Are Catholics about to loosen Communion rules?

The professional skill of a reporter can be tested by his abilities to weigh the importance of his sources. “Who” said something is as important as “what” was said.  The Telegraph‘s Religious affairs editor John Bingham in an article entitled “Anglicans could receive Roman Catholic communion, Archbishop suggests” shows how this is done in religion reporting.

A senior Catholic leader in England stated Anglicans may one day be permitted to receive Communion in Catholic Churches, but The Telegraph further states the Archbishop of Birmingham has no authority to permit such an innovation. The British daily offers an exciting lede, offering a potential blockbuster of a story, but qualifies the news high up in the story. The author’s skill is shown by having a great “come-on”, a hook to get the reader past the lede. But his professionalism is scene in his fidelity to the facts.

The article opens with:

The ban on Anglicans receiving Roman Catholic Holy Communion could be relaxed as part of moves to bring the two churches together after centuries of division, one of Britain’s most senior Catholic clerics has suggested.

Followed by:

The Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev Bernard Longley, signalled that restrictions, which can be traced back to the Reformation, might be “reconsidered” as a result of “deeper sharing” between the two churches.

Although he insisted that he was expressing a “personal view”, the Archbishop’s comments will be closely watched as he is the senior Catholic cleric responsible for dialogue with the Anglican churches.

In his lede paragraph the author pushes the story as hard as the facts allow, crafting an eye-catching opening. He then qualifies the first sentence, nudging the story so as to make clear that though Archbishop Longley is one of the senior Catholic bishops in England, his statements do not represent official policy but are his personal views.

The article sets out the source of the archbishop’s quote. States his importance and relevance to the issue by noting he is Catholic co-chairman of the Anglican/Catholic commission working towards reuniting the two churches. And details the foundation for his views.

“My personal view is, you are right to draw attention to the changes which we have already seen on the basis of a deeper theological understanding of one another’s churches.

“And on that basis the 1993 Ecumenical Directory made possible the reception of Holy Communion by the baptised who are not members of the Roman Catholic Church in a number of specified circumstances and with certain criteria.

“Given that that represents a change and a very significant shift away from the impossibility to the limited possibility then I could imagine and foresee one of the fruits of our ecumenical engagement as moving towards a deeper understanding of communion and a deeper sharing between our churches … which perhaps would lead to a reconsideration of some of the circumstances.”

A senior Anglican is quoted in support of the innovation, and the article closes with an explanatory note from an official Catholic spokesman — the secretary to the Department for Dialogue and Unity at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales who stress the conditional aspect of this story. Shared Eucharistic fellowship will not be happening tomorrow.

“How and when that day comes, no one can predict. It is up to the Holy Spirit.”

All in all a nicely crafted story that focuses on what the archbishop said and the Anglican response. Some will protest that the article is unbalanced. Where are the voices of traditional Catholics or Evangelical Anglicans — both likely to object to the archbishop’s comments?

Are those voices necessary in this story? The author has limited the parameters of the story to what Archbishop Longley told The Church of Ireland Gazette. An argument can be made that negative reactions are second day stories not necessary for the initial report. I believe that is true in this case. But the decision how and when to give the response is within the author’s discretion.

The addition I would have liked to have seen, however, is a line or two that (from a Catholic perspective) states the obvious. “Who gets to decide?”

In the context of the Church of England and the wider Protestant world, the personal opinion of an archbishop is significant. But the Catholic Church has a magisterium that lays down what is the authentic teaching of the Church. For Catholics this authority is vested uniquely in the pope and the bishops who are in communion with him.

What Longley says represents one school of thought — but until the pope speaks on this issue his views must necessarily be considered “personal”.

For a Catholic audience this will not be news. For an unchurched or Protestant audience the concept of magisterium needs to be repeated for the underlying assumptions on the nature of religious authority are fundamentally different — I would argue.

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  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    This Telegraph story seems rather strange in face of the fact most comments and stories currently about the Anglican Church’s relations with the Catholic Church talk about the approval of women bishops as being a nuclear bomb thrown by the Anglican Church into ecumenical relations with the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Churches and the ancient churches of the East). Yet apparently that didn’t even get a passing mention in the Telegraph story.
    Also it seems there is no awareness in the story that the Catholic Church does not see Communion as a tool to be used to bring churches together but as a sign of already established unity. The Orthodox and Churches of the East also generally have this teaching.
    And I doubt Rome would choose Anglican over Orthodox in a situation like this.

    • Richard Mounts

      Amen, amen, Deacon Bresnahan! I’m a convert of the post-Vatican II era and even I know that. So, I wonder–was there a “second day story?”

  • Julia B

    How can there be inter-communion when there is no agreement about what communion is? The Archbishop is hoping for something that may never come to fruition. I’m sure he knows that.
    Without the caveats, this article will be the subject of comments from people who don’t recognize the problems that still exist. I frequently hear arguments that start with “I read the other day in the paper that ………”. In a waiting room at a car repair place I heard some guy spouting off about something about Catholics he read in the paper that was just nuts.

  • martin bain

    At least one remark attributed to Archbishop Longley is incorrect : it was not the 1993 Ecumenical Directory which “made possible the reception of Holy Communion by [baptised non-Catholics]“. Fr. Conger’s comments on the role of the Holy Father in initiating change is also somewhat off-base, for the current rules are embedded in Canon Law (so, more is at stake than the difference between something said by an archbishop and something said by the Pope.

    In addition, there is radical confusion in the article over what Longley was talking
    about – he cannot have been signalling that “restrictions” dating back to the Reformation might be “reconsidered”. Short of visible organic unity, there is no possibility of general inter-communion for Catholics with non-Catholics. All Longley was saying was that there might be scope for relaxing the existing criteria (dating back only 50 years) under which individual non-Catholics can be admitted, on a case-by-case basis, to the Catholic Eucharist.

    The possibility for this was mandated by the Council Fathers in 1964 in the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio, n.8) and the relevant criteria were
    spelled out in 1967 by the then Secretariate for the Promotion of Christian Unity in Part 1 of the first edition of the Ecumenical Directory (n.55).

    The applicable rules (substantially the same as in the 1967 Directory) were codified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (can.844). All the 1993 Directory did (nn.122ff.) was reiterate and explain those provisions. They were discussed by Pope St.John Paul II in two encyclicals, Ut Unum Sint (1995, n.46) and Ecclesia
    de Eucharistia (2003, nn.45f.). The distinction between [1] inter-communion and [2] the specific cases in which (a) the Eucharist may be shared with baptised non-Catholics, and (b) Catholics may receivethe Eucharist from non-Catholic ministers, is core to that discussion.

    So far as concerns (a) what counts, inter alia, is the subjective faith of the recipient; so far as concerns (b) what counts, inter alia, is that the Church to which the non-Catholic minister belongs must possess valid sacraments. Obviously (even leaving aside Apostolicae Curae), the ordination of women to the Church of England priesthood and now to the episcopate effectively excludes the Church of England from the purview of (b).

    By concentrating exclusively on (a), the article is missing half the story.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    As for “traditional Catholics” – there is not much to object to here, except for the optimism the article seems to reflect for the possibility of inter-communion. Traditional Catholics, if I may speak from experience, recognize the theoretical possibility of inter-communion which is outlined in the article, and even hope one day it is achieved. What is missing are the roadblocks to inter-communion, mentioned by several other commenters. These would be the things that traditional Catholics would want to emphasize: Yeah, it’s possible that one day inter-communion will occur, but honestly, things are changing on the Anglican side of the fence that is making it less and less likely.

    Also, the hope expressed by the Anglican Bp. Hill, now that Francis is pope, is likewise too optimistic.

  • Julia B

    Not many Americans are aware that some Catholic ecclesial official in Britain made an exception for Tony Blair to receive Communion while attending Mass with his family. As I understand the reasons: 1) He regularly attended Sunday Mass and believed the Catholic understanding of Communion and 2) he had the intention to formally convert after leaving office. As Prime Minister, Blair had Constitutional duties regarding the governance of the Church of England, such as presenting the names of candidates for Archbishop of Canterbury to Parliament. A PM presumably cannot be a Catholic – by law. Maybe many Brits superficially knew about this and thought this kind of exception is more common than it is. Perhaps Fr. Conger could explain this better than I did.