Pope Francis Faces ‘Delicate Task’ Over German Intercommunion Proposal

It will be difficult for the Holy Father to continue his tendency of remaining above the fray when it comes to a crucial meeting this week, says theologian.

Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on April 4, 2018.
Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on April 4, 2018. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

Thursday’s Rome meeting between German bishops and Vatican officials on whether Protestant spouses can receive Holy Communion in some exceptional cases is crucial not only for its subject matter, but also as it is likely to confirm where Pope Francis stands on the issue. 

The Vatican announced today that two of the seven signatories of a letter to the Vatican opposed to the controversial proposal or pastoral handout — which the overwhelming majority of German bishops voted for in February — will be attending the 4pm meeting. 

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne will be joined by Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, who is understood to have been the prime mover of the seven bishops’ letter to the Vatican, driven by a concern that the Eucharist is becoming a pawn of Church politics.  

Bishop Voderholzer, who is vice-president of the German bishops’ conference’s doctrinal commission and the only German member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was invited just this morning by Pope Francis to attend the Rome talks, the Register has learned. 

The two bishops will discuss the issue with three bishops supporting the proposal: Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, and two latecomers to the meeting announced just last week: Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer, and Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg, president of the bishops’ commission for ecumenism. 

The probable mastermind behind the German bishops’ proposal, Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, general secretary of the bishops’ conference, will also be attending, as will Bishop Felix Genn of Münster, who is said to be neutral on the issue. 

The Vatican will be represented by officials all sympathetic to the seven bishops’ opposition: Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Salesian canonist Msgr. Markus Graulich, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and Father Hermann Geissler, head of the doctrinal section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The meeting can therefore go one of two ways: either it will uphold Church teaching and practice on reception of the Eucharist, or approve in full or in part the German bishops’ proposal — which critics say would mark a break with doctrine and practice. 

The Pope is not scheduled to attend the meeting, although he may decide to make a surprise appearance, a source involved in its organization said. He is believed to be sympathetic to the German bishops’ intercommunion idea, having appeared to controversially endorse something similar at a meeting with Lutherans in Rome in 2015 (also see video here). 

As an aside, today’s Vatican English statement said the meeting would consider the theme of “eventual” access to the Eucharist for non-Catholic spouses in mixed marriages, implying a certain inevitability; the Italian original referred to it as “eventuale” which is more accurately translated as “possible,” and which is also seen as problematic among theologians who argue such practice could never be permissible. 

To date, the Vatican has never issued any instruction on the issue of mixed marriages and access to Holy Communion —a state which critics say is not, contrary to the German proposal, an “emergency situation,” and is a matter of doctrine affecting the universal Church rather than of pastoral practice, limited to a particular region. 

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is also known to oppose the German bishops’ proposal and to support the seven bishops’ initiative. 

Writing in Monday's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, dogmatics professor Helmut Hoping said Francis consequently faces a “delicate task,” especially as Cardinal Marx has tied the proposal to the Pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia that allows for exceptions according to a person’s conscience and particular circumstances. 

The Pope’s method of “initiating processes” without ever ruling on them, said Hoping, “could reach its limits with the German communion conflict.”