Making Sense of the German Intercommunion Issue

It is reported today that Pope Francis approved a letter sent from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF] to Cardinal Marx, head of the German Catholic bishops, supposedly blocking their proposal to allow non-Catholic spouses of Catholics to receive Communion.

Here, in all possible brevity, are the steps that brought us to this latest development.

  • From the 19th and early 20th century, there has been a theological renewal on issues such as sacramental theology and ecclesiology. Henri de Lubac, for example, wrote an important study showing that in the first millennium, the term “Body of Christ” referred more to the church than to the consecrated bread and wine.
  • This theological renewal contributed mightily to the Second Vatican Council, which used new (and, as John O’Malley SJ has shown, unprecedented) language in its description of the church, the liturgy, and the sacraments. The Council affirmed the Real Presence but did not use the term “transubstantiation.” It stated that the baptized members of other traditions are in real but imperfect union with the Catholic Church.
  • Official Roman guidelines have upheld the principle that union through membership in the Catholic Church is necessary for reception of communion, but allow for some exceptions which have gradually became slightly more expansive. Confusingly, intercommunion is permitted with those not in institutional union with the Catholic Church who have apostolic succession – e.g. the Eastern Orthodox.
  • Guidance from conferences and individual bishops, spoken or unspoken, have oftentimes been more expansive than the Roman guidelines.
  • Practice now varies widely across the Catholic Church, with some priests allowing intercommunion freely, others making public announcement during the liturgy that it is prohibited. No doubt many individuals simply get in line and are given communion without the priest or lay minister necessarily knowing whether the rules permit them to receive.

In short, it’s chaotic. Depending on your perspective, this chaos might be seen as the work of the Holy Spirit … or of the Devil.

More specifically, recent events in Germany played out like this:

  • Over three-fourths of the German bishops approved guidelines in February allowing non-Catholic spouses of Catholics to receive in specific cases.
  • Seven German bishops led by Cardinal Woelki, without telling their brother bishops, appealed to Rome to intervene to prevent these guidelines.
  • It was reported that the CDF, with Pope Francis’s approval, supported these seven bishops’ appeal.
  • This report turned out to be false. In early May a meeting with the CDF was held in Rome, to which were invited German bishops on both sides of the question, with those supporting broader intercommunion in the majority.
  • The result of the meeting was that the Vatican would not intervene, but rather was asking the German bishops to come as close as possible to unanimity among themselves.
  • Today’s letter praises the bishops for the ecumenical efforts, but states that the guidelines are not ready for publication. The issue touches on the faith of the universal church, affects ecumenical relations (the reference is surely to churches with apostolic succession who do not practice intercommunion), and concerns the interpretation of universal church law. The letter states that Pope Francis is very concerned that episcopal collegiality among the German bishops remain alive.
  • Cardinal Marx expressed surprise at today’s letter, since the bishops had just been told by Rome a month ago that the issue was to be solved by the German bishops themselves.

Significantly, today’s letter says about the interpretation of church law:

“In particular it appears opportune to leave to the diocesan bishop the judgment on the existence of ‘grave and urgent necessity.’”

It is precisely “grave and urgent necessity” which was cited by the bishops’ guidelines to permit broader intercommunion. This seems to suggest that the guidelines should not be published, at least not in their present form, but individual bishops may continue to interpret church law so as to allow for intercommunion in specific cases.

What’s going on here?

People on either “side” of this issue should probably avoid declaring victory or defeat. For one thing, the Eucharist is the sacrament of unity, which very much puts all of us on the same side.

To the extent that the issue involves Pope Francis, it is important to understand today’s development in the larger context of all his statements and actions thus far. As anyone who knows Francis knows, this probably means the situation remains ambiguous, even after today’s letter.

Francis’s famous off the cuff response to a Lutheran woman in November 15 was a word salad of indecisiveness –  which to most observers left the impression that he thinks intercommunion is OK but doesn’t want to say so clearly. It seems unlikely that he now favors a crackdown on intercommunion.

It’s important to note that Francis’s reform of the church is more about a change of spirit than wordsmithing of documents. He is concerned above all to open up hearts, to bring us to real encounter of one another in mutual trust and faith-filled discernment. It is significant that he emphasizes collegiality among the German bishops in the CDF’s letter to them.

The change of spirit Pope Francis advocates is one that downplays the importance of doctrinal definitions. He said at this year’s Chrism Mass that abstract truths “can be comfortable idols, always within easy reach; they offer a certain prestige and power and are difficult to discern.”

Francis also downplays disciplinary directives. He surprised (and disappointed) some by approving guidelines restricting the priest from leaving the altar to exchange the sign of peace – and then went to the Philippines and left the altar for over two minutes to exchange peace with many individuals!

Some wanted Pope Francis to say clearly in Amoris Laetitia that the divorced and remarried may not receive Communion. Others wanted him to say clearly that they may. Both sides were disappointed. Such clarity isn’t Francis’s style.

Francis seems much more interested in the person making the pastoral decision, and of course the person in the pastorally challenging situation. He doesn’t believe that a perfectly worded policy will solve everything – not without a serious conversion of heart of everyone involved. Hence his desire in upsetting the apple cart and getting everyone on all sides to question their assumptions and let go of their cherished agendas.

No one knows how the German situation will develop next. Will Rome issue a document for the universal church? Will it be worded restrictively, and then undercut by an off-the-cuff statement from Francis? Will the German bishops issue a softened statement that still allows for pastoral leeway? Or will Rome get the German bishops to issue restrictive guidelines, in full awareness that the open Communion policy now practiced across Germany will continue? Or will the bishops’ conference be unable to achieve agreement and settle for leaving it up to each bishop?

Whatever the case, we can probably count on Pope Francis to keep on spreading “holy chaos.” And that will continue to frustrate people on all sides of difficult issues – including Pray Tell readers who are perhaps disappointed by today’s letter!


Featured image: Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio distributing Communion in Argentina.


  1. It seems like it’s just another chapter in the “Ambiguous Papacy.” In my opinion, the belittling of doctrine is contrary to the ecumenical spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which seeks unity among Christians without sacrificing their respective ecclesial traditions — “Transubstantiation” in Roman Catholicism being one of ours that must be respected. Any move towards more ambiguity is nefarious. “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” (1 Corinthians 14:33). Now if the view of other Christians can dovetail with the beautiful tapestry of Catholic doctrine then unity is certainly possible. Ecumenism is certainly not the search for the least common denominator at the expense of already defined doctrine in the ordinary and universal magestarium.

    1. Ecumenically speaking, Rome has always assumed the position of the Borg…conquer or assimilate.

      Francis seems to be leading the papacy of “sound and fury signifying nothing.’ If I did not know better, it seems that he is the perfect antithesis of Trump…..making outlandish statements just for the purpose of newspaper and cable headlines, and what follows is nothing.

      I thought he was going to resign if still living after 5 years? The Roman experiment with South American socialism has not paid the dividends many had hoped for.

    2. Belittling doctrine wouldn’t be good. But I see Francis trying to put doctrine in its proper context, at the service of the Gospel and the core meaning of Christianity. To turn around your statement, maybe we have too much confusion about what is really primary and what is really secondary, and the pope is moving us toward clarity by downgrading the secondary things!

      It sounds so noble to say that we really believe in ecumenism but not at the expense of doctrine, and we must do the hard work of coming to agreement on doctrine rather than watering it down. But: in practice this can mean “we’re right about everything and have little or nothing to learn from other churches, and we have to be patient until they see things our way.” I think we all know that that isn’t going to happen! So the formula becomes, in effect, a way to affirm ecumenism but in fact deep-six it, requiring little or no change/conversion from anyone.

      I honestly see no way forward, no possibility of progress toward full, visible unity, except that we clearly emphasize the central things, admit that some (or many) things we like to think central are secondary, and respectfully allow for differences in secondary things and acknowledge their legitimacy. So for example, Real Presence unites us with Lutherans, but human philosophical explanations such as transubstantiation or consubstantiation are mutually accepted (though I realize that Lutherans shy away from such philosophical terms).

      If there is another way forward for ecumenism that had any real possibility of leading to any progress I’d be open to it. But I don’t see it.

      The advantage of my proposal is that it calls us Roman Catholics to be humble and embrace conversion. I truly believe that would be a good thing. (I also think that our recognition of the legitimacy of other Christians’ viewpoints would help us better understand and embrace our own teachings in a broader and deeper context. We would come out winners.)


      1. “Before the eucharistic prayer, to the question: ?What is that?’, the believer answers: ?It is bread.’ After the eucharistic prayer, to the same question he answers: ?It is truly the body of Christ, the Bread of Life.’”

        That is how ARCIC-I described the Real Presence in the Eucharist. It is not as succinct as the word transubstantiation, but it was easier to affirm.

      2. And, since Aristotle defines “substance” as “what answers the question ‘what is it?'” the ARCIC statement pretty much just restates the doctrine of transubstantiation.

      3. Except that the doctrine of transubstantiation does more than answer the question ‘what is it?’ It also answers the question ‘how is it what it is?’ which ARCIC I does not do.

      4. I think if one were to take a poll of Catholics as to what the Body of Christ is when a Host is placed in front of them, they would give you the definition for Consubstantiation.

        “Human philosophical explanations” usually result in people with glossed over eyes. Transubstantiation as the differing definition for not having a shared Communion is stuff that philosophers are willing to speak about and regular pew folk are willing to say “yes, it’s what they said.”

      5. Trust me, philosophers have no interest in transubstantiation. Most would consider it a philosophically nonsensical claim.

        And the only answer transubstantiation gives to the “how” question is “by the power of God.”

      6. But, Fr Anthony, how do you square your views on ecumenism with your views on liturgy regarding SP and the traditional Latin Mass? Your positions on both seem contradictory to me. I had asked a similar question before and you misunderstood and explained to me how you thought Vatican II compels us towards ecumenism. I didn’t have time to press further and found your answer interesting anyway, but I honestly find your attitude towards other Christians bizarre in light of your views on liturgy. It would seem to me that if I were to look at your views regarding the EF, that you would be the first to demand total acceptance of Church teaching and conversion of non-Catholics.

  2. “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (Mk. 2:24 RSV)
    Jesus did not respond with a more complex formulation of the law but with a reminder that “[they] ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but [the priests]”.

  3. Will Rome issue a document for the universal church?

    I think that the letter from the CDF makes it clear that Rome has already issued such a document, back in 1983 – the Code of Canon Law.

    Such clarity isn’t Francis’s style.

    Given that he is Pope, and part of his role is to confirm the brethren in the faith, this is to be lamented on all sides.

    1. In 1993, Rome issued the Directory on the Application of the Norms and Principles of Ecumenism which spoke directly to the issue: “Although the spouses in a mixed marriage share the sacraments of baptism and marriage, Eucharistic sharing can only be exceptional and in each case the norms stated above concerning the admission of a non-Catholic Christian to Eucharistic communion, as well as those concerning the participation of a Catholic in Eucharistic communion in another Church, must be observed.”

      The bishops of Britain (Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales) in 1997 established norms that “envisages that a grave and pressing need may be experienced in some mixed marriages. This is the only circumstance explicitly added to those mentioned in previous documents.” The British bishops carefully restricted access under this, by demanding bishops, not just priests make the decision, etc. Still, they endorsed the decision to grant nonCatholic spouses access to the Eucharist on some occassions.

      I am surprised the Germans did not issue similar norms at the same time as the British. Many other conferences (US, Canada…) left it for individual bishops to decide. That must be what the Germans did?

      Anyway, the Directory provides the current legal definition, that a noncatholic spouse can sometimes share in the Eucharist with their Catholic spouse. The German bishops were applying that definition, though somewhat more broadly than some might like.

    2. Strengthening his brothers and sisters in faith is not the same as strengthening them in a particular belief.

  4. Wonderful dialogue – allow me one quibble:

    It was stated: “…..Transubstantiation” in Roman Catholicism being one of ours that must be respected…”

    Sorry, but suggest that this is part of the problem. Transubstantiation is just one of many explanations for the mystery of the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ. It is not dogma and, some would say, has outlived its use by date.

    Suggest it would be better to move away from this type of outdated, secondary issue.

    1. In what way? Doing some quick research, transubstantiation has in fact been an actual Dogma since Trent, and I doubt many ecumenicists see that changing. However, this Dogma does not necessarily exist to the exclusion of other Eucharistic philosophies, even some espoused by high-church Lutherans. There are likely many other possible paths for Catholic/Lutheran dialogue that are compatible with transubstantiation.

      1. I don’t believe Trent declared it dogma – but Paul VI did in fact use that term in his encyclical.
        I like your idea that transubstantiation could coexist with other philosophies – but I think that would require some theologians brighter than I to finesse it into being somehow “reunderstood” as not dogma, or else we’d need a renewed understanding of what dogma is.
        I don’t mean to deny that dogmas evolve, certainly at the level of our understanding and articulation of them.

      2. At 12:08 p.m., I think the answer is in your own comment. Transubstantiation is in fact philosophy before it is theology. Yes, it’s one intellectually satisfying way to explain how the change in the elements occurs. That the change occurs is, of course, essential dogma. Answering the question of how it happens, beyond stating that it is through the action of the Holy Spirit, relies on the philosophical tools and categories available at any one time. Philosophies come and go and so it is right that theological truth does not stand or fall on one philosophical system.

  5. Some observations.
    1. The subject of the proposed instruction to pastors was in an area where individual diocesan ordinaries have pastoral discretion; the instruction would in effect have devolved that pastoral discretion to the pastor of the Catholic spouse in the interchurch marriage.
    2. I say “in effect,” because so far as I can see the proposed text has not been leaked. (How do they do that?)
    3. The German bishops are described as arguing for this instruction with their brothers in middle- and eastern Europe in mind In the same late-May period as this matter was brought to Rome, the Vatican welcomed a delegation from the Moscow Patriarchate, who surely would have been opposed to any German open declaration welcoming even a small number of Orthodox to Catholic communion.

  6. Church going Catholics do not come to offer Mass so they can take one of those communion wafers along with a little sip of wine. Nor do nearly all of them—intellectuals excepted—care a wit about the Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophical term “Transubstantiation”. They come because what their senses fail to fathom they grasp through faith’s consent. A few years ago I asked one of our “converts” from a Protestant community that had communion every Sunday what he perceived to be the difference between “our” communion and theirs. His response was “pretty much the same”. I asked if he had believed in the real presence and his response was, with a tear in his eye, I always believed that I was uniting myself with my Lord and savior. Why does the RCC insist on stressing the notion that receiving communion is an expression of the unity of faith when we know very well that it also effects unity. Might it be time to lay aside the idea that there is only one way to be fully united with the church that Christ sanctified by his body and blood? If his Saving death benefits Orthodox and Protestants why should those among them who seek to be nourished alongside their spouses be prohibited from communion? There are faith enriching resources in other Christian communities that are not yet available in many Catholic parishes like being equipped for ministry through small groups. Does everyone who benefits from them have to forsake them to be united with the Catholic Church? This is the kind of ecumenism we ought to be exploring in my view.

  7. “The issue touches on the faith of the universal church, affects ecumenical relations (the reference is surely to churches with apostolic succession who do not practice intercommunion), and concerns the interpretation of universal church law. ”

    Archbishop Chaput wrote about this issue back on May 23rd, before this latest development of the letter to Cardinal Marx. I suppose it isn’t surprising that Chaput comes across as skeptical about what the German bishops propose (skeptical but respectful).

    Among the questions he raises: what does it say about the tight links between the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist to admit Protestants to communion – for example, would Protestants be expected to abide by the sacramental requirements for penance? What does it say about Protestant holy orders to posit an equivalence between Protestant and Catholic Eucharist?

    Chaput’s post is here:

    Much of the discussion generated by this post has focused on transubstantiation and Real Presence, but Chaput’s post illustrates that there are important implications that reverberate beyond the the sacrament of holy communion.

    Whatever our individual views and preferences on these questions, it does seem reasonable to me that they require a good deal of discernment, discussion and prayer. In that sense, I agree that the German bishops’ guidelines, whatever they are, may not yet be “ready for publication”.

    It seems to me that a synod or a Council would be one appropriate way for the church to think through these issues.

    1. Jim,

      I agree that the article raises some issues that we desperately need to discuss. But I believe many have been discussing them for years, while others ignore them. Most importantly, Chaput asks “why are they not invited to become Catholic as a means to enter into visible full communion?” I think he sees this as a limited question, for individuals, but it is much broader than that. Why are not all Lutherans invited to be be part of the Church? Are any of the issues on which we disagree really that critical?

      I vehemently disagree with Chaput on his second issue “marriage ultimately provides no unique reason to allow communion for non-Catholics.” St Paul tells us “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife; and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the believing husband: otherwise your children should be unclean; but now they are holy.” Yet Chaput cannot accept that the communion between the Catholic wife and Luheran husband might make the Lutheran a part of the Catholic communion? He does not believe that the Lutheran had a share in preparing the child for first communion or confirmation, or enough of a share to justify a place at the table? How was he allowed to host an international celebration of the family, if he has such a meager view?

      I could go on but I hope I made my point. We all, Chaput included, need to discuss and study the issues he raises. We need to pray and to learn where God is leading us.

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