Germany and the Holy See: A Dangerous Dialogue on the Eucharist

It was a long day of meetings between the delegation of the German Bishops’ Conference and the Vatican to discuss intercommunion with Protestants, which the German Bishops have approved by a majority vote for Protestants who are married to Catholics. Notably absent from the Vatican delegation was Cardinal Robert Sarah, perhaps because of his clearly contrary position.

We will have to wait a few days to understand exactly what was the result of the Vatican meeting between a few German bishops and cardinals and a few high prelates of the Roman Curia on the theme of intercommunion. In the statement of the Holy See released last night at the end of the long meeting which lasted until 7 P.M. very little is revealed:

“In the conversation which was held in German, Archbishop Ladaria Ferrer explained that Pope Francis affirmed the ecumenical commitment of the German bishops and asked them to find a possibly unanimous agreement in the spirit of ecclesial communion. Various aspects of the discussion were addressed: the rapport between the question of faith and pastoral care, its relevance in the ecclesiastical world, and its juridical dimension. Archbishop Ladaria Ferrer will inform the Holy Father on the content of the conversation. The meeting took place in a warm and fraternal manner.”

Thus, the Pope has emphasized the importance of the ecumenical effort and the necessity of restoring the unity of the episcopate. We will wait and see what results.

Meanwhile, however, it certainly is significant that this mini-summit excluded Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. It cannot be denied that this notable absence may be a key to having clarity about the positions taken by the bishops involved in the meeting. When the problem emerged some time ago, following the meeting of the German Bishops’ Conference at Ingolstadt, Sarah said that it was not possible for a Protestant to receive Holy Communion without converting to Catholicism, because “in order to receive Communion I must be in the state of grace, without sin, and hold the faith of the Catholic Church…It is not a personal desire, or a personal dialogue with Jesus which determines if I may receive communion in the Catholic Church.”

In February the German Bishops announced the publication of a document, an “orientation guide” which was supposed to offer a few guidelines, which in the final analysis permit the reception of the Eucharist by Protestants who are married to a Catholic, in certain cases and under certain conditions. The announcement was given by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and a leading member of the C9, the group of cardinals appointed to study the reform of the Church, and was made at the end of the plenary assembly of the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK). From the words of Marx, as was also reported by the official press office of Bishops’ Conference, it is understood that the necessary condition for being able to receive the Host on the part of the Protestant spouse would be that of “sharing a belief in Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist.” But nothing is said about conversion, and the emphasis is placed on the “case by case” nature of the permission, and on the presence of a grave spiritual need, as is considered by Catholic doctrine [on the reception of Holy Communion].

Immediately afterward, in an interview in Tagespost, the Prefect-emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, relentlessly rejected the initiative, defining it as a “rhetorical trick.” Cardinal Müller explained that the Code of Canon Law cannot be utilized as a foundation and instrument for this decision, because the foreseen canonical exceptions regard the eternal salvation of souls in the case of someone who is in danger of death. A mixed marriage in itself does not enter into this scenario – it is not an emergency situation. Cardinal Müller went further into this argument in a brief piece written for First Things.

The following episode of this saga had seven German bishops as the protagonists, among them Cardinal Maria Woelki of Cologne. These prelates wrote a letter to the Holy See asking for clarifications and directives on the initiative of intercommunion. They maintained, according to the German newspaper which reported the story, that “the pastoral disposition for mixed marriages as it has been approved by a 2/3 majority of the German Bishops’ Conference is illegal, because it violates, in their opinion, both Catholic doctrine and the unity of the Church.”

The letter of the seven bishops was addressed to Archbishop Luis Ladaria, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and a copy of the letter was also sent to Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Christian Unity. It is not known if Cardinal Robert Sarah was also involved; if he also received this letter then his absence from yesterday’s meeting would be even more remarkable. The signers asked that the Vatican would clarify the terms of the problem, insisting on the fact that the German Bishops’ Conference had overstepped its authority by permitting Protestant spouses to receive Communion. In the letter they indicate various questions opened by this decision, both from a dogmatic as well as canonical point of view.

At this point a new unresolved chapter has been opened. In fact, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of the Pope, refused to approve the “subsidy” proposed by the German Bishops’ Conference. This was reported by the Austrian Catholic news agency Kath.net, which is normally well-informed on everything regarding taking place in the German-speaking church. In response, the German Bishops’ Conference issued a statement in which it affirmed that it is “false that the pastoral plan was rejected at the Vatican by either the Pope or any dicastery.” However, the National Catholic Register, citing two high-level anonymous sources, confirmed the news reported by Kath.net: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith blocked the “subsidy” for giving Communion to Protestant spouses. And the Register added an interesting detail: the Pope, for unknown reasons, also gave approval to the decision of the Prefect Archbishop Ladaria, directing that the letter remain secret.

A few days ago the Press Office of the Holy See announced that there would be a meeting in Rome among representatives of the German Bishops’ Conference and members of the Curia.

Besides Marx and Woelki, the German delegation was made up of various bishops: Felix Glenn of Münster, Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer who is president of the Committee on Doctrine of the German Bishops’ Conference, Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg who is vice-president of the Committee on Doctrine, and Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg who is president of the Committee on Ecumenism for the German Bishops’ Conference. Also present was Fr. Hans Langendörfer, S.J., General Secretary of the German Bishops’ Conference. The Holy See’s delegation, besides Ladaria and Koch as heads of their dicasteries for doctrine and Christian unity, also included Msgr. Markus Graulich, S.D.B., under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and Fr. Hermann Geissler, F.S.O., head of the doctrinal section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The stated purpose of the discussion – as indicated in the days preceding it by the permanent council of German prelates – is “to discuss and evaluate the pastoral aspects and the juridical context [of the initiative] from the point of view of the world-wide Church.”

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