Several bishops from outside Germany have critiqued a proposal to allow Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive communion in German dioceses under some limited circumstances, citing the proposal’s effects on their own local Churches.
The proposal has been championed by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, who announced in February that the German bishops’ conference would publish a pastoral handout that allows Protestant spouses of Catholics "in individual cases" and "under certain conditions" to receive Holy Communion, provided they "affirm the Catholic faith in the Eucharist”.
But the proposal was questioned by seven German bishops, who asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith whether the question can be decided on the level of a national bishops' conference, or if rather "a decision of the Universal Church" is required in the matter.
When several bishops from Germany visited Rome May 3, an inconclusive meeting ended with the Vatican sending the Germans back, saying Pope Francis wants the bishops to come to an agreement among themselves.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was pointed in his criticism of the proposal in an essay published May 23 at First Things, raising doctrinal concerns regarding what it would mean to allow these non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist.
Chaput explains that while bishops everywhere have disagreements, he believes the situation in Germany to be different due to both the “global prominence of the controversy,” as well as the doctrinal issues. He added that “What happens in Germany will not stay in Germany. History has already taught us that lesson once,” citing the effects of Martin Luther’s schism.
“The essence of the German intercommunion proposal is that there would be a sharing in holy communion even when there is not true Church unity,” writes Chaput, noting that there are serious difference between Protestant theology and Catholic theology, including debate over the divinity of Christ among some more liberal Protestants.
Chaput disagrees with the proposal, as it would fundamentally redefine what the Church is as well as who she is, given that the Eucharist “is the sign and instrument of ecclesial unity.”
The German proposal would, “intentionally or not”, then, be “the first stage in opening communion to all Protestants, or all baptized persons, since marriage ultimately provides no unique reason to allow communion for non-Catholics.”
Admitting Protestant spouses of Catholics to Communion would "adopt a Protestant notion of ecclesial identity" for the Catholic Church, in which only baptism and a belief in Christ would be necessary to receive. Chaput questions if the Protestant spouse would have to also profess belief in other sacraments, such as holy orders. If this were not the case, Chaput suggests that perhaps the German bishops do not believe this sacrament relies on apostolic succession, which would be a “much deeper error.”
The proposal also “severs the vital link between communion and sacramental confession,” he stated.
“Presumably it does not imply that Protestant spouses must go to confession for serious sins as a prelude to communion. But this stands in contradiction to the perennial practice and express dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church, the Council of Trent, and the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as the ordinary magisterium. It implies, in its effect, a Protestantization of the Catholic theology of the sacraments.”
Chaput writes that the intercommunion practice would do nothing more than insert a lie into what should be a profound encounter with Christ.
“To insert a falsehood into the most solemn moment of one’s encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist -- to say by one’s actions,’I am in communion with this community’ when one is demonstrably not in communion with that community -- is a lie, and thus a serious offense before God.”
Cardinal Willem Eijk of Utrecht was critical of the pope’s request that the German bishops come to a consensus. Writing in the National Catholic Register May 5, Eijk said Pope Francis’ response was “completely incomprehensible,” as the doctrine of the Eucharist has not changed and cannot change, even with unanimity among a bishops’ conference.
“The practice of the Catholic Church, based on her faith, is not determined and does not change statistically when a majority of an episcopal conference votes in favor of it, not even if unanimously,” wrote Eijk.
Instead, Eijk says that he thinks Pope Francis should have been more direct to the German episcopal conference, and should have instead given them “clear directives, based on the clear doctrine and practice of the Church.”
Eijk’s comments were echoed by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, who said May 23 at the Catholic Register it was “puzzling” that Pope Francis instructed Germany’s bishops to come to a unanimous decision on the issue.
“This kind of open communion is against Catholic teaching and from what I can see in non-Catholic congregations that follow a discipline of ‘open communion,’ it is also spiritually and pastorally unfruitful,” said Prendergast.
He noted that people in his local Church have already been asking about the German proposal.
Prendergast believes there should be more teaching on the benefit of attending Mass without receiving the Eucharist, as well as what it means “to be properly disposed and in the state of grace.”
“We need to invest more in receiving the sacraments worthily and fruitfully. This is true for the Eucharist, but also for Baptism and Confirmation,” Prendergast added.
“In Holy Communion we receive the Lord, and so, to receiving worthily, we need to be fully open to Him and connected to His Church, visibly and invisibly, institutionally and internally. That and nothing less is Catholic teaching.”
As a fellow Jesuit, Archbishop Prendergast also spoke to Pope Francis, thanking him “for reminding us that accompanying people through their lives, especially in dark times, is essential for being a priest.”
“We Jesuits always have to remember that most Catholics are not Jesuits — a fact we tend to overlook sometimes,” he added. “Our spirituality is not for everyone … For me, becoming a bishop was a real change, for then I had to recognize the whole spectrum of theologies, spiritualities, ministries and charisms present in the diocese entrusted to me. Through this I came to realize what a great gift doctrine is for the Church, enabling it to be one, holy, and catholic.”
The Code of Canon Law already provides that in the danger of death or if “some other grave necessity urges it,” Catholic ministers licitly administer penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick to Protestants “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.”