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Opposition Mounts to Intercommunion; Canonist Says Pope Has Made a “Complete Mess”

The 21 June papal remarks concerning the German bishops’ handout allowing some Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion have caused a strong reaction from several parties, including a German canonist/ Professor Thomas Schüller, a professor of canon law at the University of Münster, says that the Pope and his dicasteries have created a “pastoral patchwork” and a “complete mess.”

As we reported earlier this month, Pope Francis, on his flight back from Geneva to Rome, claimed that the German handout is problematic, not due to its content, but because it is not in accord with current canon law (can. 844). This canon does not permit a bishops’ conference to rule over matters such as the question of what constitutes the “emergency situation” which this canon indicates would allow some Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion. (Here, we remind our readers that Cardinal Walter Brandmüller and others have shown that the Pope is wrong in this claim.) Pope Francis also said that were a bishops’ conference to rule over such a question it would immediately become “universal.” Pope Francis nevertheless praised the German document as being “well done.”

As the German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau reported on 22 June, Professor Schüller is now “astonished at the flying messages of the Pope.” According to Schüller, who teaches canon law at the University of Münster, the papal words are “ambiguous and partially cryptic.” He also told the newspaper that the papal claim that each decision of a bishops’ conference would become “immediately universal” is not only false, according to canon law, but it is also contrary to the Pope’s own intention to delegate competences to the national level. Schüller comments as follows:

…obviously, Francis wants to appease the conflict of the German bishops by letting everybody do what he wishes. For the progressives, about whom the Pope said that they have “done” their job “well,” there remains much scope with regard to the content.

Schüller appears to have grave reservations about this papal laxity with regard to Holy Communion for Protestant spouses. He says that, should it come to solutions in individual cases which differ from diocese to diocese, there would then be created in Germany a “pastoral patchwork – which is an absurd situation, because the ecumenical situation with mixed marriages is, after all, pretty much the same everywhere.” The German professor can only shake his head that, in order to reach such a result, the Pope and his dicasteries have “created” such a “complete mess.”

Professor Schüller is not the only one who opposes a liberalizing interpretation of canon 844 CIC and of a laxer approach to Communion for non-Catholics as the German bishops have now taken it.

Another German canon lawyer and priest, Professor Christoph Ohly of Trier, said in a 21 May interview with the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost that the Pope has a limited authority in this matter because his authority “is submitted to Divine Law.” He cannot, Ohly adds, go beyond it or change it. “The conviction that ecclesial unity and sacramental unity belong together” makes, in Ohly’s view, “any such change impossible.” Only in light of grave emergency situations or in immediate danger of death, he explains with reference to can. 844§4 CIC, may a Protestant Christian receive Holy Communion. “Faith, Church Law, and pastoral care are inseparable,” as Ohly explains earlier in his interview. He insists, too, that this question of Communion for Protestant spouses belongs in the hands of the Universal Church and not of any national bishops’ conference.

Marianne Schlosser, Professor of Theology at the University of Vienna, Austria, and a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, warns against the danger of “relativism” with regard to this current sacramental debate. In an interview with, the radio station of the Diocese of Cologne, Schlosser points to the danger of an increased pressure toward intercommunion, once Protestant spouses of Catholics are permitted to receive Holy Communion. “Will a moral pressure not be created to take the last supper at the Protestant service,” she asks, referring to the long-existing invitation to the last supper for Catholics as openly stated by Protestants. Additionally, Schlosser also wonders why those Protestants who desire to receive Holy Communion would not also have “an urgent desire to receive the Sacrament of Penance and the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.”

Professor Schlosser also stresses that the expression “emergency situation” as mentioned in can 844 CIC refers to situations that are caused by “external circumstances,” such as the impossibility to reach one’s own minister. “The principal connection between Church membership and licit participation in the Sacraments is thereby not removed,” she explains.

Professor Schlosser is the second member of the International Theological Commission to raise objections against the German pastoral handout concerning Communion for Protestant spouses, a handout which has just recently been praised by Pope Francis. The first objecting member was Professor Karl-Heinz Menke. Menke had called this handout both “theologically defective” and “unwise,” and he even claimed that the two-thirds approval of this document by the German bishops was “unlawful.”

Thus, these two members are acting in accord with the International Theological Commission’s task which is “that of helping the Holy See and primarily the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in examining doctrinal questions of major importance.”

It would be good if the Pope himself were attentively to heed such advice.

Pope Francis would also do well to listen to the more high-ranking voices of opposition to the German intercommunion handout. Not only did Cardinal Willem Eijk strongly object, but also Cardinal Walter Brandmüller and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and Bishop Athanasius Schneider, to name but a few. Cardinal Cordes said in April of 2018, for example, that the German intercommunion handout is “not theologically backed.”

Cardinal Müller, in a new statement written for the July issue of the German journal Herder Korrespondenz, also opposed the German pastoral innovation with regard to Protestant spouses and Holy Communion. He regrets the “anti-dogmatic climate” in the Catholic Church as well as the “sick word battles” concerning the German pastoral handout. He also calls the initial advice of the Pope, namely that the German bishops should somehow come to a “unanimous decision,” a “diffuse intervention.” Cardinal Müller reminds us that “the Pope is not a mediator in the struggle between parties,” but, rather, “a witness of the truth which unites the Church in Christ.”

Moreover, the German cardinal and former Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine warns that “that which is dogmatically wrong will become destructive for the salvation of souls when it is to be found in a pastoral care which is led by principles that are opposed to the faith.” One may not, explains the prelate, purportedly “leave the teaching externally untouched [i.e., not change its words],” but, at the same time, actually give it “a completely different or even contradictory meaning.”

Importantly, Cardinal Müller quotes in his intervention several texts from the early history of the Church – such as St. Justin and St. Ignatius of Antioch – which make it clear that the reception of the Sacrament of Penance and the full acceptance of the Church’s teaching, as well as a life according to Christ’s laws, are preconditions for the reception of Holy Communion. The link between the Holy Eucharist and the acceptance of the authority of the Catholic bishop is also to be stressed. Thus, says the cardinal, the Holy Eucharist is a “means unto eternal life” and not “a medicine against psychological distress and difficulties in the life of a married couple.” The Holy Eucharist thus “cannot restore the lost ecclesial community” in a physical way, without that “the supernatural unity is first being reached with the help of a common Creed, the Seven Sacraments, and the visible unity with the Pope and the bishops.” To call non-Catholics to Holy Communion is in his eyes only a “seeming generosity” and such an act “reveals, in reality, a disdain for the revealed Faith, which has been only entrusted to the Catholic Church.” [emphasis added]

Even the Cardinal-designate Archbishop Luis Ladaria, Cardinal Müller’s successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said just today at a press conference in Rome that, for the German bishops to make a decision on its own about a point so central to the Faith “can create a bit of confusion.” “It concerns the Universal Church,” he added. A solution should be found “for the whole Church.”

It is to be hoped that Pope Francis himself will be attentive to his own Prefect, to his own theological counselors, to his cardinals, as well as to the voice of a well-formed conscience.

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