Pope Francis’ Intercommunion Reversal

COMMENTARY: Three weeks after he instructed the German bishops to find a ‘possible unanimous’ solution on their own, the Holy Father told them to abandon their proposal instead.

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

In the aftermath of the papal visit to Chile and subsequent events in the sex-abuse crisis, the idea of Pope Francis doing a complete U-turn can be expected. The Holy Father also had done so on his principal financial reforms, reversing them and then leaving the project to languish.

Nevertheless, his recent reversal on the German “intercommunion” proposal was unusually swift. Three weeks after he instructed the German bishops to find a “possible unanimous” solution on their own, Pope Francis told them to abandon their proposal instead.

Is it possible that there is a link between the Chile reversal and the German reversal? Namely, that public criticism from senior cardinals prompted the Holy Father to reverse course?

At first glance, it would seem to be implausible. On the most disputed initiative of the pontificate — Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) and its (ambiguous) admission to Holy Communion of those living in a conjugal union outside of a valid marriage — Pope Francis has been steadfast in not changing course. Indeed, he elected not to answer the dubia posed by four cardinals who asked for clarification on the teaching of Amoris Laetitia.

So do Chile and Germany indicate a change in practice?

In Chile, Pope Francis went on his visit knowing full well that the major sectors of Chilean society — including the leadership of the Chilean bishops — vigorously opposed his appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to the Diocese of Osorno, due to accusations that he had witnessed sexual abuse by his mentor, Father Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most notorious abuser, who was disciplined by the Vatican in 2011.

During the papal visit, Pope Francis did not budge on his position, even lashing out at those who criticized him, accusing them of the grave sin of calumny.

Then Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, the chairman of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, publicly criticized the Holy Father for his remarks — and by implication, his handling of the Bishop Barros matter.

Pope Francis initially accepted the reprimand, but stood by his decision. But soon after, he reversed course and reopened the whole matter, eventually leading to the entire Chilean episcopate offering their resignations.

The turning point, after three years of intense and heated controversy, was Cardinal O’Malley’s criticism.

In the case of the German proposal, the reversal took exactly three weeks.

In February, the German episcopal conference voted by two-thirds in favor of a draft proposal to admit Protestants married to Roman Catholics to Holy Communion. Long-standing practice — and canon law — admits only Catholics to the sacraments. In special cases of “grave necessity,” a Protestant who shares the faith of the Catholic Church in the Real Presence may be admitted. That is judged by the local bishop and most clearly relates to emergencies when death is imminent.

While not fully congruent with canon law, the practice is sometimes found where, for example, a Protestant who regularly attends Mass with a Catholic spouse and shares the faith of the Church, but faces serious obstacles in becoming Catholic, is admitted to Holy Communion. Even then, it is usually limited to particular occasions and not a regular practice.

The German proposal went far beyond even that. They proposed that the very desire of the couple to receive Holy Communion together constituted the “grave necessity” required, and therefore it was possible for such Protestants to habitually receive Holy Communion.

The proposal was very clearly contrary to traditional practice, but had the enthusiastic support of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, the president of the German bishops’ conference, and two-thirds of his confreres. Nevertheless, Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, supported by six other bishops, wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome objecting and requested that Rome block the proposal.

In response, Cardinals Marx and Woelki and other German bishops were summoned to Rome for a May 3 summit with various heads of Roman departments. At the end of that meeting, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, the prefect of the CDF, declined to give an answer, but conveyed to the Germans that the Holy Father himself desired that they should continue to discuss the matter and find, if possible, unanimity on the matter.

Given that the whole reason for the meeting was the lack of unanimity, it appeared that Pope Francis was signaling that he was desirous that the minority who appealed to Rome might find a way to embrace the draft proposal.

Then came a veritable thunderbolt. Cardinal Willem Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht, Netherlands, wrote a blistering commentary in the Register, published only four days after the Vatican meeting. His language was not diplomatic.

“The response of the Holy Father … that the [German bishops] should discuss the drafts again and try to achieve a unanimous result, if possible, is completely incomprehensible,” Cardinal Eijk wrote. “The Church’s doctrine and practice regarding the administration of the sacrament of the Eucharist to Protestants is perfectly clear.”

It was not a carefully worded rebuke like Cardinal O’Malley offered in January. It was not formulated in the form of legitimate, limited questions like the dubia on Amoris Laetitia. Cardinal Eijk said baldly that Pope Francis got it massively wrong and, for good measure, pointed out it was not the first time.

“The Holy Father should have given the delegation of the German episcopal conference clear directives, based on the clear doctrine and practice of the Church,” Cardinal Eijk wrote. “He should have also responded on this basis to the Lutheran woman who asked him on Nov. 15, 2015, if she could receive Communion with her Catholic spouse, saying that this is not acceptable, instead of suggesting she could receive Communion on the basis of her being baptized and in accordance with her conscience. By failing to create clarity, great confusion is created among the faithful, and the unity of the Church is endangered.”

Message received.

By mid-May, the CDF was working on a draft letter to the German bishops doing exactly what Cardinal Eijk said should be done. On May 24, Archbishop Ladaria — in the interim named by Pope Francis to become a cardinal in June — met with the Holy Father to agree upon the text of the letter, which was then addressed to Cardinal Marx the next day. Pope Francis had changed his mind. The draft proposal was dead, no matter how many German bishops were in favor of it.

There was another intervention along the lines of Cardinal Eijk, by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, writing in First Things. However, his commentary was published May 23, further amplified by an interview in Crux May 28. By that time, though, the Holy Father had already reversed course. It was Cardinal Eijk’s intervention that appears decisive.

Do the Chilean and German examples mean that the Holy Father is adopting a different style in response to rebukes from his cardinals? It remains to be seen. But it does seem clear that, while in previous pontificates, the norm was to offer criticism privately through official channels, the most effective way to effect change is by recourse to public statements.

“It is not a sin to criticize the Pope here!” Pope Francis said May 21, addressing the Italian bishops. Indeed, it may be the preferred way that the Holy Father likes to be served.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.