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Our readers asked:

What exactly is the difference between Catholic and Lutheran belief in communion? They sound pretty alike to me.

Fr. Joe Answers:

You are correct in sensing that there is more unity than difference in the way Catholics and Lutherans understand and celebrate communion. In fact, since the Second Vatican Council there has been a “coming together” of these different Christian Churches with respect to communion. The Catholic Eucharist (Mass) is now celebrated in the language of the local community rather than in Latin. The communal celebration of the Mass is much preferred to the private celebration by a priest that was common before Vatican II. And Catholics have restored the ancient practice of communion under the forms of both bread and wine.

In dialogues between Lutheran and Catholic theologians in 1968, Lutherans agreed that the celebration of the Eucharist involves a sacrifice of praise and self-offering that unites the believer with the sacrifice of Christ. At the same time, Catholics joined Lutherans in affirming that the sacrifice of the cross was a unique, one-time event that is not “repeated” in the celebration of the Eucharist. Both Lutherans and Catholics affirmed that in the Eucharist Christ is “present wholly and entirely, in his body and blood, under the signs of bread and wine.” This “presence” of Christ in the Eucharist is more than a commemoration; it is an “effective sign” that “communicates what it promises” (“Building Unity,” Ecumenical Series IV, editors Burges and Gros: Paulist Press, 1989).

There remain some differences between Catholics and Lutherans with respect to communion. Some are matters of vocabulary. Each church forms a kind of culture with its own vocabulary and terminology. For example, Lutherans will refer to communion as “The Lord’s Supper” while Catholics prefer “Eucharist” or “Mass.” A shared vocabulary helps a group feel comfortable and at home. Sometimes differences in vocabulary make it seem that there are differences in meaning where none actually exist. It’s very important to learn and attempt to understand the vocabulary of another church in order to have a meaningful conversation.

True differences in belief and practice also remain. 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 died, they would have reservations regarding Catholic belief that the Eucharist is effective as an “atoning sacrifice” for those who have died.

Catholics hold to the term “transubstantiation” to describe the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. They borrow terms from the philosophy of Aristotle to express the belief that during the Eucharist the substance of bread and wine is changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ, while the accidents of bread and wine (what they look, feel and taste like) remain the same as they were before. Lutherans prefer to avoid the term transubstantiation and use other terms to describe their belief in the full reality of Christ’s presence.

Since I am not Lutheran, I may not have done full justice to the Lutheran position on the Eucharist, and would welcome any corrections from those who know more. However, I feel certain that there is much more agreement between Catholics and Lutherans on this matter than we often realize. I thank you for your most interesting question and hope this has helped to provide an answer.

The Author : Fr. Joe
Fr. Joe Scott, CSP, has been a campus minister, pastor and editor as a Paulist priest.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Martin

    Interesting discussion … my wife and I have been LCMS Lutherans and are now Roman Catholic – but not all at the same time, of course.

    While we remain Roman Catholic, we are Eucharistic ministers (assist with the distribution of The Eucharist) and at a Mass a Lutheran minister (knowing her to be Lutheran (ELCA) and she in a Roman collar, asked as she approached me if she could receive … may be against RC rules, I said “of course” as I knew she believes in Christ in the Eucharist and a in Christ’s redemption for us.

    Just thought I’d share this as a common thread for many Lutherans and Catholics … Rome may keep us separated but making that choice is ours alone.

    • Mike

      bad idea on your part, I hope for your sake God forgives you for that sin.

  • David

    I don’t take communion at non Catholic churches, even my grandmother’s church (she’s a lutheran). I don’t do it to be mean, and I don’t do it because I think it’s a “mortal sin”. I do it because the gravity of belief is different. If we are supposing there is indeed this vast sacred element in the Eucharist, deserving of our reverence and understanding, we should acknowledge the gravity of our beliefs by sticking to the communion within our respective churches. This doesn’t need to be a discriminatory thing, it should just be something where each of us embraces the understanding of our respective church’s beliefs on the subject. It’s a heavy thing to take the Eucharist. I prefer to keep that idea consistent in practice as well as belief.

  • angel

    i think this is great for an assignment

  • Uwe Siemon-Netto

    PS to Steve: Luther also said that it is dangerous to receive Communion flippantly. Buy I have seen in Germany faithful Catholic priests, including a Trappist prior, receive the sacrament at a Lutheran altar because it was consecrated by a Lutheran bishop ordained in the apostolic succession.

  • Uwe Siemon-Netto

    I like the level of this discussion. As a Lutheran spending half the year in France, I commune there at Roman Catholic churches with the permission of their hierarchy because there is no Lutheran church anywhere within a 400-mile radius and the Calvinist churches do not believe in Real Presence. Most educated Catholics understand that Lutherans value Communion as highly as they do, Word and Sacrament being the two means of grace in the Lutheran church. We are as adamant as they in affirming the Real Presence. But like the Eastern Orthodox, we do not teach transubstantiation, or for that natter consubstantiation, because of the futility of any attempt to explain a divine mystery in terms of reason, which is — to use a contemporary metaphor — the “operating system” of the secular realm; its equivalent in the spiritual realm is faith.

  • sandra frady

    Very interesting discussion. I pray that the Holy Spirit will bring us ALL closer and closer so that the time comes when we can all receive Communion with each other no matter which church we are sitting in. Let us love one another so that we are all recognized as Jesus’ disciples. In our town we have great cooperation between the various churches, both in prayerful reunions and in ministry outreach. Blessings to you all.

  • Jonathan

    God does everything in and by order. Paul gave us some rules on communion in I Corinthians 5.7-13 and 11.17-34.

  • Marilyn

    I agree with you Tiphanie.

  • Tiphanie

    It troubles me that we are all supposed to be “brothers and sisters” and ALL welcome to “God’s table”…yet there are RULES?!

    • Mike

      Jesus was a Catholic, not a Lutheran or baptist or anything other then Catholic that is why, think about it.

  • Chris

    @ cathyf – this situation is more complicated than that for Lutherans. The official position of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) is analogous to that of the Roman Catholic church: you must be in communion with (i.e. a member of) the LCMS in order to receive communion in their services. Practice in the ELCA varies. Some congregations welcome all baptized Christians, or (as in my congregation) those who normally commune in their own congregations. Others ask that you share the Lutheran belief in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament in order to commune.

    @ Steph and Tara – I don’t know if it’s regarded a mortal sin, but I believe the official Roman Catholic position is that Roman Catholics are not allowed to receive communion in non-RC churches.

    As an ELCA pastor, I counsel my people to respect the rules of their hosts when they worship with Roman Catholics or Missouri Synod Lutherans and receive communion only at the explicit invitation of the host pastor .

  • Bill S.

    I grew up Catholic but, attend an ELCA church in my hometown.My fathers side were historically Lutherans,Palatine Germans in N.Y. I feel at home in either Church and I see more similarities than differences and those should be celebrated.I was never told as a Catholic that it was a sin to receive or Celebrate the communion in any other Christian church.How it is viewed by the individual is the matter in Question.

  • Tara

    I grew up catholic and I believe that catholics are welcome to visit and take communion from other churches. I dont believe they think it is a sin.

  • Steph

    I believe it’s a mortal sin for Catholics to receive communion in another church. I did not take communion with the Lutherans until I had decided that I was not Catholic anymore.

    • Mike

      as long as they know it is only bread and wine or grape juice and they’d like a snack then where is the sin?

  • cathyf

    Lutherans welcome baptized Christians to communion at there services, obviously that would include Catholics. What is the Catholic Church’s position on Catholics receiving communion at a Lutheran service?

    • Mike

      as long as they know it is only bread and wine or grape juice and they’d like a snack then where is the sin? just saying :D

  • Mike Hayes

    Martha and Jordan…exactly right.

    Jordan…canon law would give the hierarchy the right to determine what is in Catholic tradition obviously, but I think you’re asking how the church would determine when someone who is outside of Catholicism is actually on the communion line? I would say that they don’t really know unless they self-identify in some way. And that’s the point–we are self-identifying as Catholics and sending others a sign that we are “in communion” with that particular tradition.

  • Jordan

    That’s a good question Martha. From what I see it has to do with anyone who receives communion at a Roman Catholic Mass, must believe everything the Catholic Church teaches. Since Lutherans do not in the infallibility of the pope… they cannot. Now my question is, where does the church derive the authority to determine who does and does not receive communion?

  • Martha

    So, from what I’m reading, a lot of the beliefs of Catholics and Lutherans about communion are very similar, if not the same. Then why do Catholics not allow Lutherans (or any other religions) to take communion during Mass?

  • Eugene A. Koene

    As an “evangelical catholic” Lutheran minister, I commend most of what is stated in the above article. Some clarification is needed on a few points. While it is true that Lutherans do not practice a particular devotion toward the reserved Sacrament, many parishes today do have a tabernacle or ambrey in which both the consecrated elements of bread and wine are reserved, primarily for the communion of the sick and homebound. While the primary emphasis falls on the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the actual celebration and reception by the gathered communicants, it is not denied that the real presence endures beyond that time and space so long as the act is completed by the actual reception of coommunion (in home, hospital, wherever). In these instances it is often customary to repeat the words of institution, not as (re-)consecration, but simply to confirm Christ’s words of promise to the individual communicant. — I must also take some issue with my fellow-Lutheran Mike’s comment on prayers for the dead. While Lutherans do not accept the mediaeval Roman concept of purgatory, our official doctrinal statements from the 16th century do allow for the continuance of the ancient tradition of some form of prayer for the dead. Under other Protestant influence, many Lutherans have rejected prayer for the dead, but the older understanding is being revived today. We prayerfully commend the deceased to God’s eternal love and mercy, also recognizing that what happens at death remains in the realm of mystery, until we see Christ face to face. Increasingly also the Eucharist is offered at the time of death, as a thanksgiving for the grace of Christ’s redemption in the life of the deceased person. — I think many of us could also affirm the more nuanced views on purgatory offered by some modern Roman Catholic theologians.

  • G. Miguel

    Nice article–Just to make my experience complete, I found the following answer to your question on The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod website (www.lcms.org):
    “At the risk of oversimplication, let me say briefly the following. Roman Catholics share with Lutherans a belief in the real presence of Christ’s true body and blood in the elements of the Sacrament [of the Eucharist or Lord‚Äôs Supper]. However, disagreements have existed historically on whether or how the mystery of Christ’s presence can be explained. Catholics explain the Real Presence through their doctrine of transubstantiation.
    Lutherans reject such an attempt to explain the Real Presence and insist that we must adhere to the simple words of Christ and be content to believe them as a divine mystery beyond human comprehension or explanation. In addition, longstanding differences exist regarding the Catholic position on the Eucharist as a sacrifice. Lutherans have rejected any understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrificial act on our part, holding that it is purely God’s gift through which He acts to impart His forgiveness and strength to communicants. With respect to Baptists, usually Baptists understanding the Lord’s Supper as a symbolic act, including the elements of bread and wine as symbolizing Christ’s presence–in contrast to the Lutheran position that Christ’s true body and blood are present in, with, and under the external elements of bread and wine.”
    Pax tecum.

  • Mike

    I am Lutheran and we do NOT pray FOR the dead. It is our belief that, once a person has died, their eternal state is final. No prayer can raise them out of hell, and no prayer is needed in Heaven.

    Other than this one point, the article is very interesting and I enjoyed reading it.

    • MINDY

      I was raised in a Lutheran (ELCA) church. I have heard prayer for the soul of a deceased person…several times. We may not believe we can pray for their past sins while they were alive…but we most certainly are not condemned or expected to ignore the fact that a deceased persons soul is worthy of prayer as well. A soul is a soul, with or without its physical body. We aren’t praying for an empty vessel per se, but for the actual soul.

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