News broke this morning that the German bishops, who have enjoyed unprecedented favor and influence during the pontificate of Pope Francis, have suffered a surprising rejection from Rome, where the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has refused — with papal approval — to accept guidelines allowing some Protestants to receive Holy Communion in Catholic churches.
Some backstory and analysis is in order.
In February, the German bishops had approved a handout — a so-called “orientation guide” — that offered a path of “discernment” for spouses in mixed Protestant/Catholic marriages to receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church together. At the time, Katholich.de, the official website of the German bishops, reported that
A precondition is that the Protestant partner “after a deep discernment in a spiritual conversation with the priest or another pastoral worker comes to the decision of conscience to affirm the Faith of the Catholic Church, as well as to end a ‘serious spiritual situation of emergency’ and to wish to fulfill the yearning for the Eucharist,” according to the final report.
The handout, which was approved by a majority of the German bishops, nevertheless faced resistance from seven members of the German episcopacy, who took the unusual step of expressing their concerns in a letter to the pope. Not all of these bishops are obvious sources of resistance to a progressive agenda. The apparent leader of the protest effort against intercommunion, Archbishop Rainer Woelki of Cologne, has been described as “a sort of Francis before his time”, having urged a quieting of the culture war and an openness, among other things, to a more positive view of long-term homosexual relationships, which earned him a Respect Award from the German Alliance against Homophobia in 2012.
In today’s news that the CDF has returned the German proposal to the bishops as unacceptable, perhaps the most surprising aspect is the claim of direct approval of the rejection from the pope himself. It is surprising because it was no less a figure than Pope Francis who began momentum in Rome towards intercommunion in an address he gave in November, 2015.
During a Q&A session at Rome’s Evangelical Lutheran Church that month, the following exchange took place. It’s a bit long, but it bears being reviewed in its entirety here:
Question: My name is Anke de Bernardinis and, like many people in our community, I’m married to an Italian, who is a Roman Catholic Christian. We’ve lived happily together for many years, sharing joys and sorrows. And so we greatly regret being divided in faith and not being able to participate in the Lord’s Supper together. What can we do to achieve, finally, communion on this point?
Pope Francis: The question on sharing the Lord’s Supper isn’t easy for me to respond to, above all in front of a theologian like Cardinal Kasper! I’m scared!
I think of how the Lord told us when he gave us this command to “do this in memory of me,” and when we share the Lord’s Supper, we recall and we imitate the same as the Lord. And there will be the Lord’s Supper, there will be the eternal banquet in the new Jerusalem, but that will be the last one. In the meantime, I ask myself — and don’t know how to respond — what you’re asking me, I ask myself the question. To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path or is it the viaticum [provisions] for walking together? I leave that question to the theologians and those who understand.
It’s true that in a certain sense, to share means there aren’t differences between us, that we have the same doctrine – underscoring that word, a difficult word to understand — but I ask myself: but don’t we have the same Baptism? If we have the same Baptism, shouldn’t we be walking together? You’re a witness also of a profound journey, a journey of marriage: a journey really of the family and human love and of a shared faith, no? We have the same Baptism.
When you feel yourself to be a sinner – and I feel more of a sinner – when your husband feels a sinner, you go to the Lord and ask forgiveness; your husband does the same and also goes to the priest and asks absolution. I’m healed to keep alive the Baptism. When you pray together, that Baptism grows, becomes stronger. When you teach your kids who Jesus is, why Jesus came, what Jesus did for us, you’re doing the same thing, whether in the Lutheran language or the Catholic one, but it’s the same. The question: and the [Lord’s] Supper? There are questions that, only if one is sincere with oneself and with the little theological light one has, must be responded to on one’s own. See for yourself. This is my body. This is my blood. Do it in remembrance of me – this is a viaticum that helps us to journey on.
I once had a great friendship with an Episcopalian bishop who went a little wrong – he was 48 years old, married, two children. This was a discomfort to him – a Catholic wife, Catholic children, him a bishop. He accompanied his wife and children to Mass on Sunday, and then went to worship with his community. It was a step of participation in the Lord’s Supper. Then he went forward, the Lord called him, a just man. To your question, I can only respond with a question: what can I do with my husband, because the Lord’s Supper accompanies me on my path?
It’s a problem each must answer, but a pastor-friend once told me: “We believe that the Lord is present there, he is present. You all believe that the Lord is present. And so what’s the difference?” — “Eh, there are explanations, interpretations.” Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always refer back to your baptism. “One faith, one baptism, one Lord.” This is what Paul tells us, and then take the consequences from there. I wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more. [emphasis added]
As I said in my analysis at the time:
In much of the commentary I’m seeing — commentary trying desperately to square the papal circle — the focus is on the first “dare”. The pope says he wouldn’t dare “allow this.” What is “this”? Permission for Lutherans to receive the Eucharist in Catholic churches. He says that it is “not my competence.” This, as Fr. Z noted Monday, is technically correct.
The pope has not explicitly given permission to Lutherans to receive Communion. But — and this is a supersized “but” — he’s not telling them not to, either. In fact, he’s insinuating that it’s up to them.
And this is, I suspect, a good part of the reason why this document was rejected. Because where Francis seems most comfortable working through insinuation, the Germans tried to create something more explicit. In writing. And it may well have created far more heat than light – heat that the pope doesn’t need right now.
The November 2015 meeting was not, of course, the only milestone on this road to intercommunion. I covered some others a year later, and rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll simply present them again here:
- On January 19, 2016, Magister revealed that the same Jens-Martin Kruse whose church had been visited by Francis the previous November had stated that “The pope has invited all the faithful to take responsibility before God, to decide according to their conscience if it is possible joint participation, between Catholics and Protestants, the Eucharist. There are no theological reasons why this is not so.” Magister continued: “On the morning of January 19, Francis gave an audience in the Vatican to a delegation from the Lutheran Church of Finland, led by a woman, Irja Askola, Bishop of Helsinki, accompanied by representatives of the minority Orthodox and Catholic bishops Ambrosius and Teemu Sippo. But after the audience with the Pope, in the course of the liturgical celebrations that the delegation has officiated in Rome along with groups of faithful who came also from Finland, it happened during a Catholic Mass that communion was also given to the Lutherans.” [emphasis added]
- On January 25, 2016, additional reports about the group of Lutherans attending the Mass on January 19 in Rome indicated that “at the time of communion the non-Catholics placed their right hands on their left shoulders, a traditional way of indicating that they were ineligible to receive the Eucharist. However, the celebrating priests insisted on giving them communion.” One of those in attendance, Lutheran bishop Samuel Salmi from Finland, said, “At the root of this there is, without a doubt, the ecumenical attitude of a new Vatican … The pope was not here at the mass, but his strategic intention is to carry out a mission of love and unity. There are also theological adversaries in the Vatican, for which reason it is difficult to assess how much he can say, but he can permit practical gestures.” [emphasis added]
- On October 13, 2016, Pope Francis received a thousand German Lutherans in a papal audience. “Let us give thanks to God”, he said, “because today, as Lutherans and Catholics, we are journeying together on the way from conflict to communion. We have already traveled an important part of the road.” [emphasis added]
- On October 24, 2016, Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England — co-chair of the international dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity — gave an interview to Crux. In it, he anticipated what would be coming at the joint Vatican/Lutheran World Federation commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden, which took place on October 31, 2016. In addition to stating that “the Reformation was all a big misunderstanding!”, Kenney said, “I think you’ve got to start now moving towards that visible unity … One of the big issues – and it will be interesting to see if Francis even mentions it – is inter-communion. He’s already made a gesture about that, of course, when he visited a Lutheran church in Rome and, during a question-and-answer session, suggested to a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man that perhaps, if her conscience permitted, she could receive communion in her husband’s church.”
- On October 31, 2016, following the commemoration, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told reporters that “it was a ‘very beautiful’ day, one that’s ‘very late’ in coming, but ‘very important.’ It’s a ‘new beginning of a way to leave conflict in the past and go toward communion in the future’”. A joint statement issued by the Vatican and Lutheran World Federation that same day said that “many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table, as the concrete expression of full unity. … This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavours, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue.”
- On December 10, 2016, Cardinal Walter Kasper gave an interview to the Italian publication Avvenire. In reference to the Catholic/Lutheran joint declaration of October 31, and its reference to intercommunion, he said: “Personally, I hope that we can use an unofficial text, prepared by a commission in the bishops’ conference of the United States, regarding this subject.” While admitting that “full agreement” was not yet possible, he indicated a hope that “the next declaration opens the way for shared Eucharistic communion in special cases.” He said that the United States and Germany were in particular need of such a solution for this “urgent pastoral problem.”
What strikes me as odd in reviewing these points is that Kasper seemed to have a certain confidence that promoting intercommunion in “special cases” was an attainable goal. As with Communion for the divorced and remarried, his advancing of the issue so publicly seemed to indicate that he was operating under an assumption of papal approval.
What has happened in the interim that would have derailed yet another “Kasper proposal” that already seemingly had the implicit blessing of the pope?
The answer to that is unclear, but it points to the other questions we should be asking. Is it the division of the German church on this issue, which could impact the deep financial resources they have used to gain leverage and influence and Rome? Is the prospect of an internecine war in the German church likely to unearth skeletons that papal advisors like episcopal conference head Cardinal Marx would rather keep buried? Is it the fact that the Holy See has found itself on the defensive on so many fronts of late that the pope decided this issue wasn’t worth the backlash as he struggles to consolidate power amidst growing discontent with his papacy – even, if rumor is to be believed, among his former allies? Is there some other agenda item — such as female deacons — that is more important to the overall plan of “reform”, and is thus where his newly limited political capital must be spent?
Of course, the most important question of all is: “Does Pope Francis reject a path of discernment that could lead to intercommunion for some Protestants?” Unless something significant has changed since November of 2015, the answer to that is clearly “no”. And that makes this rejection — barring further explanation — appear to be part of an end game that hasn’t yet come into focus.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.