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.