Clinton and Communion

Did the president try to pull a fast one on God?

On March 29, the Rev. Mohlomi Makobane, a Catholic priest in Soweto, South Africa, gave Holy Communion to the president of the United States, a Jesuit-educated Southern Baptist who worships at his wife’s Methodist church in Washington, D.C.

The policy of the Roman Catholic Church is that except in extreme circumstances, only Catholics (and sometimes Eastern Orthodox Christians) are invited to consume the consecrated bread and wine at a Catholic Mass. Makobane was criticized for his action, as was Bill Clinton, who was judged to have characteristically grabbed something to which he was not entitled. Cardinal John O’Connor of New York used his Palm Sunday sermon to declare the episode “legally and doctrinally wrong” and added this grace note: “Some undoubtedly believe that if one has enough prestige or money, anything goes.”

Clinton isn’t the first Protestant politician to have been warned he would never eat Communion in this church again. Several years ago, Clinton’s 1992 rival Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., a Congregationalist, stopped taking Communion at a Catholic church after the Catholics-only policy was called to his attention. And the president’s British soul mate, Prime Minister Tony Blair, an Anglican, was reported by British papers to have complied with a request that he no longer receive Communion at his wife’s Catholic parish. The Catholic Church’s scruples about intercommunion cut both ways: The Republic of Ireland’s President Mary McAleese, a Catholic, was lectured by the hierarchy after she took Communion at an Anglican cathedral in Dublin.

A generation ago, a Protestant president of the United States who took Communion at a Catholic ceremony would have had to worry about censure not from Catholics but from co-religionists appalled at the spectacle of a Bible-believing Protestant participating in the “popish superstition” of the Mass. It’s a measure of the self-confidence of the American Catholic hierarchy that the flak in the Clinton flap came from the other direction.

Did Clinton and Makobane pull a fast one? Not really. Their supposed transgression is a common occurrence at American Catholic churches and the logical outcome of the ecumenical movement energized by the Roman Catholic Church itself.

Returning to my childhood Catholic parish for Easter Mass a couple of years ago, I was struck by the thought that the service (a term never applied to Catholic worship in my altar boy days in the early 1960s) would have scandalized past pastors. Not only was the Mass in English, celebrated by a priest facing the congregation, but at Communion time, the sacrament was distributed in both “species” (wine as well as bread) by ministers of both sexes–though some older parishioners, after receiving the consecrated wafer from priestly hands, avoided the female eucharistic minister (a laywoman) offering the chalice.

Conservative Catholics call this “Protestantizing” the Mass. But ecumenical cross-pollination has led to at least as significant a “Catholicization” of Protestant worship. Once infrequently celebrated in many Episcopal and Lutheran churches, Holy Communion is increasingly the principal act of worship on Sunday. Episcopalians, Lutherans, and some Methodists have rediscovered rituals, ornaments, and clerical vestments (the “rags of popery” of Protestant polemic) discarded during the Reformation. The result is a consensus Communion ceremony that might be called “Catholic lite.”

Yes, differences in interpretation remain and, after the Clinton Communion, commentators ritualistically recited the theological boilerplate I learned in parochial school: Catholics regard the Eucharist as a sacrifice, while for Protestants it is a mere memorial. Writing in the Washington Times, Robert Alt contrasted the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation, “whereby the bread and wine, while maintaining their ordinary physical qualities, are substantively transformed in the Eucharist into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ,” with consubstantiation, the Methodist (and Lutheran) teaching that “the bread and wine and Christ’s presence exist simultaneously.”

The nature of the Eucharist was a defining issue in the Reformation. Two issues loomed large: the nature of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine of Communion and whether the Eucharist was a sacrifice offered for the forgiveness of sins. Reformers objected to the latter as a derogation of Jesus Christ’s redemptive death on the cross and a theological close cousin to the selling of indulgences. But these once-bright lines have become blurred.

Four centuries later, partly due to new scholarship about the Jewish roots of the sacrament, a panel of Anglican and Catholic theologians released an “Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine.” This 1971 document affirmed the “true presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, “effectually signified by the bread and wine, which, in this mystery, become his body and blood.” As for the T-word: “The word transubstantiation is commonly used in the Roman Catholic Church to indicate that God acting in the Eucharist effects a change in the inner reality of the elements.” It “should be seen as affirming the fact” of Christ’s presence, but not as explaining “how the change takes place.” (Despite this fudge, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church retains the term.)

As for the divisive issue of whether the Mass is a sacrifice for the remission of sins, the statement affirms that “Christ’s death upon the cross … was the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world.” However, the Eucharist is a memorial (Greek anamnesis) in which “the atoning work of Christ on the cross is proclaimed and made effective in the life of the church.”

This and a similar ecumenical agreement with Lutherans have not been embraced as authoritative by the Vatican. Nevertheless, they have affected not only Catholic academic theology but also popular teaching and practice. These days the Eucharist is likelier to be described as a meal, albeit one graced by the saving presence of Christ, than as a propitiatory sacrifice.

Many Protestants have no doubt that Jesus is really present in the Communion distributed at Catholic Masses. And they reject the notion that they are ineligible to partake of a gift that ultimately comes from God, not from the pope or O’Connor. Anglicans are particularly aggrieved by the no-Protestants policy. Preaching recently in Luxembourg’s Catholic cathedral, the Most Rev. George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury, noted that “it hurts to be denied the Lord’s Supper by a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ.” Carey urged the Roman Catholic Church to adopt the open-rail policy followed by Anglican churches.

Thanks to Vatican II (and one of its little-noted consequences, an ebbing of American anti-Catholicism), Catholics unself-consciously socialize with other Christians and attend their christenings, weddings, and funerals. On the same Palm Sunday that saw O’Connor chastising Makobane for sharing Communion with Clinton, I wandered into St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, opposite the White House. This is the historic “Church of the Presidents,” though Bill Clinton was not in attendance that day. I was edified by the hospitality extended to tourists at Communion time. Inviting non-Episcopalian Christians to partake, the priest explained, “This is God’s altar; this isn’t the Episcopal Church’s altar.” If Communion is a meal, it is rude not to reciprocate.