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A Crucial Moment For the Church: Intercommunion Debate in Rome in May

Image: Copyright EWTN / Paul Badde 

In May, there is to be an historic meeting with the CDF and some German bishops concerning the recent German pastoral guidelines on intercommunion. Many well-informed observers of this situation worry that this meeting might turn into a compromise and into an official Vatican approval of the progressivist German approach with regard to Protestant spouses of Catholics and their access to Holy Communion. It might amount to a similarly grave undermining of the Church’s sacramental order as with Amoris Laetitia and its aftermath.

While the world has been watching the Alfie case, there has been much going on in Germany and Rome with regard to the recent 22 February 2018 pastoral guidelines as approved by a two-thirds majority of German bishops – which allow Protestant spouses of Catholics, in some individual cases – to receive Holy Communion.

After this decision was published – even though the final version of these pastoral guidelines is still not promulgated – seven diocesan bishops wrote a letter to different Vatican addressees, asking for a clarification. They argued that the German bishops had stepped over the limits of their competence since these new guidelines would establish intercommunion which, so far, has been forbidden, except for emergency cases such as the danger of imminent death. – the well-informed Austrian Catholic news website – subsequently claimed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent, in April, a letter to the German bishops in which it rejects this package of pastoral guidelines. also added that Pope Francis had given his approval to that disapproving CDF letter. Later Edward Pentin, Rome Correspondent of the National Catholic Register, added the piece of information that Pope Francis had, however, insisted that this CDF letter was not to be published before a meeting with some German bishops takes place, which he now initiated. (So far, the German bishops seem to abide by this papal instruction. Two dioceses declined to send Onepeterfive a copy of that letter.) At that upcoming, yet undated meeting (most probably in May), six German participants are invited: Cardinal Rainer Woelki, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Bishop Felix Genn, Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann, Bishop Gerhard Feige, along with the general secretary of the bishops’ conference, Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has officially invited them. It is not fully clear to what extent or whether Pope Francis will personally participate in that meeting, even though some news sources speak of a meeting with him.

To return to the CDF letter. As Edward Pentin says, Cardinal Gerhard Müller seems to have a similar position than CDF letter which has been signed by Archbishop Luis Ladaria, the current Prefect of the CDF. All of our attempts at retrieving a copy of that CDF letter have so far been in vain. But Pentin himself, based on his own sources, concludes that the CDF letter says German liberal pastoral guidelines are in contradiction to the Church’s sacramental doctrine and discipline.

Cardinal Müller has recently both given an interview about this matter of intercommunion as well as written his own pertinent essay. In both cases, he made it very clear that Protestants may only receive Holy Communion in a real situation of emergency, according to Canon Law (in Canon 844 § 4), and not in the case of a so-called mixed marriage, which the German bishops now try to declare as a sufficient cause of spiritual distress for the spouses (since they cannot receive Holy Communion together). He even called the specious term “individual cases” a “rhetorical trick.”

A possible reason as to why Pope Francis wishes this CDF letter to remain unpublished is that he is himself not happy with it. As alert observers know, it was Pope Francis himself who, during a visit at the Lutheran Church in Rome in November of 2015, opened up to the idea that a Protestant spouse could come to a decision of conscience with regard to receiving Holy Communion. He then told a Protestant spouse of a Catholic who wished to receive Holy Communion: “Speak with the Lord and go forward.” One well-informed clerical source therefore told Onepeterfive that this German move was coming “from the very top in Rome.”

Pentin himself quotes one source from the German Church: “He [the source] said that unless any resistance is mounted now, ‘you’re likely to see Communion for Protestants introduced globally, through the backdoor of the German bishops’ conference.’” [emphasis added]

The seven, mostly Bavarian, German bishops who have opposed the German pastoral handout have spoken out now repeatedly, among them Bishop Stefan Oster, and they have made it clear that it is their devotion to the Holy Eucharist that makes them resist a laxening of the rules for receiving Holy Communion. Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer – who is the successor of Cardinal Müller in Regensburg – himself stressed in a recent interview the importance of sharing the full Catholic view of the Eucharist and of the Eucharistic prayers which contain an affirmation of the papacy, the devotion to the saints, the prayers for the dead, as well as, most importantly, the belief in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. “To ask someone to hold that Eucharistic faith, yet at the same time to say ‘you may preserve your own confession’ is not honest,” Voderholzer explains. He also quotes a Protestant professor of theology who recently called the new German pastoral guidelines an “ecumenical botch-up.”

What so far has not been amply discussed in this matter, however, is the problem that those Protestant spouses who might now soon be allowed to receive Holy Communion are not bound first to receive the Sacrament of Penance; this fact will thus further undermine the Church’s teaching on the necessity of being in the state of grace for the reception of Holy Communion. The sacramental order of the Catholic Church will thereby further erode.

One of the seven German bishops, Cardinal Rainer Woelki – Cardinal Joachim Meisner’s former secretary and his successor as the archbishop of Cologne (the largest German diocese) – will now soon travel to Rome, together with Cardinal Reinhard Marx and some fellow bishops, in order to discuss the problem with the Vatican (and perhaps with Pope Francis himself?). Unfortunately, he will likely be the only one fully representing the orthodox line in the question of intercommunion. As puts it:

It is clear that Cardinal Woelki is to be totally isolated before Pope Francis in the ‘Rome group’, since next to Woelki obviously only those bishops are permitted to be there who are in favor of an opening up of the Eucharist for Protestants ‘in individual cases’.

For example, Bishop Gerhard Feige, one of the other members of the “Rome group,” has just published an article for Christ&Welt – a subsection of the German newspaper Die Zeit – in which he shows himself to be very impatient with regard to the question of intercommunion, now calling upon the German bishops “not to pass up the chance!” Feige, who is the head of the German bishops’ ecumenism commission, claims that the German bishops are merely issuing a pastoral handout, “and not a doctrinal document,” thus there is not a need to turn to Rome for approval. He regrets that “there are some who are still remaining in opposition,” indirectly pointing at the seven resisting bishops.

So far, as the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost shows, there now already exist 21 pastoral handouts spread throughout the world with regard to situations where and when Protestants may be permitted to receive Holy Communion. They all have previously been sent to Rome for approval, and they refer to real emergency situations, getting more specific as to what such emergency situations actually are. But none of them establishes a rule that Protestant spouses may, in an habitual way, receive Holy Communion without converting to the Catholic Faith. As Die Tagespost‘s journalists Regina Einig and Guido Horst explain, “all of these [national] guidelines limit and specify [canon 844], but never do they – as in the case of the German handout – intend to go on new paths concerning the admittance of non-Catholic Christians to the Sacraments.”

The overall impression of the handling of this case by Cardinal Marx is that there is a lot of meddling and murkiness. Cardinal Marx, the head of the German bishops, did not follow the normal procedure to send to Rome the new handout; he already talked publicly about the handout before it had even been finalized (which was to take place this April). Additionally, there is some evidence – as published by Edward Pentin and – that someone in Marx’ own office leaked to a German journalist (who subsequently published it) that explicitly private and confidential letter of the seven oppositional bishops. As Pentin puts it:

The Register has also confirmed that earlier this month it was deliberately leaked by the powerful German bishops conference which has a tight grip on almost all Catholic media in Germany [“including the German section of Vatican Media and News”]. […] Cardinal Marx […] had a reaction piece published within hours of the [seven bishops’] letter’s publication.

Edward Pentin adds in this regard that several of his sources point to Father Hans Langendörfer, S.J. – the German bishops’ long-term secretary and the only non-bishop to be coming to Rome in May for the meeting with the CDF – as himself the “grey eminence” in the background who has much influence. Together with the German bishops’ press speaker, Matthias Kopp, he seems to have helped push some of the German bishops into accepting these liberalizing pastoral guidelines. Langendörfer’s own long-term consequential and negative role in the German Bishops’ Conference has also been reported to Onepeterfive from some well-informed German sources.

For example, in 2011, when first the scandal came to light that the German bishops’ own large publishing house, Weltbild, was also selling esoteric and pornographic books, Langendörfer had then come under criticism since he was then also a member of the board of that publishing house. The German magazine FOCUS at the time declared that Langendörfer “holds many reins in his hands” at the German Bishops’ Conference. A side remark in passing about this scandal: it was then Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Cardinal Woelki’s predecessor, who was at the forefront of the fight against this moral corruption. At the time, moreover, he also had Pope Benedict XVI’s support. The pope thus declared: “It is time to vigorously put a stop to prostitution, as well as to the widespread dissemination of material with an erotic or a pornographic content, also on the internet. ”

Interestingly now, the pope emeritus also seems to be supportive of the current initiative of the seven German bishops. According to Edward Pentin – who is relying here on solid sources, and his story has not been denied by the Vatican – “Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has given his full support to the seven bishops and their letter to the Vatican.” Bishop Voderholzer, who is said to be one of the leading forces behind the Seven Bishops’ Letter, is not only Cardinal Müller’s successor in Regensburg. He also leads the Pope Benedict Institute which had been founded in 2008 by then-Bishop Gerhard Müller with the intent to publish the collected works of Joseph Ratzinger. In the 1990s, Vorderholzer had been an academic assistant to Professor Gerhard Müller at the University of Munich.

For Pope Francis, this whole development concerning the new German intercommunion guidelines is likely an embarrassment. He was the one who made remarks that seem to support a decision of conscience in the question of intercommunion. Then he was the one telling the national bishops’ conferences to go more their own varied ways and to fostering decentralization, as well. The German bishops who picked up on these papal hints are now faced with a strong resistance from within Germany, as well as from within the Roman Curia.

When, in 2015, the pope made his own above-mentioned laxening remarks concerning intercommunion, he made an explicit reference to Cardinal Walter Kasper, saying: “Regarding the question on sharing the Lord’s Supper, it is not easy for me to answer you, especially in front of a theologian like Cardinal Kasper! I’m afraid!” Kasper had been for many years, from 2001 until 2010, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Just like with Amoris Laetitia, it now seems again the same German cardinal who has been promoting this change of Catholic teaching, and for a long time. In 2016, it was reported that Kasper “hopes for progress in the question of intercommunion.” He then explicitly pointed to mixed marriages and wished that they could together receive Holy Communion. The German cardinal also proposed at the time that the pope’s “next declaration” should allow “shared Eucharistic communion” with Protestants.

In 2017, when speaking at a conference on the Lutheran Reformation in Rome, the German cardinal claimed that spouses of mixed marriages were already “united in baptism.” Now, in response to the current conflict in Germany concerning intercommunion, he added the argument that not only are these couples “united in baptism,” but that they are additionally bound by the Sacrament of Matrimony. Additionally, he endorses the case-by-case approach in the matter of intercommunion and claims that one should not expect from Protestant spouses a better understanding of the transsubstantiation – also in contradistinction to the Protestant understanding of the consubstantiation – than what normal Catholics have. (In this text, Kasper claims that Lutheran Christians also believe that the “Eucharistic gifts are body and blood of Christ.”)

Let us now consider what German journalists have to say about this current German conflict in light of the upcoming, potentially consequential, trip of the German bishops to Rome.

Julius Müller-Meiningen, a more progressive German journalist who often speaks much truth, reports in a 27 April article for Christ&Welt that some claim that the pope did not wish that the German bishops would “expose themselves prematurely with their paper at this point of time, even though he stands, in reality, behind their wish.” Some people also claim that the CDF letter aims not at rejecting the German handout, but, rather, at improving it. In the German journalist’s eyes, the pope might hope “that Marx and Woelki will make peace with one another after the conversation” in Rome. Müller-Meiningen points out that the pope himself had already answered the questions of the seven German bishops when he told the Protestant spouses in November of 2015 at the Lutheran Church in Rome (in the journalist’s words): “See for yourself!”

Ludwig Ring-Eifel, the editor-in-chief of the German bishops’ news agency Katholische Nachrichten-Agentur (KNA), sees, similar to Müller-Meiningen, that the pope now has a problem. “Pope Francis is Put to the Test,” is the title of Ring-Eifel’s recent commentary. He now proposes that the pope also invite Bishop Voderholzer to that Rome meeting in May, in order to “’take along’ all bishops,” and also in light of the fact that the Bavarian bishop is a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he “probably is the theological mentor of that minority among the bishops” who have written the Seven Bishops’ Letter. “Who knows, perhaps the list will get longer,” comments Ring-Eifel, when mentioning the other members of that “Rome group” which is to meet in Rome in order to find a solution for the current conflict in Germany. “If the Church’s magisterium is still to be taken seriously,” he adds, “then it has to work hard to find a clarification which is in accordance with the Tradition and Doctrine.” For Ring-Eifel, this conflict is now for the pope a “test for his process of opening up.” One conclusion, so far, is, in the journalist’s eyes, as follows: “It is not sufficient to create room for reality and to break up rigid rules. One also has to develop an idea as to what comes after.”

For the sake of the Truth of the Faith, let us thus pray for Cardinal Woelki that he may not surrender to the pressing majority at this upcoming Vatican meeting. This meeting might very well have consequences for the Universal Church. If the German Bishops’ Conference gets away with a permissive rule concerning intercommunion, the Holy Eucharist will receive, after Amoris Laetitia, a second serious blow. Much is at stake. It is to be hoped that some of the more conservative and loyal actors in this conflict have learned their lessons from that first doctrinal attack, as it were. Pope Francis once reported that he heard that Pope Benedict, “with the best Bavarian style,” had once shown some people the door who had come to him in protest against Pope Francis. That reported incident might well have taken place during one of the two tumultuous family synods. Now in 2018, and with regard to intercommunion, Benedict might well have sympathetically opened the door to some of these critics.

Update: As we go to press, the Vatican press office has announced that the meeting with the German bishops will take place 3 May. Bishop Voderholzer will thankfully be now also part of the German delegation, which will meet with several heads of Roman Dicasteries, among them Archbishop Luis Ladaria and Cardinal Kurt Koch, both of whom had originally received the Seven Bishops’ Letter opposing the German intercommunion guidelines. Additionally, there will be present Msgr. Markus Graulich (who defends the traditional teaching on marriage and the Sacramtents) and Fr. Hermann Geissler (a Cardinal Newman expert). These four names give hope for a good outcome from the conversations.

Additionally, the German bishops’ news website reports now that it is unusual that the Vatican publishes ahead of a meeting the members of the Roman Curia who will be participating. The article also mentions that Bishop Feige and Bishop Wiesemann had been leading figures in the draft of the German pastoral guidelines with regard to intercommunion.

Update 30 April, 1:40 pm: The post has been updated with regard to Cardinal Müller. According to different sources, he does not seem to have been involved in the CDF letter as sent by Archbishop Ladaria. Some words of Edward Pentin were unclear about this matter.

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