The idea of “communion” is far too precious for the Church’s life to be flung around carelessly and for ideological ends. But that’s exactly what is happening.What does it means to be “in communion” today? – Catholic World Report
Some months ago, a Catholic bishop in Puerto Rico was removed from office by Pope Francis, in a move which some have questioned for its appropriateness. On March 9, Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres was relieved of his apostolic duties in the Diocese of Arecibo. His crime? According to the bishop himself, he was accused of not having “been obedient to the pope” and apparently lacked “sufficient communion with my brother bishops of Puerto Rico.”
Prudence dictates that we wait for more information on this particular situation. But as it stands, it appears that this bishop stood out for a number of reasons: he refused to send his seminarians to the new Interdiocesan Seminary of Puerto Rico, he refused to sign multiple bishops’ conference statements (including those that severely restricted the traditional Latin Mass), stated that Catholics have a right to conscientious objection to COVID vaccines, and argued against gender ideology. To this day, Bishop Fernández remains a bishop without a See, his replacement was appointed, and his request for a papal audience has not yet been granted.
The weaponization of “communion”
All too often, specific words popular in Catholic discourse take on a life on their own, or rather, are manipulated to fit a specific meaning, whether or not such a meaning is warranted by the word’s meaning itself. Words such as “accompaniment”, “encounter”, “dialogue”, and “rigid” function as ecclesial dog whistles. They mean exactly what the speaker wishes them to mean—nothing more and nothing less.
For example, we might hear about how Catholics must “accompany” pro-abortion politicians as they try to work out the apparently perplexing decision of whether or not to support infanticide. Such “accompaniment”, however, apparently refers to holding their hand in the line to receive Holy Communion, and never “accompanying” them to the nearest confessional. On a similar note, “encounter”—once the buzzword of Pope Francis’ pontificate—has been defined as allowing the marginalized to “be part of the life of the community without being hindered, rejected or judged.”
It is unclear how the present pontificate is able to simultaneously promote this definition of “encounter”, while simultaneously forbidding parishes from listing times when the traditional Latin Mass is offered. We are told to “dialogue” with adherents of other religions, but as soon as the dialogue turns into trying to convince the non-Catholic the truth of the Faith, we have seemingly missed the mark. “Rigid” always seems to refer to those attached to traditional forms of worship, but never to those inflexible and insistent persons who assert that decisions made in the 1970s are irreversible.
Returning to the strange case of Bishop Fernández, we find another word that, despite its importance for the Church’s life, has been weaponized by certain ideological camps. The word is “communion”. Like a smug child seeking praise, these camps seize any opportunity to accuse their opponents of not being in sufficient “communion” with the pope. When four cardinals submitted a dubia to Pope Francis seeking clarification on Amoris Laetitia, one archbishop called it a “very grave scandal,” one that could strip them of their cardinalate, and stated that to question Pope Francis is to “doubt the Holy Spirit.” Papal cheerleaders drum the beat of Lumen gentium §25, which speaks of the duty of “religious submission of mind and will” to the papal magisterium. This “religious submission” (obsequium religiosum) is then used as a sword against anyone who disagrees with anything said or done by the Holy Father, including those often befuddling papal plane interviews.
It is ironic, then, that the same people who warned against “creeping infallibility” in previous pontificates are quick to dogmatize every word spoken by the current pope. While intra-ecclesial debates over the scopes and limits of the papacy are bound to continue, there is little said about the weaponization of “communion”. Are there any objective criteria to being “in communion” with the pope, aside from recognizing his primacy and authority? What is the theological basis for such communion? And, ultimately, of what does communion consist?
First, let me explain my motivation for asking these questions. Primarily, I am concerned that “communion”—a major concept in the Catholic tradition and said to be “the central and fundamental idea of the Council’s documents”—has been repeatedly misused to promote a cult of personality for certain popes over and against others. Simply put, the idea of “communion” is far too precious for the Church’s life to be flung around carelessly and for ideological ends.
Secondarily, I realize that there is a wide gap between our theological understanding of communion and how it is put into practice. Let us look no further than the Rhineland. Anyone who is watching the current ecclesial landscape in Germany can see that the “Synodal Way” is obviously at odds with perennial Catholic teaching on faith and morals. And yet, aside from the occasional warning, it is nonetheless presumed they currently remain “in communion” with the pope, and thus by extension, with the Catholic Church. One wonders how a priest who criticizes the Church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis can be suspended, while German bishops and priests who defy Pope Francis’ wishes (as well as the Faith, in general) by blessing same-sex unions are still considered to be in good standing with the Church.
A fuller understanding of communion can only help distinguish between true and false notions of what communion entails.
Remaining with the previous example, let’s ask again: is there any objective criteria that determines if one is in communion with the Catholic Church? Certainly, recognition of papal power and authority is a major aspect of it.
For example, this is what primarily separates a Ukrainian Orthodox bishop from a Ukrainian Greek Catholic one—they share the same liturgies, the same feasts, many of the same saints; and yet, the mere acknowledgement of Catholic teaching on the papacy is enough to transition the former into the latter. When the Ukrainian Orthodox Archbishop Ihor Isichenko recently entered into full communion with the Catholic Church, he did not need to be re-ordained, have to re-do his seminary training, or even change the majority of his ritual worship. Those who received him into the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church presumably did not ask his thoughts on the Filioque or on divorce and remarriage, both additional issues that are said to separate Orthodox from Catholics.
Instead, the major assent involved was to acknowledge the Roman Pontiff’s “supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power… over the entire Church,” including his “primacy of ordinary power over all the eparchies.” (Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches, 43-45). This echoes Lumen gentium’s teaching that the pope is “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.” (§23) So from the start, we must acknowledge that communion in the Catholic Church requires communion with the Roman Pontiff.
But aside from nodding affirmatively to Church teaching on the papacy, is there anything else that measures this communion? In other words, what good is it to announce that one is “in communion with the Roman Pontiff” if one’s professed beliefs not only contradict the Holy Father’s, but more importantly, the deposit of faith? Sacred Scripture reminds us that even demons recognize the truth of God (Lk 4:34; Jas 2:19) We might then say that even demons recognize papal primacy. Certainly, we will not say that demons, by virtue of their recognition of this truth, are part of the Catholic Church!
But are bishops who bless same-sex unions and promote women’s ordination on the same level of communion as those bishops who do not? Both groups recognize, at least intellectually, the primacy of Peter in the person of the pope. To deny this would result in schism, which to this day is only as “the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” (CIC, 751) But what if the pope allowed blessings for same-sex unions? According to the Johan Bonny, bishop of Antwerp, his guidelines for blessing same-sex unions is “aligned with Pope Francis,” something of the utmost significance, “because communion with the pope is sacred to me.” Let us assume, for a minute, that Bishop Bonny is telling the truth, and that blessing same-sex unions would be in line with the papal allowance. Is obedience to the Holy Father the only criteria for remaining in Catholic communion? Would this mean that those bishops who reject the pope’s toleration of this practice are suddenly schismatic?
When communion is reduced to surface-level loyalty to the pope, it loses its rich, theological meaning. Such ersatz communion is nothing more than nominalistic voluntarism—it lacks any objective realism or conforming to principles beyond the self-assertion that one is “in communion” due to one’s base recognition of the Roman Pontiff.
Theological basis for communion
The English word “communion” essentially derives from the Greek root koinon-, commonly found as koinonia. In Greek, the word denotes a sharing of goods, having things in common, and a communal participation in a singular task. In Sacred Scripture, we find this word most prominent in the writings of St. Paul. Most famously, it is used when Paul describes participation in the Lord’s Supper: “The chalice of benediction, which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread, which we break, is it not the partaking of the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16).
Communion is expressed both in the communal partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ with one another, but also the act of union with the divine life Christ offers. Koinonia refers to the sharing of life between the community with one another, as well as the sharing of life between the community and its founder, Jesus Christ. Communion reveals both God’s identity as well as our own. St. Paul uses the root for koinonia when referring to the collection for the poor in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8:4; Rom 15:26) and the fellowship Christians have in their faith (Phlm 6), and the collaborative character of his ministry (2 Cor 8:23). However, the Gospels never use the term koinonia, and even in the other New Testament writings, the Church is never explicitly described as koinonia. This is not to say that it is wrong to identify the Church with “communion”, but that if we do so, we must guard against holding “communion” as the Scriptural model of the Church par excellence.
Twentieth-century ecclesiology made frequent use of the term “communion” in describing the Church. Often times, theologians would point to the Trinity as a communion of Persons, and analogically speak of the Church as a communion of particular Churches or even people. Communion ecclesiology still enjoys prevalence today, especially within Catholic and Orthodox circles. The theological basis for communion lay within its suitability to describe both the human and divine elements of the Church. On a sociological or interpersonal level, understanding the Church as communion recognizes the corporate nature of the Church as something composed of not only myself and God, but others, both living and deceased. To explain the Church as a communion in these terms shows the horizontality of the Church, which exists across the world.
Communion ecclesiology flowed well into Eucharistic ecclesiology, which emphasizes the local Church, the bishop at its head, and the relationship of the local Church to the universal Church. On an aesthetic or spiritual level, understanding the Church as communion recognizes that the Church is the extension of Christ in His Mystical Body. Thus, just as the divine and human natures are hypostatically united to the Word, so too are those divine and human elements united vertically into the mystery of the Trinity. The Church is a communion because it participates in the communion of the three Divine Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Unitatis Redintegratio, 2.) Any understanding of the Church-as-communion must first proceed from the Trinitarian mystery if it is to have any credibility.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, theology manuals treated communion either as Holy Communion or the communion of saints. Theologians preceding the Council carefully built upon Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi (1943) in explaining the nature of the Church as the flowering of Christ’s Mystical Body. Thus, ecumenically-minded theologians including Jérôme Hamer, O.P. and Yves Congar were deeply committed to moving beyond a juridical notion of the Church as a “perfect society” that was solely visible, and did not leave much room for the invisible workings of the Holy Spirit.
However, as important as their contributions were, one can argue that their poetic writings on the Church as communion sometimes muddied the waters so that communion ecclesiology would not be able to identify the basis for the Church’s communion apart from its inter-relationality. Communion becomes an aspired model, a perpetual work in progress, and has no solid basis apart from a feeling that one belongs to another—particularly that of the pope. Whatever its limitations, St. Robert Bellarmine’s definition of Church membership – the one which communion ecclesiologists sought to supersede—had being under papal authority as one aspect of communion, and not the sole one. For Bellarmine, membership in the Catholic Church consisted of the following: profession of the true faith, the communion of the Sacraments, and subjection to the legitimate pastor, the Roman Pontiff.
Ironically, Bellarmine’s definition (as well as Pius XII’s centuries later in Mystici Corporis) was more inclusive than post-Vatican II ecclesiologies, because the former presumed one was a Catholic in good standing until proven otherwise, while the latter requires a subjective determination of how “fully” one is united to the Church (LG, 14). While Vatican II’s teaching on the Church contains many great insights, its attempt to gradate communion without explicit, objective criteria turns ecclesial communion into an ideal held together only by hierarchical power.
So, then, we ask again: of what does communion consist? With Vatican II, we affirm that
They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. (LG, 14)
But, as current events in the Church have shown, such a definition has its limitations. As groups of bishops move towards heterodoxy while simultaneously recognizing papal authority, we have a schizophrenic concept of communion.
St. Thomas Aquinas notes that the Church is built upon sacraments and faith. In asking whether the Apostles or their successors can institute new sacraments, Aquinas answers in the negative, stating:
The apostles and their successors are God’s vicars in governing the Church which is built on faith and the sacraments of faith. Wherefore, just as they may not institute another Church, so neither may they deliver another faith, nor institute other sacraments: on the contrary, the Church is said to be built up with the sacraments “which flowed from the side of Christ while hanging on the Cross.” (ST III.64, art. 2, ad. 3).
Being in communion with the Church presupposes that one is in communion with the Church’s faith and sacraments, which are mediated—and not created—by the hierarchy. Thus, to the extent that troublesome German bishops deviate from the Church’s sacramental rites and faith, we can say that they are no longer in Catholic communion—despite their supposed allegiance to the pope. If communion is going to be an appropriate concept for our reflections on the Church, then it must have a specific meaning, lest it be rendered completely meaningless.