Cardinal Cordes: German Bishops’ Intercommunion Proposal Not Theologically Sound

The retired German cardinal expresses serious concerns about the bishops’ ‘pastoral handout’ which would allow some Protestant spouses in mixed marriages to receive Holy Communion.

Cardinal Paul Cordes.
Cardinal Paul Cordes. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

Cardinal Paul Cordes, the president emeritus of the former Pontifical Council ‘Cor Unum,’ explains to the Register how for the early Church, receiving Jesus in the Eucharist was a visible sign of ecclesial communion.

“In contrast to the erroneous teachings and heresies that have arisen, the principle has always applied that everyone belongs where he or she receives Holy Communion,” he explains.

Yesterday, it emerged that seven German bishops have written a letter to the Vatican in protest at the German bishops’ decision to issue pastoral guidelines that would allow some Protestant spouses to receive Holy Communion. 

Cardinal Cordes is one of three cardinals to recently express to the Register their concerns about the proposal. 

Here below are his full remarks:


“The German bishops' conference voted at its most recent plenary assembly that in mixed marriages the Protestant partner could receive Holy Communion in individual cases and under certain conditions.

This decision encounters serious theological obstacles.

First there is the well attested ecclesiastical tradition. L. Hertling has presented this in an impressive historical article on the practice of Communion of early Christianity (Communio und Primat, in: "Una Santa" 17 (1962) 91ff.). 

The only thing I want to take from him is this.

Eucharistic Communion is the visible sign of ecclesial communion for early Christianity. When Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna came to Rome around the middle of the 2nd century to negotiate with Pope Aniketos over the Easter festivities dispute, the two bishops were unable to reach agreement. So they did not resolve ecclesial communion. Irenaeus of Lyon expresses the preserved faith community as follows: "They communicated with each other."

In contrast to the erroneous teachings and heresies that have arisen, the principle has always applied that everyone belongs where he or she receives Holy Communion. The harsh Patriarch Macedonius of Constantinople therefore forced reluctant Catholics to receive his communion; he had their mouths opened by force and thus gave them the Eucharist.

This view can still be found in the 7th century. It is reported that Catholics who travelled in heretical regions took the body of the Lord with them. The heretics did the same to avoid having to enter the religious community with Catholics. This is the faith and practice of the early Church: The reception of the Lord's body is more authentic for witnessing to the faith than all the words.

In addition to the orienting practice of the early Church is a clear instruction of Church teaching from the present. Pope Benedict XVI, in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Letter Sacramentum Caritatis (The Sacrament of Charity) On the Eucharist, Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church (23 March 2007), says:

“On the other hand, the respect we owe to the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood prevents us from making it a mere ‘means’ to be used indiscriminately in order to attain that unity.” 

The Eucharist not only expresses our personal communion with Jesus Christ, but also includes full communion with the Church. So this is the motive why we ask non-Catholic Christians, with pain but not without hope, to understand and respect our conviction based on the Bible and tradition.

We believe that Eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion belong so closely together that it is generally impossible for non-Catholic Christians to receive the sacrament of Communion without sharing communion.

The proposal of the bishops' conference cannot claim to be theologically sound.”