Intercommunion in Germany: The Conversation Continues

Yesterday word spread rapidly online that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had supposedly rejected the draft, approved by over three-fourths of the German Catholic bishops, which provided for reception of Communion in individual cases by the non-Catholic spouse in a mixed marriage. Seven German bishops, led by Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, had sent an appeal to Rome to intervene and prevent the permission foreseen in the proposed guidelines. Yesterday’s story got headlines especially because Pope Francis was said to have approved the action by the CDF restricting the German bishops’ action.

Today the spokesman of the German bishops’ conference, Matthias Kopp, announced in Bonn:

Reports that the guidelines have been rejected in the Vatican by the Holy Father or dicaseries [of the Roman curia] are false.

Rather, Pope Francis has suggested a conversation with Cardinal Marx, president of the bishops’ conference, on the topic in Rome. According to sources in the Vatican, Cardinal Woelki would presumably also participation in the conversation. Cardinal Marx welcomes the pope’s invitation, Kopp emphasized.

Kopp explained that the members of the bishops’ conference had until Easter to propose revisions to the guidelines, the draft of which had been approved by over three-fourths of the bishops at their most recent meeting. Their suggestions have been worked into the document. The final version is to be determined by Cardinal Marx, Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer who is president of the doctrinal commission, and Bishop Gerhard Feige of Mageburg, who is president of the ecumenical commission.

Cardinal Marx is to report on the matter to the standing committee of the conference at the regular meeting this coming Monday. Marx did not send the document approved of by the conference to the Vatican, since it was not yet a finalized text.

At the present time there are about 20 guidelines of national bishops’ conferences around the world on the reception of Communion by non-Catholic partners. These have all been acknowledged in Rome in the last 20 years.

The discussion in German is of interest to the wider Church on several levels. It involves issues of ecumenism, Pope Francis’s views on church reform, and subsidiarity, according to which not all decisions are made at the highest level in the Church but are increasingly decided at local and regional levels.




    1. “The family matures as a domestic church by participating in the life and worship of the larger Church, especially Sunday Eucharist. In the Eucharist, members of the family are most fully united to Christ, to one another, and to their brothers and sisters throughout the world.
      “Christian spouses in a mixed marriage (between a Catholic and a baptized person who is not Catholic) witness to the universality of God’s love, even without sharing the Eucharist. They can make an important contribution towards Christian unity.”

      I am not sure what developments you mean, or what “guidelines” Fr Anthony refers to, but this is probably typical. Note the values of “most fully united” and “the universality of God’s love” alongside the sad “without sharing.”

      The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales published guidelines in 1998’s One Bread One Body.

  1. I am skeptical of the German proposal. Receiving the Eucharist should require at least an implicit acceptance of apostolic succession, the communion of saints, some form of purgatory, the sacrament of confession, etc. There are many more points (perhaps even more important in the hierchary of virtues and truths) that I have ommitted, but I have chosen the above to highlight points of controversy that cannot be neglected.

    That said although doctrinal questions are very much involved, this is still a disciplinary question as protestants (and the Orthodox) can already receive in some circumstances. If the Pope decides to allow the German proposal or some modification of it, then I will accept it and be at peace and hope the practice causes little harm but much fruit.

    1. The danger for the side favoring rigor is pelagianism, that sacramental grace is somehow dependent on some personal profession of the recipient of the Eucharist. The top of the hierarchy is faith, and it would seem that a thoughtful and careful local pastor is best placed to make an important determination when it comes to these matters.

      1. Of course one man’s rigor is another man’s laxity. What is perceived as rigorous and lax has verified throughout history.

        To some degree, all the sacraments are dependent on some personal profession. We do not go about baptizing people without their permission. If a hypothetical person were to seek baptism but had no interest in knowing anything about Jesus, that person would not be baptized. It is just deciding where one draws the line.

        I agree that the profession of various doctrines can’t be a criteria for admittance to the Eucharist. Yet, I think there needs to be an implicit openness to those truths on some level. I am thinking about the teaching of St. Ignatius of Antioch that there can be no Eucharist without union of the bishop. And I don’t think this teaching is just applicable for priests. All members of the laity offer the Eucharist (albeit in a different way from the ordained ministry) so there can be no lay offering of the Eucharist that is separated from the college of Bishops and the successor of St. Peter. The fact of this union would suffice for the implicit openness I had previously mentioned. The Eucharistic prayers notes full common with the Pope and Bishops, so each reception of the Eucharist is in fact a “great Amen” to this unity.

        I suppose one could overcome this potentially by having the non-Catholic party obligated to pray and work to overcome any obstacle they might have to eventual full union with the Pope and Bishops. This and profession of the eucharistic faith already mentioned by the German bishops (and perhaps use of the sacrament of reconciliation) could allow for occasional reception by the non-Catholic spouse.

      2. “I suppose one could overcome this potentially by having the non-Catholic party obligated to pray and work to overcome any obstacle they might have to eventual full union with the Pope and Bishops.”

        Without care, more pelagianism.

        Prayer and work is better accomplished by example rather than by dictate. If the breaking of apostolic succession is a problem, then it would seem that Rome bears part of the burden of fault. Perhaps it is on us to pray and work before we can celebrate the Eucharist. Especially for those of us who do not make the work of Christian unity a personal priority.

        I have more faith in local pastors and their careful judgment than some. They are not all perfect, and it is possible mistakes may be made. The biggest mistakes were 1054 and 1517, and we had our part in those.

      3. I’m not quite convinced that pastors are best suited to make judgement calls like this. In many dioceses, there remains a big ideological gap between the newer post-“Ex Corde Ecclesiae” priests and the older and more rule-skeptical VII-era generation. In my diocese, many parishes now post guidelines for communion in their bulletins, but a few still effectively encourage open communion (illicitly) with the blessing of their pastor, which creates endless tension between parishes and with the diocese. Church-wide consistency is important in matters such as this, because the phenomenon where each parish effectively has their own sacramental policy only hurts Church unity. At least for now I think our bishops, individually and collectively, need to take more leadership in this area, not less.

      4. To be sure, I’m not sure that every pastor makes a good call all of the time. But canon lawyers, theologians, and bishops are likewise imperfect. So, if marriages are in need of grace, maybe it is better to err on the side of generosity. I also have faith in the sacramental experience–it’s not just for the well-connected, initiated, and properly disposed.

        The tension you mention happens when busybodies poke into the stories of other people. Too many Catholics take too much interest in the supposed sins of others and overlook their own.

        Let’s not mistake uniformity for unity. Jews and Christians have a commandment, for example, against killing. Yet, not only do abortion providers kill, but also soldiers, police officers, and drunk drivers. The Church and its confessors make distinctions among victims: a fetus lodged in a fallopian tube, an armed terrorist, an unarmed black man, etc.. Such nuances have governed the Catholic approach to Just War for centuries. No less of a nuanced approach is required in pastoral care. The people on the front lines there are pastors.

        Last point: it would be inappropriate for a Catholic to fish for the parish of a police officer, for example, who had killed an unarmed innocent. However strongly they felt about BLM. Likewise a Lutheran going to Communion, say, at a Retrovaille retreat. I don’t need to know. You don’t need to know. The upper hierarchy does not need to be in the picture.

    2. Really, Devin? Children are routinely admitted to the Eucharist with little or no grasp of these doctrines and practices. We only require that they be able to distinguish Eucharistic bread from the kind they eat at home. Oh, of course we instruct them so they can state a belief that Holy Communion is the body and blood of Christ.

      1. We hold children to different standards than adults both in society at large and within the Church. Prebaptismal instruction is adapted based on the age for example.

  2. Here in Canada, marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic is ordinarily celebrated without Mass. There much to be said for this policy, which avoids difficulties over intercommunion. Marriage may also be celebrated without Mass even when both parties are Catholic but the majority of the families and guests are not.

  3. This whole discussion, predicated on who is or is not in “full communion with the Catholic Church,” avoids the elephant in the room, namely, the legion of Catholics themselves who are not, including no doubt, many of the priests who preside at the Eucharist. Who is kidding whom? The criteria used to exclude someone from Communion, it seems to me, should apply across the board. And yet I have never heard of bishops (apart from the controversies over Catholic politicians who support abortion rights) telling parishioners they should also retain from Communion because they do not subscribe to some doctrinal or moral teaching. And lest you think this is a screed against intercommunion, it is not. As far as I am concerned, the communion with the Church of Christ arising from the “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” which I profess in the Nicene Creed is sufficient. After all, that Church and the Catholic Church are not synonymous and co-terminous else the former’s “subsistence” in the latter, as taught by Lumen Gentium, would be a distinction without a difference which few commentators have maintained.

  4. It seems to me that there is a very large “loose end” in all or most of the discussions of ‘granting/giving the Holy Eucharist to Protestants or Reformed Church members — on occasion or even regularly. No one ever seems to mention the question of ‘true reciprocity’ — the possibility theologically of the Catholic ‘receiving Communion/Eucharist’ in equivalent circumstances in the Lutheran/Protestant or Reformed Church. In the circumstance of ‘Mixed Marriages’ this is a real question — but unmentioned — that comes often forward as a problem, if not cause of simmering dispute within marriages. It is, I am aware, a question of the ‘real presence,’ but it is also something else within such families and situations.

    1. When I visited Taize some years ago the Sunday Mass was concelebrated with a bishop as main concelebrant. Many brothers concelebrated, though Roger didn’t. There were 4000+ people there from many backgrounds, Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed. At no point was it declared that reception of the eucharist was for just one part of the gathering. It is a place where matters that divide are swallowed up by what unites.

  5. I don’t get it. Would the reception of the Eucharist by non-Catholics require that they also be in a state of grace via the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

    1. When I became a Roman Catholic in the early 1970s, one of my sponsors, a former Methodist, had been exempted by the diocese, on his reception, from obligatory individual confession, based on his conviction that forgiveness of sins is God’s grace and does not require a human intermediary.

      1. There is no obligatory confession for people being received into the Catholic Church from other Christian denominations whose baptism is recognized by the Catholic Church, only optional confession if the one being received desires or sees a need for it.

        If the profession of faith and reception take place within Mass, the candidate, according to his or her own conscience [my emphasis], should make a confession of sins beforehand, first informing the confessor that he or she is about to be received into full communion. Any confessor who is lawfully approved may hear the candidate’s confession.
        Reception of Baptized Christians into the Full Communion of the Catholic Church, 9 (US edition 482)

        Para 2 of the same document (US edition 473) already paved the way for this when it said

        The rite is so arranged that no greater burden than necessary (see Acts 15:28) is required for the establishment of communion and unity.

      2. If the Church really does have the authority to exempt one from Confession, which I seriously doubt, then why are we obliged? I would propose that the Church doesn’t have that authority; and that giving communion to non-Catholics in this way rips apart the fine tapestry of Catholic Orthodoxy (right praise).

  6. The churches rules about confession are the churches rules. The church wrote them, the church can change them.

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