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Intercommunion and the German bishops: this is what a ‘synodal’ Church looks like

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Germany, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising (CNS photo/Markus Nowak, KNA)

The Vatican punted. That is the short version of the news that came yesterday evening from the Press Office of the Holy See, following a meeting of German prelates in the Vatican to discuss the disagreement over whether to admit non-Catholics to Communion, and if so under what circumstances. The statement explained that the “colloquies” took place at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the prefect of the CDF, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, presiding over what looks for all the world like a mediation session.

“During the course of the colloquies,” reads the statement from the Press Office of the Holy See that made the announcement, “Archbishop Ladaria explained that Pope Francis appreciates the ecumenical commitment of the German Bishops and asks them to find, in a spirit of ecclesial communion, a possibly unanimous result.”

So, the question of Communion for non-Catholic spouses in marriages between a Catholic and a non-Catholic party now goes back to the German bishops.

If Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising and the president of the conference that approved the proposal, expected Rome to come down in favour of the conference, he will be disappointed. The bishops on the other side, led by Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, may be more pleased with the development, even if they are not completely satisfied.

Cardinal Woelki et al asked for the meeting in Rome, which ended up being a rehearsal of the issues before the head of CDF. The Press Office communiqué stated them succinctly as the relationship of the question to faith and pastoral care, its relevance for the universal Church, and its juridical dimension.That Rome did not simply decide the matter, or take it out of the German bishops’ hands, or even direct a decision, is in a certain sense a “win” for the minority party, in that they may well have gone into the meeting prepared to count anything not coming to a rubber stamp of the conference vote as at least a minor and tactical victory.

Those in favour of the measure argue two things. First, that there is a “grave necessity” that arises from the threat to marital unions and the faith of the Catholic part in mixed unions that stems from the prohibition on non-Catholics from Holy Communion, which means that such couples cannot licitly receive Communion together. Secondly, the fact that many non-Catholic spouses in such unions already do receive Communion in Catholic churches with their Catholic spouses (policing such matters is often nigh on impossible), hence the need for a pastoral framework to guide it. Supporters believe there is just enough room in the law (Canon 844.4, for those interested) to make that happen.

Cardinal Woelki and other bishops maintain that the situation, while lamentable, is permanent and relatively stable, hence predictable, resulting from the particular circumstances that have arisen and developed in Germany – cradle of Lutheranism – admitting of appropriate pastoral address and therefore not the kind of emergency the law exists to supply or remedy. They also maintain that a matter so directly touching and deeply affecting the unity of the Church ought to be addressed at the highest levels of ecclesiastical governance.

However this plays out, we may have just got a peek at what a “synodal” Church looks like at work under Pope Francis. If the bishops who support the pastoral measure expected Rome to back them on grounds that the conference had spoken and the bishops on the other side are simply out of luck, they will have been disappointed. With their numbers, they may have a mechanical or political advantage in whatever happens next. Nevertheless, Pope Francis’s Vatican is evidently not one in which either the numbers or the mechanics count for everything.

On the other hand, it could be that Pope Francis really does support the majority, but wants the matter to pass through normal channels and with procedures as regular as possible. This would give him a measure of cover, it is true, though he might have been able to spin it that way had he simply confirmed the decision of the majority. Even if he is sympathetic to the majority view of the question, he does not want it to pass even under the appearance of papal fiat.

Meanwhile, “Archbishop Ladaria will inform the Holy Father about the content of the colloquy.” Pope Francis is watching. As we learned at the conclusion of the third Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops – the first of the two recent assemblies on the family – “[I]t was necessary to live through all this with tranquility, and with interior peace, so that the synod would take place cum Petro and sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter), and the presence of the Pope is the guarantee of it all.”

Apparently, that goes not only for the assemblies of the world’s bishops, but for local and regional conferences as well. The father wants his sons to work it out among themselves. Whether they will be able to resolve their differences and come to a compromise acceptable to all, even if not entirely satisfactory to anyone, remains to be seen. Presumably, none of the German bishops want their toys taken away.