German bishops today published their controversial pastoral handout on allowing some Protestant spouses to receive Holy Communion, despite concerns about the text from both within the German episcopate and senior Vatican officials. 

In a statement published Wednesday, the permanent council of the German bishops said the matter was discussed this week at the council’s June 25-26 meeting and stressed that the handout is not a document of the bishops’ conference (over two-thirds of the body voted in favor of the guidelines in February) but an aid to individual bishops.

On the plane back from Geneva last week, Pope Francis said he had difficulty “not so much [with] the content” of the pastoral handout, but the fact that if approved by an episcopal conference, it “immediately becomes universal.” He consequently advocated that the matter be given to individual bishops to decide. 

In their statement today, the bishops German bishops communicate their concern “to provide spiritual assistance for those addressing questions of conscience in individual cases who receive pastoral care for inter-denominational married couples who have a grave spiritual need to receive the Eucharist.”

They add that such couples “have a very close mutual bond resulting from baptism, faith and the sacrament of marriage, and they share their entire lives.” 

The permanent council goes on to say that the president of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, “was able to clarify” several points with the Pope “at a meeting.” (The cardinal met the Pope on June 11, during the latest C9 meeting, according to sources.)

Today’s statement says that Cardinal Marx told the Pope at that meeting that a May 25 letter to the bishops from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “provides indications and a framework for interpretation.”

It also says he told the Pope that the text of the handout “does not appear as a document of the bishops’ conference, given that it also relates to a dimension of the universal Church” (a criticism of the Vatican and seven German bishops was that the handout dealt with a matter of faith that had implications for the universal Church), and that the text is an “aid to orientation” which is “within the responsibility of the individual bishop.” 

In the May 25 letter, CDF prefect Archbishop Luis Ladaria said the Pope had determined the document was “not ready for publication” due to its significance for the universal Church, and that it would be “opportune” to leave it to the diocesan bishop to judge whether reception of Holy Communion for a Protestant spouse is a matter of “grave and urgent necessity.”

The German bishops’ permanent council has therefore effectively circumvented those who wanted the document blocked by stressing that the handout is an “orientation” aid to individual bishops rather than a document of the bishops’ conference, despite the handout having its origins in the episcopal conference and having no apparent changes made to the text. No one is identified as the author of the document.

The permanent council added that, given the importance of trying to achieve “a more profound understanding and even greater unity among Christians,” the bishops believe they are “obliged to stride forward in this matter courageously.” 

The topic is to be “explored in greater detail, in accord with the letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” the council added, saying that the German bishops would like to assist the Pope and the Vatican in this matter. 

The only name on the permanent council’s statement is that of Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, secretary of the German bishops’ conference, who is thought to be the chief initiator of the pastoral handout. 

The almost 10,000-word document called “Walking with Christ — tracing unity. Inter-denominational marriages and sharing in the Eucharist,” draws on various documents, including Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical on the Eucharist Ecclesia de Eucharistia, to argue that “grave spiritual necessity” can apply in such cases. 

It quotes paragraph 45 of the encyclical which states:

While it is never legitimate to concelebrate in the absence of full communion, the same is not true with respect to the administration of the Eucharist under special circumstances, to individual persons belonging to Churches or Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church. In this case, in fact, the intention is to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer, not to bring about an intercommunion which remains impossible until the visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully re-established.

The German guidelines argue that people in “grave spiritual distress” can include some Protestant spouses with a longing for Holy Communion but who cannot have that desire blessed by the Church. In such cases, the guidelines continue, “if this ‘grave spiritual distress’ is not remedied, it can even endanger marriage, which is based on Christ's love for the Church (cf. Ephesians 5:32),” and adds that “providing such help is a pastoral service that strengthens the bond of marriage and serves the salvation of people.” The document also outlines possible cases where a Protestant spouse should not receive Holy Communion.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in an interview with the German Catholic newspaper Tagespost in February that interdenominational marriage is “not an emergency situation,” and that “neither the Pope nor we bishops can redefine the sacraments as a means of alleviating mental distress and satisfying spiritual needs” as they are “effective signs of the grace of God.”

German bishops will look again at the issue when the episcopal conference gathers for its most important meeting — its plenary assembly, to be held in September.