A German bishop has said he believes Pope Francis has given a clear nod of approval to the German episcopal conference’s controversial proposal which would allow some Protestant spouses to receive Holy Communion.

Archbishop Stefan Hesse of Hamburg told a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), the largest group of lay Catholics in Germany, that the Pope has given “a clear Richtungswink” on the issue. A Richtungswink is a German expression that means “hint about a direction.”

Archbishop Hesse also said at the Tuesday meeting that, in his view, the Pope had made it clear that the bishops’ conference could decide on this question exactly as they had already done, and by the majority vote that was already achieved. The archbishop’s comments were reported in Katholisch.de, the news portal controlled by the German bishops’ conference. 

Three-quarters of German bishops voted in February in support of the draft proposal to allow Holy Communion for some Protestant spouses of mixed marriages. The bishops want the proposal published as a “pastoral handout,” but seven German bishops have opposed it, principally arguing that it touches on “the faith and unity of the Church” and so should not be “subject to a vote.” 

After representatives of both parties met in Rome last week with Vatican officials, including Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pope handed the matter back to the German bishops, asking them to find, “in a spirit of ecclesial communion, a unanimous result, if possible.” 

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Archbishop Ladaria’s predecessor, called the statement “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.” 

Cardinal Willem Eijk, the Archbishop of Utrecht, Holland, said the statement was “completely incomprehensible” as the Church’s doctrine and practice is “perfectly clear.” By failing to create clarity, “great confusion is created among the faithful and the unity of the Church is endangered,” he said, adding that he was reminded of Article 675 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which warns of a “religious deception” that offers man “an apparent solution” at the “price of apostasy from the truth.” 

Archbishop Hesse’s comments are being seen by many as an inevitable response from the heterodox wing of the German Church, after the Pope decided not to rule against the proposal.