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The following article was published in the January 1998 issue of the Journal.

Eucharistic sharing in Interchurch Marriages and Families:
Guidelines from the German Bishops, February 1997

The following text was issued by the Ecumenical Commission of the German Bishops' Conference on I I th February 1997. The German original appears in Una Sancta, 1, 1997, pp. 85-88. We give an English translation of the text; then explain the background to its appearance.

I The Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council speaks of two fundamental principles for eucharistic communion: witness to the unity of the church and sharing in the means of grace (UR8). These fundamental principles must always be taken together. Eucharistic communion is indivisible and linked to the full communion of the church and its visible expression. At the same time, however, the Catholic Church teaches "that through baptism the members of other churches and church communities stand in real, if not fully realized, communion with the Catholic Church, and that 'baptism forms a sacramental bond of unity between all who through it are reborn, and is wholly directed towards the acquiring of fullness of life in Christ'. The eucharist is a spiritual food for the baptised..." (Ecumenical Directory 1993, n. 129). From this the "grace to be won" (UR 8) warrants the admission of a Christian who is not a Catholic to communion in particular exceptional cases, in particular cases of "serious need" (CIC, can. 844, 4).

2 Families in interchurch marriages may experience "serious (spiritual) need" in certain situations. Being separated at the Lord's table may for instance lead to serious risk to the spiritual life and the faith of one or both partners. It may endanger the integrity of the bond that is created in life and faith through marriage. It may lead to an indifference to the sacrament and a distancing from Sunday worship and so from life in the church. Married partners who are seriously striving to base their married life on religious and spiritual foundations are precisely those who suffer by being separated at the Lord's table. It is essential for the church to meet their special situation with pastoral care. The norms for the admission of a Christian who is not a Catholic to receive communion in the Catholic Church have their foundation in the firm belief of the Catholic Church. The norms have established "that in certain circumstances, in exceptional cases and under certain conditions" admission to communion of Christians of other churches and ecclesial communities may be permitted or even commended (Ecumenical Directory 1993, n. 129). In situations of pastoral need the married partners living in interchurch marriages may be admitted to receive communion in the Catholic Church under certain conditions.

3 The underlying principles for eucharistic sharing in individual exceptional situations, namely that the eucharist is a sign and source of the unity of the church and at the same time spiritual food, are seen, in the case of interchurch marriages, from a particular theological perspective: according to Catholic belief the valid marriage contract between two baptised partners means the continuing mutual giving of the sacrament of marriage, which is a sign of the unity of Christ with his church. Above and beyond baptism, the Christian who is not a Catholic takes part, through this marriage sacrament, in the sacramental reality of the church. Of further service too, is the point which Pope John Paul 11 unfolds in his teaching in the encyclical "Familiaris Consortio". In this the Christian family is to be seen as "embodiment of the church" and shares in the ministry of the church. For the parent who is not a Catholic this sharing is equally true.

4 Neither a refusal for all, nor a permission for all partners in interchurch marriages who are not Catholics to share in the eucharist would be appropriate. There may be problems arising from difference in belief. Nor would it be appropriate in the current situation of ecumenical dialogue. Nevertheless, Christians of other denominations may exceptionally receive Holy Communion on the following conditions: it is not possible for them to go to a minister of their own denomination, a situation which can arise in real situations for different reasons. They must of their own accord ask for communion, be rightly disposed, and manifest Catholic faith in the eucharist (CIC, can. 844, 4, Ecumenical Directory, No 131), namely that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ gives himself to us in person in the eucharist as Giver and Gift in bread and wine and so builds up his church. That is why commitment to Jesus Christ calls also for commitment to his church.

5 Since pastorally the establishment of objective criteria for "serious (spiritual) need" is extremely difficult, ascertaining such a need can as a rule only be done by the minister concerned. Essentially, this must become clear in pastoral discussion. Does the couple concerned (and any children) experience being separated at the Lord's table as a pressure on their life together? Is it a hindrance to their shared belief? How does it affect them? Does it risk damaging the integrity of their communion in married life and faith? When full sharing in the eucharist is granted to the partner who is not a Catholic, care must be taken that an individual case such as this does not become a general precedent.

The Ecumenical Commission of the German Bishops' Conference is aware that the painful separation experienced at the Lord's table only becomes a thing of the past when the goal of all ecumenical efforts is reached in the full unity of faith and church communion. As long as the separated churches and ecclesial communities find themselves in the ecumenical time between setting out and arriving, the Roman Catholic Church is convinced that its responsibility is to grant communion at the Lord's table to Christians of other denominations only in exceptional cases.


The process began in March 1993, when the Council of Churches in Nurnberg decided to ask for the exercise of eucharistic hospitality between all its member-churches in the case of interchurch marriages and families. The Council had invited a number of interchurch couples to talk with them about their situation. These couples had explained the difficulties they experienced in their married lives when it came to being active members of their churches. The Council's decision to ask for eucharistic hospitality for interchurch families was forwarded to the Bavarian Council of Churches, which offered to set up a Joint Working Group with the Nurnberg Council of Churches to study the question.

The Working Group held its first meeting in November 1993. Eight of its members were appointed by the Bavarian Council of Churches, five by the Nurnberg Council of Churches. Six were Roman Catholics, one was Old Catholic, four were Lutherans, one was Reformed, and one a Methodist. Another Roman Catholic joined the group to represent the position of the Orthodox churches.

After eight meetings the Working Group produced its report and sent it to the Nurnberg Council of Churches in March 1995.

A summary of the 1995 report

1 The starting point

The report begins with statistics. Of the 227,906 Catholics in Nurnberg (1993), 80,046 are married. Of these 25,317 are Catholic/Catholic marriages; 24,065 are Catholic/Lutheran marriages, and 5,347 are Catholic-other marriages. The situation is similar in the Lutheran churches. The marriage register of the Reformed Church in Nurnberg from 1980 to 1993 records only a tenth of marriages as Reformed/Reformed, compared with 40% Reformed/Lutheran and the same proportion Reformed/Roman Catholic. For Baptists and Methodists, however, twice as many are in same-church marriages as in interchurch marriages.

Interchurch marriage is therefore no longer exceptional, and is an area of pastoral concern for family life. The question of sharing communion for such families is quite distinct from the question of intercommunion. (Taken here to mean the general unrestricted possibility of eucharistic sharing in another church as well as one's own, which is possible if the churches concerned move doctrinally and officially to be in communion with one another.) What is at issue is not that Christians should be able to receive communion wherever and whenever they wish. This report is concerned with the exclusion, case after case, of interchurch partners or members of their families; with the fact that there is no eucharistic hospitality for them.

There is no problem where churches have declared themselves in communion with one another. However, among the member-churches of the Council of Churches the Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church restrict the invitation to receive communion to members of their own denominations because of the strict connection they make between eucharistic communion and church community.

The report goes on to point out that this puts interchurch families in a particularly painful and difficult situation. Because of the pastoral needs of such families, there is an unofficial practice in many Roman Catholic and some Orthodox parishes of turning a blind eye to their participation. In some Roman Catholic and most Orthodox parishes, however, care is taken to see that those receiving the communion are strictly members of that church. This means an arbitrary and subjective dependence upon the opinion of the eucharistic minister, which is not an acceptable situation.

2 What do Church, Word and sacramental practice signify in a marriage between Christians? All the member-churches of the Council, says the report, must ask themselves whether they can conceive of a communion in marriage which does not need eucharistic communion.

The Roman Catholic understanding

A number of texts are quoted from the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other documents, to show that in Roman Catholic understanding marriage is a sacrament, closely related to the church and to the eucharist. "The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptised, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament." (can. 1055) "The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life." (Catechism, 1661) "The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the church. Already baptism, the entry into the people of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the church." (Catechism, 1617)

Other texts are quoted to show the significance of sharing in the eucharist, and the importance of receiving the eucharist, to which the Lord urgently invites us. It is "the source and summit of the Christian life", by which "we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be a] I in all", and through which we fulfil the baptismal call to form but one body (Catechism, 1324, 1326, 1396). The sacraments of marriage and eucharist are linked: "the remaining sacraments are held together in their connection through the eucharist; they depend on the eucharist" (Presbyterium Ordinis 5)

The report adds that in the 1993 Ecumenical Directory the first concern mentioned when considering interchurch married couples is no longer the safeguarding of the faith of the Catholic partner, but the strength and stability of the indissoluble marital union (144). This union means that the interchurch marriage is also church; it has the form of the basic sacrament of church. Church division is encompassed by the sacramental nature of the marriage between baptised Christians, who live as domestic church.

The Reformed understanding

The Reformed churches do not see marriage as a sacrament, but see Christians as called to marriage. The goodness of marriage stems from the "very good" which God pronounced of this companionship as opposed to the "not good" of being alone (Genesis 1); and this is heard again when God's Word is spoken at the wedding. Married couples can entrust themselves to God's "very good" in all adversities and can find comfort in it. Because God wills his dealings with us to be through his Word and Sacrament, married people need the Word and Sacrament following on from the Word spoken at their wedding. Anything other than eucharistic sharing for interchurch couples would be a contradiction of God's "very good"; exclusion of one partner would counteract the "very good" of God and bring about a being alone in the church. One could no longer hear from God that marriage is "very good", even though the marriage had been made before God and with his blessing.

The Reformed churches worldwide in 1954 and the German Lutheran churches in 1975 decided that admission to communion should be open to all baptised Christians. The evangelical churches of Germany agree that: "Since the Lord is bountiful to all who call on him, all his members are called to his supper, and the promise of forgiveness of sins is for all who long for God's kingdom." (Arnoldshainer Theses VIII, 3)

The Old Catholic understanding

The Old Catholic practice is also to invite all the baptised, since Christ himself is High Priest and Offering; it is he who invites. This does not in any way mean that the Old Catholic Church abandons its sacramental understanding of marriage.

This section ends by pointing out that all the churches understand the importance of the eucharist for salvation, for strengthening the faith, love and hope of Christians, so they must do all they can to ensure that believers are blessed by receiving communion. If the churches joined together in the Council of Churches really take their calling to be one in Christ seriously, they will not look for arguments to exclude fellow-Christians from sharing in the Body of Christ, but they will seek out ways of making the invitation possible.

3 For those churches represented among us who do not normally admit others to communion, what exceptional situations and special regulations can be considered? The report stresses once more that it is not about intercommunion. It is about the pastoral care of interchurch couples and their families who join together to celebrate the eucharist: so that the eucharist should not separate them.

"Intention" and "spiritual communion"

One step in this direction might be a recognition of the "intention to take part"; according to this a valid receiving of communion takes place if someone longs to receive but is prevented from doing so by circumstances outside his control ("spiritual communion" in Roman Catholic piety and theology, defined at the Council of Trent, 1551). Churches which cannot yet resolve the question of eucharistic hospitality should state whether this way of analysing the difficulty could be used for interchurch couples and their families.

Showing an understanding of the situation at each eucharist

It is important that, whether churches have already granted eucharistic hospitality or not, it should be made clear in the course of a service that they are aware of the problem and of those who suffer from it. The invitation to communion should always be accompanied by a word to the marriage partner and family members of interchurch families present at the eucharist. Each church in the Council of Churches should use a form of words for which it can in conscience take responsibility. Where eucharistic hospitality is not offered, the priest should include in his invitation to worship a special ecumenical greeting to Christians from other churches and express his joy at their presence at the eucharistic celebration, even though communion may not yet be offered to them. Respect for the sacramental discipline of other churches (1993 Directory, 107) requires that these churches express their invitation to the Lord's Supper.

Pastoral exceptions to the general rule

The report goes on to deal with the particular pastoral exceptions to the general rule which forbids eucharistic sharing. The deep feeling of the Catholic Church for the pastoral dimension of the problem is to be found not only in the 1993 Directory's section on "Sharing in Sacramental Life, especially the Eucharist" (122-136), but also in its section on "Mixed Marriages". Questions which arise in the pastoral care of mixed marriages between baptised Christians "form part of the general pastoral care of every Bishop or regional Conference of Bishops" (143). Where these judge it useful, "diocesan bishops, synods of Eastern Catholic Churches or Episcopal Conferences could draw up more specific guidelines for this pastoral care" (146). This formulation is applicable to the question of eucharistic hospitality.

4 The plea

The report ends: "A heartfelt plea goes out to the appropriate Greek Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox bishops, but especially, since the Roman Catholic Church shows so much sensitivity to the pastoral aspects of the problem, to the diocesan bishops of Bamberg and Eichstatt: that they might consider, and draw up, guidelines for pastoral ministry which will not bar interchurch marriage partners and families who have been validly baptised from receiving communion together."

(The full German text of this report, which includes quotations from earlier German documents, is available in a booklet entitled Zur Frage der Eucharistischen Gastfreundschaft bei Konfessionsverschiedenen Ehen und Familien: eine Problemanzeige published by the Nurnberg Council of Churches, March 1996.)

In April 1995 the report was accepted in full by the Nurnberg Council of Churches, which agreed to present it to the new Archbishop of Bamberg after his installation. This was done in October 1995. Archbishop Dr Karl Braun told the delegation that he too found this "a burning pastoral problem for the churches". He believed that the question should be taken up again as a matter of urgency both from a theological and from a pastoral point of view. True longing for the grace of the sacrament must be taken seriously. He would himself take the report forward to the German Bishops' Conference. He thanked the members of the Council of Churches for their hard work in drawing up the report, which had arisen from deep concern for faith, mission and evangelism.

Response to the German Bishops' text

The answer from the German Episcopal Conference (given above) was received in a letter from the Bishops' Ecumenical Commission early in February 1997. The Nurnberg Council of Churches issued a statement expressing its gratitude both to Dr Karl Braun, Archbishop of Bamberg, and to the Ecumenical Commission of the German Bishops' Conference later in the month. It includes the following paragraphs:

The Nurnberg Council of Churches regrets that the Ecumenical Commission has not agreed to the wish of the Council of Churches for an official and general invitation for interchurch families to receive communion together. However, it sees itself confirmed in the essential features of its argument by what the Ecumenical Commission has written. The Ecumenical Commission also stresses the fundamental significance of the mutual recognition of baptism as "the sacramental bond of unity" and of the effect of the sacrament of marriage, through which the other baptised partner shares in the reality and the mission of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is a cause for joy that the text of the Ecumenical Commission makes no irksome restrictions and reservations in allowing the ministers concerned the possibility of admitting interchurch families to receive communion together. The Nurnberg Council of Churches sees this ruling as an encouragement and strengthening for all those involved in pastoral care who have already been doing this, and as an invitation to those who are still hesitant to take courageous steps along the same pastoral road.

The Nurnberg Council of Churches hopes that what the Ecumenical Commission has written will lead to a clearer acknowledgement than before of the way interchurch families live out their faith in their church communities, and to a wider recognition of their situation by their respective ministers. It hopes that as we move forward in mutual exchange the eucharistic sharing for which they long will be offered ever more willingly by the Roman Catholic Church to interchurch families.


In June 1997 a text on "Sharing Communion in Interchurch Marriages and Families: Pastoral Guidelines for the Archdiocese of Vienna" applied the German guidelines to the Archdiocese of Vienna.

It explained that each year about 600 interchurch marriages which are valid in the eyes of the church take place in the Archdiocese of Vienna. At the Diocesan Forum the question of their pastoral need was raised and their sacramental unity in baptism and marriage was emphasised.

The Archdiocesan Ecumenical Commission studied these questions and asked the Archbishop to publish some pastoral guidelines. It was in broad agreement with the statements set out in the pastoral document of the German Ecumenical Commission of I I February 1997, so, with the agreement of Archbishop Dr Christoph Schonborn, the German guidelines were issued as pastoral guidelines for the Archdiocese of Vienna.


It is interesting for the Association of Interchurch Families in England to note that what the Nurnberg Council of Churches asked for was a blanket invitation to communion for all partners in interchurch families; what was given was a clear acknowledgement that such partners could be admitted, on request, but only on a case-by-case basis after pastoral discussion. This bears out the interpretation of the 1993 Ecumenical Directory from Rome which we have been struggling towards as we have tried to understand its import over the last five years.

We find at present that the situation in England is as uneven as that described in Germany (see the end of section I of the 1995 Report). We get the impression that there is more and more discreet eucharistic sharing around the country, and that wedding anniversaries are becoming public "occasions" when it becomes possible for parish priests who are sufficiently confident to be able to explain to congregations why they are giving communion to the other baptised Christian spouse. On the other hand, some couples are being told that admission is not possible (or not publicly possible).

We realise that the Directory is permissive and not prescriptive, and that pastors can refuse admission. We need, however, a public recognition in this country that admission to communion is possible for some partners in interchurch marriages, in certain particular cases and under certain conditions. Otherwise high-profile families in public life or in church life are unduly penalised in their local situation. Their pastoral need may be as great as that of others.

We know, of course, that it is not just a question of what is possible according to the Directory, and that there are many theological and practical issues to be faced when it comes to eucharistic sharing. Perhaps we need now to encourage the churches to work together seriously on the theological and pastoral issues raised by the question of eucharistic sharing in interchurch families, as they have done so effectively in a part of Germany in which large numbers of mixed marriages between baptised Christians take place.

Ruth Reardon