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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Careful criticism – Bishop de Korte’s thoughts after the cardinal’s comments

While there has been much said and written about Cardinal Willem Eijk’s criticism on how the Pope handled the German plans to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion under certain circumstances, and the opposition that triggered from seven German bishops, the Dutch bishops have been rather quiet about the comments of the metropolitan of the Dutch Church province.

Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam and easily the most social media-minded among the bishops, wrote on Facebook that that was not the place to offer any commentary. Via his spokesman, Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam, president of the Dutch bishops’ conference, let it be known that he “hopes and expects that the agreements as described in the aforementioned documents [the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism and the Ecumenical Directory] remain the guideline.”

bisschop-de-korteThe most extensive comment, although one without directly addressing the cardinal, comes from Bishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In his regular contribution to the diocesan website, the bishop addresses the accusation that Pope Francis causes confusion through his words and actions, a position that Cardinal Eijk – and others with him  – very clearly takes in his commentary. Bishop de Korte defends the Pope when he writes, “It is nowhere apparent that the Pope violates the teachings of the Church. But he does want to take into account the stubbornness of our existence.”

Addressing the topic of alleged confusion, the bishop writes:

“Some faithful, including high prelates, think that the pope allows room for confusion. But isn’t it better to speak about a papal willingness for permanent dialogue? Such an attitude does not flow from modernism of liberalism, but from the heart of the gospel. In Christ, God came to stand next to us. We in our turn are also called to accept one another. At stake is the willingness to a permanent dialogue, which does not mean the denial of our deepest convictions, but that we are open to the workings of the Holy Spirit in the other.

In the end, we all live from pure mercy. That faithful realisation can make us humble, mild and modest.”

Bishop de Korte focus on dialogue is worthy, and he is correct when he says the pope, and all Catholics, should never be closed in on themselves, open to dialogue with everyone. But, and here’s what is almost absent from the bishop’s text (except from the reference to “our deepest convictions”), dialogue has to be about something. Speaking with each other for its own sake is a good starting point to create trust and friendship, but ultimately, we must speak about something. Jesus Christ spoke with people, sinners and righteous alike, but never just for the sake of speaking. He had a clear message, and did not refrain from admonishing when necessary. We are called to continue sharing that message, which is about love, hope and faith, about charity, but also salvation, about changing our behaviour and leaving things behind to follow Him.

Rather than limiting ourselves to being kind and listening, or only quoting rules, we must take the best of both, and approach the other in kindness, love and, no less important, honesty.

Ideally, the messages of both Cardinal Eijk and Bishop de Korte are read and appreciated by readers, who can find value in both. Reality, however, shows that people would rather put the one against the other and resort to name-calling or mocking in social media. Whatever the intention of a bishop in writing an article, I am quite sure that is never it.