Bishop Voderholzer: Intercommunion Proposal Requires Unanimity of Universal Church

The Bishop of Regensburg takes issue with Pope Francis’ request that German bishops come to a unanimous decision on Holy Communion for Protestant Spouses, stressing it is a doctrinal rather than pastoral matter.

Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, speaking in Regensburg cathedral.
Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, speaking in Regensburg cathedral. (photo: YouTube screenshot)

Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg has underlined that the intercommunion debate in Germany is a matter of doctrine that requires the unanimity of the universal Church if it is to proceed. 

In his first public comments since meeting in Rome to discuss the German bishops’ proposal to allow Holy Communion for Protestant spouses in some cases, the bishop told worshipers in Regensburg May 9 that attaining unanimity on the issue will “not be easy to accomplish” because the matter of “ecclesial communion transcends the borders of the Church in Germany.” 

Three-quarters of German bishops voted in February in support of the draft proposal, which they want to offer as a “pastoral handout,” but seven German bishops including Bishop Voderholzer and Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne have opposed it, principally arguing that it touches on “the faith and unity of the Church” and so should not be “subject to a vote.” 

The bishop, who has led the seven bishops’ opposition, explained at a Mass on the vigil of the Ascension on Wednesday evening: 

“Last week I was invited to Rome to talk with Cardinals [Reinhard] Marx [president of the German bishops’ conference] and Woelki and other bishops to clarify these controversial questions. The Pope answered our questions by giving us back the text in question and literally letting us know that we, as German bishops, should ‘find, in a spirit of ecclesial communion, a unanimous result, if possible.’ This task will not be easy to accomplish because ecclesial communion transcends the borders of the Church in Germany. There can only be the most unanimous arrangement possible in communion with the entire world episcopate, with the entire world Church, with the bishops’ conference of Canada as well as with that of Indonesia. It is a real theological struggle, a question that binds us in conscience.”

The bishop noted that in pressuring the Church, the public had failed to acknowledge “the depth of the debate about our ‘holy of holies,’ and that is what this question is about.” A matter of such gravity is not to be discerned as an “issue at the level of bourgeois decency, personal animosities or political strategies,” he said, adding that such a treatment “is not helpful.” 

“It is not a question of politeness or niceness,” he stressed, “but of the conditions and prerequisites for encountering the Blessed Sacrament.”

Bishop Voderholzer also underlined that the seven bishops “are convinced” that the intercommunion issue is a “matter of doctrine.” A pastoral question, he said, “would be when is the right age for First Communion” or what a “Confession manual or preparation for Confession should look like.”

He went on to explain that a pastoral question in connection with the Eucharist would entail issues such as whether Communion should be received in the hand or on the tongue, kneeling or standing. But he said that when it is about witness to faith and Church affiliation, “more is stake, namely the understanding of Church and declaration of belief as a whole.” 

The German bishops’ proposal represents “such a far-reaching change to established doctrine that it cannot be made at the level of just one bishops' conference,” he said. “What applies here must also apply in Chicago, Shanghai and Johannesburg.”


Cardinal Woelki 

Meanwhile, Cardinal Woelki has rejected accusations that he acted behind the backs of the German bishops’ conference in resisting the intercommunion proposal, saying his position had been clear since March 2018 at the latest. 

In a May 11 interview with Domradio, the radio station of the archdiocese of Cologne, Cardinal Woelki highlighted the central importance of the Eucharist, how it is very closely connected with Church unity and unity of confession, and differences that remain between Catholics and Protestants concerning an understanding of the Church and the sacraments. 

The cardinal also rejected an accusation from Cardinal Marx that he had not informed the chief of Germany’s bishops of his concerns. “I expressed my concern and my personal position to him in writing,” he said, according to the Austrian Catholic news site, “I have also made it very clear in this letter my concern that we, in the bishops’ conference, find a common solution which is uniform and, above all, coordinated with the Roman dicasteries.” 

As with Bishop Voderholzer, Cardinal Woelki reiterated that the universal Church must also be taken into account over such an important question. He had therefore already made it clear in March that he could only agree to a solution that had also been agreed with the other bishops’ conferences and those responsible in Rome.

He explained that he takes the Pope’s words “ecclesial community” as meaning “the entire ecclesial community” and that it is important to also bear in mind the Church’s ecumenical relations with the Orthodox.