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Celebration of Vatican’s Intercommunion Rejection is Premature

When the story first broke in April that the CDF had, with the pope’s explicit blessing, rejected the German Bishops’ intercommunion handout, people weren’t sure what to think. Nobody had seen the communication, and it was very intentionally kept under wraps by the Vatican.

At the time, I issued a cautionary note about thinking that this meant, somehow, that Pope Francis disapproves of the idea of intercommunion. The preponderance of evidence pointed to the contrary. I documented a number of indicators in support of the conclusion that Francis favors intercommunion — but on the basis of individual “discernment.” I speculated at the time that it was perhaps the attempt by the German bishops at codifying this approach — putting it in writing and distributing it — that made it unpalatable to him. Too concrete. Too formal. Not enough smoke or mirrors.

This week, as more information from that CDF decision has been revealed, I’ve seen people rather jubilantly exclaiming that on this issue, it looks like Francis is orthodox. Taken on its own, it’s an interesting thing to see people grasping at straws for evidence that the pope is acting like a Catholic. But understandable searching for hope aside, I think such conclusions are unwarranted. Sad to say that you should probably put that champagne back on ice.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Long time Vatican observer Marco Tosatti wrote in a piece today*:

A month ago [on May 3, 2018] a meeting took place in Rome (not including the Pope) between a few of the protagonists of the conflict and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, which seemed to produce only an interim outcome. So much so that a few German bishops, favoring intercommunion, gave positive interpretations of the meeting in public. This was also the case with the official statement of the Vatican about the meeting, which said that the matter was still unresolved, and that Ladaria told the bishops who participated that Pope Francis desired that they “find, in a spirit of ecclesial communion, a possibly unanimous agreement.”

But the matter stirred up very strong and openly negative reactions on the part of cardinals and others invested in the matter: from Cardinal Willem Eijk of Utrecht [Holland], Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia [USA], the Prefect-emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Gerhard Mūller, Cardinals Walter Brandmüller and Francis Arinze, to name only a few. And to many people the pretext used by the German bishops to justify giving the Eucharist to Protestant spouses “gave rise to a situation of a serious spiritual emergency” and appeared to be an extremely, too thin veil [for their true intentions].

It took a few weeks for a document to appear, dated May 25, which responded with an almost complete “No” to the German proposal, yet without being too harsh towards Cardinal Marx, the chief counselor of the Pope, and the collective body of the German bishops’ conference, with its affinity for the most progressive positions.

Tosatti then provided a translation of the text (from Sandro Magister), which stated:

Our meeting of May 3, 2018, demonstrated that the text of the [proposed] subsidy raised a series of problems of notable relevance. The Holy Father therefore judged at the end that the document was not mature enough to be published.

“Not mature enough to be published.” It’s an interesting turn of phrase. You’ll note that on Magister’s site, the English translation says “not ready for publication”, while our translator has chosen the more literal version of the text. Either way, however, the point here is that the objection isn’t that the document is simply theologically incorrect — it’s that it’s not quite ready for prime time. The objections given by Ladaria were covered by Maike Hickson yesterday, so I won’t repeat them all here. But the point that is arguably most prohibitive — the legal restrictions of canon 844 — is one about which the CDF Prefect says there are “open questions” in “some areas of the Church.” For that reason, Ladaria says, the matter has already been sent to “the competent Dicasteries of the Holy See” so that they can “produce a timely clarification to these questions at the level of the universal Church.”

Sadly, as we’ve come to recognize in the current pontificate, Vatican “clarifications” are often anything but.

These comments of Ladaria were addressed specifically by Tosatti in his own analysis, and it bears repeating here:

This last provision is a point of great uncertainty, because it would seem that it allows the diocesan bishop the possibility of acting as he believes best: and if this hypothesis is true, it would permit on a case-by-case basis what is not permitted on the general level. The fourth paragraph of Canon 844 reads:

“If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.”

It is clear that it will now be necessary to await the “timely clarification.” And to record that, at least for the moment, the initiative has been blocked, thanks to the courage and frankness of a handful of bishops.

Tosatti does not stand alone. The German Catholic theologian and author Dr. Markus Büning (who has been a bit hot and cold on Francis over the past couple of years) assessed the situation — and the positive reaction it has received in some quarters– as follows:

In my view, there exists no reason at all for jubilation. Because the reasons as given by the Rome letter are really theologically nearly without any clear statement, since it is written in the form of vague allusions. One withdraws into mere formal and purely canonical reasons. Additionally, one tries now, obviously, on the level of the Universal Church, to set up respective rules. Therefore, there remains much insecurity!

Much insecurity indeed. I told you in 2016 that I believed intercommunion was going to be the next big progressive push from the Vatican after Amoris Laetitia. Although female deacons and a married priesthood seem now to be vying for first place on the docket, I stand by my conclusion that intercommunion is a goal Francis wants to see achieved. This dustup with the German Bishops is, I think it’s fair to say, one of style and not of substance.

One gets the impression that Archbishop Ladaria stands on more solid theological ground than many expected as the pope’s handpicked Jesuit in the Church’s chief doctrinal position, but no matter how competent a theologian he is, I’d be surprised to see him able to hold this ground for long against the gale force winds of change that are blowing these days in Rome.


*Translation by Giuseppe Pellegrino

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