German Bishop on Protestant Spouses, Eucharist: Yearn for Unity; Respect Beliefs
An interview with Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer on intercommunion between Protestants and Catholics.
Editor's Note: The following interview with Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, Germany, was published April 23 in German on the diocesan website. The diocese provided the Register with an English translation.
A majority of the German bishops voted in February in support of a pastoral handout for married couples that allows Protestant spouses of Catholics “in individual cases” and “under certain conditions” to receive Holy Communion, provided they “affirm the Catholic faith in the Eucharist.” But seven German bishops, including Bishop Voderholzer, opposed the proposal and asked for the Vatican to intervene.
On May 3, the Vatican met with German bishops and asked them to reconsider the proposal and “to find, in a spirit of ecumenical communion, a possibly unanimous decision.”
And a May 25 letter addressed to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and president of the German bishops’ conference, Jesuit Cardinal-elect Luis Ladaria, the Vatican’s top authority on matters of doctrine, said the text of the German proposal “raises a series of problems of considerable importance” and that the Pope rejected the proposal.
Your Grace, how do you feel as a “die-hard” or even “anti-ecumenist” — labels that have been applied to you and your six fellow bishops, both in the media and within the Church?
I regret that the public discussion concerning the question of Protestant spouses receiving Holy Communion, which is an important pastoral question, should be determined by such vocabulary. For me, it is important to take people seriously and to announce the faith of the Church, and to do that in such a way that they can rely on its being good and right.
The seven bishops were publicly accused of having acted almost conspiratorially behind the backs of the chairman of the bishops’ conference and the majority of the bishops when you sent your letter to Rome requesting clarification in this matter. What do have to say about that? How did this joint letter come about?
At the last two spring general assemblies of German bishops, we openly debated the question of admitting Protestant spouses to Holy Communion. We always did so in a brotherly atmosphere. You could clearly see true, pastoral wrestling going on with all the bishops. But in the end, there was no consensus in this matter. Dissent remained.
However, I do not regard that as a bad thing, from the first. It is an expression of our mutual truthfulness that we did not aspire to achieve an unfair compromise. It is, rather, about also tolerating the different position of our fellow brothers. That requires respect for each other.
It is certainly essential that we wish to act in keeping with the other bishops’ conferences in the universal Church. We do not wish to go it alone in such an important issue concerning faith. That requires collegiality and solidarity beyond the borders of Germany.
In the end, seven diocesan bishops and six suffragan bishops voted against the text. That is a lot of votes against a question which would actually require unanimity. We then decided — with regard to the consensus with the universal Church — to turn to Rome, which every bishop can always do, of course. We sent one confidential copy to Cardinal Marx personally as the chairman of the bishops’ conference to inform him of the content.
Your Grace, let us turn to the theological reasons: Many people of faith are unsettled and quite often upset. How can these seven bishops be so hard-hearted? How can Protestant spouses be refused Holy Communion — be excluded? Could you explain your theological reasons and your standpoint in this issue?
First of all, let me make two preliminary remarks. I understand ecumenical Christianity as one of the core missions of Christ himself. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to the Father: “that they may be one, just as we are one. ... that they be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that you have sent me” (17: 22b-23). We must remain true to this core mission of Christ’s. It is not a question of a Yes or a No to ecumenical Christianity, but of the path of ecumenical Christianity, the path to oneness. We are all yearning for this oneness — including me!
Let me say another thing before we start: I am aware of the problems and hardships that particularly arise in raising children in the faith where the parents are of different faiths but that also occur in the couple’s religious lives. I am also aware of the tensions that can grow from this and lead to hurt. I know this from conversations with people in this situation and also experience it in my family environment. It also upsets me as a bishop.
So, for me, the letter I wrote with my fellow brothers is about looking for a way that takes people’s distress seriously and provides help at the same time. However, we are of the opinion that the “helping hand” aspired to by the majority of the German bishops’ conference enabling Protestant spouses to receive Holy Communion does not solve the problems and hardships. Nor does it do justice to the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the “helping hand” does not sufficiently take into account the different understanding of faith found in the individual denominations with regard to the Eucharist on the one hand and the Lord’s Supper on the other.
In the question of ecumenical Christianity, we must also take the view of the Eastern Church into account, if nothing else. There, the connection between the fellowship of churches and the Eucharistic community is seen as even deeper than in the Western Church. If the Catholic Church clouds this view, it considerably widens the gap to the Orthodox Churches.
But aren’t the “Lord’s Supper” and “Holy Communion” essentially one and the same?
From the Catholic side, it’s difficult to give information on how the Protestants understand the “Lord’s Supper” themselves in a way that is ultimately authoritative. There are differences, again, between the individual communities themselves, even though the different communities have granted each other full communion for some time.
If one studies the texts, one, in fact, realizes that nowhere is communion assigned such a significant role as in Holy Communion on the Catholic side. Whoever celebrates the Service of the Word already has the highest form of encounter with God, beyond which the Lord’s Supper does not constitute any added value (see “German Protestant Church — The Church Service: A Guide to Understanding and Practice of the Church Service in the Protestant Church,” 2009, p. 40). Accordingly, communion is given infrequently, on an average of once a month.
In the Catholic Church, we don’t only celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday and on every holiday, of course, but do so even daily. As regards the Catholic view, it is particularly important that Holy Mass is not the repetition of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples, but the celebration of his death and his resurrection, the realization of his sacrifice on the cross.
Why are people of the Protestant faith forbidden from receiving Communion in the Catholic Church?
The term “forbidden” is completely inappropriate. It is about taking one’s own faith and another’s denomination seriously. Whoever receives the Eucharist in the Catholic Church affirms their belief with regard to the Eucharist.
And what does that mean, more precisely?
To begin with, it is the conviction of the real and abiding presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic species. But the belief in the Eucharist is not restricted to that. None other than the Second Vatican Council has emphasized with new clarity that the Eucharist is the source and summit of all of life in the Church. In Holy Communion, the entire Catholic faith is testified and professed in condensed form. The Eucharist is the origin and source of the Church and its unity, which spans time and space. It is not a meal shared together where someone would have to feel excluded if he did not receive anything to eat.
Where is that expressed? How does this unifying function of the Eucharist manifest?
It manifests most clearly at the climax of the Holy Mass in the Eucharistic Prayer, at the center of which the words of Consecration are spoken by the priest. The prayer is spoken in unity with the Pope and the bishops. The name of the bishop is given, just as the name of the Pope is given, because the community specifically exists. The Mass is celebrated in connection with the Church of heaven, with Mary, Joseph and all the saints. And there are prayers for the dead at every Mass. At the end of the prayer, everyone answers with “Amen,” “so be it” and “I believe.”
These are not just words — they’re a confession of faith! Celebrating and praying with others at Holy Mass is a confession of faith!
Now, whoever denies the papacy is not familiar with the veneration of saints and regards the prayer for the dead as unnecessary or impossible; due to his confession, [he] is not “forbidden” from receiving the Eucharist, but, if he takes himself seriously, he or she must say: I cannot and do not want to belong to this Church, at least not completely and in the highest form. If this is not the case, he is free to make the journey to being accepted in the Catholic Church.
However, demanding that someone believe in the Eucharist completely and saying “you can keep your confession” at the same time is not honest. And the representatives of the Protestant churches see it that way themselves, of course. The Protestant professor of theology Ulrich H.J. Körtner even calls the helping hand an “ecumenical botch up.”
But canon law nonetheless allows the bishops’ conferences to specify criteria for when there are emergencies whereby it is possible to receive Communion without being a full member of the Church community.
You are talking about Canon 844.4. This expressly refers to “danger of death” or some “other grave and pressing need” and to the case where a minister from the person’s own church is unavailable. The criteria must therefore be at the level of grave circumstances like these.
It seems to us that merely living in a marriage with a partner of a different faith does not meet these criteria and nor can that alone lead to a gravis spiritualis necessitas (“grave spiritual need”). We also request clarification here.
Aren’t you touched by the need of many married couples of different faiths — the “helping hand” speaks of “connecting faiths,” of course? Nowadays, it’s not easy to live your faith anyway or to pass it on to your children and grandchildren. And now, on top of that, the Church has gone and thrown another spanner [wrench] in the works. Does one have to be so petty?
Spouses of different faiths bear the main burden of the religious schism. It appears that the influence of faith often extends into the ins and outs of one’s way life.
In the best case, the situation can lead to enrichment. Catholics learn from the Godliness of the Bible and from sacred music; Protestants begin to become familiar with the beauty and sensuousness of the liturgy and the wealth of tradition, and perhaps start to appreciate the significance of the global One Church. The important thing is that each respects the other’s conception of themselves. I know married couples of different faiths who have gotten along very well with each other for decades and who respect the limits.
It is gratifying that the faiths have been approaching each other in the last year. Why commit this unfriendly act now?
I am very glad about the friendships that have grown, and we will intensify them. A good friendship also particularly includes respecting the other and taking him seriously regarding his confession and his conception of himself. The planned “helping hand,” however, could be understood as an unfriendly act of enticement, especially considering that enabling participation in the Eucharist in individual cases does not apply the other way around at all. I hold that we should do everything together in ecumenical fellowship that we already can do: Hear the word of God together, sing and pray together, and stand up together for the protection of lives, for the meaning of marriage between man and woman, for the meaning of family and for the preservation of human dignity.
Sharing the Eucharist together cannot be a stage on the journey — it is the goal. No greater unity can then be achieved. But there is still a way to go until we get there.