What’s the Difference Between the Catholic and Lutheran Belief in Communion?

A priest prepares to distribute Communion at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

There is more agreement than divergence in the way Catholics and Lutherans understand and celebrate Communion. In fact, in the last 50 years, there has been a “coming together” of our two Christian Churches — even to the point that official condemnations that were leveled at each other in the 16th century have recently been lifted by both sides. If you have experienced both a Catholic Mass and a Lutheran celebration of the Lord’s Supper, you’re probably aware of many similarities in the ritual celebrations.

In terms of similarity of belief, Lutherans and Catholics agree that the celebration of the Eucharist involves a sacrifice of praise and self-offering that unites the believer with the sacrifice of Christ, which was a unique, one-time event that is not “repeated” in the Eucharistic celebration. Both Lutherans and Catholics affirm that, in the Eucharist, Christ is “present wholly and entirely, in his body and blood, under the signs of bread and wine” and that this presence of Christ in the Eucharist is more than a mere commemoration or symbol.

Digging a little deeper, the differences between Catholic and Lutheran belief start to emerge when we look at the terms each use to describe the metaphysical reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Catholics call this transubstantiation, which means that during the Eucharistic Prayer the substance (or essence) of the bread and wine is fully changed into the body and blood of Christ, while the outward appearance of bread and wine (what they look, feel, and taste like) remains the same as before. A colloquial metaphor for this is when a man has a child he becomes a father. This is more than simply a change in nomenclature; he is now very different in the essence of who he is, even though he looks and sounds the same on the outside.

Lutherans also believe that the bread and wine retain their outward characteristics, but some use the term consubstantiation to describe their belief that the fundamental substance (essence) of the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the substance of the bread and wine, which remain present. However, other communities of Lutheran believers prefer the term Martin Luther himself coined, Sacramental Union, which speaks of a uniting at the most profound level of the bread and wine with the body and blood of Christ.

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As you can see, these are fairly nuanced differences, but there are implications at the practical level. While both Lutherans and Catholics will bring Communion from the church to members of the community who are sick, Catholics maintain the practice of reserving the Communion bread in the tabernacle, which becomes a place of prayer and devotion. Lutherans do not hold the same belief that the presence of Christ continues in the bread and wine after the time and place of the celebration of the Eucharist.

Lutherans would also question the Catholic practice of offering Mass for the intentions of those who have died. While Lutherans believe in the value of offering prayers for those who have gone before us into eternal life, they would have reservations regarding Catholic belief that the Eucharist is effective as an “atoning sacrifice” for those who have died.

A final important distinction is that while most Lutheran communities would welcome anyone to partake in Communion, Catholics hold that in order to receive Communion at Mass one must be fully in Communion with the Catholic Church and in a state of grace (have not committed any grave sins that break Communion with God and the Church).

Certainly, there are disagreements and divergent thinking around the theology and practice of Communion between Catholics and Lutherans. But we look forward to the day, after further prayer, dialogue, and understanding, when all Christian believers can gather around the one Table of the Lord.

Updated: May 2017