VATICAN CITY — After several German bishops appealed to the Vatican over a proposal to allow non-Catholic spouses in mixed faith marriages to receive communion, the Church’s top authority on doctrine has sent the ball back, saying Pope Francis wants Germany’s bishops to come to an agreement among themselves.

Released after a 4-hour meeting between German bishops and Vatican officials, a Vatican communiqué said that Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told the bishops that the Pope “appreciates the ecumenical commitment of the German bishops” and asked them “to find, in a spirit of ecumenical communion, a possibly unanimous decision.”

It is not clear whether a “possibly unanimous decision” asks the German bishops’ conference for a fully unanimous vote on the issue, or asks for a nearly unanimous decision, or whether the bishops are simply being asked to discuss the matter further to see if they can resolve the issue themselves before a central authority steps in.

The Vatican declined to comment on the meaning of the phrase.

Announced over the weekend, the May 3 meeting followed reports, later denied by the German bishops’ conference, that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had rejected a proposal by the conference to publish guidelines allowing the non-Catholic spouses of Catholics to receive the Eucharist in certain limited circumstances.

In February, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, president of the German bishops’ conference, announced that the conference would publish a pastoral handout explaining that Protestant spouses of Catholics “in individual cases” and “under certain conditions” could receive Communion, provided they “affirm the Catholic faith in the Eucharist.”

Cardinal Marx’s statement concerned a draft version of the guidelines, which was adopted “after intensive debate” during a Feb. 19-22 general assembly of the conference.

The Vatican’s communiqué noted that while more than three-quarters of the German bishops voted in favor of the guidelines, “a not indifferent number” of voters, including seven diocesan bishops, “did not feel capable, for various reasons, of giving their consent.”

The bishops wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Council for Legislative Texts, asking whether the question of Communion for Protestant spouses can be decided at a local level by a national bishops’ conference, or if a decision from the universal Church was required.

Signatories, who did not consult Cardinal Marx before writing the letter, included Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg; Bishop Gregor Hanke of Eichstätt; Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg; Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau; Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg; Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt of Görlitz and Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne.

Cardinal Woelki was the only signatory present at the May 3 meeting, which was held at the Vatican.

Members of the German delegation also included Cardinal Marx; Bishop Felix Genn of Munster; Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer, president of the Doctrinal Commission of the German bishops conference; Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg, president of the German bishops’ Commission for Ecumenism; and Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, secretary of the German bishops’ conference.

On the Vatican side, the meeting was attended by Archbishop Ladaria; Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Msgr. Markus Graulich, undersecretary for the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts; and Father Herman Geissler, an official with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

During the meeting, several questions were discussed, centered around the relationship between faith and pastoral care.

Archbishop Ladaria will now inform Pope Francis about the discussion, which the Vatican said took place in a “cordial and fraternal atmosphere.”