German bishops have voted “overwhelmingly” in favour of producing a “guide” for Protestant spouses on reception of Holy Communion under certain conditions.

At their spring conference in Ingolstadt, the German bishops’ conference agreed that a Protestant partner of a Catholic can receive the Eucharist after having made a “serious examination” of conscience with a priest or another person with pastoral responsibilities, “affirms the faith of the Catholic Church,” wishes to end “serious spiritual distress,” and has a “longing to satisfy a hunger for the Eucharist.” 

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, said Thursday that such a guide was a “positive step.” He said there had been an “intense debate” during which “serious concerns” had been raised, according to, the website of the German bishops’ conference.

He added the bishops were not giving general approval but that the guide pertained to individual decisions. He said the bishops wanted to continue with this issue “in a high profile way,” but that the guide would merely be a “pastoral handout” and that “we don’t want to change any doctrine.”

The bishops believe the guidelines should help pastors to clarify whether such cases are of an exceptional kind, in line with the meaning of canon 844 § 4 which regulates when a non-Catholic may receive Holy Communion. 

The canon states:

“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.”

Cardinal Marx rejected the idea that such a step would amount to a path that would call Protestants to conversion, otherwise known as an “ecumenism of return or conversion.” In other words, he stressed that the document does not mention that Protestants may receive Holy Communion only if they convert. He also said much would be left to the discretion of the local bishop, and consequences he might draw from the guide. He said only the bishop himself may establish new laws in this area.

The guide was prepared by the bishops’ commission on questions of faith and ecumenism, and will be published in the coming weeks. Cardinal Marx said Vatican approval is not necessary because it was only a matter of pastoral assistance.

The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) responded by saying the decision was “an important step on the road of ecumenism.”

“For people who not only share their faith in Jesus Christ, but also their lives with each other, this is a real relief,” the EKD’s Council Chairman Heinrich Bedford-Strohm said Thursday. “The decision makes it clear that the need of inter-confessing couples to be able to stand together at the Lord's table is heard and appreciated by the bishops’ conference,” he said.

A source with knowledge of the matter in Germany told the Register the bishops were bringing up the “famous single-case again” which as far as he was concerned has been a “quiet and discreet practice in Germany for quite a while.” He also criticized the EKD for already taking it further than the bishops seem to intend, and viewing it as green lighting intercommunion for all couples.  

In comments to the Register last year, an Italian theologian warned that if the Church were to change its rules on shared Eucharistic Communion it would ”go against Revelation and the Magisterium”, leading Christians to “commit blasphemy and sacrilege.”

Drawing on the Church’s teaching based on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, Msgr. Nicola Bux, a former consulter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stressed that non-Catholic Christians must have undertaken baptism and confirmation in the Catholic Church, and repented of grave sin through sacramental confession, in order to be able to receive Jesus in the Eucharist.

The German bishops’ move echoes comments made by Pope Francis in November 2015 when he appeared to suggest that a Lutheran married to a Catholic could receive Holy Communion based on the fact that the Lutheran wife was baptized and would be acting in accordance with her conscience.

He told Evangelical Lutherans in Rome that the woman should “talk to the Lord” about receiving holy Communion “and then go forward,” but added that he “wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence.”