Pastoral exceptions and rules – support from abroad for the Woelki position

The group of German bishops, unofficially headed by Cologne’s Cardinal Woelki, who have questioned the bishops’ conference’s proposed pastoral outreach that would allow non-Catholics to receive Communion under certain circumstances – and whose position was recently confirmed and supported by the Holy See – have received further support from abroad.

In a recent interview on the occasion of the Ad Limina visit of the Nordic bishops – which I wrote about in the previous blog post – Cardinal Anders Arborelius, himself a former Lutheran and now, as a cardinal, a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was asked about the discussion in Germany. He answered:

kardinalen_2_thumb“It surprises me that the topic hasn’t been discussed that much. In Sweden, we have many mixed marriages. But most Catholics aren’t married to practicing Protestants. It is not an issue for us. Of course there are evangelical Christians who would like to receive Communion, but most are non-religious.

Of course, the ideal would be that the entire Church is able to arrive at a common solution, but it is difficult: in one country, the situation is thus, in the other it is different. Hopefully, we will one day be able to find a common solution with the entire Church.”

This is exactly what Cardinal Woelki has also said: it is not up to the German bishops alone to decide upon matters that are so essential to the Catholic faith and the understanding of the sacraments. Rather, the entire Church as a whole must decide upon it, if only to avoid the situation in which a regulation is valid in one place and not in another: the Church is not a national Church, but universal, and her sacraments and faith are not bound by borders.

Μητροπολίτης-Γερμανίας-κ.κ.Αυγουστίνος-300x169Greek-Orthodox Metropolitan Augoustinos, who hosted Cardinal Woelki in Bonn for the annual plenary meeting of the Greek-Orthodox Church in Germany, expressed himself in similar words after indicating that his church is also following the debate closely. He referred to the Orthodox principle of Oikonomia, which indicates that a regulation can be ignored or a rule broken when it serves the salvation of the person involved. But he then quoted Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, saying: “As soon as one defines the conditions under which Oikonomia can be applied, Oikonomia itself becomes a rule or regulation.”

Cardinal Woelki has spoken about the unwritten rule that a non-Catholic presenting himself for Communion is not turned away: a pastoral exception to the rule which, however, must not be made into a rule itself. That would “endanger the values that must be preserved with special care”. These values would include the Catholic (and, for that matter, Orthodox) doctrine about the Eucharist and Communion.

 

In an interview for Katholisch.de, Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau also spoke about this point in the debate. He was also one of the seven signatories of the letter to Rome which questioned if the pastoral outreach did not transcend the authority of the German bishops. The bishop explains:

7I2A1125_0“It is right that we do not turn anyone away from the Communion bench. At that moment no judgement can be made about the discernment of conscience of the individual receiving. I can’t ‘expose’ anyone then. But when we take our understanding of the Eucharist seriously, there can be no superficial practice of giving Communion to just anyone. Therefore, as the priest giving Communion, I am obliged to offer people, at a suitable occasion, personal and spiritual guidance – and explain our understanding of the Eucharist more deeply. And yes, the praxis of individual pastoral care can indeed lead to singular and temporary situations. But in my opinion an official regulation of such exceptions can make it even more likely for such exceptions to become the rule. The current debate already shows that. It is basically less about the “serious spiritual need of individuals,” and more about the interdenominational marriages in general.”

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Getting (too far) ahead in ecumenism

“We must journey and continue: not with the enthusiasm of running ahead to reach coveted goals, but walking patiently together, under the gaze of God. Some themes – I think of the Church, the Eucharist and the ecclesial ministry – merit precise and well shared reflections.”

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.750.422Words from Pope Francis, in an audience with delegates from the German Lutheran Church yesterday. He was, not unexpectedly, speaking about ecumenism, urging continuing theological dialogue between various Christian churches and communities. The goals of ecumenism are often enticing, and this may cause some to get ahead of themselves. The themes Pope Francis mentioned – the Church, the Eucharist and the ecclesial ministry – reflect the goals of a shared understanding of what the Church is, a shared belief in the Eucharist and a shared understanding of the priesthood and other ministries in the Church, and which are often assumed to have been achieved already.

ladaria-ferrer.jpg_872573866This quote is especially interesting as a document was leaked yesterday which stated that the German bishops’ proposed pastoral outreach to interdenominational couples – which included the proposal to allow non-Catholic spouses to receive Communion under certain circumstances – is not fit to be published. The document is dated on the 25th of May, and was sent by the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, to the German bishops who participated in the meeting with the CDF and other dicasteries on 3 May. The letter makes it clear that it was sent with the express agreement of the Pope, who discussed the matter with Archbishop Ladaria in two separate audiences.

The prefect identifies three reasons why the proposal is problematic:

  1. “The question of allowing Evangelical Christians in interdenominational marriages  [to receive Communion] is a topic that affects the faith of the Church and is significant for the universal Church.”
  2. “This question also affects the ecumenical relationships with other churches and church communities, which cannot be underestimated.”
  3. “The topic concerns the law of the Church, above all the interpretation of canon 844. Because there are unanswered questions about this point in some parts of the Church, the competent dicasteries of the Holy See have already been tasked with bringing about a speedy clarification of these issues at the level of the unversal Church. It seems particularly appropriate to leave the judgement of the existence of an “urgent grace necessity” to the diocesan bishop.”

In short, the judgement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is much like what Cardinal Rainer Woelki said several days ago: “We in Germany do not live on an island of Blesseds. We are not a national church. We are a part of the great universal Church.”

Recently, Cardinal Woelki again explained his reasons for opposing to proposed outreach. He indicated the unwritten rule that a non-Catholic spouse presenting him- or herself for Communion is never sent away, but, the Cardinal said, these “pastorally motivated exceptions” can’t be “codified onto a new norm.” They belong in the “area of personal pastoral care, of spiritual guidance, of confession and the individual conscientious decision of the faithful” and can’t be formally tied into the status of interdenominational spouses.

Kardinal-Marx-beklagt-in-Weihnachtsbotschaft-sinkende-GeburtenratenCardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference and one of the supporters of the pastoral outreach, has admitted his surprise as the CDF letter. Perhaps rightly, he contrasts it with the initial request from the pope, that the bishops try and find a solution that is as unanimous as possible. Cardinal Marx said that that hasn’t been tried, let alone achieved, yet. He sees the need to discuss the topic in the meetings of the standing council of the conference and the autumn plenary meeting, but also with the dicasteries in Rome and with the Holy Father himself.

 

On Corpus Christi, Cardinal Woelki returns to the debate

The Church celebrated the feast of the Eucharist, Corpus Christi, today. She reflects on and celebrates the wondrous presence of Christ among us in the Blessed Sacrament He has given to the Church. In Germany on this day, it is hard not to think of the recent debates surrounding that sacrament, and especially the question of who can receive it. In Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, spoke about the situation at the end of the Mass he celebrated in the square in front of the city’s cathedral. He revealed what lies at the basis of his difficulties with the proposal to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion:

fronleichnam-2018_51

“Some think, “What’s the point? That’s nonsense.” Others even think, “It’s a puppet show.” I think: This is about life and death. This is about death and resurrection. This is about eternal life, this is about Christ. This is about His Church and hence this is about the essence. And that is why we must fight for it and find the right way. Not just any way, but the way of the Lord, which He shows us, since He alone is the way and the truth and the life.”

We often, sometimes as a matter of course, say that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the life of the Church. But when you really think about what that means, about what the Church teaches and professes about the true presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, the cardinal’s passionate words make a lot of sense.

In his homily, Cardinal Woelki called the Eucharist the greatest mystery of our faith, except for the Holy Trinity. He reminded the faithful in Roncalli Square that by receiving Communion they say “Yes and amen” to the Pope and to the bishop, to the sacramental structure of the Church and to the saints and their veneration. This makes Holy Mass not just “some event” which can be replaced by a Word and Communion service, “no matter how beautiful”. Also worth remembering, especially in the current debate, is this:

“In the first place, what matters is that, in the celebration of the Mass, we have something to give – namely ourselves to God – surrendering ourselves to Him.”

Looking back on the letter sent to Rome by him and six other bishops, Cardinal Woelki said:

“Much has been written and claimed. Among other things, I was said to have secretly turned to Rome, to have secretly written something. In the words of Holy Scripture, I say: I acted openly and freely and have written and said what had to be written and said, in all openness. I say once again: We in Germany do not live on an island of Blesseds. We are not a national church. We are a part of the great universal Church. All our German dioceses are incorporated in the great globe. We are all united with all other Catholic Churches around the world, united under the leadership of the Holy Father. That is why we approach Christ in unity with all other particular churches. In fidelity to the deposit of faith handed down to us by the Apostles.”

Another bishop who mentioned the Communion issue was Essen’s Franz-Josef Overbeck. He said that a “theologically responsible solution” had to be found, but also emphasised that when the salvation of souls in an interdenominational marriage is at stake, Communion must be allowed for both spouses. The question then remains, of course, when this would be the case, and if this isn’t yet covered by the options allowed under the current Code of Canon Law.

Photo credit: Ottersbach (DR)

With a new voice, CDF revisits old teachings – Cardinal-designate Ladaria on the ordination of women

After several years in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was conspicuously silent, perhaps kept silent as Pope Francis tried to decrease its importance among the curial dicasteries, a new leadership brings new sounds. Or old sounds repeated, perhaps.

Prefecto_Mons._LadariaArchbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, soon to be a cardinal, took over the reins at the CDF after Cardinal Gerhard Müller was let go about a year ago.  And since then, the Congregation published two major texts: Placuit Deo on Christian salvation, in February, and Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones on ethics in economy (published jointly with the Dicastery for Integral Human Development), in May. In comparison, that is the same number of documents released during the entire period that Cardinal Müller headed the CDF, from 2012 to 2017.

And this week, another document was released, not by the CDF itself, but by its prefect, who, it may be safely assumed, is given much more freedom to function as Pope Francis’ personal choice to head the CDF. But that does not mean that something entirely new now comes from the offices of the Congregation. Archbishop Ladaria’s recent article focusses on an issue that has been debated for decades and it is firmly rooted in the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II.

On the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood, Archbishop Ladaria once more confirms that that is not something the Catholic Church has the authority for. He writes the article in response to “voices heard in several countries which call into doubt” this doctrine, which was so clearly declared by Pope St. John Paul II, and confirmed by his successors. The archbishop stresses that what John Paul II stated in the 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis was definitive then, and remains so now.

Below I present my translation of the article, based on the German text found here.

“Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).  Only because of her roots in Jesus Christ, her founder, can the Church give life and salvation to the entire world. These roots are in the first place to be found in the sacraments, at the heart of which is the Eucharist. Established by Christ, the sacraments are the pillars of the Church, who is continuously built up by them as His body and His bride. The sacrament of ordination is deeply connected to the Eucharist, through which Christ makes Himself present as the source of her life and action. Priests are “conformed to Christ”,  so that “they can act in the person of Christ the Head” (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 2).

Christ wanted to confer this sacrament upon the twelve Apostles, who were all men, and they have, in time, conferred it upon other men. The Church knew herself to be bound to this decision of the Lord, which excludes validly conferring the ministerial priesthood to women. In the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, of 22 May 1994, John Paul II taught: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”(n. 4). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith confirmed, in response to a question regarding the teaching of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, that this concerns a truth which belongs to deposit of faith (depositum fidei) of the Church.

In this light it is a great concern to me that there are voices heard in several countries which call into doubt the definitive character of the aforementioned teaching. In order to prove that this teaching is not definitive, the argument goes that is has not been defined ex cathedra and can thus be changed by a future pope or council. Spreading such doubts causes much confusion among the faithful, and not only with regard to the sacrament of Holy Orders, which belongs to he divine constitution of the Church, but also with regard to the ordinary Magisterium, which can infallibly pronounce Catholic doctrine.

On the first point: as for the ministerial priesthood, the Church knows that the impossibility of the ordination of women is part of the “substance” of the sacrament (cf. DH 1728). The Church lacks the authority to change this substance, as she is being built up as Church through the sacraments as established by Christ. This is not a matter of discipline, but a doctrine, as it concerns the structure of the sacraments, the first places of encounter with Christ and the transmission of faith. This is then not some obstacle which blocks the Church from fulfilling her mission in the world more effectively. When the Church can’t intervene in this question, the basis of it lies in the fact that the original love of God intervenes in it. He himself acts in the ordination of priests, so that, always and in every situation of its history, Jesus Christ is visible and active in the Church, “as the principal source of grace” (Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, n. 104).

In the awareness that she cannot change this tradition out of obedience to the Lord, the Church therefore tries to deepen its meaning. For the will of Jesus Christ, the Logos, is not without meaning. The priest acts in the person of Christ, the bridegroom of the Christ, and his being male is an indispensable aspect of this sacramental representation (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter insigniores, n. 5). To be sure, the diversity of tasks between men and women does not entail subordination, but a mutual enrichment. It must be remembered that the perfect image of the Church is Mary, the mother of the Lord, to whom was not given the apostolic ministry. This makes evident that the original language of masculinity and femininity, which the Creator has inscribed in the human body, is included in the work of our salvation. Precisely this fidelity to Christ’s plan with the ministerial priesthood allows the continuous deepening and promotion of the role of women in the Church, because “Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord” (1 Cor, 11:11). This may also shine a light on our culture, which struggles to understand the meaning and beauty of the difference between man and woman, which also affects their complementary missions in society.

On the second point: the doubts raised about the definitive character of Ordinatio sacerdotalis also have a major effect on how the magisterium of the Church is to be understood. It is important to emphasise that infallibility not only refers to solemn declarations from a council or to papal definitions made ex cathedra, but also to the ordinary and general magisterium of the bishops spread throughout the world, when they declare, in unity with each other and with the pope, Catholic doctrine as ultimately binding. John Paul II based himself on this infallibility in Ordinatio sacerdotalis. He also did not declare a new dogma, but confirmed, to remove any doubts, with the authority given to him as succesor of Peter in a formal declaration, what the ordinary and general magisterium had presented as belonging to the deposit of faith throughout all of history. This very kind of statement corresponds with a style of ecclesial communion in which the pope does not wish to act alone, but as a witness in listening to an uninterrupted and living tradition. Furthermore, no one will deny that the magisterium can infallibly express truths that are necessarily connected to what was formerly revealed as good. For only in this way can it fulfill its task to keep the faith holy and interpret it faithfully.

Further proof of John Paul II’s efforts in considering this question is the prior consultation with the heads of those bishops’ conferences who most had to deal with the problem. All, without exception, declared with full confidence that the Church, out of obedience to the Lord, did not have the authority to allow women to receive the sacrament of ordination.

Pope Benedict XVI also confirmed this doctrine. In the Chrism Mass on 5 April 2012 he recalled how John Paul II had declared “irrevocably” that the Church “has received no authority from the Lord” regarding the ordination of women. With an eye on those who do not accept this teaching, Benedict XVI wonders, “But is disobedience really a way […]? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”

Pope Francis has likewise taken position on this question. In his Apostolic Letter Evangelii gaudium he underlines: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” He also urges us not to interpret this doctrine as an expression of power, but as a service, so that the equal dignity of man and woman in one body of Christ may be better understood (n. 104). In the press conference during the return flight from the apostolic journey to Sweden on 1 November 2016 Pope Francis emphasised: “As for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last clear word was given by Saint John Paul II, and this holds.”

The Church in our time is called to response to many challenges of our culture. It is essential that she remains in Christ, like the branches on the vine. The Master therefore invites us to keep His word in us: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10). Only being faithful to His words, which do not fade, guarantees our rootedness in Christ and in is love. Only the accepting of His wise plans, which take shape in His sacraments, strengthens the Church at her roots, so that she can bear fruit for eternal life.

Luis F. Ladaria, SJ, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”

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.

Heading for a Roman answer, German bishops prepare

In two days’ time, on Thursday 3 May, the much anticipated meeting between representatives of the German episcopate and the heads of several Holy See dicasteries will take place, to discuss the question of Communion for non-Catholics. In February, the majority of German bishops voted in favour of devising a pastoral approach in which non-Catholic spouses of Catholic faithful could receive Holy Communion alongside their partner in certain specific cases. Seven German bishops then wrote to the Holy See to find out if this is a decision that could be taken by a bishops’ conference on its own, or if it involved doctrine and Church unity to such an extent that it is something best left to Rome.

Originally, the invitation for the meeting was extended to Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Rainer Maria Woelki, as well as Bishop Felix Genn, with Woelki as the sole representative of the bishops who signed the letter to Rome. Marx was included as president of the bishops’ conference, while Bishop Genn remains uncertain as to why he was invited. He doesn’t believe it is because of his membership of the Congregation for Bishops, though. Joining these three are Bishops Karl-Heinz Wiesemann and Rudolf Voderholzer, president and vice-president of the doctrinal commission of the German Bishops’ Conference; Bishop Gerhard Feige, president of the ecumenism commission; and Fr. Hans Langendörfer, secretary general of the bishops’ conference. The Roman side of the discussion will consist of Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Msgr. Markus Graulich, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts; and Fr. Hermann Geissler, office head of the doctrinal section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A team with a heavy focus on doctrinal and legislative expertise, then.

The inclusion of Bishop Voderholzer means that Cardinal Woelki is not the only prelate in the delegation who expressed reservations about the issue. In a recent interview, the bishop of Regensburg explained his reasoning for signing the letter to Rome:

bischof-rudolf-voderholzer-gehend“Let me say two things in advance: I consider ecumenism as a fundamental mission from Christ Himself. In the Gospel of John, Christ prays to the Father, “that they may be one, as we are one… that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me” (John 17: 22b, 23). We must remain true to this fundamental mission of Christ. It’s not a matter of ecumenism yes or no, but of the path of ecumenism, the path to unity. We all yearn for this unity – as do I!

Allow me to add another thing: I am aware of the needs and problems which occur in the education of children in confessional marriages, but also in the religious lives of the spouses. I am also aware of the tensions which come from this and which can be hurtful. I know this from conversations with people in these situations and also from my family. I take that with me as bishop.

The point of the letter which I have written with my brother bishops is to find a way which takes the needs of people seriously and which at the same time provides assistance. We are, however, of the opinion that the pastoral “outreach” sought for by the majority of the bishops’ conference, which allows evangelical spouses to receive Communion, does not resolve these problems and needs. It also does not do justice to the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the “outreach” does not sufficiently take into account the different understandings of the various confessions regarding the Eucharist on the one hand, and the Last Supper on the other.

In the question of ecumenism we must, lastly, also take the views of the eastern churches into account. They regard the bond between Church community and Eucharistic community even deeper than in the western churches. When the Catholic Church hides this view, she significantly deepens the split with the orthodox churches.”

feigeOpposing the actions of the seven bishops is Bishop Gerhard Feige, bishop of Magdeburg and president of the ecumenism commission of the German Bishops’ Conference. In a contribution to Der Zeit last Thursday, Msgr. Feige stated that not taking the chance to help people deepen the joy of the faith and their participation in the Eucharist, as well as promoting ecumenical encounters and strengthening the marriage bond would be “macabre and shameful”. Contrary to other bishops, Msgr. Feige insists that the pastoral outreach exists within modern theological and legal possibilities, referring to the canon law paragraphs which allow local bishops to decide under which circumstances non-Catholic can receive Communion. These circumstances, however, are emergency situations in which the danger of death and the unavailability of ministers of a person’s own denomination play key roles.

Bishop Feige, who, as mentioned above, will also travel to Rome on Thursday, also expressed strong criticism against the seven bishops who wrote to Rome. He describes his impression

“that the labourious search for a responsible pastoral solution for individuals did not determine their interest, but rather the fundamental fear of not being truly Catholic anymore. Some still seem to be attached to a pre-Conciliar image of the Church and have little internalised the Catholic principles of ecumenism.”

With these words, Bishop Feige seems to be the one who is rather set in his ways, and it hard to see how such an attitude towards his brother bishops will be helpful in Thursday meeting.

rubrikteaserMünster’s Bishop Felix Genn is hopeful of finding a consensus. While the way in which the seven bishops expressed their difficulties with the conference’s vote did not make him happy, he understands their questions of conscience. In an interview for WDR radio Bishop Genn expressed his happiness about the way in which the standing council of the bishops’ conference discussed the issue last week. And although he would have preferred that the seven bishops had first informed the others about their letter before sending it, Bishop Genn’s attitude is perhaps the most consensus-minded in the delegation, which may be a reason for his inclusion. The bishop, for his part, simply thought of his mother’s motto when hearing about being included in the delegation: “One has never got enough work to do.”

Regardless of its outcome, Thursday’s meeting will not only be significant for the German bishops, but for the entire Church, and the entire ecumenical project. For the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith this will be the first major test under the new leadership of Archbishop Ladaria Ferrer. Likewise, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, although represented by its undersecretary, has recently come under new leadership as Archbishop Filippo Iannone succeeded Cardinal Coccopalmerio as president in early April. The question of the role of doctrine and law in a papacy devoted in the first place to pastoral care and mercy will receive a resounding answer.

Rome has spoken (maybe) – two of the seven bishops explain themselves [Updated]

At the time of my writing this there is no official word from Rome yet, but strong rumours started to surface yesterday that Rome has issued a decision in favour of the seven German bishops who had serious doubts about the proposed pastoral guide concerning Communion for non-Catholics, that the German Bishops’ Conference had voted for in February. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the rumours say, has studied the matter and the final decision is explicitly endorsed by the Holy Father. The official statement may become public, but it appears that the question was deemed important enough to lead to an unusual swift decision, made all the more significant by papal involvement.

Kardinal_Woelki_-_Weg_zum_und_Mittagsgebet_im_Kölner_Dom-3210While the letter by Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop Schick and Bishops Zdarsa, Hanke, Ipolt, Voderholzer and Oster received much attention in the media, the signatories themselves treated it as a normal matter of correspondence. Cardinal Woelki, who was visiting Ukraine when the news broke, expressed his surprise at the hype and the talk about dissent. Presenting the questions about intercommunion to Rome was not so much a matter of going against his fellow bishops, but rather came from the importance of the matter: “With several bishops, we were convinced that it would be good to universally coordinate the solution that we have discussed and established here, with an eye on the unity of the Church and the common ground with the other particular churches.” Cardinal Woelki is not so much opposed to the proposals from the conference, to allow non-Catholic spouses of Catholics to receive Communion with their partner on a case-by-case basis, but does not think it is a decision that should be made by the German bishops alone.

osterThe most extensive explanation for signing the letter comes from Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. In an article published in the diocesan magazine and on his personal website, he emphasises that the debates within the bishops’ conference have always been fraternal and respectful. He then goes on to explain his reason for signing the letter to Rome.

“The Eucharist is so central to us Catholics, that it expresses the basis of our entire understanding of faith and church. Someone who is able to say “Amen” at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, says yes to the communion with the Pope and the bishops and with the saints that it implies. He says yes to the special priesthood, the prayer to the mother of the Lord and for the dead – to name just those points which distinguish us, for example in the understanding of what a church is, from our Evangelical brothers. In essence our being Church is expressed in its most dense and concrete way in the Eucharist.”

The proposal from the German bishops includes the idea that a non-Catholic with a strong desire to receive the Eucharist, and after confirming the Catholic understanding of it, can do so. They claim that this is one of the exceptions in which a non-Catholic can receive, normally in an emergency and danger of death. But Bishop Oster rightly states that a person with the desire to receive with his or her spouse is not automatically in danger of death and “has time and opportunity to enter into the Church, as he or she already shares the same understanding of Church and Eucharist.” The bishop wants to know if this desire is indeed a serious necessity or even danger which would allow a non-Catholic to receive Communion.

The proposal also creates some strange ecumenical discrepancies:

“At the same time the proposal states that the Catholic spouse can not join in the Evangelical Last Supper, since the understanding of this Last Supper is so clearly different. This means that, according to the logic of the proposal the Evangelical partner can receive both Eucharist and Last Supper, but the Catholic can not. The Evangelical partner is trusted to somehow uphold both understandings of faith, but not the Catholic, since they do not go together. I think it is very difficult to communicate this!”

Bishop Oster also no romantic notions of how such a change would be generally received by the faithful:

“Experience with past regulations show us that what are depicted as singular cases here, will be perceived by the general public as a broad permission, in the sense of: “Now the others can finally come to Communion with us.”

The first reactions support this reading, the bishop says, and that may lead to a trivialisation of the Eucharist. “After all, we rightly call the Eucharist “the most holy”, and how we treat it is, in my opinion, very important.”

The bishop of Passau ends his article with a second reminder that, despite what some media claim, there is no schism among the German bishops, and nor will there be.

“I am fully convinced that the bishops who think differently also want what is best for the Church and ecumenism. For us signatories the unity of the bishops’ conference, as well as progress in ecumenism, is also important. But we wonder if the path chosen can be taken in this way – and very much want to receive a deeper explanation.”

EDIT (19-4): The German Bishops’ Conference released a statement today in which it declares that any reports about a decision against the pastoral document from the bishops about intercommunion are false. The Holy Father has, however, issued an invitation to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the conference, to discuss the issue in Rome. Cardinal Marx has gladly welcomed this invitation. Who will take part in this discussion remains to be seen.

Photo credit: [1] Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons


 

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