German Bishops Divided on Intercommunion: Vatican Asked to Intervene

In a dramatic turn of events, seven Catholic bishops in Germany have asked the Vatican to intervene against the move of the German bishops’ conference, decided with two-thirds majority, to offer pastoral advice giving the possibility of reception of Holy Communion by non-Catholics in mixed marriages, the Kölner Stadt-Anzieger (“Cologne City Announcer”) reports. (Pray Tell reported on the earlier move by the bishops’ conference here.)

The seven bishops, under the leadership of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, have written a three-page letter to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Luis Ladaria, and also the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch.

The letter was sent to the Vatican by the minority of bishops without notification of conference president Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich.

The seven bishops hold that the pastoral provision the conference approved on February 20 is unlawful because it transgresses Catholic doctrine and the unity of the church. They believe that the conference’s action goes beyond its competence, and they ask the Vatican for assistance and clarification.

Bishops signing the letter are Woelki, Archbishop Schick of Bamberg, and Bishops Zdara of Augsburg, Hanke of Eichstätt, Ipolt of Görlitz, Voderholzer of Regensburg, and Oster of Passau. As the Anzieger note, the preponderance of opposition comes from Bavaria, where Cardinal Marx is also president of the Bavarian bishops’ conference.

Cardinal Marx has written a response to the seven minority bishops in which he expresses he surprise at their action. He emphasizes that the pastoral provision is still in draft form and open to further changes. Marx sent his letter today to the Vatican and also all the German bishops.

There are presently 65 bishops in the conference from the 27 dioceses of the German Catholic Church.

Featured image: Cardinals Woelki and Marx.


  1. As the proposals of the DBK appear to go well beyond what is envisaged by the Code of Canon Law (specifically can. 844 § 4), as well as the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (specifically nos. 129-131), Cardinal Woelki and his confreres are quite right to involve Rome in this matter.

    For example, in a country such as Germany, I don’t see how a non-Catholic Christian belonging to an ecclesial community (i.e. Protestant) would ever be unable to approach a minister of their own community – one of the necessary conditions for them to be able to licitly receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church.

      1. I think the point was not that the dubia would shut down the process (though it might). But rather that the bishop’s conference doesn’t have the competency on its own to make a change in practice under current law. The pope could of course amend the code or give an exception.

      2. Canon 844.4 speaks to this issue. The two preconditions it lays out for non-Catholic/Orthodox Christians to licitly recieve the Sacraments are 1) danger of death or other grave necessity, as judged by a local bishop or bishop’s conference, and 2) are unable to approach their own ministers.

        I’m no canonist, but I suspect Cdl Woelki and co. object to the state of being unable to receive communion regularly with your Catholic spouse as fitting the definition of “grave necessity.” Similarly, Germany still has a very widespread and extant Protestant Church, so I suspect the scenario of a Protestant being unable to receive sacraments in an emergency is a rather unlikely one, at least compared to their far less flexible Catholic brethren.

        In fairness however, this is more of a disciplinary matter than a doctrinal one, unlike say women’s ordination. If I were a betting man, I’d say Cdl Woelki et al will probably win over the hardliners at CDF, unless the Pope decides to get involved (which wouldn’t be completed unforeseen). I don’t get the sense the German bishops (especially Marx) have the best relationship with CDF, but we’ll see.

  2. “I suspect Cdl Woelki and co. object to the state of being unable to receive communion regularly with your Catholic spouse as fitting the definition of ‘grave necessity.’”

    Hmmm. I suppose if Christian marriages were in great shape, divorce rates low, and we had no belief or trust in the efficacy of the sacraments, we wouldn’t need to suggest a “grave” situation that might help support and nourish families in such times as ours.

  3. I realize left out the third precondition in Canon 344.4 in my previous comment: “they [must] manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and [be] properly disposed.” Some German Lutherans could very well fit the bill here (the other two preconditions notwithstanding), but the long story short with all this is that there’s a lot more to this issue than just easing the differences in multiconfessional marriages.

    1. Hmmm
      I wonder how many Catholics could speak that one and to what degree or orthodoxy.

  4. Canon law 1128 states
    “Local ordinaries and other pastors of souls are to take care that the Catholic spouse and the children born of a mixed marriage do not lack the spiritual help to fulfill their obligations and are to help spouses foster the unity of conjugal and family life.”

    That settles the question, but differently than canon 844. If “the unity of conjugal and family life” is disrupted by the rules for communion, then it is the responsibility of bishops to change those rules, or their interpretation. That only the German bishops care about this is quite distressing.

    It comes down a simple question. Is attending different churches disruptive of the conjugal and family life? I cannot believe anyone would say no. There are different ways to address this problem, but the German bishops may have found a better way. They have a responsibility to explore the issue.

    1. The issue here isn’t whether or not to allow non-Catholics to attend mass with their Catholic spouses; they are always welcome to spend the Lords’s Day with us. The issue is whether or not to allow non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist, which like all sacraments in the Church is explicitly reserved for Catholics. Furthermore, a loose interpretation of Cn 1128 does not allow one to ignore other aspects of the law like Cn 844, since Canon Law and the whole of our theology is a seamless entity. This can naturally be challenging for mixed confessional couples, since faith is probably one of the few things that they don’t share, nor should we pretend that they do.

      1. If this is difficult for mixed confessional couples, then this is an area where bishops need to act, as canon 1128 directs. The idea that “canon law and the whole of our theology is a seamless whole” is just as telling against either canon.

        In any event, what we know is that there is a common faith that supports and informs the unity of husband and wife. That unity is a basis for the unity of the Eucharist. If you don’t recognize the faith they share, I can understand your indifference to c 1128. But if you believe in Christian marriage, you have to do whatever will support them.

        “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called ; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:3-6

  5. View from the Pew
    Regarding: “Canon law 1128 states: “Local ordinaries and other pastors of souls are to take care that the Catholic spouse and the children born of a mixed marriage do not lack the spiritual help to fulfill their obligations and are to help spouses foster the unity of conjugal and family life.””
    – This canon is probably the one that brings the hierarchy closest to supporting households of faith / domestic churches where-in one of the heads of the household is a member of another christian church.
    – This is not so much about the consecrated bread and wine but about how a married couple who as one are a sacrament and thus are a symbol of the unity of Christ and church.
    – The married couple, wherein one spouse belongs to another christian church (or even another religion) are an image of this divine plan of unity. So, a spouse who is not a catholic (e.g., in union with Archbishop of Rome) is already part of and partaking of Christ for as the marriage is a a sacrament and symbol of the unity of Christ and church so too does that Christ and church union already permeate the unity of husband and wife.
    – In this context, the Eucharist cannot be withheld as every spouse already is of Christ.
    – On practical issues, the experience of local and parochial churches is that children are often left with the burden choosing which parent to support with their presence at the respective churches. Indeed, for domestic peace and tranquility it is conceivable that one spouse would yield to another spouse and or there would be swapping of attendance at Sunday, and holy day celebrations.
    – Of course all of this could be mute as more and more parishes close and even in urban areas there could be longer distances to travel, so having spouses divide up on a Sunday is not feasible.
    – If saying to the non-catholic spouse receive the Eucharist with ‘us’ so that the destination Eucharist celebration is the one with the community who is in communion and union with Archbishop of Rome, then Amen.

  6. I wonder how it is possible to be a faithful member of the German Protestant Church and to share the Catholic teaching of the Eucharist. Could anyone explain that?

    Just some points:
    Do bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, or does one receive Christ’s body and blood whilst eating and drinking what remains ordinary bread and wine, so that the leftovers may be disposed of afterwards (a former Lutheran minister complained to me that he saw breadcrumbs ending up in the rector’s soup after the service).

    What is the matter of the Eucharist? It seems to be pretty common to alternate between using wine and grape-juice in German Protestant churches.

    Who is the minister of the Eucharist? In contrast to the Scandinavian/American Lutherans, the German Protestants are presbyterians who reject the concept of Apostolic succession (the office of ‘Bishop’ was only introduced in the 20th century after the separation of church and state, it never claimed to be in apostolic succession). A few years ago some senior minister told me that the Protestant ‘Landeskirche’ he worked for was partly Lutheran and partly Calvinist, and he left it to the ordinands if they wanted a laying on of hands, or rather a handshake.

    1. I will not respond to any of your points.

      You seem to think that the Eucharist is primarily a series of abstract doctrines to be held (indeed, clung to defensively) in the intellect.

      I encourage you to read the Bible, to read mainline Catholic and ecumenical eucharistic theology of the last 75 years, to reflect on the theological bases of the reformed Catholic liturgy, and to see what the larger picture is. You would see that your questions are too narrow and hence unhelpful and distracting.

      A commbox is not the place to attempt to lay out what a deepened theology of eucharistic presence, ministry, and sacramental symbol looks like.

      I mean no offense, but I consider this conversational thread closed.

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