German Bishop Attacks Vatican Letter on Intercommunion

Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg, chair of the German bishops’ ecumenism commission, has sharp words in response to yesterday’s letter from the Vatican to the German bishops contradicting the Vatican’s earlier instruction that the bishops themselves should deal with the question of intercommunion for non-Catholic spouses of Catholics. Here is his response from the bishops’ web site.

It is completely incomprehensible to me how on May 3, 2018, one still heard from Rome that the German bishops should find “a directive as close to unanimous as possible” in the question of Communion for Protestant Christians in tradition-uniting marriages, and this mandate is now – one month later – obviously revoked by Pope Francis himself. The disappointment is great for many people, the damage cannot yet be foreseen. Wounds are newly ripped open. Bitterness and resignation spread widely. While up until yesterday some individuals were pondering how we could arrive at greater unanimity, others rather have repeatedly manipulated the public and made accusations that put the contents and character of the drafted orientation guidelines in a false light. Forming an accurate impression remained out of reach for the ones most concerned, because up until now it is not permitted to see the text. But it appears that the text was leaked to certain journalists for various motives.

The pastoral guidelines, which more than three-fourths of the German bishops voted for, were perhaps the last attempt to bring about some order in this question. Perhaps the massive resistance against this had made abundantly clear, that in fact many of the people concerned have long since been practicing without further ado that which the Wurzburg Synod already 42 years ago raised in its request to the bishops for clarification and was now to be recommended: in individual cases under certain conditions, after spiritual counsel and individual decision of conscience, to receive Communion.

Even Cardinal Woelki can live with this pastoral praxis – as one heard repeatedly from him. But he fights – this makes no sense to me – against putting this possibility into words. It would definitely be more honest than more or less holding to a double standard: setting the highest possible standards for reception of Communion, or maintaining the impossibility of receiving, but at the same time knowing of numerous exceptions and freely tolerating them. Because for decades the bishops have not been capable, or – as once again now – have been prevented from finding helpful and responsible solutions, obviously a paradigm shift has come about. It seems that the days are gone in which one still understood and observed rules, for many are no more included to act thus, but seek out their own solutions. But for this one needs, instead of prohibitions, leadership, recommendations, and orientation helps that point out paths and form consciences. When even this is prevented, there remains only the encouragement of Pope Francis in this connection: “Talk to the Lord and go forward.”

Why was there no contradiction from the Vatican for those remarried?

With the text of the German bishops on pastoral care for marriage and family including the statement on possible sacramental reception of individual persons who are divorced and remarried, a conflict of this sort could have ignited, based on the claim that it is a topic “that concerns the faith of the church and is of relevance for the universal church.” But amazingly, in this case it did not arise. Just how then did it come to an escalation in the case of difference of denominational tradition?

Obviously, Catholic principles of ecumenism, with their inclusive ecclesiology and the conviction of gradated levels of belong to the church, even 50 years after the Second Vatican Council, are unknown to some people. Furthermore, individual Christians from another church are repeatedly viewed as “pars pro toto,” and they are burdened with everything that one is able to bring up against their church. With such black-and-white thinking, individual solutions are also impossible. What’s more, stipulations for sacramental reception were suddenly set up that certainly could no longer be implemented with respect to our own faithful. Finally, one can assume in this intra-Catholic dispute not only that worldviews and faith convictions collide, but also that tangible interests and dirty methods were at play. Victims of all this are the affected tradition-uniting marriages and families. I feel especially bound to you: Don’t be discouraged! Keep up your love and loyalty! Entrust yourself to the mercy of God and walk on the path which Christ shows you!

Bishop Gerhard Feige

tr. awr



  1. In the world which bishops inhabit, that is the equivalent of an intemperate tweet :-). #OpenCommunion #ProtestantLivesMatter #UsToo

  2. Very funny, Jim P. 🙂
    But I don’t see it as an intemperate tweet.
    The man is in an articulate rage at having been blindsided and betrayed, after a long process in which things were moving forward — not without dissent, but with some momentum — and being betrayed even, evidently, by the Pope.
    The matter appears to be snatched from their hands at the last moment, due to some kind of end-run around the process to “higher authority.”
    This anger is understandable. I find his frustration at the disjuncture between spoken policy and tacit policy also rather laudable on the moral level because it concerns transparency and truthfulness. Are we doomed to “don’t ask, don’t tell” as the functional norm forever when giving communion in “exceptional cases” in order to preserve a supposedly edifying public fiction that isn’t grounded in fact?

  3. Bp Feige was one of those ‘in the room’ on May 3 when this issue was discussed. If the letter from Ladaria was meant to stop the discussion, I can understand his anger. He has been central to this discussion, which has been going on for at least 25 years. He probably had an active part in lining up votes in favor at the conference, and in discussion with leaders of the Evanglical Church.

    One can only hope that ‘Rome’ issues a document that endorses the German solution already supported by a large majority of the bishops. I certainly doubt that they will roll back the position of the British bishops, in place already for 20 years, which many appear to know nothing about.

    When Cardinal Hume helped guide the Church to accepting the ARCIC agreements and the British bishops to adopting their policy on allowing non-Catholic spouses to rarely receive communion, he sometimes complained of the way Vatican functionaries treated him like a schoolboy. I hope this letter from Rome is not more of that presumptuousness, but leads to a recognition of the efforts of men like bp Feige.

  4. Thank you, Rita and Mr. McKay. Agree completely and my heart goes out to this bishop.
    Deal with this issue every time our extended family gathers which is at least quarterly. Can’t even imagine what it is like in a country such as Germany.

  5. I can understand Bishop Feige’s disappointment and anger as he thought he had a deal and then it was pulled off the table at the 11th hour.

    My personal view is that the German bishops who support this pastoral initiative knew, or should have known, that their strategy here is a high risk strategy. Any objective person assessing the chances of its being approved by Rome would have to set the probability at less than 50%. They are pushing the envelope with this approach.

    Perhaps they view Francis’s pontificate as a window of opportunity. But Francis is not predictable, and that cuts both ways. Fr. Anthony made some salient points in the previous post on this topic (or perhaps in one of the comments on that thread) that Francis does not always look at these issues in conventional ways.

    So I can understand that this letter is a bitter disappointment. But it should not be “completely incomprehensible”, to use Bishop Feige’s description, that the Holy See is not yet ready to wield the stamp of approval.

    We have been not perfectly in communion with our Protestant brothers and sisters for something like half a millenium, and it seems it may take a little longer to see this through. But neither did the Holy See quash the proposal. It basically said, “not yet”.

  6. Beautiful.
    And so, as with Humanae Vitae, the charade continues:
    1. Few accept the logic of the official line, which is so alien to the actually lived lives of most people that they wouldn’t know where to start, even if they felt even the faintest incentive to grapple with it;
    2. Everybody knows that few accept the official line;
    3. Everybody knows that everybody knows that;
    4. Etc.

    So, the dessicated carcass of the official line just lies there, like a dead whale on the sushi bar, trumping every real, moral concern of real people living real lives.

    Another open wound.

    And, nevertheless, good people find themselves at a loss to understand why so many younger folks have little interest in this institution.

    1. IMHO the problem is not that Humanae Vitae or Canon 844 exists, but that, as you say, not everyone understands them, or has even had it explained to them. And while I don’t want to throw catechists and parish priests under the bus, I think too few make an effort clear up controversies surrounding these issues, which continue to damage people’s faith. Conversely, I know many people who have renewed their spiritual life with these challenging but beautiful teachings of the Church.

      The Church’s mission has never been to have as much mass appeal as possible, but to spread the Gospel Truth, even when it is hard and countercultural. Pope Francis knows this especially well. Other mainline churches have tried the approach you seem to suggest, ie. ditching traditional moral teachings and opening communion, but that hasn’t saved them from an even more dire situation than their Catholic brethren.

      1. Patrick Freese, Perhaps many fail to see the beauty that you do in these “challenging” teachings, even after years of trying to come to grips with them.

      2. Completely agree, which is why we as the Church need to put considerably more investment and time into ongoing spiritual formation and religious education. Confirmation isn’t graduation anymore.

      3. Patrick,

        I think your first sentence is true of some people, but inaccurate and even insulting to other people. When I look at the wide range of people who reject Humanae Vitae, some of them are no doubt ignorant and have never studied it or understood it. But others are really bright and well-informed, and simply don’t agree with it because the arguments are not convincing to them. This includes theologians, bishops and priests, and lay people who in some cases know three times more about this issue than you and I put together will ever know. I think it’s important for accuracy to make the distinction and recognize the second category of people. Better catechesis is beside the point for them.

        I think your second paragraph makes a common mistake – the “Videte Protestantes” (“Look at the Protestants!”) argument. This mischaracterizes them as holding “We don’t really believe X and we don’t think it’s God’s will, but let’s do it anyway in the hopes that such accomodationism will bring lots of people in.” Please note that no one argues thus, though Catholics (including bishops) regularly write as if they do. Rather, these people have come to an honest conviction – you and I may well disagree with it – that X is the will of God and what they must do, quite apart from what it does to membership.

        The other assumption – this is also a common mistake – is positing causality between Protestants’ convictions and their demographics when there is merely correlation, or the causality is perhaps there but quite small and hard to measure. Less educated, and less well-off members are more likely to have larger families. More educated and affluent members are more likely to have fewer children. The former are more likely to be conservative, and the latter are more likely to be liberal. (These are well-documented tendencies, not exact black-and-white categories.) Some liberal churches are shrinking in large part because their well-educated and affluent members have very few children.

        I’m always surprised when Catholics – lay people or bishops – trot out the “Videte Protestantes” argument. Have they not noticed that the Catholic Church in the U.S. under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI shrunk dramatically and lost lots of young people? Have they not noticed that the U.S. Catholic Church is now losing more young people than many mainline Protestant churches in many studies??


      4. Some interesting points Fr. Ruff. I did a little research, and according to a Pew study from 2014, the Catholic youth retention rate was at 68%, substantially higher than all mainline churches, who averaged at 37%. The same study suggests that Mainlines are declining only about 10% faster than Catholics. Then again this is just one study (anecdotally, 68% seems high).

        HOWEVER, I agree that the numerical decline in Mainlines probably has much more to do with their demographics (wealthier, more educated, fewer children) than their recent “liberalization.” I believe you did earlier article on this subject. That said, based on numbers alone, this Mainline shift towards open communion, women’s ordination, etc. clearly hasn’t been the panacea that many claimed it would be, and I doubt we’d be much different. Such claims aren’t much better than “Videte Protestantes” (the irony there isn’t lost on me), because they’re not only both convenient anecdotal scapegoats that mask the far more consequential demographic and cultural trends, they distract the conversation from what it should be, which is what’s the best way to live the Way of Christ.

      5. Patrick,
        “clearly hasn’t been the panacea that many claimed it would be” – to whom are you referring?

  7. “Gospel truth” seems a bizarre description for rules that appear in none of those books.

    1. The nearest I can see to addressing this in the Gosples is Jesus asking
      “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” (Matt. 12:3-4 RSV)

  8. “and this mandate is now – one month later – obviously revoked by Pope Francis himself.”

    So the Pope wrote this letter?

  9. Fr. Ruff,

    Liberal Protestants may well think that their changing their teachings to accommodate the culture represents the will of God, but others, looking at their collapse, may well draw different conclusions. Yes, Catholicism is losing members in many Western countries, but liberal Protestantism has all but disappeared in many of those same countries. Historically, Protestants outnumbered Catholics two to one in Germany. Now, there are polls indicating more Germans identify as Catholics than Protestants. At the turn of the last century, Anglicans outnumbered Catholics three to one in New Zealand. Now, Catholics slightly outnumber Anglicans. In the US, there are more Catholics today than there were in 1960, but there are fewer members of the United Church of Christ today than there were then. There are many such examples.

    Nor is the collapse of liberal Protestantism all that surprising, since liberal Protestants have rejected teachings that Christians held as normative for centuries. Saying, “We were wrong about all these things for a long time, but we’ve got it right now” is not a message likely to attract many people to any organization.

    A related point: any effort to draw the Catholic Church closer to the declining liberal Protestant churches is likely to push the Catholic Church further away from the Eastern Orthodox. If ecumenism is the object, that fact cannot be ignored.

    1. Tom – Thanks for giving these examples of demographic decline. The point of my comment is that the decline has many reasons and isn’t necessarily because of liberal positions.

    2. Historically, Protestants outnumbered Catholics two to one in Germany. Now, there are polls indicating more Germans identify as Catholics than Protestants.

      Be careful how you use statistics. The reunification of East and West Germany needs to be taken into account.

      I was in West Germany a matter of days after the Berlin Wall came down. There was a quite tangible element of fear among the large group of Protestant friends from all over West Germany that I was with that the change of balance as a result of re-uniting Germany would produce a kind of latter-day Holy Roman Empire! Of course that has not happened, and both Lutherans and Catholics are on very good terms with each other.

  10. The so-called decline seems obvious to me. There was a time when the clergy and religious were the disciples and laity were supporters. This was mostly true for Protestants as well. Today we are getting dragged kicking and screaming into the third millennium. Until we learn how to make disciples instead of volunteers and supporters and funding sources, we will lag far behind our God-given potential. The pre-conciliar Church had no clue, and the post-conciliar mainstream has been too anchored to the old ways.

  11. In terms of the Bishop’s question on the inconsistency between divorced and remarried vs. intercommunion, I continue to believe that Francis (and others) “look East” or at least take it into account as a factor. As a general matter (though practices vary), the Eastern Orthodox allow the divorced and remarried to take communion (after varying penance or not) – and I believe some Orthodox Churches still effectively grant ecclesiastical divorces (a complicated topic and practice varies and I believe has tightened down in the last century). As a general matter, the Eastern Orthodox do not permit intercommunion (again mileage may vary). Thus, the latter could have been another obstacle to re-union while the former would not be. Who knows.

    1. The Russian Orthodox I know (not native Russians but English converts or young people of Greek heritage who are part of Russian tradition communities because there are no Greek ones available) would view our RC Holy Communion customs with horror as far too casual. Their rule is that before going to HC one must go to Confession. Few receive at every Divine Liturgy.


      1. Your remarks are spot on and even further that if the priest does not recognize the approaching person at HC, he thinks nothing of stopping the line and questioning the person publically as to discipline, the person’s home parish, jurisdiction and then make a public decision to communicate or not. RC’s would be scandalized…..of course, the hour and a half to two-hour divine liturgies would eliminate most RC’s anyway.

      2. Roger

        And don’t forget that he might also not administer Holy Communion if he didn’t see you at great vespers on Saturday, either. So it’ not necessarily just about the length of Sunday morning orthos and divine liturgy.

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