The social teaching of the Church is often described as a 'seamless garment' and this is even more true of the sacraments

Pope Francis recently spoke to the Lutheran community of Rome and addressed a question about Lutherans with Catholic spouses receiving Communion. His response, which was in fact rather nuanced, provoked a huge reaction from those who jumped to the conclusion that he was pressing for general Protestant admission to Communion.

While the Pope’s clear reluctance to respond to a sincere question with a blunt “no” led him to give an answer which could seem open ended, and this helped fuel the reaction, the substance of his remarks was serious food for thought in the ongoing discussion of marriage in the Church.

The reality of one spouse being able to receive Communion, and the other not, is often a source of serious discomfort in what are canonically called “mixed marriages” (between a Catholic and a Protestant). It is understandable that the couple would want to emphasise and share their common Christian faith, both with each other and their children, rather than highlight such a clear division. It is a thorny problem, and one of which the Church is all too aware – for this reason the Code of Canon Law actually goes into some detail about just these issues.

Contrary to popular assumption, the Code actually still requires that Catholics get the permission of their bishop to marry a non-Catholic, even one who is baptised. While failure to get permission for a mixed marriage no longer invalidates the exchange of consent, as it did in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the matter is still treated at length. Canons 1124-1129 lay out the conditions for the granting of permission for a mixed marriage, and their very existence remains an intense irritation to the more ecumenically-minded. But the concern of the Church for a Catholic marrying someone outside of the faith is more than just tribal snobbery. The purpose of the canons is not some anachronistic attempt to prevent Catholics from marrying Protestants but to ensure that, when they do, they are well prepared for the challenges they will face.

In his answer on Protestant spouses receiving Communion, the Pope drew attention to the importance of the common bond of baptism, and this is indeed the foundation and well-spring of a sacramental marriage. It is also, according to canon law, the primary criteria for the reception of Communion (canon 912). Canon law also lays out some very limited circumstances under which Protestants can receive Communion (canon 844). So while some have gone bonkers at the suggestion that the Pope wants to give Communion to Protestants, the Church already holds that this is not a simple question of can they or can’t they, but one of time, place, disposition, and belief. These are not procedural hoops to jump through but necessary expressions of the seriousness of the Eucharist.

It was interesting to see that the Pope underscored that it was beyond his purview to “give permission” for Lutheran spouses to receive Communion, recognising the seriousness of the subject and its place at the theological heart of the Church. While he spoke of the role of personal conscience, he also said such a decision had to be made not just in the light of self-awareness but of objective theology.

The most important proviso for a Protestant to receive Communion is that they “manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments” (c. 844 §4). The Eucharist itself is a sacrament, but it does not exist in isolation. In addition to the doctrine of the real presence, belief and participation in the Mass also rests upon the sacramental priesthood and apostolic succession, themselves other important differences between Catholics and Protestants.

The social teaching of the Church is often described as a “seamless garment”, this is even more true of the sacraments. Because of this, it isn’t credible for a Protestant to habitually manifest Catholic faith regarding the Eucharist in isolation; to believe in the Eucharist is to believe in the priesthood, and the validity and efficacy of the rest of the sacraments, and the authority of the Church. Were they to do so on a weekly basis, they would either be simulating faith, which we can all agree is very bad, or they would effectively be professing themselves to be Catholic, and should be received accordingly. This is why canon law only provides for Catholic ministers to communicate Protestants in very unusual circumstances, like the danger of death.

While there is a symbol of unity in a couple receiving Communion together, what Communion expresses is primarily an existential unity of faith, not merely one of action. If one party believes and the other doesn’t, however good their intention, receiving together is, at best, a unity of painting over the cracks. At worst it encourages the error or indifference against which the Code gravely warns (canon 844) and which can only do harm to the faith of both parties. This is not to say that Catholics and Protestants can’t have strong, loving, Christian marriages. They certainly can. But sincere differences in a marriage, especially those touching the core of faith, need to be addressed openly and honestly, both before the wedding and throughout the marriage. The Church can and must do more to help couples to do this.

One of the subjects which was given sadly little attention during the Synod on the Family was the general agreement that the Church needed to revise dramatically how couples are prepared for marriage. At the moment, the depth and quality of marriage preparation can change not just diocese by diocese, but from parish to parish in some places. And, at least in my own experience, the link between annulment cases and lack of serious marriage preparation is stark.

Even where pre-marital instruction is at its best, I am often told, by priests and laity, that there is a reticence to “look for trouble” – emphasis is placed on what couples have in common, not what divides them. Pope Francis has indicated, as did Benedict and St John Paul II before him, that he would like to see “lack of faith” be considered as a possible ground in nullity cases. While we do not yet know how this might be fleshed out, the experience of marriage tribunals makes it clear that how a couple is united, or divided, by their faith will have enormous consequences for their marriage, from the very moment of consent. The Pope’s recent encounter with the Lutherans of Rome underscores that all couples, even when united by baptism, need to address the whole of their faith, from the beginning, or else it becomes an uncomfortable divide, or worse, a shaky compromise in which neither is a true believer.

The Church owes all couples a much better preparation for marriage; one that isn’t afraid of grounding the messy reality of relationships in the complicated beauty of the Church’s theology of marriage and, when necessary, of confronting the significance of differences.