A Vatican cardinal has expressed “astonishment” at a statement by a group of Protestant and Catholic theologians in Germany.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, made the comment in response to a declaration by the Ecumenical Study Group of Protestant and Catholic Theologians (known by its German acronym, ÖAK).

The ÖAK published the 26-page statement on Jan. 24 in response to a critical assessment of the group’s proposal for a “reciprocal Eucharistic hospitality” between Catholics and Protestants by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Koch told CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, that he was surprised by the tone and choice of words in the statement, as well as its content and timing.

The Swiss cardinal also questioned whether the statement’s authors were sincere in their call for further discussions with Rome.

“After more than 20 pages have been devoted to showing that in fact none of the requests made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about the ÖAK’s document are justified, one wonders how seriously the willingness expressed at the end by the authors of the statement to engage in further discussions is really meant,” he said.

The CDF raised concerns last September about a 2019 document prepared by the ÖAK entitled “Together at the Lord’s Table,” which envisaged a “Eucharistic meal fellowship” between Catholics and Protestants.

In a letter to Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, the CDF said that the proposal did not do justice to the Catholic understanding of the Church, the Eucharist, and Holy Orders.

The doctrinal congregation emphasized that significant differences remained between Protestants and Catholics over the Eucharist and ministry.

“The doctrinal differences are still so important that they currently rule out reciprocal participation in the Lord’s Supper and the Eucharist,” it said.

The CDF suggested that the ÖAK text should inspire further theological discussions, but cautioned against any steps towards intercommunion between Catholics and members of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), an organization representing 20 Protestant groups.

“However, an opening of the Catholic Church towards Eucharistic meal fellowship with the member churches of the EKD in the current state of the theological discussion would necessarily open new rifts in ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox Churches, not only in Germany,” it said.

Koch told CNA Deutsch that he was taken aback by the content of the ÖAK’s new statement.

“In it, as in [the original document], there are certainly many good statements, which, however, remain in the purely academic domain and are not linked back to the concrete ecclesiastical reality,” he said.

“If they were grounded in this concrete reality, many statements presented as an unquestionable consensus would have to be questioned. The fact that this grounding has not happened to a large extent is all the more astonishing since the ÖAK repeatedly invokes the primacy of practice, but largely fails to live up to it.”

CNA Deutsch has previously reported that the ÖAK adopted the intercommunion document under the co-chairmanship of Bätzing and the retired Lutheran Bishop Martin Hein.

The ÖAK was founded in 1946 to strengthen ecumenical ties. It is independent of both the German Catholic bishops’ conference and the EKD, but informs both bodies about its deliberations.

Koch raised questions about the timing of the release of the statement, which is dated Dec. 21.

“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed its letter to the chairman of the German bishops’ conference; we therefore expect an answer from him here in Rome,” he said.

Koch said that, to the best of his knowledge, Bätzing had asked the ÖAK to produce a statement to help him formulate his response to the CDF.

“Why the statement of the leaders of the ÖAK was published between the meetings of the ecumenical commission and the faith commission and before the plenary assembly of the German bishops’ conference is beyond my understanding,” he commented.

“The timing of the publication, however, leaves a lot of questions.”