News Analysis

Britain: Misfired canon


German bishops could look to Britain for advice on Communion for Protestants

Catholics have become used to cardinals and bishops forcefully opposing each other. But the recent furore in Germany has been exceptional. The majority of German bishops approved a draft plan to admit Protestant spouses of Catholics to the Eucharist – when those spouses were suffering “serious spiritual distress”. Cardinal Willem Eijk said that the plan was contrary to Church teaching.

He added that the Pope’s refusal to make a ruling, after a minority of German bishops made their objections to Rome, was “completely incomprehensible”. Eijk said he was reminded of the Catechism’s words about “a final trial” of apostasy which “will shake the faith of many believers”. Other senior churchmen have used language which was nearly as strong.

But the conversation over the Eucharist and Protestantism did not begin in Germany. It has been an unresolved issue since Paul VI issued ambiguous guidelines in 1967. Then John Paul II’s 1983 revision of canon law permitted Protestants and Anglicans to receive Communion, Confession or Anointing – but under certain conditions: if there was a “grave necessity” such as “danger of death”, if no minister of their community was available, and if they had “Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed”. The Eastern Orthodox and others who have valid sacraments, if “properly disposed”, could also receive.

The Germans are not the first bishops’ conference to come up with their own reading of canon law in this regard. Twenty years ago – the exact anniversary falls in October – the bishops of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland jointly issued One Bread, One Body. These guidelines said that on “unique occasions of joy and sorrow” – such as marriages or funerals – a non-Catholic might be able to receive Communion if they agreed with Catholic belief on the Eucharist.

One Bread, One Body disappointed some Protestant leaders at the time, because it emphasised that the occasion must be “unrepeatable, a ‘one-off’ situation at a given moment which will not come again”. The idea of continuous reception – which the German bishops have implied – was not envisaged. The British and Irish bishops also stressed that someone receiving Communion must not be “in a state of serious or scandalous sin” – a firmer tone than the German bishops have taken.

Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham (pictured), one of the bishops most closely involved with ecumenical relations, tells the Catholic Herald: “I believe our own norms are still not sufficiently well known among clergy or lay faithful for them to bear the spiritual fruit that the Church wishes to offer.” Archbishop Longley says the German bishops are “engaged in a similar process”. They have “a particular focus on situations of grave and pressing spiritual need within mixed marriages, and their consultation with the Holy See does not yet seem to have reached a conclusion”.

The archbishop says the 1998 document was “mindful of the particular circumstances within a mixed marriage and offers some examples of unique occasions for joy or sorrow in the life of a family when pastors should be especially sensitive and alert to the likelihood that a need for sacramental sharing will arise”.

So the German bishops’ proposal is, to some extent, comparable with previous conversations among bishops. However, the laxity of the Germans’ proposal has made many people ask whether canon law is clear enough on this point. The canon lawyer Edward Peters argues that the German bishops’ majority proposal is “simply wrong”, adding that it was “licit, strictly speaking, but such a bad idea that the canon allowing it probably needs to be reformed”.

There are various ways in which the canon could be reformed. One argument is that any and all non-Catholics should be prohibited from receiving the Eucharist: there is simply a contradiction between the sacrament of unity, and not being united with Christ’s Church.

However, historical evidence suggests that the Church has made very narrow exceptions. The philosopher Ansgar Santagrossi noted some of these in a 2014 article for the journal Antiphon. For instance, in the 14th century Pope Clement VI had to make a ruling on Armenian priests who had returned to unity with the Church. The Pope allowed them to carry on giving the sacraments to their schismatic congregations, in the hope of bringing them back to unity.

At the same time, this flexibility has limits. The theologian Fr Brian Harrison argues that some German bishops are clearly going beyond canon law as well as Catholic teaching. The more liberal bishops, he says via email, “are watering down the Code’s requirement of ‘shared Catholic faith’ in the sacrament to the point where some ill-defined profession of belief in the Real Presence is enough on the part of the Lutheran spouse”.

One Bread, One Body has been criticised as too lax. Even as regards “one-off” situations, it raises the question: if someone has Catholic belief in the Eucharist, why not become Catholic? Still, if the German bishops want to tone down the controversy just a little, they might take some advice from their British counterparts.