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The following article, used here by permission, is originally published in One in Christ, 2018.2, Volume 52, pp. 339-358 

German Bishops’ Guidelines on
Eucharistic Sharing in Interchurch Families 2018: What’s New?


At the press conference following the plenary assembly of the German Bishops’ Conference in February 2018 its President, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, announced that the bishops had prepared pastoral guidelines for the admission of non-Catholic partners in interdenominational marriages to communion, in individual cases and after careful pastoral discernment of their need, provided those partners affirmed Catholic eucharistic faith. The proposed handout for the guidance of Catholic pastors was approved by a large majority of the bishops, but was still open to changes in the text (which was not itself published).

When seven German bishops who opposed the proposal wrote to the Vatican in March asking for clarification as to whether the question of admission to communion for Protestant spouses could be decided at the level of an episcopal conference, or whether a decision at the level of the universal Church would be required, the whole question attracted international speculation and debate. Pope Francis asked some of the German bishops to come to Rome for a meeting with several heads of dicasteries and curial officials, notably from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. This meeting took place on 3 May, and Pope Francis asked the German bishops to come to as unanimous a position as possible. However a letter a few weeks later from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, acting with the approval of Pope Francis, informed them that the questions raised at the Rome meeting must be studied further at world level.[1] 

In June Pope Francis and Cardinal Marx discussed the question further, and Pope Francis spoke of it in a press conference he gave on the plane when returning from his visit to the World Council of Churches in Geneva on 21 June. He referred to the desire of the German bishops to be faithful to what the Code of Canon Law said about admission to communion in special cases, and to the seriousness with which they had made their study. The difficulty was not so much the content of the document, but how it relates to the universal Church, and whether responsibility for decisions lies with the diocesan bishop or with an episcopal conference. A week later, on 27 June, following a meeting of the Permanent Council of the German Bishops’ Conference, the original text of the proposed guidelines was published on the German Bishops’ website, together with a statement by the Permanent Council. This made it clear that the document, published as Orientierungshilfe: Mit Christus gehen – Der Einheit auf der Spur: Konfessionsverbindende Ehen und gemeinsame Teilnahme an der Eucharistie, was not an authoritative Conference document, since it relates to a dimension of the universal Church, but was published as an orientation text to help individual bishops as they undertake their responsibilities. The statement of the Permanent Council was given in English translation on the website. A few weeks later the full text ofMit Christus gehen was published there in English translation, under the title Aid to Orientation: Walking with Christ – Tracing Unity: Interdenominational marriages and sharing in the Eucharist. We are concerned here with what is new in Walking with Christ, compared with earlier guidelines following the provisions of the 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism. 


A pastoral approach

Walking with Christ builds on past approaches to eucharistic sharing in interchurch families, but it goes further, in the perspective of Amoris Laetitia, in its application to particular couples. At the level of an episcopal conference (albeit with a dissenting minority) it has gone beyond the perspective of pastoral care expressed in terms of norms to that of the ‘pastoral understanding’ that the Edmonton international conference of English-speaking interchurch families appealed for in 2001: ‘Pastoral understanding goes much further than pastoral care; it is a two-way process. It implies dialogue, and respect for the conscientious convictions and actions of couples and families in situations where their loyalty to their marriage bond, to their “domestic church”, must sometimes necessarily be held in tension with their loyalty to their wider church communities.’[2]

It is clear that the German bishops have listened to interchurch spouses, and to pastors who work with them, and have recognised that some couples have a spiritual need and great desire for on-going eucharistic sharing, in order to express and deepen their marriage bond and their witness to their children of the reconciling love of God in Christ. They have understood that in terms of the existing norms they could go a long way in responding to those needs, and they have wantedto do all they could to welcome spouses to receive communion together. ‘Interdenominational married couples and families are very close to our heart’, they said when they published the German text in June. They have rejoicedto find a way forward, and ‘expressly welcome’ the Protestant spouses who decide to follow this way (58), whether the couple had not so far received communion together, because they saw the rules as forbidding it, or whether they had already been doing so for a long time. The bishops stress that they are inviting couples to follow their own consciences (54). 

In Germany, a number of individual bishops have decided to apply the guidelines in their own dioceses, while others are awaiting further discussions. We are not concerned here with the question of whether it is an episcopal conference or a local bishop who is authorised to give guidance on these lines (this will be studied further at a global level), but with the content of the document, especially in relation to the lived experience of interchurch families. 

The English translation offered on the German bishops’ website is used here. When referring to the text therefore the term ‘interdenominational marriages’ is used; this is a term which the English would normally use themselves, if needing an alternative to the long-established but questionable ‘interchurch marriages’, while they would think of marriages which involved Lutheran and Reformed Christians as ‘interconfessional’. The German bishops when writing in their own language have chosen to use the preferred term of German couples: Konfessionsverbindende Ehen. This is difficult to translate into English but evocative in terms of the couples’ understanding of their ecumenical vocation: ‘confessions-uniting marriages’. This term was deliberately chosen by German and Austrian interchurch families in preference to the older ‘confessions-dividing marriages’. It is a sign of respect that the German bishops have decided to use terminology that couples themselves have chosen to express their self-understanding.

Rome has always continued to use the term ‘mixed marriages’ for marriages between Christians. One of the questions that the Interchurch Families International Network’s response to the 2015 Synod on the Family raised was whether, now that ‘interreligious marriages’ was being used to describe marriages of Catholics with partners of other faiths, something analogous could be used for mixed Christian marriages. The English title that the Holy See Press Office gave to the German document on 3 May was: ‘Walking with Christ in the footsteps of Unity: Mixed Marriages and Common Participation in the Eucharist’. 

Not a new question: what are the parameters so far?

Ever since mixed marriage couples came together in groups with Catholic priests and other ministers, to encourage one another and to assess their position in the light of the new situation created by the convocation of the Second Vatican Council, the question of eucharistic sharing has been raised. 

In England, for example, the first national meeting of mixed marriage couples took place fifty years ago at Spode House in November 1968. The couples drew up a statement that was distributed to the press and sent to the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Mixed Marriages, which was due to meet at Pineta Sacchetti a few days later. The final point of the statement (no 5) read: ‘Mixed married couples are very conscious that doctrinal agreements between churches are not the only way in which we can progress in Christian unity. These are important, but they can only be an attempt to formulate lived Christian experience as divided Christians are drawn together into that communion of love with which the Father loves the Son, with which Christ loves the church. Marriage between baptised Christians is a sign of the close union of love between Christ and his church. It is not surprising therefore that it should be given to some mixed marriage couples and families to experience the reality of Christian unity in a way which has not yet been experienced by all the members of their churches. The question must be raised of this lived experience to eucharistic communion.’[3]

There were several things to encourage them. First of all, the Second Vatican Council had approached the question of sacramental sharing in a new way. It set it in the context of the growing unity of all Christians, since the Catholic Church had now committed itself to full participation in the ecumenical movement. The conciliar Decree on Ecumenism (n 8) stated that eucharistic sharing is not a means to be used ‘indiscriminately’ to restore Christian unity. It set down two principles: eucharistic communion signifies the unity of the church, so it is generally ruled out between divided Christians: it is also a means of grace, so it is sometimes to be commended. Practical decisions on what is to be done are left to the local bishop, unless the bishops’ conference or the Holy See has decided otherwise. Might not therefore eucharistic sharing be recognised as a means of grace to help interchurch couples to grow in mutual love, to witness more effectively to their children the reconciling love of 
God in Christ, and by their lived experience of unity to call all Christians to respond more fully to their call to be one in the unity for which Jesus had prayed?

Secondly, in 1967 the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity had issued a Directory for the Application of the Decisions of the Second Vatican Council Concerning Ecumenical Matters, Part 1;this began the process of spelling out the conditions under which separated Christians in the west could be admitted to Catholic communion. A separated Christian could be permitted such access in danger of death or in urgent need (during persecution, in prison) if he had no access to his own minister and spontaneously asked for Catholic communion, so long as his eucharistic faith was in harmony with that of the Catholic Church, and he was rightly disposed. Other cases of urgent need were to be judged by the diocesan bishop or the episcopal conference. A Catholic in similar circumstances should only ask for the eucharist from a minister who had been validly ordained. This seemed to give wide discretion to local bishops and episcopal conferences to recognise the ‘adequate reasons’ and ‘urgent need’ for admission to communion in the Catholic Church referred to in the Ecumenical Directory.

Thirdly, there were already concrete cases where these concepts had been applied to interchurch families. In the spring of 1968 the Dutch bishops issued their Provisional Directives on Mixed Marriages, which included the statement that if a baptised non-Catholic partner asked to receive communion at a nuptial mass, they would be prepared to grant this on request, provided the partner could unite himself with the faith of the Catholic Church which is given living expression in the eucharistic celebration, and had access to the communion service of his own church.[4]

Even before this, there was a known case in 1966 of an American Presbyterian bride receiving communion together with her Catholic husband at their nuptial mass in Assisi, with the authorisation of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.[5]And at Spode 1968 itself, participants were delighted and amazed to have with them an Anglican husband who had recently been married in his Italian bride’s home parish, and who had received communion with her at the wedding mass. However, things did not progress as quickly as they had hoped.

The ‘urgent need’ of 1967 had become ‘serious spiritual need’ in 1972, in the Instruction concerning Particular Cases when other Christians may be admitted to Eucharistic Communion in the Catholic Church, issued by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity on the authority of Pope Paul VI. Defined as ‘a need for an increase in spiritual life and a need for a deeper involvement in the mystery of the church and its unity’, this seemed a good description of their own need to a number of interchurch families who experienced themselves as ‘domestic churches’. It would obviously be only certain ‘particular cases’ who would experience that need. However, another clause was added: the Christian who asked for admission must be unable to have recourse to his own minister ‘for a prolonged period’. This seemed to rule out interchurch spouses, and it was a relief to couples that it was dropped in the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983. What was required was grave necessity, an inability to approach their own minister, a free request and proper dispositions (c 844). Ten years later, the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1993 on the authority of Pope St John Paul II, explicitly identified mixed Christian marriages (those who ‘shared the sacraments of baptism and marriage’) as in possible need of eucharistic sharing. In the years that followed, a number of episcopal guidelines for eucharistic sharing in interchurch families were issued in different countries. The German bishops (apart from the dissenting minority) have made it quite clear that they believe Walking with Christkeeps within the parameters of the global norms decided by the Catholic Church.

A strong ecumenical perspective

The German bishops’ text is set firmly within the context of progress in Christian unity. This is clear from the sub-title: ‘tracing unity’, ‘tracking unity’, ‘in the footsteps of unity’. Their guidelines are proposed as a concrete step towards Christian unity, as an act of solidarity with the German Protestant churches. At the beginning of their text they recall the commemoration of the 500 years of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden, in October 2016, when Pope Francis and the President of the Lutheran World Federation said in their Joint Statement: ‘We share the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table. We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ.’ In Germany, say the bishops, it is particularly important to take seriously the commitment of the Lund Joint Declaration, since Germany has about as many Catholic as Protestant Christians, and ecumenical relations at local level have developed very well, and gained in depth through the year of Reformation commemoration 2017. The bishops feel a solidarity with all the members of the Council of Christian Churches in Germany and judge that this is the time to take an important step forward (1).

They realise that there are many interdenominational couples in Germany who express an intense longing to receive communion together. In a Joint Statement with the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Healing of Memories: Witnessing to Jesus Christ. A Joint Statement on the Year 2017, they recalled the suffering of those who, although they are spouses in an interdenominational marriage, according to Catholic teaching ‘are usually not allowed to approach the Lord’s table together’. ‘We stated’, say the Catholic bishops, ‘that Holy Communion cannot simply be reduced to a means to an end’. However, in particular cases where there is a personal relationship with Christ and a life led in solidarity with the Catholic Church, pastoral support may be given. At the ecumenical penance and reconciliation service held together with the EKD in March 2017, the bishops declared publicly that ‘trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit, we undertake to provide marriages that unite the denominations with every support to strengthen their shared faith and promote the religious upbringing of their children’. Walking with Christtakes a step towards fulfilling this commitment. 

The German bishops thus made it clear that their decision had matured in consultation with the EKD, and their common search for how the churches could move forward on the road to unity. They recognised that it was possible to move ahead where some interchurch couples were concerned, precisely because their life commitment to one another in marriage was actually a force that was drawing their churches closer together. As that early statement at Spode 1968 had said, it had been ‘given to some mixed marriage couples and families to experience the reality of Christian unity in a way which has not yet been experienced by all members of their churches’. It was important that the EKD did not think of the Catholic bishops’ move as proselytising (especially since the bishops stated that they could not authorise reciprocal sharing), and consultation was certainly in line with the norms of the Code of Canon Law and the 1993 Directory, which stated that ‘the diocesan bishop or the episcopal conference is not to establish general norms except after consultation with the competent authority, at least at the local level, of the non-Catholic Church or community concerned.’[6]It was in fact unusual; no other guidelines on eucharistic sharing in interchurch families had been so explicit about ecumenical discussions with other churches beforehand.

A pastoral problem: ‘cases of need’? or ‘occasions of need’?

In formulating their pastoral guidelines, the German bishops were determined to be faithful to both the statements made in the Decree on Ecumenism: the norm is to restrict admission to communion to Catholics; however, there are commendable exceptions to this practice. They had to make it clear that they were not giving a blanket approval for the admission of all mixed marriage spouses, but were welcoming those who deeply desired it and lived faithful lives in solidarity with the Catholic Church. It was not just a matter of ticking boxes, checking whether a list of canonical criteria were fulfilled. 

Other bishops and bishops’ conferences had faced the problem before them, especially in areas where there are large numbers of mixed marriages. How could admission be limited to avoid a ‘free-for-all’ in a way that would undermine the Catholic witness to the close link between ecclesial and eucharistic communion? The French Episcopal Conference was the first to lay down guidelines on eucharistic sharing, through their Commission on Christian Unity. They did this in 1983, as soon as the Code of Canon Law had dropped the condition that, in order to admit to Catholic communion, the relevant non-Catholic minister should not be available ‘for a prolonged period’. They identified the need as a proven spiritual desire, where there are continuing bonds of fraternal communion with Catholics, as lived in certain foyers mixtesand in some long-lasting ecumenical groups.[7]The stress here was on the permanent nature of the living bonds established with the Catholic Church. Decisions on admission would be taken locally, and communicated to the bishop or his ecumenical officers.

Other guidelines appeared after the 1993 Directoryhadidentified, at world level, those who shared the sacraments of baptism and marriage as in possible need of eucharistic sharing. The first came from the diocese of Brisbane, Australia, in 1995. This made a distinction between cases of spiritual need for occasional admission (for example, a partner at a nuptial mass, a parent at baptism, confirmation and first communion, the family at a funeral), and spiritual need for regular admission. This latter was explained as referring to couples where each partner lives devotedly within the traditions of his/her church, makes a significant contribution to the ecumenical movement, and where the spouses can experience serious spiritual need each time they are with the family at mass. There was a recognition here that couples are very different: some will be together at mass in an on-going way, while other partners will only be there with their family on special occasions. Similar guidelines followed in a number of other Australian dioceses. 

The Southern African Bishops’ Conference in the first draft of their Directory on Ecumenism (1998) picked up the phrase ‘whenever they are together at a eucharistic celebration’. The final version (2003) said that a spiritual need can arise when spouses are attending a eucharistic celebration for a special feast or event or when accompanying their partners at Sunday mass.

The German Bishops’ Ecumenical Commission issued guidelines in 1997, but not all the German bishops agreed with them, and they were not authorised by the episcopal conference. So far as the spiritual need of the couple was concerned, the guidelines suggested that separation of married partners at the Lord’s table might lead to serious risk to the spiritual life and faith of one or both partners. It might endanger the bond created in life and faith through marriage, and might lead to indifference to the sacrament and distancing from family worship and so from life in the Church. The need was to be ascertained in pastoral dialogue with the couple; in some cases ‘full sharing in the Eucharist’ would be granted to the Protestant partner. Similar guidelines were soon published by the Archbishop of Vienna, and later by the Czech bishops.

In 1998 the three episcopal conferences of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland issued their guidelines in One Bread One Body. These differed from previous documents in ruling out the possibility of on-going eucharistic sharing in exceptional cases of need. Their option was to restrict admission drastically by suggesting ‘unique occasions’ for joy or sorrow in family life for which admission could be requested by a non-Catholic partner or parent from the bishop or his delegate: unrepeatable one-off occasions such as baptism, confirmation, first communion, marriage, ordination, death. The policy of approving certain occasions on which admission to communion could be requested was followed in a few dioceses in the United States, sometimes expanding the list of special occasions, for example to wedding anniversaries and major feasts – Easter, Pentecost, Christmas – and retreats and workshops; there was no national agreement on this. In Canada the Bishops’ Ecumenical Commission suggested guidelines and circulated them to the dioceses, who then decided whether or not to adopt them or to adapt them.  

Interchurch couples in Britain and Ireland were glad that their bishops had recognised the possibilityof admitting the other Christian partner in an interchurch marriage to communion in the Catholic Church, and it was a welcome step forward in places where permission had routinely been refused on the occasions mentioned. However, in other places, practice had already moved on, and some couples who went to their parish priest in distress got the answer that ‘of course, it doesn’t apply to you’. Others again felt they had to cease what had become an established practice. The situation on the ground was very patchy – as, indeed, it is clear it has become in Germany.

Certainly the restriction of admission to a few ‘unique occasions’ seemed lacking in pastoral understanding to many couples and families who were often together at mass, and believed that eucharistic sharing was very important in view of their marriage commitment to grow together in love with their children in their domestic church. They hoped that there would be further development before too long – but One Bread One Body was published twenty years ago, and there has been no official movement in Britain and Ireland since then.

The first thing that interchurch families in England will be likely to notice about the German Bishops’ guidelines, therefore, is that the focus is on the need of particular couples and families to share communion, without any mention of certain occasions when this could be permitted. While they were careful to stay within global Catholic guidelines, the approach of the German Bishops is not juridical or restrictive. Rather, their tone is warm and welcoming. They clearly want to do all they can to support the marriages and family life of the interdenominational couples in their care. 

A stress on the needs of the couple and family

There are other ways in which the German proposals show new emphases in their pastoral concern for interchurch couples and families. Unlike other guidelines, their earlier 1997 guidelines had expressed their concern that if eucharistic sharing were refused the pressure on the marriage might be too great, endangering the marriage bond and distancing the partners from the life of the Church. Twenty years later they repeat this concern that if the couple’s  ‘grave spiritual need’ is not remedied, ‘the marriage that is founded on Christ’s love of the church may even be jeopardised (cf. Eph 5:32); providing this help is a pastoral ministry that strengthens the bond of marriage and supports the salvation of people.’ (18) They stress the need of the couple rather than that of the individual Protestant spouse. This is certainly true to the experience of most interchurch couples who desire to receive communion together; it is as a couple – the ‘one body’ of their domestic church – that they experience their need and present themselves. The need is that of the ‘one coupled person’ to receive communion, for the sake of their marriage and family life. 

That is why some of the comments on the German bishops’ proposals, doubting the real need of interdenominational couples for eucharistic sharing, seem so wide of the mark to interchurch families themselves. Some critics have dismissed their desire as mere psychological inclination, others as no more than the pain that we all feel because Christians are divided. This ignores the particular ecclesial element present when interdenominational partners experience themselves as domestic church. But the German bishops quote Amoris Laetitia: ‘The Eucharist offers the spouses the strength and incentive needed to live the marriage covenant each day as a domestic church’ (318), and apply this to the need to deepen conjugal communion in interdenominational marriages: ‘the church must do all it can’(30). Married couples need to know and to feelthat ‘church-dividing obstacles do not break the bond of their marriage’ (27). 

Cardinal Arrinze, speaking at Buckfast Abbey in May 2018, said with reference to the German proposals: ‘If Protestants wish to receive communion in the Catholic Church they should become Catholics.’[8]There are probably many interchurch spouses who would be delighted to become Catholics – indeed, who feel a real sense of belonging to the Catholic Church already – if they were not required to give up their existing denominational attachment. As a couple they have taken on a larger identity than they had as separated individuals. It is not yet possible to express this canonically, but it ispossible to admit them to Catholic eucharistic communion, while respecting their existing allegiance. The German bishops are doing all they can, having recognised the spiritual need and desire of some interdenominational families. As they say, ‘We are encouraged by the spirit of ecumenism’, and it is in faithfulness to the real progress made on the ecumenical journey that ‘We wish to provide interdenominational marriages with pastoral support.’[9]They appreciate the ‘deep hurt’ that may result when spouses ‘joined together in the sacrament of love are seeking the unity promised in Christ but are unable to share in the eucharist’ (30).

The German bishops stress, not only the need of the couple to strengthening their marital bond by eucharistic sharing, but also acknowledge their need as parents in witnessing to and teaching their children. ‘Both spouses have a high degree of responsibility for each other and for the faith of their children’ (24), and it may be in this context that they experience a great need to share communion. Certainly couples have asked for many years how they can witness fully to their children what they believe and experience as the reconciling power of Christ while they are separated at the sacrament of love and unity? 

This has been a strong motivating factor for interchurch families ever since they began to come together in groups and associations following the Second Vatican Council. Before the Council they might have decided that they could not marry one another. A parent has a greater degree of responsibility for a child’s faith than for that of a spouse. Adults who know something of the reasons for the historical divisions between Christians may be able to be together at the eucharist without sharing communion, but can children be expected to understand? Similar stories come from different countries of some children who have shown that they find it incomprehensible: they have spontaneously broken the host they have been given and carried back half to give to the parent who has been missed out. For many couples it is the First Communion of a child that has been the crisis point in determining that they must find a way to share communion together – and not just at the celebration itself, but in their ongoing life together, unofficially if official sharing is not possible in their situation. 

If a couple share Catholic eucharistic faith and after discussion with one another recognise in themselves a real need to receive communion together, the bishops wish them to do so in order to deepen their bond with Christ, their bond with one another and communion within the family. The bishops suggest that this should be done ‘if possible with the children and parents as well’ (32). It affects the whole family, so all should discuss it. Obviously this depends upon the age of the children, who are ‘involved as their age and their faith dictate’ (53).

The German bishops seem to understand the urgency of the need that is experienced by interdenominational families, which leads them to seek unofficial sharing. They ‘are not suggesting that anyone has been irresponsible’ (7), but they would like everyone to be ready to examine themselves, and to bring their decisions out into the open, in a way that will strengthen the faith and unity of marriage. They speak of the ‘deep pain’ of exclusion, and the pastoral care needed ‘both for the salvation of the individuals concerned and for the flourishing of an entire marriage and family’ (25). 

A stress on faith

There is a constant stress on the faithof the couple and family in the German bishops’ text. They point out that an interdenominational marriage, sacramentally united, already partially realises the church communion to which the churches are committed. It is ‘a marriage of this kind that is lived in faith that is a “house-church” in intrinsic communion with the eucharist’. … Eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion are most closely connected. Marriage is a blessed form of life that realises communion with Christ in communion between the spouses and with the whole church. … Faith bestowed by the Holy Spirit breathes life into the conjugal communion. This “house-church” must of course be lived in this way: entering more deeply into faith, and in communion with the whole church’ (52). 

At the same time the bishops are not seeking to judge couples: ‘Only God knows what faith the spouses share; the church hopes that it will grow within their marriage, and intends to nurture this growth.’ (5) ‘Nurturing growth in faith is therefore a major task. Where conditions are conducive, eucharistic communion is both an important expression and a strong driver of this growth’ (13). The German bishops are content to allow couples and families to decide whether they profoundly want to grow in faith through eucharistic sharing. ‘We believe in a conscientious decision by the spouses in an interdenominational marriage for whom the shared life of faith and the religious upbringing of their children are concerns of the heart. We also believe in pastoral care for married couples that deepens faith’ (33).

A section on Catholic eucharistic faith is included in Walking with Christ, since the question of whether they share the Catholic Church’s eucharistic belief faces anyone who wants to share in communion (35). The bishops are appreciative of the way ecumenical dialogues have helped Catholics and Protestants to focus less on differences and more on how much they already share. They explain that three dimensions of the eucharist are especially important for the Catholic Church: communion with Jesus Christ, communion with each other in the whole Church, and communion with the world. All three dimensions are articulated in the Word of God and in the Eucharistic Prayers, and form a unity. The bishops thus propose this liturgical framework in working out their exposition of Catholic eucharistic faith, as well as referring enquirers to the Catechism of the Catholic Churchand the Catechism for Adultswhich they had issued as a Bishops’ Conference (35-36).

In offering their testimony to Catholic eucharistic faith in a liturgical context they cover all the necessary ground in a way that would satisfy best a Christian spouse who desires to share communion with his or her partner in the Catholic Church. It is not a tick-the-box list of beliefs, but it tries to convey an understanding of the eucharist as a celebration of the transformation of the whole of life. One of the seven dissenting bishops, the Bishop of Bamberg, took a different approach, saying, after the publication of the guidelines, that he would apply them in his diocese ‘on occasions’, provided the Protestant spouse would accept the Catholic profession of faith, the seven sacraments, the Church’s understanding of the eucharist, and the Church’s hierarchy under the Pope. This is very different from the way in which the majority of the bishops approached the question of the eucharistic faith necessary for participation in the eucharistic celebration.

A stress on conscience

The German bishops emphasize that a decision is to be made by interdenominational spouses according to their consciences. In this they believe they are following the example given by Pope Francis when he spoke to a Lutheran wife in Rome in 2015: ‘Speak with the Lord and go forward.’(5)[10]They quote Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia: ‘We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them’ (AL37). ‘This paper’, they state, provides orientation on how in particular cases a path can be opened based on responsible personal decisions and recognised by the Church for Protestant wives and Protestant husbands living in interdenominational marriages to participate fully in the eucharist’ (8).

The bishops invite interdenominational couples to come to a decision according to their own consciences (54) and they do not condemn those who have already acted according to their consciences in receiving communion even before this was officially permitted. They trustthe consciences of couples who are serious about their shared life of faith and the religious upbringing of their children (33).

In spelling out the method they have chosen to help such couples to express a conscientious decision that can be accepted by the Catholic Church, they have gone into much greater detail than any previous episcopal guidelines.

The method: a ‘spiritual conversation’

The German bishops’ invitation is to ‘all interdenominational married couples to seek a conversation with their pastor/priest, or another individual appointed to provide pastoral care, to come to a decision which follows their own consciences as well as preserves the unity of the church’ (54) The invitation is to all, whatever their previous situation, with a stress on the bishops’ desire that they should follow their own consciences. The bishops want to promote freedom of conscience, responsibility in faith, and peace in the church. They declare that: ‘All those in interdenominational marriages who, after having carefully examined their consciences in a spiritual conversation with their pastor/priest or another individual appointed to provide pastoral care, conclude that they affirm the faith of the Catholic Church, and must end a situation of “grave spiritual need” by satisfying their longing for the eucharist, may join the Lord’s Table in order to receive Holy Communion’ (56).

The bishops explain that the Easter Day conversation of Jesus with two of his disciples on the way to Emmaus from Jerusalem, as St Luke tells it, is a model for the kind of spiritual conversation to which they are inviting interdenominational couples. He follows them, accompanies them, listens to their explanation of why they are so sad. He opens the scriptures to them, helping them to understand the saving significance of his own suffering, so that their hearts burned as they listened to him. And then they recognise who he is as he blesses the bread and breaks it for them at the evening meal. They return to Jerusalem and share their faith in Christ with the entire early church (31).

A church that can give this kind of experience to interchurch families is showing itself to be a truly pastoral church. Many couples have indeed had this kind of experience at different points in their lives. On one such occasion a young English Catholic and her Methodist husband went on holiday to France. ‘We shall be able to receive communion together there’, she said happily. Before mass they approached the parish priest, who looked shocked and said no, it couldn’t happen. The Catholic wife burst into tears, and the priest was upset when he realised what a serious matter it was for the couple. ‘Come and see me this afternoon’, he said. When they arrived they found that the priest had asked two or three parishioners who spoke English to help him in the conversation. They asked the Methodist why he wanted to receive communion so much, and what he believed about the eucharist. It was a good talk, in a mixture of French and English. Later the couple received a phone call from the priest: the Methodist husband would be very welcome to receive communion, and the following Sunday he made this very clear. He asked the Catholic wife to be one of the special ministers of communion, so the Methodist had the joy of receiving the chalice from his wife.

The German bishops are trying to lift this kind of experience, which many couples have received on a parish level, to the level of a whole diocese where the bishop judges that this is appropriate. It will not be easy for some pastors to undertake this kind of spiritual conversation, which ‘in all cases needs wise and sensitive pastoral care’(34). There are too many stories of couples who are brusquely dismissed with the comment that ‘you can’t receive because you don’t believe in transubstantiation’. The German bishops have in fact explained this term in their section on eucharistic belief (41), and they indicate that they are prepared to undertake an educational programme, which they foresee as a necessary part of the process they are proposing. ‘We bishops, who are responsible for a pastorally correct practice of administering Holy Communion (cf canon 844), must promote continuous training in this field for those who as pastoral ministers are required to hold conversations in faith and accompany married couples on the way of discernment “according to the teaching of the church and the guidelines of the bishop” (AL300)’ (34). They are not treating the question of a ‘spiritual conversation’ lightly.

At the end of their document the bishops append a practical section: ‘Annexe: Guidance on holding a conversation’. There are no fixed rules, but an open mind, discretion, a relationship of trust, an awareness of the motives for coming to a particular decision and the effects it will have, prayer, inner freedom, mutual respect and humility, love of the church and her teachings, love of the celebration of the eucharist are all necessary if the conversation is to serve freedom of conscience, true faith and church unity.

The bishops base their proposal for a ‘spiritual conversation’ on the advice given by Ignatius of Loyola when an important decision is to be taken; the conversation is with Christ himself, who will show the way forward (Spiritual Exercises15), and the attitude must be a search for whatever is most conducive to communion with God (23). 

On the question of eucharistic belief, the bishops quote the orientation offered by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna: ‘Whoever can say Amen to the Eucharistic Prayer with an honest heart, can also receive the fruit of this Eucharistic Prayer, Holy Communion, with an honest heart.’ They advise using this liturgical approach when discussing what the church believes she is doing when celebrating the eucharist, adding that ‘the conversation is not an exam; its purpose is to clarify the personal situation of the individuals concerned’. As they did in the earlier section of their report, they use the liturgical texts to highlight the three aspects of communion into which we are led: communion with Jesus Christ, communion with each other and the whole church, and communion with the whole world.

The outcome of the conversation is no foregone conclusion; some may decide they are not ready to receive communion. If this is the case, the bishops ask them to continue on the journey, finding other ways of being with the community at mass. Asking for a blessing is already an expression of faith, saying that the Catholic Church is also a blessing for me, although I do not share Catholic belief or have a deep longing to receive communion, but I would like to be blessed, so that I may be a blessing for others. This may be an appropriate and faith-nurturing way to develop a more intimate communion with the body of Christ. But where a decision to receive communion is made, it will be a joy to administer and to receive, in communion with the whole church.

Open acceptance by the Church

There is a really striking insistence that when a conscientious decision to receive communion has been agreed upon in the course of the kind of ‘spiritual conversation’ proposed, the interdenominational spouse should be openly accepted by the community, led by the bishop. It would be a public recognition, both for those who had longed to share communion for a considerable time, and for those who had already been sharing unofficially. This open, official recognition is something many interchurch families have longed for, feeling that it would liberate them to give a more visible witness to Christian unity, both to their children and to others around them. It was one of the requests that the international network of interchurch families put to the 2015 Synod of Bishops.[11]

There is a great sense of welcome in these guidelines. Interdenominational marriages are not condemned. The denominational schism of the church of Jesus Christ ‘is no fault of the spouses concerned’, but ‘often a cause of particular pain to them’ (24). The bishops are very conscious of the risk that spouses may feel excluded, and in danger of losing touch with the church (25). They do not want anyone to go away; even if a decision is made against receiving Holy Communion, there are other ways for believers to participate: celebrating the Word of God, praying together, ‘spiritual communion’, receiving a personal blessing – all are ‘important signs of an ecclesial communion that is not yet complete’. Couples who choose this way are to be respected and encouraged; the bishops see in it a strong sign of ecumenical community (26). 

Nobody is forced to choose this way against their conscience, however. It is for the couple to decide whether their need and the faith of the non-Catholic partner makes eucharistic sharing the right and necessary path for them. A spouse who chooses this way is then receiving the same body of Christ as everyone else; it is the same grace, the same covenant, the same eucharist, the same table. But at the same time spouses who receive in this way are recognised as Christians who owe allegiance to another church or ecclesial community. Their links through marriage and faith are sufficiently close for them to be admitted to Catholic communion, but still in an exceptional way. The churches share a real but incomplete communion; in their case as spouses it is more fully realised. They are an open reminder to all that there is a further path to travel. So the interdenominational couple becomes both a ‘symbol and an impetusin the search for full Christian communion’ (57). Their marriage and family life will be strengthened. Then it will be a ‘source of joy’[12]for the Catholic Church to administer the sacrament to them. The German bishops ‘wish to share in this joy, and expressly welcome all those who follow this path’ (58).

Ruth Reardon



[1]The process was described in One in Christ52, 1, 2018, pp 149-57.

[2]Interchurch Families, 10, 1, January 2002, p.1.

[3]Sharing Communion: an appeal to the Churches by interchurch familiesed Ruth Reardon and Melanie Finch, with an introduction by Martin Reardon and conclusions by John Coventry SJ, Collins, London, 1983, p109.

[4]One in Christ 4,3,1968 pp 312-13.

[5]Tablet 10 12 1966 p 1400. 

[6]Can.844; followed by the Directory 130.

[7]Comparative information on guidelines issued by diocesan bishops and episcopal conferences was collected in a pack on ‘Sharing Communion’ by the British Association of Interchurch Families (1999), and there is a good deal of further information in a section of the interchurch families’ international web-site

[8]Tablet, 2 June 2018.

[9]Headings in the first section of Walking with Christ.

[10]AmorisLaetitia: Comments from an Interchurch Family Perspective, One in Christ50, 1, pp 82-85.

[11]‘Response to the 2015 Synod on the Family from the Interchurch Families International Network’, One in Christ49, 1, 2015, pp.241-60 cf section 9, pp 157-59.

[12]Ut Unum Sint 46;Ecclesia de Eucharistia46.



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