Vatican Rejects German Bishops’ Intercommunion Proposal

Sources confirm that, with the Holy Father’s approval, the Vatican’s head of doctrine has thrown out the bishops’ proposal allowing Holy Communion for some Protestant spouses, but the Pope wishes the rejection letter to remain secret.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising and Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne in Rome, Italy on March 14, 2013.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising and Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne in Rome, Italy on March 14, 2013. (photo: Paul Badde/EWTN)

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope Francis, has written a letter to German bishops rejecting their proposal to allow some Protestant spouses to receive Holy Communion, but the Pope does not wish the letter to be made public, the Register has learned.

Sources in the Vatican and Germany say that Archbishop Luis Ladaria, the current prefect of the CDF, wrote the letter and that it was given papal approval.

“It’s a rejection of the pastoral plan,” said a high level source in the German Church, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that there are “no differences” between Archbishop Ladaria and his predecessor, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, on the matter.

But two senior sources have also confirmed that the Pope wants the letter to remain secret for reasons unknown.

The Austrian Catholic website revealed Wednesday that the Vatican had issued its response, which came after seven German bishops, led by Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, wrote to the CDF last month to say they believed the proposal contradicted Catholic doctrine, undermined Church unity and exceeded the competence of the bishops’ conference.

At their spring conference in February, Germany’s bishops voted overwhelmingly in favor of producing a guide, or pastoral handout, to allow a Protestant partner of a Catholic to receive the Eucharist in some cases and under certain conditions.

They decided that permission could be granted 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 Register learned that only 13 of Germany’s 67 bishops voted against the proposal, or abstained. But the proposal caused considerable unease elsewhere: 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. He stressed that interdenominational 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.”

Cardinal Brandmüller said the German bishops' weak opposition to the proposal was a “scandal, no question.”


Damaged Power Base

Today’s news of the Vatican’s decision will come as an embarrassment to Cardinal Marx who is facing a revolt by bishops in Bavaria. The German daily Bild noted this week that "five out of six Bavarian bishops have publicly challenged Marx on a central question (Holy Communion),” and that it was therefore clear: “His power base is damaged.” Quoting one of the rebel bishops, the newspaper added: “It’ll soon be basta [enough] for Reinhard.”

The German bishops' conference has tried to deny the reports. Spokesman Matthias Kopp said the conference was “unaware” of any such rejection, but in any case, he said Cardinal Marx had not sent the handout to the Vatican, and it was only a “draft subject to revision.” He added that the information provided by was therefore “inconclusive and we cannot confirm it."

Bernhard Kellner, Cardinal Marx’s spokesman, said “no comment,” when asked about the letter by the Munich-based daily Münchener-Merkur.  

But a source close to the German Church poured scorn on Kopp’s response, saying it was the equivalent of “throwing sand in one’s eyes” and a case of “smoke and mirrors.”

He is using a “classic tactic” of the Left, he said. “Try to get something through the backdoor by submitting a draft, then see if you can get away with it, and if you can’t, say it was ‘only a draft.’”

The source also stressed the intercommunion idea has been floating around the halls of the German bishops’ conference for years, and didn’t just suddenly appear. “It’s no coincidence that it came out now,” he said.

Another source with detailed knowledge of the German Church said that more German bishops opposed the move than the voting numbers suggest, but he added that the bishops find it difficult to mount any significant resistance due to powerful figures behind the episcopate. In particular, he cited Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, general secretary of the German bishops' conference, and Kopp.

Both, he said, control almost all of the German Catholic media, including the German section of Vatican Media and News, backed up by significant funding.

But the predominant issue remains: why does the Pope wish the rejection letter to remain secret?

One probable reason, according to some observers, is because the rejection does not fit the narrative and direction of this pontificate.

The Pope, they recall, showed his sympathy for the German bishops' proposal in 2015 when he appeared to allow a Lutheran spouse to receive Holy Communion in accordance with her conscience.

Update, April 19:

The German bishops conference has issued a statement to say reports that the pastoral “handout” has been rejected “in the Vatican” by the Pope and Vatican dicasteries are “false.”

The issue, however, is not the handout which doesn't yet exist (it hasn't been published yet or sent to the Vatican), but the draft proposal which was voted upon in February, is subject to amendments, and to which the seven bishops and the CDF letter refer.   

Pope Francis has summoned to Rome Cardinals Marx, Woelki, and Bishop Felix Genn of Münster to discuss the matter. 

Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, shown speaking to the media on the opening day of a congress of the Synodal Way, Feb. 3, in Frankfurt, Germany, had his resignation accepted by Pope Francis March 25.

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