A couple of recent news articles made me think that perhaps a post concerning some of the differences between Lutheran and Catholic beliefs regarding Holy Communion might be helpful (I also find theological discussions endlessly interesting).
Communion is also called The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist (“Thanksgiving”), or the Sacrifice of the Altar. My intent in this post is simply to describe, the best that I can, the differences in belief. I’m a Lutheran pastor, so I’m obviously coming at this from a Lutheran (LCMS) perspective, but I’ll do my best to do justice to the Catholic belief. In addition, I won’t be able to cover every issue or nuance, but will try to highlight the main ones. Also, if you’d like to comment, please feel free to email me.
The first article talks about a new Swedish cardinal who grew up Lutheran but later converted to Catholicism. He states that inter-communion between Lutherans and Catholics is not possible due to the different beliefs about Communion. In particular, he notes: “Officially we know that Luther accepted the real presence in the Eucharist in actu, during the celebration only, but not after the Mass, and that is a great difficulty of course.” He is correct in his statement, which I’ll elaborate upon below.
The second article concerns the use of gluten free hosts in Communion. The Roman Catholic Church believes that wheat must be used in the bread (citing, for example, John 12:24). Thus, low-gluten hosts are ok; no gluten hosts (i.e. those without wheat) are not.
I point to these two articles, because they help to bring out some differences between Lutheran and Catholic beliefs regarding Communion. I’ve organized this comparison around questions with summarized Lutheran and Catholic answers; I’ve also included a line for “Other Protestant Christians.” I’m leaving out the Eastern Orthodox churches, however. (Update 13 July: It’s been pointed out to me – correctly – that I’m doing an injustice to the full spectrum of Protestant belief about Communion by lumping them all together under “Other.” For that I apologize. My main intent for this post was just to compare Lutheran and Catholic beliefs, so I haven’t given full expression to all Protestant beliefs, such as Episcopalian/Anglican.)
- What is Communion?
Lutheran: Communion is a Sacrament of the Lord whereby he gives us his body and blood for our salvation. That is, the benefits which Christ won for us on the cross and empty tomb (i.e. forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God, each other, and creation) are distributed to us here, as well as through Baptism and the proclamation of the Gospel.
Catholic: Communion is a Sacrament of the Lord and connected with the Sacrifice of the Mass whereby Christ is offered up in an unbloody sacrifice to give glory to God and then distributed to the people.
Other Protestant Christians: Communion is a meal of remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. He is spiritually present.
- What is the bread and wine in Communion?
Lutheran: It is Christ’s body and blood “in, with, and under” the bread and wine.
Catholic: It is Christ’s body and blood in the appearance of bread and wine.
Other Protestant Christians: It is bread and wine.
- How is Christ present in the bread and wine?
Lutheran: Christ is bodily present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. Sometimes, this view is described as “consubstantiation,” but this is incorrect. Lutherans object to the attempt to define how Christ is bodily present in the bread and wine (and therefore reject the Roman Catholic term “transubstantiation” as well as the term “consubstantiation”). Instead, Lutherans hold to a “sacramental union” whereby Christ is really bodily present in the bread and wine, without attempting to describe exactly how this occurs. Relatedly, whether the host is made of wheat or is gluten-free is of less concern to Lutherans than to Catholics (although wheat is preferred).
Catholic: Christ is bodily present in the bread and wine. The Roman Catholic Church uses the term “transubstantiation” to describe its view. It believes that the “substance” of the bread and wine become the “substance” of the body and blood of Christ while appearing to still be bread and wine. This is an attempt at describing how the process occurs using philosophical terms (I intend no judgment here, as the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds themselves use plenty of philosophical terms to describe the Triune nature of God).
Other Protestant Christians: Spiritually only.
- When and for how long is the bread and wine Christ’s body and blood?
Lutherans: Only during the Sacrament of the Altar; i.e. during the celebration of Communion. Before and after Communion the bread is plain bread and the wine is plain wine. Thus, even after consecration of the sacramental elements (i.e. bread and wine), Christ is only bodily present during the celebration of Communion. However, you will note that Lutherans treat the consecrated elements with reverence following Communion (e.g. storing them in a separate container, pouring the wine directly on the ground, or the pastor consuming the leftover elements).
Catholics: After the elements are consecrated, Christ is bodily present in them always. This is the reason why the priest places the consecrated elements in a tabernacle, why people venerate the elements, and the origin of the Corpus Christi (“body of Christ”) parade where Christ (is the form of the consecrated bread) is paraded through town.
Other Protestant Christians: Christ is spiritually present during Communion.
I hope this helps. I’ve tried to cover the highlights and accurately describe both Lutheran and Catholic views on Communion.
If you’d like to learn more, here are some links to free resources on the subject:
- Luther’s Small Catechism on the Sacrament of the Altar
- Lutheran Confessions on the Lord’s Supper
- Holy Communion – The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (this will download a small PDF)
- Roman Catholic Catechism on the Sacrament of the Eucharist
- Roman Catholic Article on the Sacrament
(Image: By Peter Paul Rubens – http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437527This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons by as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CCO, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57672192 )