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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Seventeen years in the see of Boniface – Heinz-Josef Algermissen retires

It couldn’t have come on a more fitting day for the Diocese of Fulda. On 5 June they celebrated the feast day of their patron St. Boniface, which was celebrated over the weekend with the annual Bonifatius Fest which drew some 8,000 visitors, among them the bishop of that other diocese closely linked to St Boniface: Msgr. Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden.

Algermissen2On the same 5th of June it was announced this had been the last such day presided over by Bishop Heinz Joshistef Algermissen. That was not unexpected, as the bishop reached the age of 75 in February, and there was no reason to assume that his retirement would not be accepted within the following months. Bishop Algermissen led the Diocese of Fulda since 2001. Before that he served as an auxiliary bishop of Paderborn for five years.

The Diocese of Fulda, which traces its origins to the establishment of a monastery by the aforementioned St. Boniface in 744. In 751 the monastery became an abacy nullius under the direct responsibility of the Holy See, making the abbots independent from the local bishops. The prosperity of the abbacy grew, in 1220 it became an abbey-principality, and in 1752 it became a diocese in its own right, taking the name of Fulda. Over the subsequent centuries its borders were changed repeatedly, gaining territory in 1821 and 1929, and losing it in 1930 and 1973. The last change was a reflection of Cold War reality: parts of Fulda had been under Communist rule since the end of World War II, and in 1973 those parts, as well as parts of the Diocese of Würzburg, became a separate apostolic administration: Erfurt-Meiningen. In 1994 this became the Diocese of Erfurt.

Karte_Bistum_FuldaToday, the Diocese of Fulda covers the northerns and eastern parts of the Land of Hesse, a small part of Thuringia and and exclave in Bavaria. Within its 10,318 square kilometres live some 400,000 Catholics a little of 20% of the entire population. It remains a pilgrimage site because of St. Boniface’s wish to be buried there, instead of in Mainz or Utrecht. He had been killed in the Frisian swamps near what is now Dokkum in the Netherlands (hence the connection to the the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, hinted at above). With the acceptance of the retirement of Bishop Algermissen, and until the catedral chapter has chosen a diocesan administrator, Bishop Karlheinz Diez leads the diocese. He is Fulda’s sole auxiliary, making him the automatic choice for the role.

During his years in office, Bishop Algermissen had a clear eye on the future, creating 43 parish communities in ten deaneries by 2006, and in 2017 he created the strategy for the next decades until 2030. “When many today see an ever denser curtain blocking heaven from view and when the emancipation from God becomes a program, we are urgently called to establish a countermovement,” the bishop declared.

Commenting in Bishop Algermissen’s retirement, Cardinal Reinhard Marx expressed his gratitude for his service and hospitality (the German bishops meet in Fulda for their autumn plenary meetings), but also referred to his pro-life stance: “Regarding your work, I emphasise the special attention to unborn and dying life: protecting life from beginning to end has, also in public debates, always been a heartfelt concern for you.”

Bishop Algermissen was  a member of the Liturgy Commission and the Ecumenism Commission in the German Bishops’ Conference. He was vice-president of the latter commission.

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At last weekend’s Bonifatiusfest, a toast from Groningen-Leeuwarden canon Fr. Paul Verheijen to Bishop Algermissen (Credit: R. Leupolt)

The election of the new bishop follows the usual rules laid down in the Concordat between Prussia and the Holy See of 1929: the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, requests suggestions for the new bishop from the dioceses covering the former territory of Prussia and sends these to the pope. The pope, or rather the Congregation for Bishops, and following the collection of further information on the candidates by the nuncio, selects his three favoured candidates, and this list is then sent to the cathedral chapter, who elect their new bishop from that list. After approval from the governments of, in this case, Hesse and Thuringia, the cathedral chapter sends the name of the elected to the pope, who then appoints him. Following the publication of the name of the new bishop, a date for consecration (if the new appointee is not a bishop yet) and installation. The consecration of the new bishop falls to the metropolitan of the Church province of which Fulda is a part: Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker of Paderborn. Before this, however, the new bishop makes an oath of loyalty to the German state and the Länder of Hesse and Thuringia.

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^On the day that Bishop Algermissen retired, the newly-appointed bishop of Würzburg, Msgr. Franz Jung, made his oath of loyalty to the prime minister of Bavaria, Markus Söder. Bishop-elect Jung will be consecrated and installed on 10 June. (Credit: Markus Hauck (POW))

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.

 

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.

At the Katholikentag, German cardinals underline peace

With 90,000 participants* it was the largest edition of the event since 1990. The 101st biannual Katholikentag (despite its name, a multiple-day event) took place in Münster from 9 to 13 May this year, with “Suche Frieden” (look for peace) as its central theme. Peace on a global scale, but also in smaller ways, such as in families, parishes, and, yes, among bishops.

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^30,000 people gathered in Münster’s Schlossplatz for the closing Mass of the Katholikentag 2018. 

As the German bishops have been seemingly rather divided on the topic of Communion for non-Catholics, and despite the words from Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer that the Katholikentag should not be used to exert pressure on either side of the debate**, the topic was raised on more than a few occasions. Your author found Bishop Stefan Oster discussing questions regarding ecumenism in light of these recent developments in a question and answer session at his diocese’s stand at the Kirchenmeile (a massive information market for all manner of Catholic organisations, including the German dioceses), to name but one example.

The two main players in the debate, if only because of their red hats, are Cardinals Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne and Reinhard Marx of München und Freising (who also happens to chair the German Bishops’ Conference as president). Both cardinals have gone out of their way to express the importance of unanimity at the Katholikentag. Not in a response to the Communion debate, but in emphasising the continued fraternity and, yes, peaceful conditions among the bishops.

In his weekly “Wort des Bischofs” Youtube talk, Cardinal Woelki said yesterday:

“The many small wars in our communities, in our families, yes also among us bishops must also end in peace. That does mean that one can’t argue about the correct path. I am convinced that debate about a good cause is very necessary, even. But the goal, a fraternal living together at all human levels in harmony with God’s creation, is something that we must not lose sight of!”

urn-newsml-dpa-com-20090101-180513-99-284653-large-4-3In his homily at the closing Mass of the four-day event, Cardinal Marx reiterated that the Catholic Church must make its unity clear, and that includes its bishops.

The efforts of both cardinals, and other bishops as well, are clearly directed at changing the image of division that is the result of the planned pastoral outreach, the letter of the seven bishops and the meeting in Rome. At the same time, as Cardinal Woelki has stated in the quote above, the debate continues, with the added dimension that the papal directive to strive for unanimity has resulted in different interpretations that must be discussed as well.

Despite good intentions and fraternity, the story is far from over.

*This reflects only the number of tickets sold. While many outdoor events were free of charge, tickets gave access to workshops, exhibitions, discussions, tours and other events. The actual number of people who visited Münster for the Katholikentag will exceed 90,000.

**Regarding finding a solution to the question, with Pope Francis’ request in mind that the German bishops come to a unanimous decision, the bishop of Regensburg said on 9 May: “This task will not be an easy one, since the community of the Church transcends the borders of Germany. A possible unanimous decision can only be made in unity with the joint world episcopate, with the world Church, equally with the bishops’ conference of Canada and with that of Indonesia.”

Photo credit: [1] Guido Kirchner/dpa, [2] dpa/Rolf Vennenbernd

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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