Complete Letter of Seven German Bishops on Holy Communion for Protestant Spouses Published

The Register obtains a copy of the March 22 missive which expresses serious concerns about the recent German bishops’ decision to give Holy Communion to Protestant spouses in some cases. Sources say the seven bishops’ call for clarification, which is being fiercely opposed by the German episcopal conference, has the full support of Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops' conference, Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, the episcopal conference's general secretary, and conference spokesman Matthias Kopp are leading the opposition to the seven bishops' request for clarification.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops' conference, Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, the episcopal conference's general secretary, and conference spokesman Matthias Kopp are leading the opposition to the seven bishops' request for clarification. (photo: Register Files)

In the March 22 letter, published for the first time in English below, the seven bishops say they “do not consider” the German bishops’ decision on Feb. 20 to allow Protestant spouses to receive Holy Communion in some cases to be “right” because they do not believe the issue to be a pastoral one but rather a “question of the faith and unity of the Church which is not subject to a vote.” 

The letter is signed by Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, Bishop Gregor Hanke of Eichstätt, Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg, Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt of Görlitz, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, and Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau.  

The German bishops voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal at their Spring plenary meeting in Ingolstadt on Feb. 20, and the letter’s signatories affirm that out of the 60 bishops present, “13 voted no, including at least seven diocesan bishops.”

The majority of German bishops decided that permission could be granted to a Protestant spouse if, after having made a “serious examination” of conscience with a priest or another person with pastoral responsibilities, the partner “affirms the faith of the Catholic Church,” wishes to end “serious spiritual distress,” and has a “longing to satisfy a hunger for the Eucharist.”

At the time, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, said the guide would be a “pastoral handout” and that the intention was not to “change any doctrine.” He said the proposal also ruled out any path for Protestant spouses to conversion, otherwise known as an “ecumenism of return.” It also left much discretion to the local bishop.

The proposal caused considerable concern, also in Rome: Cardinals Francis Arinze, Gerhard Müller, Walter Brandmüller, and Paul Cordes all decried the move. Cardinal Müller called the proposal a “rhetorical trick” pulled on believers, most of whom he noted are not theologians and stressed that interdenominational marriage is “not an emergency situation.” Cardinal Brandmüller said the German bishops' weak opposition to the proposal was a “scandal, no question.”

In their letter, the seven bishops lay out four points calling for clarification: They question whether such a proposal is pastoral matter or one concerning the faith and Church unity; why a person who shares the Catholic faith on the Eucharist should not become Catholic; whether “spiritual distress” is really exceptional or simply part of striving for unity; and if a bishops’ conference should be making such a decision without reference to the universal Church. 

They add that they have “many other fundamental questions and reservations” about the proposal and so prefer to seek a solution within the field of ecumenical dialogue which is “viable for the universal Church.” 

“We ask for your help, in the light of our doubts, as to whether the draft solution presented in this document is compatible with the faith and unity of the Church,” the bishops say in closing.

The March 22 letter was sent to Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (he was not informed of the Feb. 20 vote either before or after it took place),Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta Ochoa de Chinchetru, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and the apostolic nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Nikola Eterović.


Orchestrated Leak

The Register has also confirmed that earlier this month it was deliberately leaked by the powerful German bishops conference which has a tight grip on almost all Catholic media in Germany. 

Articles critical of the initiative were ready to be published at the same time as the letter was made public. The first to appear was this one penned by Joachim Frank in the Kölner Stadt Anzeiger, but he referred to select parts of the document — arguably the least controversial ones — to report. Cardinal Marx, who sources say had learned of the initiative on March 23, had a reaction piece published within hours of the letter’s publication. 

The seven bishops’ letter has led to a response from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith but Pope Francis wishes it to remain secret. 

The Register understands the response is to remain classified until Cardinal Marx ,Cardinal Woelki and Bishop Felix Genn of Münster come to Rome to meet the Pope in the coming days to discuss the matter, at the Holy Father’s request. 

Inside sources have said the CDF response amounts to a rejection of the intercommunion proposal, either in full or in part, something the German bishops’ conference have not fully denied (they have denied instead that a pastoral handout has been rejected but the handout does not yet exist as it has yet to be published). 

The reason for keeping it secret are unknown, but some have speculated it is to preserve the proposal that was voted upon in February rather than follow the guidance issued by the CDF. 

Today it was announced that Bishops Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg and Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer will be joining the meeting with the Pope, along with the general secretary of the bishops’ conference, Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer. As they, Cardinal Marx and Bishop Genn each oppose the initiative of the seven bishops, and Francis is known to be sympathetic towards the intercommunion proposal, Church observers say Cardinal Woelki will be isolated at the meeting and probably forced to back down. 

In an interview reported today in the German bishops’ news portal, Bishop Feige criticized those opposed to the proposal, saying they “still seem to hold to a pre-conciliar image of the Church and to have hardly internalized the Catholic principles of ecumenism.”

The intercommunion proposal was discussed at the permanent council of the German bishops’ conference in Würzburg on Monday, but by that time it was too late to stop it, according to an informed German Church source. The source also said increasing pressure was placed on the seven bishops at that meeting. 

“Once a document passes the plenary assembly, it is not stopped in the permanent council,” he continued. “It is a mechanism which works their way — they put the amendments in but the general line isn’t changed. Now efforts will go in to showing that Cardinal Marx is abiding by the rules and referring the proposal to Rome for confirmation, as he is required to do.” 

He said it is important to understand the “power play” taking place over this crucial issue, as it shows this has all been planned, largely by Father Langendörfer, known as the eminence grise of the episcopal conference, and Cardinal Marx with the assistance of media spokesman, Matthias Kopp.  

He said that unless any resistance is mounted now, “you’re likely to see Communion for Protestants introduced globally, through the backdoor of the German bishops’ conference.” (This recent article explains some of the grave theological concerns about intercommunion for Protestant spouses).

The Register understands from reliable and authoritative sources that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has given his full support to the seven bishops and their letter to the Vatican.


The Full Text of the 7 Bishops’ Letter:

“Your Eminence, my dear confreres,

In the period from February 19 to 22, 2018, the German bishops met for their Spring Plenary Assembly in Ingolstadt. 

Under item IL.1 of the agenda, the Bishops were given for a so-called pastoral handout by the Ecumenical Commission entitled: "On the path of unity with Christ: Confessional marriages and joint participation in the Eucharist" for consultation and decision-making. According to the text, mixed-denominational couples, as a "practical laboratory of unity,” take place in a state in which the separated churches are on their way together towards the goal. Because of the importance of marriages between Catholic and Protestant Christians in Germany, the statement respects “the pain […of those] who share their whole lives but cannot share God's saving presence in the Eucharistic meal.” According to the joint Reformation commemoration in 2017, the handout is intended as a voluntary commitment "to provide every assistance to interdenominational marriages, to strengthen their common faith and promote the religious education of their children," offering concrete help and regulation — as declared together with the Protestant Church in Germany in an ecumenical penance and reconciliation service on 11 March 2017 in the Michaeliskirche. 

According to this, an opening to Protestant Christians in denominational marriages to receive Communion via Canon 844 (4) CIC 1983 is to be made possible, since a "gravis spiritualis necessitas" [grave spiritual necessity] is adopted according to the document presented on denominational differences of marriage. 

On February 20, 2018, the text presented above on non-denominational marriages and the common participation in the Eucharist was voted on in the Assembly. The document was adopted by a 2/3 majority of the German bishops. Of the 60 bishops present, 13 voted no, including at least seven diocesan bishops. Modi (amendments) may be submitted until 16 March, but they will no longer call into question the fundamental adoption of the document. 

Personally, we do not consider the vote held on 20 February to be right, because we do not believe that the issue we are discussing here is a pastoral one, but a question of the faith and unity of the Church, which is not subject to a vote. So we ask you, Your Eminence, to clarify this matter. 

1. Is the document presented here a "pastoral handout" — as asserted by some German bishops — and thus merely a pastoral question, or is the faith and unity of the Church fundamentally called for, rather than the determinations made here? 

2. Does Article 58 of the document not relativize the faith of the Church, according to which the Church of Jesus Christ is realized in the Catholic Church (subsists) and it is therefore necessary that an Evangelical Christian who shares the Catholic faith with regard to the Eucharist should in which case also become Catholic?

3. According to nos. 283 to 293, it is not primarily the longing for Eucharistic grace that becomes the criterion for [serious spiritual] distress, but rather the common reception of Communion of spouses belonging to different confessions. In our opinion, this distress is none other than which belongs ecumenism as a whole, that is, of every Christian who seriously strives for unity. In our view, therefore, it is not an exceptional criterion.

4. Is it at all possible for a single national episcopal conference, in one particular linguistic region, to make an isolated decision concerning such a question about the faith and practice of the whole Church, without reference and integration into the universal Church?  

Eminence, we have many other fundamental questions and reservations about the proposed solution contained in this document. That is why we are voting in favor of renouncing a derogation and, instead, finding a clear solution in ecumenical dialogue to the overall problem of "Eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion" which is viable for the universal Church.

We ask for your help, in the light of our doubts, as to whether the draft solution presented in this document is compatible with the faith and unity of the Church. 

We ask God's blessing for you and your responsible duty in Rome and greet you warmly! 

Cardinal Rainer Woelki (Cologne)

Archbishop Ludwig Schick (Bamberg)

Bishop Gregor Hanke (Eichstätt)

Bishop Konrad Zdarsa (Augsburg)

Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt (Görlitz)

Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer (Regensburg)

 Bishop Stefan Oster (Passau)”