Case study – Bishop Hendriks casts a canonist’s eye on the German bishops’ proposal and the Roman response

At the risk of becoming a one-topic bore, one more post about the Communion question, after another Dutch bishop comes out in, well, understanding of the German proposal.

jan_hendriksBishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, studies the matter in his blog and comes to the conclusion that, yes, a bishops’ conference has the authority to draft a pastoral outreach that allows non-Catholics to receive Communion. But, he explains, there are certain specific conditions that must be applied.

The bishop, a canon lawyer who also serves as a member of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court of law of the Catholic Church, first describes that a bishops’ conference has the authority to develop further norms in this matter according to the Code of Canon Law and the Ecumenical Directory, but there is a framework of four conditions that must be followed:

“1. The non-Catholic person requests the sacraments out of his own desire;

2. This person has no access to a minister of his own community;

3. This person professes the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments;

4. This person has the correct disposition.”

Bishop Hendriks contends that in a wedding ceremony between a Catholic and non-Catholic person, the non-Catholic may be allowed to receive Communion, according to N. 159 of the Ecumenical Directory, which says that a bishop may allow a wedding Mass for just cause, and the decision whether or not the non-Catholic partner can be allowed to receive Communion may be made according to the above four points.

“From this the conclusion could be drawn that the condition for the availibility of a minister of one’s own community is relative, and a non-Catholic spouse who asks, has the correct disposition and shares the Catholic faith in Holy Communion, can be allowed to receive Communion in the wedding service, when the bishop gives permission for the celebration of a Mass.”

Of course, the German bishops’ proposal is not limited to wedding Masses. They claim that a non-Catholic partner may receive Communion at other occasions as well. Bishop Hendriks continues:

“In their pastoral outreach the German bishops suggest that this permission for non-Catholic partners in interdenominational marriages may also be given after the wedding ceremony, after a period of discernment and a pastoral conversation with the parish priest, when they in conscience have come to accept the Catholic faith regarding the Eucharist. In the published parts which I have read, I was unable to find anything about the receiving the sacrament of penance and reconciliation and the spiritual disposition. At the same time the description of the document as a “pastoral outreach” suggest that the German bishops present no new norms, but that they operate withing the existing regulations. For new norms – a general decree – the bishops’ conference first needs a mandate from the Holy See, in other words: from the Pope (c. 455 §1). It is well understandable that not all bishops were able to go along with the thought that this is only a pastoral outreach within the existing norms and that seven of them put the case before the responsible parties in Rome.”

What then, considering all this, does the answer, or lack thereof, from the Pope mean?

“In his answer Pope Francis emphasised the unity of the bishops, who must, if possible, arrive at a text unanimously. I am not aware if it has been announced that there are conditions to this possible text, or whether it has to be presented to Rome or if a process has been agreed upon. It is, however, clear that developing such a  document – if the pastoral goal is maintained within the general conditions – is part of the authority and task of a bishops’ conference, which makes the decision of Pope in itself understandable.”

Bishop Hendriks says nothing about his agreement or disagreement with the German bishops’ proposal or the Pope’s response. He simply looks at what it possible within the norms as they exist, and from this he concludes that the German bishops have the authority to draft such a pastoral outreach, but also that they are bound to the conditions described in the Code of Canon Law and the Ecumenical Directory.

[EDIT 19-5]

In a commentary published on their website yesterday, the Archdiocese of Utrecht underlines the importance of canon 844, §4 of the Code of Canon Law. The comments seem to be a direct response to Bishop Hendriks and the reception of his words in the media. The archdiocesan commentary agrees with the bishop that a bishops’ conference has the authority to establish norms for the reception of Holy Communion by non-Catholics, and repeats the four points made by Msgr. Hendriks above. However, the piece states, an important element seems to be overlooked, by the readers if not by the bishop, namely the explicitly named circumstance that there must a be a situation of need (“grave necessity”). In such a situation the four conditions must be fulfilled in order for the non-Catholic person to receive Communion.

The article quotes the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which states in n. 85: “In addition, the conditions comprising can. 844 § 4, from which no dispensation can be given, cannot be separated; thus, it is necessary that all of these conditions be present together.” In other words, all four conditions must be fulfilled, not just some of them. A bishops’ conference is free to decide what it considers to be situations of grave necessity. The archdiocesan commentary contends that such a situation is not automatically present in the case of a non-Catholic married to a Catholic.

In short, the archdiocesan commentary agrees with Bishop Hendriks that the German bishops are free to establish new norms, but within the framework of establish regulations only. The archdiocese emphasises that the four conditions mentions throughout the blog post above are applicable in situations of grave necessity only, something which seems to be supported by the Ecumenical Directory, as mentioned by Bishop Hendriks, which states that a bishop can allow an interdenominational wedding Mass for “a just cause”. This is not just word play, but indicates that there has to be a very good reason indeed for such a Mass to be celebrated. This reason, it would appear, must be one of the situations of grave necessity as established by the bishops’ conference.

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