At an astonishing pace, one third of the 27 German dioceses have already now come out with statements concerning the recently published controversial intercommunion guide of the German Bishops’ Conference. Only one diocese has, so far, declared that it will hold back on implementing the new guide allowing, in individual cases, Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion on a regular basis, and without converting to the Catholic Faith, and even without a prior sacramental confession.
The most troubling message came out just last week from the bishop of Würzburg, Franz Jung, who invited, for the weekend of 5 and 6 July, all Protestant spouses of Catholics to Holy Communion who celebrated their wedding anniversary (of 50 to 60 years) with him at his cathedral of St. Kilian. As he said during his homily on 6 July, every Protestant spouse was invited to Holy Communion. He added only these qualifying words: “when they feel disposed to do so.” No earlier pastoral conversation prior to that event was required. Bishop Jung, moreover, had the backing of the diocesan council for this permissive approach.
As the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost now reports in its new edition, the Diocese of Würzburg responded to the paper’s request for further information with the statement that this unusual move is “in accordance with the precepts of the Church’s law.” No further information to justify that claim was given.
The journalist Peter Winnemöller, writing for the Austrian news website Kath.net, comments on this episcopal initiative in Würzburg as follows:
Here, Holy Communion therefore was a reward on a special occasion. That is to say, in light of a long-lasting marriage. This is strange insofar as canon law still clearly rules that Catholic ministers validly administer the Sacraments only to Catholic recipients.
He concludes his commentary with the words: “The question that remains to be answered is, to put it briefly: whether a schism is already at hand.”
Christoph Ohly, a priest and canon law professor who writes for Die Tagespost, regrets this decision by the bishop of Würzburg and makes it clear that “there exists no law for such an approach of a general invitation to receive Holy Communion to which the bishop could refer.” Such an initiative on the side of the bishop, Father Ohly adds, “contradicts the decisive precepts and convictions of the Church and it creates the impression that the reception of the Sacraments merely depends upon the current will of a bishop.” Thus, this episcopal invitation to Holy Communion contradicts “canon law with its theological implications.” Father Ohly sees that “the essential interdependency between Faith and Sacrament is in danger.” The sacraments then might “become mere rituals of communal closeness,” the canon lawyer warns. He insists that the German bishops should wait for clarifications coming from the Apostolic See, clarifications that would then be applicable for “the whole Church.” “Only then could there be built something fruitful and enduring.”
The German bishops’ website, Katholisch.de, gives in an article a good overview of the responses of different German dioceses to the new 27 June intercommunion guide as published by the German Bishops’ Conference.
Hans-Josef Becker, Archbishop of Paderborn, was the first to declare, only three days after the publication of the controversial intercommunion document allowing some Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion, that he was to follow the guide in his diocese. Stefan Heße, archbishop of Hamburg, handed the intercommunion guide to his priests and recommended it to them “as a possibility as to how there could be the reception of Holy Communion in individual cases.” Bishop Gerhard Feige, of Magdeburg, who is known to have co-authored the controversial document, also sent it out to all of his priests.
Additionally, Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr (Erfurt), Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck (Essen), and Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann (Speyer) have all approved of the new approach to Communion for Protestant spouses of Catholics for their own dioceses.
As was to be expected, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German bishops, also announced that he will implement the intercommunion guide for his own Diocese of Freising-Munich.
Thus, it can be seen that many German bishops already treated this new “guide” as if it were a fully official and authoritative document.
Bishop Franz-Josef Bode (Osnabrück) let it be known that he wishes his diocese to act “according to the direction of the guide,” but he will wait until after further discussions with in the German Bishops’ Conference until its final implementation. The Diocese of Münster wishes, too, to await the autumn assembly of the German bishops and its discussions of this pastoral guide.
Of the seven opposing German bishops, so far, only two of them have made it clear where they now stand. Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, of Regensburg, said that he will not implement the new intercommunion guide and will await further clarifications from Rome as to what these “emergency situations” are that are mentioned in canon 844§4, which allows Communion for non-Catholic Christians in rare cases. Unfortunately, his colleague, Archbishop Ludwig Schick, of Bamberg, now joins the supporters of the intercommunion guide, thus abandoning his former resistance, and he now allows now some Protestant spouses to receive Holy Communion. He merely added a few more conditions with regard to that permitted reception – for example, that the Protestant spouse has to accept the Catholic Profession of Faith, the Seven Sacraments, the Catholic understanding of the Holy Eucharist, and the Church’s hierarchy under the Pope. As Katholisch.de comments, “such a pluralism is foreseen in the orientation guide” of the German Bishops’ Conference.
In the middle of this new German “pluralism,” Father Stefan Jürgens, a priest of the Diocese of Münster, made headlines by commenting in his own parish bulletin on the intercommunion debate with these words: “In our parish, all those baptized who are admitted to the last supper in their own churches may come to Holy Communion. For that, one does not have to live in a mixed marriage, but simply has to be a Christian.” In this same bulletin, this priest also claims that, “unfortunately, nobody anymore listens to the bishops; for that to happen, it might already be too late.” It is not known whether, in any way, Father Jürgens has been reprimanded by his own bishop. OnePeterFive has reached out to Bishop Genn, asking him for comment, and we shall update the report should he respond.
In the meantime, this crisis in the Catholic Church in Germany has also brought forth some encouraging news. First, there came a statement published by a group of diocesan priests of the Archdiocese of Paderborn. The group calls itself Communio veritatis and has called “unacceptable” the new decision of its archbishop to admit Protestant spouses, in individual cases, to Holy Communion. With reference to several magisterial and canonical texts, these priests make it clear that such an initiative on the side of their bishop is not right. They also say that “no diocesan bishop may declare the situation in a mixed marriage to be a grave emergency situation, in order to make possible the intercommunion,” and they point out that in Germany, where there are many Protestant associations, each Protestant spouse has access to his own minister. Therefore, the condition as mentioned in canon 844 that one’s own Protestant minister cannot be called and reached is not met. Communio veritatis concludes its statement with these words: “The circle of priests Communio veritatis remains determined to serve Jesus Christ loyally in everything, also, accordingly, the continuous Magisterium of the Catholic Church – for the salvation of souls.”
Next to this courageous act on the part of the priests in Paderborn, there comes the voice of a priest from another German diocese. Father Hartmut Constien of Regensburg, a convert from Protestantism who recently was ordained a Catholic priest, has just given an interview to Die Tagespost’s journalist Regina Einig, in which he made it clear that he sees many dangers in the recent decision to promote intercommunion on the part of the Catholic Church in Germany. “When we put first the Eucharistic community, above the ecclesial community, it [ecumenism] is really not worth much anymore,” Father Constien explains. He refers back to some earlier discussions and to an agreement made among Protestant denominations in 1973 – the so-called “Leuenberger Konkordie” – which essentially elided over their differences concerning the understanding of the Last Supper. As a consequence, Constien says, “the faith concerning the sacrament of the altar does not play any role anymore.” Otherwise, “the fundamental decision of the common document would be put into question.”
When asked by Einig what he fears, Father Constien answered “that we put to rest the question of faith in order to celebrate together the last supper [sic]. But that is not the path which the Church has taken so far with regard to questions of faith.”
“One always first sought to get clarity,” the priest explains. He fears that otherwise, “unity is being lost out of sight.” A certain suffering concerning the [current] splits among Christians is helpful, the priest adds, because “it is a wound in the Body of Christ.” “But if I simply ignore the pain, that is not healthy and it does not lead to a healing.”