By Maike Hickson, June 27, 2018
Today, the German bishops have published their very controversial pastoral handout which allows Protestant spouses of Catholics, in certain cases, to receive Holy Communion. Since Pope Francis, on 21 June, objected to a national bishops conference publishing such an official text, the German bishops now simply declare, as if by a rhetorical trick, that this just-released document is not a document of the German bishops’ conference. The title of the text is: “Walking with Christ – tracing unity. Inter-denominational marriages and sharing in the Eucharist.”
The controversial handout, which can be read here: (https://www.dbk.de/fileadmin/redaktion/diverse_downloads/dossiers_2018/08-Orientierungshilfe-Kommunion.pdf,) was approved by the German bishops with a two-thirds majority in February of this year, but its publication was initially held up because of high-ranking opposition both in Germany and in Rome – including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which claimed the pope’s explicit approval in rejecting the initiative.
Curiously, this pastoral handout has no author or no organizational name attached to it. No one, therefore, officially takes responsibility for it.
As the German bishops’ website Katholisch.de reports, Cardinal Reinhard Marx – the President of the German bishops’ conference – spoke recently with Pope Francis about the matter, presumably during his 11-13 June meeting with the Council of Nine Cardinals and the Pope. In this conversation with the Pope, Cardinal Marx was able to make it clear that “the text does not appear as a document of the Bishops’ Conference, given that it also relates to a dimension [sic] of the Universal Church.” These are the words of the Permanent Council of the German bishops which had met from 25-26 June in Bonn, and which subsequently decided to publish the text despite opposition. Barring any further objection, it is to be assumed that the seven German opposing bishops (among them Cardinal Rainer Woelki) who had contacted Rome and asked the Vatican for help in this matter have now given up their resistance.
As the Permanent Council now declares, this text is available as an orientation guide and its implementation is now subject to the responsibility of individual bishops. It is possible that this positioning of the document has been taken in reference to the pope’s comments last week, in which he stated that the problem with the German handout was that under canon law, intercommunion is under the jurisdiction of the local bishop, not a national conference. “The code says that the bishop of the particular church,” Francis said on a return flight from Geneva to Rome on 21 June, “and that’s an important word, ‘particular,’ meaning of a diocese, is responsible for this… it’s in his hands.” He went on to insist that the problem with a national body of bishops issuing a guideline like this is that “something worked out in an episcopal conference quickly becomes universal.”
The Permanent Council has also declared, in relation to the publication of the handout document, that they felt “duty-bound to move forward courageously.” The 25 May letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is also mentioned as an “interpretative frame” for this handout. That letter, signed by the CDF Prefect Archbishop Luis Ladaria, told the German bishops, however, not to publish their intercommunion handout. After that letter, Cardinal Marx met with Pope Francis (during his visit for the 11-13 June C9 Council meeting) and was evidently able to convince him to approve of the handout after all – or at least of the compromise in its method of promulgation.
According to a note that the German bishops published today and which is written and signed by Cardinal Marx and then also signed by Pope Francis, the two agreed, on 12 June, first that the 25 May CDF letter “gives some recommendations,” but “does not give instructions” to the German bishops. The text also states that “the Holy Father does not wish that the text appears as a text of the bishops’ conference, because it relates to a dimension of the Universal Church.” The text shall be an “orientation guide” for bishops who “wish in their diocese to work out criteria in accord with can. 844 CIC.” Third, the Pope and the cardinal say that the Roman dicasteries will continue to work on this topic, as well, thereby also looking at the experiences of other bishops’ conferences. Finally, the note states that, “since the text of the German bishops’ conference shall be an orientation guide for individual bishops, it may also be made public for the use of the bishops.”
The German bishops, in their own statement today, insist that it is about Protestant spouses of Catholics “in individual cases” and that they wish to preserve the connection between “ecclesial community and Eucharistic community,” and, therefore, they will not, in general, admit Protestant Christians to Holy Communion.
The German bishops made it clear that they are open to further reflection as it had been proposed by the CDF in May. “We offer here our collaboration, both to the Holy Father and to the Roman Curia,” the Permanent Council writes. The Permanent Council meets five to six times a year and consists of 27 members who each represent one of the 27 German dioceses.
The statement of the Pemanent Council insists that the German bishops wish to allow some Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion when they have a “serious spiritual desire.”
It is perhaps Cardinal Walter Kasper most of all who can claim this development as a personal victory. It was he who, during the Luther Year 2017, told the German bishops that is was now up to them to come up with proposals. As the German newspaper Die Sueddeutsche reported at the time, Cardinal Kasper said in April of 2017, during a service at the Lutheran Church of Rome, that he expected “concrete steps forward” during the course of the year. “We may not limit ourselves, in this year of the Reformation, to friendly gestures,” he said, and then added: “But the decision lies now in the hands of the German bishops’ conference.” It appears that his trust in their ability to move this initiative forward has been rewarded – but they were not without assistance from the Holy See.
Bishop Gerhard Feige (Magdeburg) — one of the main authors of this professedly ecumenical document — just restated in an interview that the German bishops with their new handout were inspired by Pope Francis and his words in 2015 to a Protestant spouse who wished to receive Holy Communion. The Pope had then encouraged her to “Speak with the Lord and move forward. I dare not say more.” Bishop Feige now explains that he had, in 2015, personally spoken with the Pope about these comments:
During the German bishops’ so-called Ad Limina visit to Rome [in November of 2015], I directly asked the Pope one week later [after the pope’s comments in the Lutheran Church of Rome] how we are to understand his words. He then repeated, nearly verbatim, that which he had said in the Christuskirche: “Generally, I cannot change anything, but speak with the Lord and move forward.”
Bishop Feige concludes, saying: “With our handout, we only took the Pope at his words.”
This post has been updated and includes new information not included at the original time of publication.