Confusion Over Holy Communion for Protestant Spouses

Pastoral guidelines allowing the practice in some cases is predictably causing chaos and “great harm” to the Church, says Cardinal Gerhard Müller.

Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller in 2016.
Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller in 2016. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

One of the most contentious and fraught issues of 2018 for the Church was a decision by Germany’s bishops to allow Holy Communion for Protestant spouses under certain conditions.

The bishops overwhelmingly voted in February for the pastoral approach which proposed that a Protestant spouse could receive the Eucharist after having made a “serious examination” of conscience with a priest or another person with pastoral responsibilities.

They also had to “affirm the faith of the Catholic Church” (without the necessity of becoming a Catholic), wish to end whatever “serious spiritual distress” they had been suffering, and to have a “longing to satisfy a hunger for the Eucharist.”

Despite some vociferous opposition including seven German bishops who appealed to Pope Francis and the Vatican to clarify the Church’s doctrine on the issue, the “pastoral handout” was released in late June as non-binding guidance. 

The Pope’s decision not to give clear direction on the matter, instead handing it over to bishops to decide on it in a unanimous vote, led Dutch Cardinal Willem Eijk to warn that “by failing to create clarity, great confusion is created among the faithful and the unity of the Church is endangered.” He also expressed concern that the Church was drifting toward apostasy from the truth.

Since then, various German bishops have been interpreting the document in a way that more loosely permits Holy Communion for Protestant spouses in certain cases. The latest to do so is Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin, who has asked priests, deacons and lay people in his diocese engaged in pastoral ministry to take the guidelines as the “basis of their actions,” according to, a news portal connected to the German bishops’ conference.

In a six-page pastoral letter, Archbishop Koch lists seven theological and pastoral perspectives on the guidelines which he says “prove its viability.” At the core of his explanation is the reference to “serious spiritual distress” and the lack of Eucharistic fellowship that could arise in a mixed marriage.

He further explains that he is not concerned about general questions relating to rules around Eucharistic hospitality, only that those who are baptized and married and who have an “inner longing” for sacramental communion in the Eucharist but suffer “ecclesiastical division” should not be “expelled” from the community of the faithful.

At the same time, the archbishop said he was glad this issue did not lead the bishops to come to “rash and ill-considered conclusions” on the matter. He also expressed concern that for “many Christians” the Eucharist is increasingly “losing its meaning” and is often no longer in the center of people’s lives. “Without the Eucharist, there is no Church,” he said, and “we cannot live as individuals and as Church.”

For this reason, despite many seeing the guidelines themselves as an attack on the integrity of the Eucharist, said Archbishop Koch believes it is all the more important that the Eucharist is celebrated “worthily and credibly,” with a “good quality and cultivated liturgy constituting the heart of life as community and Church.”

Archbishop Koch’s letter comes after a spate of other episcopal missives in support of the guidelines, with one saying that pastors “do not have the right to allow or to deny access to the Eucharist” and another stating it should be left to the “individual decision of conscience” of the spouses.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had early on pointed out that a mixed marriage is “not an emergency situation,” and that “neither the Pope nor we bishops can redefine the sacraments as a means of alleviating mental distress and satisfying spiritual needs” as they are “effective signs of the grace of God.”

The decision on whether or not to receive Holy Communion “cannot be left to the conscience of Catholics or non-Catholics,” he said in a Dec. 3 interview with LifeSiteNews. “Reception of Holy Communion requires full membership in the Catholic Church.” He also insisted that priests are not obliged to follow any instruction to give Holy Communion to non-Catholics.

Having regretfully predicted in April that the matter would “continue without the clear necessity for a declaration about the Catholic faith,” Cardinal Müller observed in his recent interview that through “theologically vague explanations” that contradict Church doctrine and CDF instructions, “a chaotic practice” has emerged that is causing “great harm to the Church.”