As was to be reasonably expected, the progressive wing of the German episcopacy now tries to interpret favorably the recent 3 May message sent by Pope Francis to the German bishops through Archbishop Luis Ladaria, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The pope had told the German bishops in Rome that he wishes for a unanimous solution among them and thus effectively declined to give any further doctrinal clarity in the matter of the new German pastoral handout that allows certain Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion on a regular basis.
After the initial silence of the progressive wing of the German bishops, that wing has now taken an initiative in public and has given its own interpretation of the pope’s recent advice and action. Archbishop Stefan Hesse, of Hamburg, just met on Tuesday in Münster with the assembly of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) prior to the bi-annual Katholikentag (Catholics Day) which also takes place in that same town and which started on Wednesday and which will last until Sunday. He told the assembly according to a Katholisch.de report, that Pope Francis has given “a clear hint about the direction” [emphasis added] with regard to the current struggle in the German Catholic Church about Holy Communion for Protestant spouses of Catholics.
Hesse explained that Pope Francis, by returning the conflict back to the German bishops instead of solving it in Rome, has sent a signal that a bishops’ conference has very well the competence to decide such a question. Additionally, the pope, in Hesse’s eyes, has made it clear that the German Bishops’ Conference may decide on this question as it has already done with its majority vote. So far, no more is known about Hesse’s other words at that ZdK gathering. However, they give us already enough of an idea of how, most probably, the progressives will try to steer the upcoming discussions within the German episcopacy in order to gain that papally desired cooperative and “unanimous consent.”
That Archbishop Hesse’s own interpretation of the papal guidance is essentially correct can be seen in the fact that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is himself not pleased with Pope Francis’ decision (or indecision) with regard to the German intercommunion dispute.
As Edward Pentin, Rome Correspondent of the National Catholic Register, reports, Cardinal Müller “expressed his disappointment with the outcome, saying the statement was ‘very poor’ as it contained ‘no answer to the central, essential question.’” The cardinal also stressed that it is not possible for one to be in “sacramental communion without ecclesial communion.” Importantly, the German cardinal stressed that, if this principle of Catholic identity, thus requiring both sacramental and ecclesial communion, is destroyed, “then the Catholic Church is destroyed.” [emphasis added] A “clear expression of the Catholic faith” is needed, thus the need for the Pope himself to “affirm the faith,” especially about the “pillar of our faith, the Eucharist,” Müller added. The Pope and the CDF, he went on, are called to “give a very clear orientation” not through “personal opinion but according to the revealed faith.” “I hope more bishops will raise their voices and do their duty,” Cardinal Müller added. He also reminds every cardinal of his duty:
Every cardinal has a duty to explain, defend, promote the Catholic faith, not according to personal feelings, or the swings of public opinion, but by reading the Gospel, the Bible, Holy Scripture, the Church fathers and to know them. Also the Councils, to study the great theologians of the past, and be able to explain and defend the Catholic faith, not with sophistic arguments to please all sides, to be everyone’s darling.
Müller also regrets that there will now be a continued conflict over this matter, especially if it continues “without the clear necessity for a declaration about the Catholic faith.” “More clarity and courage must be encouraged,” he said.
Therefore, just as Cardinal Müller shows himself to be concerned about the pope’s approach to the intercommunion dispute, Archbishop Hesse, by way of contrast, is glad and optimistic. As Edward Pentin has reported – from a source close to the seven bishops who have opposed the new pastoral intercommunion handout – during the next six months, Cardinal Reinhard Marx himself will attempt to win over some of the opposing seven bishops that they be in concord with the progressivist camp. As the source added: “Our job now is to strengthen the seven bishops, to strengthen our priests in the argumentation” as the source said. “It’ll be a long fight and over the next six months, this is what we’ll be dedicating ourselves to.”
That at least one of the seven opposing bishops will not easily falter could be seen this past Wednesday, one day after the intervention of Archbishop Hesse. This time, it was Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, of Regensburg, who is said to have been the crucial one in the earlier writing of the Seven Bishops’ Letter opposing the new German pastoral intercommunion guidelines. Voderholzer gave a forceful homily yesterday, on the vigil of today’s Feast of the Ascension. In his homily, which was published by the Austrian Catholic news website Kath.net, Voderholzer cautions us not to use the occasion of the current Katholikentag (with some 50,000 participants) in Münster in order to push “loud claims concerning matters of the faith, especially concerning the questions of the sacramental teaching and its related theology.” It would be a strange, yes a false signal,” adds the prelate, if the Katholikentag would “carry into the larger public the old, well-know ecclesial-political demands.” Voderholzer specifies his warning: “I especially warn against building up pressure now, for current purposes, in the debate concerning the [permissible] reception of Communion for Protestant spouses in mixed marriages.”
It nearly seems as if Voderholzer is here already responding to Archbishop Hesse.
Subsequently, the Bavarian bishop explains that he and his six co-signers of the letter to Rome are “convinced” that this discussion “touches upon the doctrine of the faith” and is not merely a “pastoral matter.” According to Voderholzer, pastoral questions in this regard would be, for example, how one has to receive Holy Communion, whether on the tongue or into the hand, whether kneeling or standing. He continues, saying:
Where it is, however, about the conviction of faith and the Church membership of the communicant, there is more at stake; that is to say, the understanding of Church and the profession [of faith] as a whole.
Indirectly contradicting Pope Francis and his de-centralizing decision to return the conflict to the German Bishops’ Conference, Voderholzer makes it clear that “such a far-reaching change of the heretofore [Catholic] teaching” cannot be made “on the level of only one bishops’ conference.” “What is valid here with us, must also be valid in Chicago, Shanghai, and Johannesburg,” he adds.
Moreover, Voderholzer mentions his own visit to Rome and his conversation with Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Rainer Woelki, as well as some other German and Vatican representatives, and he quotes Pope Francis’ request that the German bishops find a “unanimous” solution in the conflict. “This task will not be easy to fulfill, since the ecclesial community reaches beyond the limits of the Church of Germany.” Directly in opposition to Pope Francis, Voderholzer makes it clear that such a “preferably unanimous rule can only exist in communion with the world’s episcopacy, with the whole Universal Church,” and with each and every national bishops’ conference. For this bishop, “it is about a true theological grappling, about a question which binds us in our consciences.”
It is in this context – and especially in light of the fitting awe to be rendered before the Holy Eucharist, which is often misunderstood in the larger public – that the bishop regrets that this agenda is being pushed on a level of “political strategies” and “personal animosities.” “It is not a question of politeness or niceness, but, rather, it is about the circumstances and preconditions of an encounter with the Blessed Sacrament.”
Voderholzer now receives from a Protestant source further support for his insistence on a careful treatment of the matter of intercomunion. Professor Thomas Schirrmacher, the General Secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance – the largest international organization of Evangelical churches which has 700 million members worldwide – responds to an inquiry from Onepterfive, as follows:
Most Evangelicals agree with the Catholic Church that intercommunion is the end goal of ecumenism, not the start. That is what we just discussed at the Global Christian Forum in Bogota [Colombia]. There are, however, in the evangelical realm also representatives of the Transsubstantiation; they could theoretically, of course, participate in the Catholic Mass if that were to be permitted by the Catholic side. We as the Worldwide Evangelical Alliance nevertheless would counsel against it.
The conservative bishops in Germany – in addition to the clearly supportive high-ranking prelates Cardinal Müller and Cardinal Willem Eijk – now also receive further support from a German theologian, Professor Klaus Obenauer, who teaches Dogmatic Theology at the University of Bonn. In an open appeal today, he describes the “massively irresponsible” decision of Pope Francis to decline “to decide unambiguously in favor of the unity of Church membership and the reception of the sacraments – especially of the Eucharist – in order to leave the dynamics of conflict up to the local ecclesial level.” With reference to the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus (S 3063), Obenauer makes it clear that the pope has the duty to take sides in doctrinal and pastoral matters – in favor of faith and law – “especially when there exists the proximate danger that the faithful could be led into error.”
Amoris Laetitia, Gaudete et Exsultate, as well as the 3 May papal decision not to intervene decisively into the German intercommunion conflict – all of these statements and measures, says the theologian, “give the impression that Pope Francis has an aversion” to the taking of clear and consecutive practical actions “with regard to being a Catholic, especially there where it gets decisively and intimately important [“einschneidend auf den Leibe rücken”].” On the contrary, the author says, the pope seems to wish to “paralyze such expectations.” Instead, he adds, the pope gives “free reign to centrifugal forces on the local level, with the further effect that the faithful Catholics are being more and more marginalized.” Professor Obenauer concludes his stirring and inspiring appeal with the following words:
This cannot go on like this! I therefore thank Cardinals Müller (Rome) and Eijk (Utrecht) that they have found clear words. And therefore I myself wish to ask, in a very, very heartfelt and humble manner, all cardinals and bishops who see and regret these dangerous tendencies of this Bergoglio pontificate finally to take public and clear position against this unholy ratio agendi [the rationale of action] of Pope Francis. Do not the statements of the above-mentioned cardinals give us enough of a sense of the inner dramatic? “Usque quo?”[unto where, unto what?] Or: Do we wish to wake up at some point and realize that we, by way of a sleeping car, have arrived at the end station: apostasy?
Dr. Maike Hickson, born and raised in Germany, studied History and French Literature at the University of Hannover and lived for several years in Switzerland where she wrote her doctoral dissertation. She is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.
Her articles have appeared in American and European journals such as Catholicism.org, LifeSiteNews, The Wanderer, Culture Wars, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Apropos, and Zeit-Fragen.