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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

15 May 2009

Communion and Anti-Catholicism

Q: Your Frequency of Communion column was great. I’m an Episcopalian and since the 1979 Prayer Book, we pretty much have the Eucharist every Sunday at every service — and I’m glad for it.

Beyond what you wrote, how did it fall into such complete disfavor? Wasn’t the Mass itself attacked on theological grounds by Protestants? Did it not become a general sense among many that “if the Catholics do it, we don’t want it”? Could it be like those churches one sees while driving that have a steeple but no cross on top? I wonder if, over time, people didn’t forget why we put the cross up there in the first place.

Column WorkA: I’m flattered to be remembered almost two years after I wrote the article and pleased that you still find it of value. You point out a weakness of the column format: I can’t always address every part of each question. In the column you cite, I was focused on the internals of Lutheranism, particularly in the questioner’s native Australia.

So to continue, you note a major difference between Episcopalianism and much of American Protestantism. First of all, much of Protestant Christianity has roots in theologies that treat Holy Communion strictly as a memorial or else teaches only a general spiritual presence of Christ in the meal. Human reason rebels at something (Jesus body and blood) being there when one can only see, touch, and taste bread and wine (or, in most of modern Protestantism, grape juice).

Secondly, anti-Catholicism entered North America at an early time. Many Protestant sects came to the New World because they couldn’t freely practice beliefs contrary to their countries’ official religions. In establishing laws for their American settlements, the colonists usually made their own church the only legal faith within their boundaries. Among the English colonies, Catholics came to Lord Baltimore’s specifically Catholic colony in Maryland, to New York, when the Duke of York converted to Catholicism, and, for a time, to the somewhat tolerant Pennsylvania.

Lord BaltimoreGeneral intolerance in the English colonies had several sources outside of actual theological differences. These included 1) England’s ongoing attempt to subdue Catholic Ireland; 2) Foxe’s Book of Martyrs fanning anti-Roman flames by telling of the nearly 300 Protestants burned to death during the reign of Queen Mary I; and 3) the Gunpowder Conspiracy of 1605, which was a failed assassination attempt by a group of provincial English Catholics against King James I, the “Bible King.” The colonial period saw ten of the thirteen colonies subjecting Catholics to various penal measures. Virginia, for example, proscribed Catholics and their priests in 1642. Many of the New England colonies established even more severe prohibitions.

Catholic scholar Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D. wrote, “Even in ... Maryland, the tables had turned against Catholics by the 1700s.... The penal code ... included test oaths ... to keep Catholics out of office, legislation that barred Catholics from ... certain professions ... and measures ... to make them incapable of inheriting or purchasing land. By 1718 the ballot had been denied to Catholics ... and parents could even be fined for sending children abroad to be educated as Catholics.” See Let None Dare Call it Liberty: The Catholic Church in Colonial America for the complete text.

Church and state throughout the new land continued both official restrictions and unofficial intolerance for years. The largely Protestant colonies had grown into a largely Protestant land. Even many Lutherans were viewed with suspicion, not so much because of language differences but more so because so many of them retained vestments, candles, processions, and a communion theology that confessed the Real Presence of Christ in His Supper.

Al SmithAnti-Catholicism contributed to the failure of the Al Smith presidential campaign and was part of the rhetoric prior to JFK’s election. Religious pamphleteers such as Jack Chick continue to include Catholics as evil, blaming Rome for Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Holocaust, and Communism. While few Protestants go to such extremes, many hold the Catholic Church and many of its common practices in disdain.

I’ve written previously about Lutheran-Catholic Differences. However, the Reformation Lutheranism remained close to many Roman practices. As we’ve noted, these included such staples of the ancient Church as regular (every Sunday) celebration of the Lord’s Supper, individual confession, a liturgy anchored in the Scriptures, and displaying the crucifix. Now, some Protestants despise even an empty cross. Perhaps with so much anti-Catholic “thinking” in America, we should wonder how parts of Lutheranism and Episcopalianism were able to hold on to any of these practices or regain them in recent years.

Except in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and parts of Lutheranism and Anglicanism, many practices that Christianity sustained through most of its first sixteen centuries almost disappeared for several hundred years. Only recently have some attempted to reclaim what their forefathers rejected in their anti-Catholic zeal. And, in so doing, they hope to more fully receive and more completely celebrate not only receiving Jesus’ body and blood but the entire gift of salvation won by “Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2)”

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.

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Newspaper column #582:2


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