German bishops at war

This week's cover (Christian Adams)

The German Church has been thrown deeper into controversy after seven bishops appealed to the Vatican against new guidelines that would allow Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion. If adopted, these rules would significantly relax the existing ones.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg and the bishops of Görlitz, Augsburg, Eichstätt, Passau and Regensburg have signed a three-page letter to Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and Vatican ecumenical chief Cardinal Kurt Koch. They have asked for a ruling on whether the text approved at the February meeting of the German bishops’ conference (DBK) has exceeded the national bishops’ competence and breached canon law.

Notably, the letter was sent without prior consultation with DBK president Cardinal Reinhard Marx. Five of the seven bishops are also from dioceses in Bavaria, where Cardinal Marx is president of the state bishops’ conference. For his part, Marx has rejected the seven bishops’ questions and stressed that the guidelines were only a draft and could yet be altered. He had previously said that the new document was merely a “pastoral handbook” and that “we don’t want to create any new dogma”.

The seven bishops’ letter is not unprecedented, but such an initiative is unusual. The last time Rome was formally asked to intervene in the German Church’s internal disputes was in 1999, when the majority of bishops voted to remain part of the state pregnancy counselling service. Cardinal Joachim Meisner appealed directly to Pope John Paul II and secured a Vatican ruling overturning their decision. But that was a solo effort from Meisner, the leader of the German Church’s almost defunct conservative faction. An appeal to Rome by seven relatively centrist bishops is a dramatic development.

Non-Catholic spouses receiving Communion isn’t, of course, an issue confined to Germany. Tony Blair famously received Communion regularly before his conversion, despite it being against the rules (as Cardinal Basil Hume later reminded him). In Germany the practice is quite common, just as it is common for civilly remarried divorcees to receive Communion, and there is a clear link with the Amoris Laetitia controversy. But, as we saw with Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the family, there is a difference between having an important rule that is widely disregarded, and changing the rule – even just to allow exceptions, because exceptions have a way of becoming the new norm. And, where the sacraments are concerned, the stakes are high.

The new German guidelines are framed as providing for exceptions to be made on a case-by-case basis, after the communicant has gone through a process of discernment under the guidance of a priest. Ultimately, it would come down to the individual’s conscience – that is, Protestant spouses wishing to receive Communion should decide for themselves whether they should be able to. There is an obvious similarity with the proposal for allowing Communion for remarried divorcees put forward by future cardinals Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann in 1993, which was the basis for Cardinal Kasper’s intervention at the two family synods preceding the publication of Amoris. The superiority of conscience over the law is a common German Catholic position.

Why has the opposition been much sharper over intercommunion than over Communion for divorcees? There was resistance to Amoris from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then prefect of the CDF, but he had very little support from German bishops. One reason could be that the arguments over divorce have been well aired since the 1993 proposal, and so the ground had been prepared. Or it could be that the case for admitting Catholics in irregular marriages seems more plausible than that for admitting spouses who aren’t Catholic at all, since the conditions under canon law for non-Catholics are both more explicit and quite strict. It could simply be that, as often happens in the Church, the modernising faction has gained the upper hand and pushed its agenda further and faster than the centre ground would bear.

The guidance on Communion for Protestant spouses is supposed to rest on Canon 844 (4) of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which states that “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.”

This does, however, raise the question of whether someone’s distress at not being able to receive Communion really counts as a “grave necessity” under the meaning of 844 (4). And “manifest[ing] Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments” is not obvious in the case of spouses who have not become Catholic and do not wish to do so.

Canon 844 (4) does soften the language of the 1917 Code, which stated bluntly that it was “forbidden to minister the Sacraments of the Church to heretics and schismatics, even though they are in good faith and ask for them, unless they have first renounced their errors and been reconciled to the Church”. This isn’t very diplomatic, but it does make clear that participating in the sacraments is a sign of unity within the Church.

The more fundamental problem with intercommunion is that, even if the form is similar, different religious communities often have very different understandings of what Communion means. The same issue can apply with other sacraments like baptism or marriage. For example, the Catholic Church recognises baptisms as valid if they are in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – but, crucially, this has to involve an actual belief in the Trinity. The Church doesn’t recognise Mormon baptism, even though it uses the same words, because Joseph Smith’s theology denies the Trinity.

The same issue applies with Communion. Either the sacrament is the Body and Blood of Christ, or it is not. If it is viewed simply as a symbolic remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, that is another thing entirely.

This is why, under established Catholic teaching, intercommunion is possible with the Orthodox Churches – though limited in practice – but not with most Protestant denominations, simply because they don’t agree with the Catholic view of what Communion actually is.

Many other religious communities practise closed communion, restricting the sacrament to their own members. However, some large Protestant denominations practise open communion – crucially including the EKD, Germany’s main federation of Protestant churches. This means that the Catholic spouse in a mixed marriage can receive communion in a Lutheran church, but not vice versa. That creates a social pressure, which is part of the context for the German bishops’ decision.

Probably a larger motivation is the long-term decline of Christian life in Germany. Thanks to the country’s church tax system, both the Catholic and Protestant churches are extremely wealthy, but largely empty of worshippers. The current rate of Mass attendance in Germany is around 10 per cent, and the Lutherans, who have gone much further in accommodating German secular culture, have even lower rates of observance.

The shortage of vocations is so severe that, despite importing large numbers of priests from India, the German Church is now pushing for parishes led by lay pastoral workers to fill the gap.

Nobody in Germany seems to have a clear idea of how to arrest the decline, except for further relaxing the Church’s expectations of the faithful. This approach has been tried for decades with little success, with observance and vocations continuing to decline and record numbers of Catholics formally leaving the Church in order to opt out of paying the church tax. Ironically, although the German Church is making it easier for non-Catholics and those in irregular marriages to receive Communion, the sacraments are denied to Catholics who don’t pay the church tax.

The Vatican missed an opportunity to clarify the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia by not responding to the dubia (“doubts”) submitted by four cardinals. The dubia on intercommunion from Cardinal Woelki and the other six German bishops provide another opportunity to clarify whether historic Catholic teaching still applies.

Either a positive or negative response will be revealing, and have an impact well beyond Germany.

Jon Anderson is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the April 13th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here