In Catholic social media, the German episcopate is frequently represented as a singular monolith, and a liberal one at that. Following their recent decision to explore ways in which non-Catholic spouses of Catholics can receive Holy Communion together with their partner, cracks start to appear in that image. Although the decision, which I wrote about here, was made after a two-thirds majority of the German bishops voted in favour of it, seven bishops have expressed their concerns to the Vatican.
Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, and Bishops Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg, Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt, Wolfgang Ipolt of Görlitz, Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg and Stefan Oster of Passau (above) have signed a letter in which they asked the Holy See to clarify the extent to which a bishops’ conference can decide on the accessibility of Holy Communion. They wonder if the decision is not contrary to the doctrine of the faith and the unity of the Church, and claim that the bishops exceed their limits of competence when they say that non-Catholic spouses can receive Communion, albeit under certain circumstances (a formulation that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has denounced as mere lip service). The letter was sent to Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, responded with a letter to all German bishops – a decision motivated by the fact that the letter concerns a decision made by the entire conference and was sent to the Holy See and the Apostolic Nuncio. In his response, he emphasises that no decision has been made to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion, but that there is a working document which may still be amended or changed. The cardinal also reminds the authors that bishops’ conferences and individual bishops have the right, according to canon law, to determine when Holy Communion can be given licitly to non-Catholics.
It is a rare event for members of a bishops’ conference to go beyond their elected president and appeal directly to the Vatican, especially in the case of a majority decision. But on the other hand, it is the ordinary, not the bishops’ conference, who has final say about and responsibility over what happens in his diocese. The concerns of the seven bishops is directly related to their duties as shepherds of their diocesan flocks, and deserves to be taken seriously. Will there be an answer forthcoming from the Holy See? It is not unlikely, even in a time when honest concerns about matters of doctrine have remained unanswered. But unlike the dubia cardinals, the seven German bishops are not appealing to the Pope, but to two curial departments. And it is especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s duty to clarify matters of doctrine and, in this case, to delineate the limits of freedom of bishops’ conference. In that sense, this may be something of a test case in the relationships between bishops and conferences, as well as conferences and the larger world Church.
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