VATICAN CITY — A German proposal to allow Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Communion under certain circumstances was rejected by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) last month, in a surprise move that is being hailed as good for both the Church and for ecumenical dialogue.
One of the German prelates who had criticized the proposal welcomed the Vatican’s response in an interview conducted shortly after the letter’s publication.
“I’m satisfied. Archbishop Ladaria gave us some points to discuss in the conference, and I hope we will be able to find a solution,” said Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg.
The Vatican’s position was announced in a May 25 letter from Cardinal-elect Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The letter concerns the German bishops’ conference’s proposed guidance for intercommunion, titled “Walking With Christ — In the Footsteps of Unity: Mixed Marriages and Common Participation in the Eucharist.”
The guidance, approved in February by a large majority of Germany’s bishops, would have opened the reception of Communion to a Protestant spouse who wished to end “serious spiritual distress” and had a “longing to satisfy a hunger for the Eucharist,” after a “serious examination” of conscience with a pastor. The guidance also would have required that the spouse “affirms the faith of the Catholic Church.”
According to its German episcopal proponents, the guidance was only a pastoral initiative that didn’t contradict existing Church teaching, which states that intercommunion in such circumstances can only occur in cases of “grave necessity.”
But seven German bishops, led by Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, subsequently sent a March 22 letter to the Vatican requesting direction because, they said, the issue was not a pastoral matter, but instead a “question of the faith and unity of the Church, which is not subject to a vote.”
Archbishop Schick, who signed the letter, suggested the Vatican’s move has protected the unity of the Church, which he said ultimately serves Christ.
“Because you know the Protestants have many churches and communities, and the Orthodox Church is more or less the same,” he said, “but we are in unity, and I think we have to conserve our unity — not for us, but for the Kingdom of God, for the message of Jesus Christ.”
Theologically Grounded Decision
Michael Root, a theologian at The Catholic University of America and a convert to Catholicism from Lutheranism, agreed.
“There have been voices, especially from the Protestant side, pressing for intercommunion, but this decision makes clear that the Catholic understanding of Eucharistic hospitality and Church unity remains theologically grounded,” he said.
“This can only have a good effect on ecumenical dialogue,” added Root. “It is important in ecumenical dialogue for each side to know where there is flexibility and where convictions are deeply rooted.”
Cardinal-elect Ladaria said he had the “explicit approval of the Pope” in writing the May 25 letter, which concludes that the German bishops’ conference’s document “is not ready for publication.”
Pope Francis also appeared to reference the issue when he received a German Lutheran delegation at the Vatican June 4. In his official remarks, the Holy Father praised ecumenical progress made in recent decades, but he cautioned that some key matters remained unresolved.
“We must journey and continue: not with the enthusiasm of running ahead to reach coveted goals, but walking patiently together, under the gaze of God,” the Pope said. “Some themes — I think of the Church, the Eucharist and the ecclesial ministry — merit precise and well-shared reflections.”
Still, Cardinal-elect Ladaria’s instruction came as a surprise to many, including Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German bishops’ conference.
According to a statement provided to the Register, Cardinal Marx recalled the May 3 Vatican meeting during which the CDF prefect communicated that the Pope wanted Germany’s bishops to seek unanimous consensus on the issue. Cardinal Marx said he had not expected the Vatican to act before the German bishops had reached such an agreement.
Earlier, other German bishops supporting the guidance had openly interpreted the May 3 meeting as a papal endorsement.
Speaking at a May 8 plenary meeting of the Central Committee of German Catholics, Archbishop Stefan Hesse of Hamburg said Pope Francis had given “a clear Richtungswink” — a German expression meaning “hint of direction” — in favor of their handout.
Other Church leaders expressed very different perspectives, however.
Another of the March 22 letter’s signatories, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, declared that the intercommunion proposal should move forward only with “the most unanimous arrangement possible in communion with the entire world episcopate.”
In the United States, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia issued a warning in his May 25 column: “If the Eucharist truly is the sign and instrument of ecclesial unity, then if we change the conditions of Communion, don’t we in fact redefine who and what the Church is? Intentionally or not, the German proposal will inevitably do exactly that.”
The most pointed criticism came from Cardinal Willem Eijk of Utrecht, Netherlands, in a commentary published by the Register.
Because of the Pope’s failure to provide “clear directives, based on the clear doctrine and practice of the Church,” Cardinal Eijk said, “great confusion is created among the faithful and the unity of the Church is endangered.”
Cardinal-elect Ladaria’s letter cited three reasons for the Vatican’s subsequent intervention. First, the issue is not merely a local one, but, rather, one that has ramifications for the faith of the universal Church. Second, it would affect ecumenical relations “with other Churches and other ecclesial communities that are not to be underestimated.” Third, the proposal touches on matters of canon law, which Cardinal-elect Ladaria said are best dealt with at the level of the universal Church.
In particular, the German proposal appears to be at odds with Canon 844, Paragraph 4, according to two canon lawyers who spoke with the Register.
Canon 844 spells out the conditions under which someone who is Protestant might be able to receive Communion, stipulating that such a person must be in facing death, must seek Communion of his or her own accord, cannot receive it from his or her own minister, must manifest Catholic faith and must be properly disposed, according to Philip Gray, a canon lawyer.
“For a Protestant to meet these qualifications, you’d have to ask yourself, ‘Why aren’t they Catholic?’” said Gray, the president of the St. Joseph Foundation and Catholics United for the Faith.
“In my experience as a canonist, I can say that a case where all the conditions and requirements are honestly present are truly so rare that they almost never exist in the developed, Western world,” said Ben Nguyen, a canon lawyer and the chancellor for the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas. “A quick glance at the requirements in Canon 844 §4 shows why. Great caution needs to be exercised so that the exceptional circumstances and principles envisioned in Canon 844 not be used as pretexts for weakening Catholic belief in the Eucharist and the necessary disciplines that must go with it.”
In his letter, Cardinal-elect Ladaria said the Vatican would seek to provide “a timely clarification” of open questions that some in the Church had over the interpretation of Canon 844. “In particular, it appears opportune to leave to the diocesan bishop the judgment on the existence of ‘grave and urgent necessity,’” the letter states.
But it’s more than just canon law that is at stake.
“The question of the reception of Holy Communion by those not in full communion with the Catholic Church is a question that not only touches on canon law but also on the faith of the Church, as the CDF rightly points out in its letter,” Nguyen said. “This is a good reminder that issues concerning who is admitted to Holy Communion are never merely pastoral or disciplinary questions, but issues intimately connected with dogma, doctrine and faith.”
One area of doctrine effected is the Church’s understanding of the sacraments and the nature of the Church, according to Gray. The Church’s theology holds that reception of the Eucharist constitutes the final bond between a believer and the Church as the Body of Christ, Gray noted.
The German intercommunion proposal also touches upon the theology of the Eucharist itself.
Historically, Lutherans have rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, instead holding to the erroneous idea of consubstantiation, in which the body and blood, the soul and divinity of Christ “coexist” with the elements of the bread and wine, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Moreover, many other Protestant denominations go further in their denial of Catholic teaching, viewing the Eucharist as only symbolic.
Root, who was previously involved in Catholic-Lutheran dialogue as a Lutheran, said the decision also aids in ecumenical efforts by clarifying exactly what it is those efforts are aiming toward.
“At stake in the discussion surrounding the German proposal is how we understand the unity that we seek with our Protestant brothers and sisters,” said Root. “Is sharing in the Eucharist while leaving the structures of division in place a solution to division? With this decision, the Catholic Church makes clear that nothing less than true unity is the goal of our ecumenical efforts.”
Nguyen added, “To allow broadly the reception of the Holy Eucharist by Protestant spouses of Catholics would cause great confusion regarding the Catholic belief in the Eucharist, but also raise serious questions of inconsistency in dealing with other churches and ecclesial communities.”
Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.
Register correspondent Michal Michalak contributed to this report.