Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Edward is the author of “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family”, published by Ignatius Press. Follow him on Twitter @edwardpentin
Yesterday’s crucial meeting went quicker than expected, lasting a little over two hours, but the outcome pleased none of those who took part, and will have far reaching consequences for the Church, sources close to the talks have told the Register.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the bishops’ conference, arrived at the May 3 meeting in the Holy Office at 4pm, along with two allied bishops and Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, secretary of the German bishops’ conference, confidently expecting to be able to influence the proceedings in his favor.
Summoned to the Vatican meeting by the Pope last month, the cardinal archbishop of Munich hoped to win the Pope’s backing, and thereby persuade two opposing bishops and senior Vatican officials to support a highly contentious German bishops’ pastoral proposal to allow Protestant spouses in some cases to receive Holy Communion.
The so-called “pastoral handout,” which German bishops overwhelmingly voted for in February, proposed that a Protestant spouse could receive the Eucharist after having made a “serious examination” of conscience with a priest or another person with pastoral responsibilities, and “affirms the faith of the Catholic Church,” wishes to end “serious spiritual distress,” and has a “longing to satisfy a hunger for the Eucharist.”
Proponents said it would help to resolve the suffering of some Protestant spouses unable to receive Holy Communion with their Catholic wives or husbands. Critics called it a “rhetorical trick” that wrongly sought to redefine the sacraments as a means of alleviating mental distress and satisfying spiritual needs.
Criticism heightened after seven German bishops wrote to the Vatican March 22 to protest the move, arguing that the proposal is “not right” as it touches on “the faith and unity of the Church which is not subject to a vote,” and asking for four areas to be clarified.
Two of the seven, Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne and Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, arrived at the May 3 meeting hopeful that, given what many considered to be serious doctrinal flaws in the document — and which reliable sources say was opposed by Benedict XVI — the proposal would be thrown out by the Pope, or completely revised.
But to the surprise of many, neither happened. After both sides made their case, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the CDF, relayed to the participants that Pope Francis appreciated the “ecumenical commitment of the German bishops and asks them to find, in a spirit of ecclesial communion, a unanimous result, if possible.”
In comments to the Register May 4, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, expressed his disappointment with the outcome, saying the statement was “very poor” as it contained “no answer to the central, essential question.” It is not possible, he stressed, to be in “sacramental communion without ecclesial communion.”
For the good of the Church, he added, a “clear expression of the Catholic faith” is needed, for the Pope to “affirm the faith,” especially the “pillar of our faith, the Eucharist.” The Pope and the CDF, he went on, are supposed to “give a very clear orientation” not through “personal opinion but according to the revealed faith.”
A source close to the two bishops opposed to the proposal told the Register May 4 that the “official answer is that there is no answer.” The Holy Father, he said, had “failed to fulfil his obligation as pope regarding a question of dogma which his office must decide.”
The Pope “refused” to take a line, he stressed, “and the CDF was left to act as a postman, not to affirm the faith, but to announce this information.” The dicasteries, he said, “are useless” if all will be given over to bishops’ conferences to decide. He acknowledged that the term “unanimity” is not properly defined in this context, but expects Cardinal Marx to somehow seek to reduce the number of bishops opposed to the proposal in order to attain the unanimous requirement for it to go forward.
“Our job now is to strengthen the seven bishops, to strengthen our priests in the argumentation” the source said. “It’ll be a long fight and over the next six months, this is what we’ll be dedicating ourselves to.”
But Cardinal Marx and the German bishops’ conference were also said to be disappointed. The meeting was held in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, indicating that the Vatican sees this as a doctrinal matter, not simply one of pastoral practice that Cardinal Marx tried to argue it was (he insisted in February it was a “pastoral handout” and not intended to “change any doctrine”).
More significantly, the proposal’s proponents failed to obtain the Pope’s ringing endorsement. Instead, consistent with his wish expressed in his first apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis is pressing on in his efforts to decentralize the Church’s governance by giving more “doctrinal authority” to bishops’ conferences. He is, therefore, putting the ball back in the court of the German bishops.
“In a way it amounts to a refusal [of the proposal],” said German Church commentator, Mathias von Gersdorff. “It sounds something like this: You [Cardinal Marx] have created a huge problem. Look to yourself to try and get out of it. And if that doesn’t lead to unanimity, so the problem is resolved.”
Marx’s Lost Battle
Also disappointing for Cardinal Marx’s party was the opposition they encountered during the meeting from Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The Swiss cardinal, who was not notified of the proposal before or after it was voted upon, showed himself to be sympathetic to the seven bishops’ concerns.
The disillusionment on the part of the German bishops’ conference was also evident when, after the meeting, its spokesman, Matthias Kopp, said it would be holding no press conference, nor issuing statements or interviews. “It was a lost battle for them, though not a lost war,” said the source close to the talks. “Kopp doesn’t want to speak about a lost battle.”
But the seven bishops and their allies have the greater concerns. Although they believe the meeting could have gone “much worse,” according to the source close to the talks, and that the proposal cannot be published as a handout as the German bishops’ conference intended, they see this as an “ecclesiological revolution.”
“The real problem is not the issue itself, but the refusal of the Pope to carry out his obligation as Peter, and this could have heavy consequences,” the source said. “Peter is no longer the rock he was, instead the shepherd is saying to the sheep: ‘Go and look for yourself for something to eat.’”
He foresaw a similar process being adopted to introduce such novelties as married clergy, and that the general drift towards decentralization of doctrine will make the Church more closely resemble the Anglican Communion.
Cardinal Müller, referring to Lumen Gentium, reminded that bishops’ conferences have a “secondary importance” to the Pope, and it is not possible for them to vote unanimously on a matter of doctrine that would contradict “basic elements” of the Church. “We must resist this,” he said, and warned that if the principle of Catholic identity consisting of both sacramental and ecclesial communion is destroyed, “then the Catholic Church is destroyed.” The Church, he stressed, “is not a political actor.”
“I hope more bishops will raise their voices and do their duty,” Cardinal Müller said. “Every cardinal has a duty to explain, defend, promote the Catholic faith, not according to personal feelings, or the swings of public opinion, but by reading the Gospel, the Bible, Holy Scripture, the Church fathers and to know them. Also the Councils, to study the great theologians of the past, and be able to explain and defend the Catholic faith, not with sophistic arguments to please all sides, to be everyone’s darling.”
Going forward, Cardinal Müller regretfully predicted the matter will “continue without the clear necessity for a declaration about the Catholic faith.”
He said bishops must “continue explaining the faith” and he hoped the CDF would fulfil its role, not only as mediators of the different groups, but in leading the magisterium of the Pope.
“More clarity and courage must be encouraged,” he said.