What is church teaching on Protestant Communion and the Real Presence?

Q: What is the church currently teaching about the Real Presence in other denominations? I thought that at one time we recognized both the Lutherans and the Anglicans as having the Real Presence. Does that still hold true? Others?

A: For context, let us recall that the Catholic teaching on the "real presence" in the Eucharist means that we believe that the bread and wine offered at Mass literally become the body and blood of Christ when the priest prays the prayer of consecration.

This doctrine has been a part of the Catholic faith since the time of the church's foundation. For example, as we read in St. John's Gospel, Jesus himself states: "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. ... For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink." (See Jn 6:53, 55)

Later, in the Middle Ages, scholastic theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas were able to describe this teaching in more technical philosophical terms. Specifically, "transubstantiation" is our word for what happens when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ at Mass -- namely, the "substance" (basically, the essential nature, identity or "being" of a thing) changes, even while the "accidents" (i.e., the physical, observable qualities) of the bread and wine remain.

During the Protestant Reformation and afterward, the vast majority of Protestant denominations distanced themselves from characteristically Catholic sacramental theology. Most of these denominations rejected the idea of the Real Presence in the Eucharist; that is, if they had any practice similar to holy Communion, this was understood as a purely symbolic means of recalling the Last Supper. Naturally, the Catholic Church is not going to see the Real Presence in situations where the denomination in question does not.

A few notable exceptions to this are, as you note, some Anglicans and Lutherans. Historically, the Church of England was established on the more organizational and political premise that the king or queen of England should also be considered the head of the church in England, as opposed to specific theological differences. So, although Anglicanism now has many branches (such as the Episcopal Church in the United States) that might believe different things today, at least initially the Anglicans did not specifically reject the doctrine of the Real Presence. Similarly, while Martin Luther did not teach the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation, he did believe in the similar idea of "consubstantiation," where the "substance" of Christ's body and blood coexists with the "substance" of mere bread and wine after the consecration.

But today the Catholic Church does not recognize any Protestant denomination as having the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The reason for this is that, even in Protestant denominations that call their clergy "priests," we do not believe that these clergy were ordained through apostolic succession. That is, we as Catholic believe that all our bishops -- and the priests whom they ordain as their co-ministers -- were ordained by bishops who were in turn ordained by other bishops in an unbroken chain reaching back to the first bishops, the apostles, who were consecrated in their vocation by Jesus personally. Jesus gave the apostles the power to consecrate the Eucharist, a power which the apostles then handed down to their successors, and a power which cannot be obtained in any other way.

However, in contrast, we as Catholics believe that the Eastern Orthodox Churches, despite not being in union with the Pope in Rome, have nearly identical understanding of the sacraments as well as priests and bishops ordained via apostolic succession. Therefore, the Orthodox do have valid sacraments from a Catholic perspective, and thus we also recognize the Real Presence in their celebrations of the Eucharist.

- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.