The move by German bishops to admit Protestant spouses in mixed marriages to Holy Communion has taken a dramatic new twist. A guidance document supporting the change, backed by most bishops but opposed by a minority, seemed to have been stopped by Rome. That guidance has now been published, without the issues dividing the bishops having been clarified.
The 39-page document Mit Christus gehen (“Walking with Christ”) was originally approved by the February plenary assembly of the German bishops’ conference (DBK), with only 13 of the 60 bishops present voting against.
However, the seven opposing diocesan bishops, led by Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, then appealed to Rome against a document which they regard as overstepping the authority of the bishops’ conference. They pointed out that, according to canon law, reception of Communion by non-Catholics can only be authorised by a diocesan bishop in cases of “grave necessity”. The result was a flurry of letters, some now published by the German bishops, and high level meetings.
The appeal from the seven bishops sent on March 22 was followed by a reply on April 10 from Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This letter, marked “strictly confidential”, has now been published by the DBK, which ends much speculation about its contents. The main point of the letter is simply to inform the Germans that Vatican dicasteries have been considering the proposal and the appeal against it, and inviting several German bishops including Cardinal Woelki and DBK president Cardinal Reinhard Marx to meet at the CDF. This meeting took place on May 3.
There is, however, one important point that the publication of the letter has revealed. It was known that the CDF had held up the publication of the pastoral guidance. In the letter, though, Ladaria refers to an audience with Pope Francis on April 6 in which he was briefed about the German situation and “the Holy Father stated that he did not believe that the document in question should be published now”. This could have meant that the Pope was opposed to the publication of the guidance, or simply that he thought its publication was premature.
More recent developments have suggested that Rome’s opposition was not very strong. After Cardinal Marx met Pope Francis on June 11 as part of the Council of Cardinals, he seems to have secured approval for the publication of the guidance as long as it did not appear as a formal position of the DBK. A letter from Archbishop Ladaria dated May 25 drew a line at national bishops’ conferences deciding rules on the reception of Communion, but did hold that diocesan bishops could make decisions. Thus the document appears as an orientation guide for bishops rather than a national framework.
It was following this meeting that the permanent council of the DBK unanimously approved the publication of the guidance under its new label of “orientation guidance”. The council includes Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, one of the seven dissidents, who told the German bishops’ news website katholisch.de that it was now up to Rome to clarify what “grave necessity” actually meant. In the absence of clear guidance from the Vatican, it will be up to individual bishops to favour their own interpretation.
Indeed, the publication of the guidance was quickly followed by Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker of Paderborn announcing that, on the basis of the new guidance, he was prepared to authorise Communion for Protestant spouses in individual cases, though he stressed that this was not a “general permission”.
Paderborn is one of the most important German dioceses, with a population of 1.5 million Catholics and reported assets in 2015 of four billion euros.
It is unclear exactly how much demand there is for intercommunion at the parish level. The DBK document cites a figure that around 40 per cent of church marriages in Germany are cross-denominational. On the other hand, only 10 per cent of German Catholics regularly attend Mass, and the observance rate for the Protestant churches is even lower. But at the same time, it was never clear that there was an overwhelming demand for admission to Communion from Catholics in irregular marriages.
There are a number of factors driving what is happening in Germany. One is that, in an increasingly post-Christian country, the main churches feel a need to draw closer – the ecumenical drive today is coming from a position of weakness, not strength. The Catholic Church has lost most of its historic influence with the ruling Christian Democrats, and the few political voices today who talk about Germany’s Christian heritage usually do so as a marker against Muslim immigration.
There is also an ideological dynamic to the direction of the German Church. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the CDF, said in a recent interview that “One group of German bishops, with their president [Cardinal Marx] in the lead, see themselves as trendsetters of the Catholic Church on the march into modernity.
“They consider the secularisation and de-Christianisation of Europe as an irreversible development. For this reason the new evangelisation – the programme of John Paul II and Benedict XVI – is in their view a battle against the objective course of history, resembling Don Quixote’s battle against the windmills. They are seeking for the Church a niche where it can survive in peace. Therefore all the doctrines of the faith that are opposed to the “mainstream”, the societal consensus, must be reformed.”
The German proposal for Communion for Protestant spouses is strikingly similar to the framework advocated for many years by the German bishops for admitting civilly remarried divorcees to Communion. That proposal, as put forward by Cardinal Walter Kasper, also says that it is aimed at individual hard cases rather than a general revision of the rules. However, its stress on the “internal forum” – the idea that a priest may give spiritual guidance, but ultimately the individual’s conscience decides – replaces an objective rule with a subjective one, and makes it very difficult to restrict any reform to the hard cases.
The German bishops will return to this issue at their next plenary meeting in September. However, the confusion around the rules for receiving Communion will spread far beyond Germany. There is a large part of the Catholic world, particularly in Europe, that still looks to the wealthy and influential German Church as a beacon for reconciling the faith with modern life. And the confusion exists within Germany itself, as other bishops are likely to follow Archbishop Becker’s lead in relaxing the rules, while it is not clear that the dissenting bishops have given up their resistance.
These ongoing German controversies, whether over Communion for Protestants or divorcees, or church blessings for gay couples, are relevant to Catholics around the world, too. If the German Church represents an internal pressure to accommodate to modernity, there are strong external pressures to do the same. Mixed messages from Rome, and the downgrading of the CDF’s role as doctrinal watchdog, mean that there isn’t the certainty that there used to be about what the Church teaches. And this is also a serious problem for the German Church, which may be extremely rich but is also shrinking rapidly.