One of the great developments in theology in the 20th century, both in Catholic and Orthodox circles, was the rise of “eucharistic ecclesiology.” This is the recognition of the central place of the Eucharist in the life of the Church. Or, in the words of Henri de Lubac, “the Eucharist makes the Church.” Without the Eucharist, there would be no Church (and likewise, without the Church there would be no Eucharist). The Church is not just a gathering of like-minded people for a common cause, it is the mystical Body of Christ, and the Eucharist is the means in which this Body stays united.
But what happens when a Christian body proclaiming itself to be a “church” does not celebrate a valid Eucharist? Is it really a Church? Not according to the Catholic Church. In the language of the Church, it is an “ecclesial communion,” which basically means it is a group of Christians who are united in some fashion and its members – individually – are also connected to the Church in an imperfect way through their baptism. But the organization itself is not a church, per se, because it does not have the unifying element of the Eucharist, nor does the organization itself have a true connection to the Church. This is an important distinction that should not be glossed over, and it has far-ranging implications, especially in the area of ecumenism.
The goal of the Catholic Church in ecumenical talks is that each Christian is in communion with the bishop of Rome. In the case of the Orthodox churches – which are true churches because they have a valid Eucharist – this is pursued on a corporate level. The goal is to unite those Eastern churches – as churches – to the bishop of Rome. But in the case of Protestants, this is not the case. It is impossible to unite their corporate bodies to Rome as churches since they do not celebrate a valid Eucharist. Thus, the ideal is simply to allow these groups to join en masse to the Catholic Church, not as churches, but instead as a large group of individuals.
The case of the Anglicans might appear to be an exception, but it is sadly not. In Pope Benedict’s initiative to bring traditional Anglicans into the Church, he has allowed the set-up of personal ordinariates which would be the corporate structure for convert Anglicans to enter the Church. But it is important to note that their existing ecclesial structure would not be incorporated into the Church, but would instead simply cease to exist. If a large body of traditional Anglicans were to enter the Church, they would formally be entering as individuals, not as a body.
The most important part of what makes us a Church is not the fact that we have the same beliefs or a common goal in life. It is that we celebrate the Eucharist, which is the Body of Christ. Let us pray that all Christians will one day be able to celebrate this great mystery at one altar.