Are Catholics about to loosen Communion rules?

Are Catholics about to loosen Communion rules? July 30, 2014

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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