Analysis: does the Vatican Communion letter signal a new direction?

Cardinal-Elect Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CNS)

When I converted last year, it was always the same joke: “Why become a Catholic under the first Lutheran pope?” I doubt any of them seriously believe Francis is a crypto-Protestant, but some anxiety over the festivities surrounding the Reformation’s 500th birthday was entirely justified. The Vatican commissioned a stamp depicting Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon kneeling at the foot of the Cross. The image was called “penitential”, though they don’t appear to be repenting for their errors or disobedience: Melanchthon is seen clutching the Augsburg Confession, the original Lutheran manifesto.

The Holy Father also signed a joint statement with the President of the Lutheran World Federation lamenting that spouses in mixed Catholic/Lutheran marriages can’t take Communion together in the Catholic Church:

We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ. We long for this wound in the Body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavours, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue.

The German Bishops’ Conference evidently took these ecumenical overtures as a wink and a nod to open communion for those Lutheran spouses. During their Spring plenary meeting in February, they voted to admit those who, after a “serious examination” of conscience with a spiritual director (lay or ordained), come to “affirm the faith of the Catholic Church”. That way, they may “satisfy a hunger for the Eucharist”.

Generally, when Protestants come to “affirm” the Catholic faith and “hunger” for the Eucharist, they – well, convert. It’s difficult to say why the German bishops feel the need to abridge that process, or how those concerns can be met without undertaking a revolution in sacramental theology.

When faced with this question in May, as Christopher Altieri wrote in the Catholic Herald, the Vatican punted. “During the course of the colloquies,” the Press Office of the Holy See announced, “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.” That didn’t happen, and the Holy Father had to choose whether to come down decisively against the Germans’ proposal, endorse it, or simply let it hang in the air.

Conservative Catholics – those who make cracks about the “first Lutheran pope” – almost certainly expected him to follow one of the latter two paths. Then, on June 4, L’Espresso published the text of a letter written by Cardinal-elect Luis Ladaria, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference. Dated 25 of May and sent “with the explicit approval of the pope”, Ladaria suggests that the Germans’ motion “is not ready for publication”. The Holy Father is concerned, he continues, because

The issue concerns the law of the Church, above all the interpretation of canon 844 CIC. Since in a few sectors of the Church there are open questions in this regard, the dicasteries of the Holy See concerned have already been instructed to produce a timely clarification of these questions at the level of the universal Church. In particular, it appears opportune to leave to the diocesan bishop the judgment on the existence of “grave and urgent necessity”.

The wording is deeply diplomatic (or bureaucratic). Canon 844 begins by stating bluntly: “Catholic ministers administer the sacraments licitly to Catholic members of the Christian faithful alone, who likewise receive them licitly from Catholic ministers alone”. However, as canon lawyer Edward Peters noted, it is followed by several qualifiers. According to canon 844 §4.: “If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.” (Emphasis added.)

This makes it sound as though bishops have the power to admit any Protestant to Holy Communion, so long as they feel there is a “grave necessity” for doing so. Peters argues that this canon should be clarified to ensure they don’t abuse that authority. After all, disrespecting one sacrament “inevitably sets the stage for disrespecting all the sacraments.”

The question is whether the Holy Father cited canon 844 in order to give the Germans that escape clause, or whether he intended to cite the more definitive first section. Given that Cardinal Marx was “surprised” by the Holy Father’s rejoinder, the latter seems more likely. In any event, while a Benedict XVI or a John Paul II may have acted more swiftly to reject the Germans’ proposal – one wonders if they would have bothered proposing it at all under Francis’s predecessors – this was an unusually quick and decisive response from the Holy Father.

Of course, this could be a long-term “stealth reform”, as Damon Linker described recently in The Week, meant to slowly shift the Overton window toward liberal Protestantism. Marx was moving too quickly, so Francis had to publicly slap him down, lest he spook some crotchety traditionalists. On the other hand, it could be just what it seems: the Pope reaffirming orthodoxy. Maybe Francis really does intend to pursue greater dialogue with Lutherans and other Protestants, but to do so without compromising the Faith.

As for myself, I can’t help but wish Francis was as decisive in opposing this dangerous motion as he is when dealing with (say) traditionalist “neo-Pelagians”. If the Holy Father was consistent in his rebukes, we should have gotten a searing encyclical pointedly condemning a group of liberals dubbed “neo-Lutherans” or something to that effect. He was obviously careful not to embarrass Marx and the Germans, who are strong Vatican allies.

And, realistically, this single act will not win over any of Francis’s critics. But conservatives should be gracious enough to credit Francis for defending the Catholic Faith and the integrity of the Sacraments. “Blessed are the meek” and all that.