing Luther:

“If a person believes [that the body and blood of Christ are present] he cannot without sin withold the reverence that is their due from Christ’s body and blood. For I must ever confess that when his body and blood are there Christ is there.” (WA 11, 447). But formal adoration is neither to be commanded nor forbidden.

. . . Luther strenuously differentiated consecrated from unconsecrated elements. His conception of the sacramental action did not preclude the communion of the sick in their homes with the sacrament consecrated at the parochial celebration.

There is no evidence of a change of heart on Luther’s part that would distinguish the “young Luther” from the “mature Luther.”

Philip Melanchthon did not wholly share Luther’s view, but opted for a stricter and more rigid application of the principle that the sacramental presence did not perdure beyond the immediate sacramental action . . . the Melanchthonian view and Luther’s view have persisted side by side in Lutheran churches ever since. Admittedly Melanchthon’s “voluntary presence” theory was more acceptable to John Calvin . . . (Ibid., p. 140; Piepkorn also refers to “Luther’s approving attitude toward the elevation” on p. 142)

Finally, Piepkorn gives a “digest” of the scholarly opinion of Hans Kirsten:

Kirsten agrees that Roser has accurately reproduced Luther’s position. Kirsten also agrees that the sacramental action (and the sacramental union) cannot be limited to the reception (sumptio) . . . One cannot affirm with certainty that the sacramental union takes place only during the distribution and reception. Nor can one affirm with certainty that the sacramental union is a reality before or after the distribution and reception. The possibility that the sacramental union may begin before and continue after the distribution and reception requires that the consecrated elements be treated with due reverence. This reverence must not become a cult of adoration of the elements. The pious opinion that the sacramental union begins before and continues after the distribution and reception cannot be made a discrimen ecclesiae. The view that the sacramental union takes place only during the distribution and reception is a pious opinion that Lutherans must tolerate as long as no exclusive claim for its correctness is made. (Ibid., pp. 146-147)

To summarize Piepkorn’s summaries, then, we can assert the following concerning Lutheran and Martin Luther’s eucharistic beliefs on points beyond the real presence itself (and see much commonality with Catholic eucharistic theology):

1) At least according to some Lutherans, “Between the consecration and the reception the elevation and adoration” are “appropriate expressions” of an “awed acknowledgment” of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ. Thus, true adoration of the host (i.e., Jesus) would be permitted during this particular “interim” period in Lutheran worship.

2) The “real presence” may indeed exist in the consecrated elements after the congregation has partaken of Holy Communion. Lutherans cannot be sure one way or the other; thus cannot dogmatically affirm either a more lasting presence or a limited one. Nor can a Lutheran dogmatically affirm or deny that “the sacramental union is a reality before . . . distribution and reception”.

3) #2 being the case, remaining elements must be treated with reverence, and not profanely. Such a “casual profanation” constituttes a greater corruption in our time than the opposite danger of superstition.

4) Even if a Lutheran believes that the real, substantial presence has ceased after reception of Holy Communion, in remaining consecrated elements, he must believe that they did previously bear Christ’s body and blood; thus still requiring the reverent handling and approach referred to in #3.

5) “Luther had grave misgivings about mixing consecrated and unconsecrated elements and insisted that nothing remain after a celebration.” Luther “strenuously differentiated consecrated from unconsecrated elements.”

6) Luther approved of the elevation of the host.

7) Luther appeared to believe in eucharistic adoration, at least during the particular time period in Lutheran worship discussed in #1. Indeed, he thought (much like St. Augustine) that it would be sin to not do this.

8) Following the uncertainties expressed in #2, “formal adoration [in Lutheranism] is neither to be commanded nor forbidden.”

9) Luther believed in “the communion of the sick in their homes with the sacrament consecrated at the parochial celebration.” This implies some lasting period of consecrated elements beyond the usual confines of a formal Lutheran worship service. Luther believed that “the sacramental action (and the sacramental union) cannot be limited to the reception.”

10) “There is no evidence of a change of heart on Luther’s part that would distinguish the ‘young Luther’ from the ‘mature Luther.'”

11) Melanchthon (Luther’s successor) believed in a “more rigid application of the principle that the sacramental presence did not perdure beyond the immediate sacramental action”

12) “[T]he Melanchthonian view and Luther’s view have persisted side by side in Lutheran churches ever since.”

13) Melanchthon’s view on this was more acceptable to John Calvin and closer to his eucharistic theology.

14) The “reverence” towards remaining consecrated elements referred to in #2-5 must not become a “cult of adoration”.

15) “The view that the sacramental union takes place only during the distribution and reception is a pious opinion that Lutherans must tolerate as long as no exclusive claim for its correctness is made.”

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(originally 11-19-07)

Photo credit: St. Thomas Church (Lutheran): Leipzig, Germany. Martin Luther preached in the church in 1539.  It’s associated with the composers Richard Wagner and Felix Mendelssohn, and above all with Johann Sebastian Bach, who was the music director from 1723 until his death in 1750. He is buried there. Photograph by Dirk Goldhahn (6-4-03) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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