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.

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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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