On the plane back from Geneva yesterday, Pope Francis told reporters it is up to “particular” bishops of a local diocese rather than episcopal conferences to ascertain whether a Protestant spouse has a “grave necessity” to receive Holy Communion.

This would mean that a bishop’s decision on such an issue would apply only to their individual dioceses, rather than more broadly — to the Church of an entire country or universally.

His comments came after the Vatican, with the Pope’s approval, wrote a letter May 25 to the German bishops’ conference rejecting their pastoral guide allowing some Protestants in interconfessional marriages to receive Jesus in the Eucharist under such circumstances.

In that letter, Archbishop Luis Ladaria S.J., prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the Pope had determined the document was “not ready for publication” because, among other things, the issue touches on the faith, has significance for the universal Church, and needed more collegial treatment. Therefore it “appears opportune to leave to the diocesan bishop the judgment on the existence of ‘grave and urgent necessity,’” Archbishop Ladaria wrote.

In his comments on the papal plane yesterday, the Pope essentially doubled down on the role of the diocesan bishop regarding such situations while ruling out decisions made by bishops’ conferences on the issue.

Asked by a German journalist why the letter seemed like an “emergency brake” on ecumenism when in early May the Pope had said the German bishops needed to come to a “unanimous” decision on the matter, Francis replied by reminding the questioner that Canon Law already provides for such situations.

“What the German bishops were talking about is foreseen: communion in special cases,” he said. “And they were looking at the problem of mixed marriages, no? If it is possible or it isn’t possible. And the Code says that the bishop of the particular Church — this word is important, ‘particular,’ if it is of a diocese.”

Noting that some aspects were not apparently clear as some priests did things that “weren’t in agreement with the bishop,” the Pope went on to say that the bishops therefore wished to study this theme, which they did for over a year.

He then claimed that the bishops wanted to say “clearly what is in the [Code of Canon Law]” — that it applied to the local Church but did not allow Holy Communion for everyone. The problem, he went on, was that the matter “slid along,” up to the level of the bishops’ conference. He said the “Code does not foresee that,” but rather “foresees the bishop of the diocese, not the conference” taking such a decision “because a thing approved by an episcopal conference immediately becomes universal.”

“This was the difficulty of the discussion: not so much the content, but this,” the Pope said, adding that after more meetings, Archbishop Ladaria sent the May 25 letter, “but with my permission.”

“He didn’t do it alone! I told him: ‘Yes, it’s better to make a step ahead and say that the document isn’t yet mature and that the thing needed to be studied more.’” (The Register has learned from authoritative sources that Archbishop Ladaria was firmly against the German bishops’ proposal and was placed under significant pressure to reach a compromise).

The Pope said the final document will be an “orientative” one, “so that each diocesan bishop can manage what Canon Law already permits.”

“It wasn’t a brake” on ecumenism, he stressed, but about “reading the thing so that it goes along the right path.” He then recalled his visit to the Lutheran Church of Rome when he replied to a Lutheran spouse who asked if she could receive Holy Communion.

“I replied according to the spirit of the Code of Canon Law,” he said. “It is the spirit that they are seeking now. Maybe it wasn’t the right information in the right moment, a little bit of confusion, but this is the thing: the particular Church, the Code permits it, the local Church [episcopal conference] cannot because it would be universal.”

Instead, bishops’ conferences “can study and give orientative opinions to help the bishops to manage the particular cases,” he said. 

A number of points are being made about the Pope’s response.

Firstly, the Holy Father’s emphasis on Canon Law. Although he didn’t specifically refer to it, Francis primarily had in mind Canon 844 §4 which states that if: 

…the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.

Besides concern over how the Pope’s emphasis on the diocesan bishop might adversely affect Church unity, other frequently asked questions persist that have yet to be answered.

These include what exactly merits a “grave necessity”?

Edward Peters, a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, pointed to weaknesses in Canon 844 in comments to the Register in March, the main one being a broad interpretation of “grave necessity.” The canon, he said, has “several terminological problems” that make it an “urgent candidate for reform.”

Other canonists speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity similarly see problems with the canon, with one saying it contains an “intrinsic vice.” He questioned how a non-Catholic can be “properly disposed” while persisting to remain outside the Church. The Catholic faith, he said, is not “sliceable” but has to be taken as a whole, with full acceptance of the Church’s authority, her infallible pronouncements, tenets of the faith and morals.

“Respect for the Eucharist and the faith, and the need to avoid scandal and leading others into the sin of heresy, would demand a public act of retraction and Confession,” he said

As Peters pointed out in his comments in March: disrespect for one sacrament “inevitably sets the stage for disrespecting all the sacraments.”

This could perhaps be most clearly seen in the fact that Confession, a requirement for receiving the Eucharist worthily, was not mentioned in the rejected proposal of the German bishops.

“They don’t speak about it because they’re not interested in it,” Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the CDF, told the Register last month. He said he believed some of the protagonists of intercommunion “don’t understand what the true sense of the Eucharist is, as a sacrament of the altar.” For them, he said, “it’s only a sign of belonging together, an external sign” and said that “some of our theologians say we’re all redeemed by the common will of God, salvation for everyone, and the sacraments don’t have instrumental significance. They’re only a superficial form of expressing some feelings of friendship and in the end there’s no need for them.”

But he warned that if you’re “undermining the sacramental meaning of the seven fundamental rites of the Catholic Church, you’re undermining all the sacramentality of the Church, and so no there’s need for the Church” and “no difference” between a human institution and the “holy apostolic Catholic Church, instituted by Jesus Christ as the fundament of the Truth.”

Lastly, assuming bishops and priests will have greater authority to interpret unilaterally whether a Protestant spouse can receive Holy Communion, will any sanctions be applied to those who habitually administer the Blessed Sacrament to Protestant spouses not in a situation of “grave necessity”?

The Register has put these questions to Cardinal-elect Ladaria, Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and the Holy See Press Office and will include any answers they give below.

For the German Church, the Pope’s comments will no doubt influence a meeting of the permanent council of bishops next Monday and Tuesday in Berlin. The gathering is reportedly crucial to determining how they will proceed.

NCR