Pope Francis has praised the controversial German bishops’ conference guidelines that allow Protestants married to Catholic spouses to receive communion in Germany, saying that the guidelines were “well thought out with a Christian spirit”.
The comments were made on June 21 during his customary in-flight press conference, this time after a trip to Geneva where the Pope participated in an “ecumenical prayer service” with the World Council of Churches – a global federation of non-Catholic Christian churches.
Papal praise for the German guidelines seem to be in contradiction with the recent ruling on the matter by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Last May, the CDF had already issued a formal rejection of the German guidelines seeking to allow communion for Protestants married to Catholic spouses.
The Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church expressly states that the Sacrament of the Eucharist can be administered to Protestants only during emergencies, particularly “if the danger of death is present”, provided that the recipients “manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.”
The German proposal, voted on by a large majority, instead opens up Holy Communion to Protestants even in non-emergency situations, contrary to Catholic Teaching and Canon Law. As per the German guidelines, Protestants married to a Catholic may receive the Eucharist to put an end to “serious spiritual distress”, provided that they have carried out an examination of conscience with a priest or with another person with pastoral responsibilities.
Up to the Local Bishops?
During his recent in-flight conference, Pope Francis said that while he supported the CDF decision on the German proposal, he emphasized that it is up to the local bishop to decide under what conditions communion can be administered to non-Catholics, not local bishops’ conferences. The problem, the Pope says, is not so much the content of the German guidelines, but the fact that it was a bishops’ conference issuing the guidelines.
Initially Declined to Intervene
Pope Francis initially declined to intervene and rule on a dispute among German bishops over the guidelines. Seven German bishops had written the Vatican asking it to rule on the intercommunion proposal adopted by the German bishops conference allowing Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive communion in certain circumstances. The seven had argued the proposal undermines the Catholic faith and shouldn’t be decided by a national bishops’ conference.
The Pope urged the bishops to find a unanimous solution “in the spirit of ecclesial communion” after a German delegation met with top Vatican officials last May 3.
Letter of the Seven Bishops
According to reports, of the 60 bishops present during the German deliberations on the intercommunion proposal, 13 bishops voted “no”. Following the majority decision, a group of seven dissenting German bishops sent a formal letter of clarification to the Vatican. The letter was addressed to: Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta Ochoa de Chinchetru, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts; and the apostolic nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Nikola Eterović.
The letter is signed by Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, Bishop Gregor Hanke of Eichstätt, Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg, Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt of Görlitz, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, and Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau.
In their letter, the seven bishops lay out four points calling for clarification: they question whether such a proposal is pastoral matter or one concerning the faith and Church unity; why a person who shares the Catholic faith on the Eucharist should not become Catholic; whether “spiritual distress” is really exceptional or simply part of striving for unity; and if a bishops’ conference should be making such a decision without reference to the universal Church.
They add that they have “many other fundamental questions and reservations” about the proposal and so prefer to seek a solution within the field of ecumenical dialogue which is “viable for the universal Church.”
Cardinals Decry German Bishops’ Move
Cardinals Francis Arinze, Gerhard Müller, Walter Brandmüller, and Paul Cordes all decried the move by the German bishops to allow Protestants to receive the Holy Eucharist. Cardinal Müller called the proposal a “rhetorical trick” pulled on believers, most of whom he noted are not theologians and stressed that interdenominational marriage is “not an emergency situation.” Cardinal Brandmüller said the German bishops’ weak opposition to the proposal was a “scandal, no question.”∎
Paul Simeon, Veritas