Bishop Bätzing Opens Path to Protestants Receiving Catholic Communion in Germany

In his latest challenge to Rome’s authority, the president of the German bishops conference is publicly rejecting recent Vatican instructions regarding this issue.

Attendees participate in a Lutheran service at the German Protestant Kirchentag on June 23, 2019, in Dortmund, Germany.
Attendees participate in a Lutheran service at the German Protestant Kirchentag on June 23, 2019, in Dortmund, Germany. (photo: TF-Images / Getty Images)

In his latest salvo to challenge Rome's authority, the president of Germany’s bishops’ conference has said that any German Protestant who wishes to receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church on Ökumenischen Kirchentag — a day of Christian unity in May — may do so.

“Anyone who is Protestant and attends Communion can receive Communion,” Bishop Georg Bätzing told an online discussion in Frankfurt on Thursday about the May 15 event that usually brings thousands of Christians to the city for ecclesial events. 

“We want to take steps towards unity,” he said, adding that “whoever believes in conscience what is celebrated in the other denomination will also be able to approach [the altar] and won’t be rejected.”

According to the German bishops’ news site, the bishop of Limburg went on to say that the practice “has been maintained up and down the country" and is actually “nothing new.” Perhaps what is new is that it is being discussed, he continued, adding that he does not expect “an objection from Rome.”

He noted the existence of Vatican reservations about the Church in Germany, saying: “For many officials in Rome, the German Catholic Church has a Protestant smell.” He claimed this is “not the case at the highest level of prefects,” but with officials who have no experience with the Church in Germany. 

Bishop Bätzing went on to note “fear” in Rome about the Synodal Path in Germany, and the challenge of preserving unity, but added: “You can also endanger unity by nurturing it with instruments that are unsuitable for the time and world in which we live with its cultural diversity.” 

Pope Francis, he added, has repeatedly said that “the Church cannot be controlled centrally” and that decentralized decisions have to be made within the framework of Catholic doctrine and canon law. “This is the way that we’re trying,” Bishop Bätzing said.

The bishop was alluding to a passage in the Pope’s 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium in which the Pope wrote that the Second Vatican Council called for a “concrete realization of the collegial spirit,” and that he regretted that this desire “has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated.”

Francis added: “Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” 

Last September, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a four-page critique and letter to Bishop Bätzing explaining that doctrinal differences with Protestants are “still so weighty” that “mutual participation in the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist” was not possible. 

It came in response to the publication of a document called “Together at the Lord’s Table,” drawn up in 2019 by a German group of Protestant and Catholic theologians in favor of “reciprocal Eucharistic hospitality.” 

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told the Register last month that he shared the CDF’s concerns about the document and had expressed his personal opposition to it. 

The Register also reported that both Cardinal Koch and CDF prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria had wanted to summon Bishop Bätzing to Rome in January to correct him about a media interview in which he expressed his dissent from Church teaching in a number of areas but their wish was turned down by Pope Francis. 

The Register contacted Cardinal Koch for comment on Friday, and to inquire whether the Vatican would be taking any action following Bishop Bätzing’s remarks. The cardinal had not responded at the time this article was published.

Kirchentag usually brings tens of thousands of Protestants and Catholics to Frankfurt for events but due to coronavirus restrictions, it will mostly be held online, limiting the possibility of the practice of intercommunion that Bishop Bätzing has proposed.

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