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The following article, used here by permission, is originally published in One in Christ, 52/1, 2018, pp. 149-57.



Ruth Reardon*

In February 2018 the German Bishops’ Conference approved pastoral guidelines for the admission of non-Catholic partners in interchurch marriages to communion by a large majority. However, seven diocesan bishops wrote to the Vatican expressing their objections to the text and asking for clarification. A meeting took place in Rome on 3 May between representatives of the German Bishops and curial officials; Pope Francis asked the bishops to come to as unanimous a position as possible. After being informed of the discussion he approved a letter to the bishops saying that the questions raised on 3 May needed further study at world level, and the German document was not ready for publication.

At the close of the plenary assembly of the German Bishops Conference in February 2018, its President Cardinal Reinhard Marx issued a press release saying that the German Bishops, after intensive discussion, had prepared pastoral guidelines for the admission of non-Catholic partners in interchurch marriages to communion, in individual cases and after careful pastoral discernment with respect to 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 German Bishops’ Conference, but was still open to changes in the text.

The full text was not published, but the German bishops seemed to be making a straightforward application of the provisions of the 1993 Vatican Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism. There appeared to be no mention of limiting admission to communion to special occasions, as some other guidelines - including One Bread One Body (the British and Irish guidelines of 1998) - had done. (For a commentary on these guidelines, see One in Christ 35/2, 1999, pp. 109-30.) This proposed application by the German bishops was very welcome to interchurch families; the Interchurch Families International Network had asked the 2015 Synod on the Family to make it clear that admission need not be limited to particular occasions, but because of the nature of marriage and family life the need for admission could be regarded as on-going in some cases (see One in Christ 49/1, 2015, pp. 142-6o). There remained an ambiguity on this point between ‘exceptional occasions’ and ‘exceptional cases’ (meaning couples). The provisions of the Directory were of course permissive, not prescriptive, and bishops would still have the right to make their own applications, but it would be helpful to interchurch families if it were made clear on the world level that permission for admission in some cases could be on-going (as indeed some bishops have decided).

In an interview with a Lutheran press agency, the vice-president of the Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrϋck, was reported as saying that the Bishops wanted to recognise and give a pastoral foundation to what was already happening in practice, since in many places Protestant spouses already received communion alongside their Catholic partners. Bishop Bode was present at the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family.

Opposition from within the German Episcopal Conference: a letter to Rome

However, it was not long before some German Bishops began to express their fundamental opposition to the proposal. In March Cardinal Gerhard Mϋller, formerly Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, declared that this was a doctrinal rather than a pastoral matter, and bishops’ conferences had no authority to decide doctrinal issues. This seemed strange in view of the fact that episcopal conferences had been urged to make their own applications of the provisions of the 1993 Directory, and many had already done so.  Indeed, Catholic ministers had been instructed to decide in individual cases in accordance with the Directory’s norms, if the diocesan bishop or the Bishops’ Conference had not established their own norms (Directory, 130). Cardinal Mϋller’s view would seem to take no account of the position taken by the Vatican ll Decree on Ecumenism (8), which states that there are two main principles involved. First, expressing the unity of the Church generally forbids eucharistic sharing; second, sharing in the means of grace sometimes commends it. There is a norm; there are exceptions. The local bishop is to decide on what should be done in practice, unless the bishops’ conference or the Holy See has decided otherwise. Subsequently the 1983 Code of Canon Law (844) and the pastoral application made in the 1993 Ecumenical Directory have laid down at world level the parameters within which Catholic bishops and episcopal conferences are expected to make their own applications. A number of such applications, both by individual bishops and by conferences of bishops have been published. How then can the German Bishops’ Conference not have the authority to make its own application?

However, following this lead seven German bishops, led by Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, wrote to the Vatican on 22 March suggesting that the German Bishops’ Conference had overstepped its competence and that its decision was therefore unlawful. They asked for clarification as to whether the question of admission to communion for Protestant spouses in an interchurch marriage could be decided at the level of an episcopal conference, or if a decision at the level of the universal Church is required. The letter was sent to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, and to the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch, without prior consultation with Cardinal Marx.

The text of this letter was not at first made public (it was later leaked to the press), but Cardinal Marx published his own reply to the arguments it raised on the German Bishops’ Conference website on 4 April. He pointed out that the proposed pastoral handout did not speak of general admission for spouses in interchurch marriages, but said that in individual cases a serious need for eucharistic sharing might arise because of the way a couple shared their married life. He referred to canon 844, and to the fact that guidelines had been established elsewhere by bishops and bishops’ conferences. The bishops had studied the relevant theological and ecumenical documents, and the possibilities offered by canonical regulations, so that they would be in line with the universal Church. Pope Francis had encouraged further steps forward in ecumenism and in pastoral care, and the bishops wished to create greater clarity for ministers and couples.

A meeting in Rome

On 19 April the German bishops announced that Pope Francis had called Cardinal Marx, Cardinal Woelki and Bishop Felix Genn of Mϋnster (known as a good mediator) to Rome to discuss the matter. On 30 April the Vatican press office announced that there would be a meeting on 3 May of a group of German cardinals and bishops with several heads of dicasteries and curial officials at the Vatican. Besides the three already mentioned, the German delegation included Bishop Wiesemann of Speyer, president of the Doctrinal Commission of the German Episcopal Conference, Bishop Vodeholzer of Regensburg, vice-president of the Doctrinal Commission, Bishop Feige of Magdeburg, president of the German Bishops’ Commission for Ecumenism, and Fr Langendörfer SJ, secretary general of the German Episcopal Conference.

Besides Archbishop Ladaria and Cardinal Koch, Mgr Markus Graulich, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and Fr Hermann Geissler, office head of the Doctrinal Section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were to be present.

The Holy See Press Office issued a release on the evening of 3 May. It explained that the German Episcopal Conference had prepared a pastoral handout entitled ‘Walking with Christ in the footsteps of Unity: Mixed Marriages and Common Participation in the Eucharist’; this had been approved by more than three-quarters of the bishops at the end of the plenary session held 19-22 February 2018. A not insignificant number of pastors, among them seven diocesan bishops, did not feel, for a variety of reasons, that they could give their consent, and wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts. In accordance with Pope Francis’ wish, an exchange was arranged between some German bishops and curial officials. The names of those present were listed, and it was noted that the meeting took place at the CDF headquarters, and that the language used was German. Mgr Ladaria explained that Pope Francis appreciated the ecumenical commitment of the German bishops, and asked them to seek for a possibly unanimous arrangement in a spirit of ecclesial communion. During the meeting

various points of view were discussed; for example, the relationship of the question to the faith as well as to pastoral care, its relevance for the universal Church, and juridical aspects of the subject. Archbishop Ladaria would inform Pope Francis on the content of the exchange, which took place in a cordial and fraternal atmosphere.

The background

This is not the first time that the German Episcopal Conference has been openly divided on the issue of eucharistic sharing for interchurch families. Following the publication of the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1993, the question of eucharistic sharing in interchurch families became a matter for debate and decision by many episcopal conferences. Many national Ecumenical Commissions worked intensively on the subject. In Germany the Commission issued a statement in early February 1997 (German original in Una Sancta, 1, 1997, and English translation in Interchurch Families, 6/1, 1998).

To summarise: the text drew attention to the two fundamental Catholic principles for eucharistic communion: witness to the unity of the Church and sharing in the means of grace. Families in interchurch marriages may experience serious spiritual need in certain situations. 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. The Christian family is to be seen as ‘embodiment of the church’ and shares in the ministry of the church. 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. 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. 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. At present 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 German Ecumenical Commission had been responding to a report by a joint working group that had been set up by the Bavarian Council of Churches and the Nuremberg Council of Churches; this had asked for a blanket invitation to communion for all partners in interchurch marriages. The Ecumenical Commission had taken care to remain strictly within the terms of the 1993 Directory in stressing that admission to communion could only be allowed in particular cases; not all the German Bishops, however, agreed with the statement, and the question continued to be hotly disputed in Germany. In 2002 the then-President of the German Episcopal Conference, Cardinal Lehmann, issued a press statement at the end of the February plenary assembly; the bishops were preparing to issue a document on ‘Church and Eucharist’, which would include the question of admission for interchurch families:

Mixed marriages have to be seen as a particular life situation for Christians, whose communion in marriage is grounded in baptism and rooted in the sacramental nature of their Christian marriage. There must be further exploration of how far the profound ecclesial character of communion in marriage may justify exceptional admission to the eucharist. This is not so much a matter of unique occasions celebrated in the life of the family, such as First Communion, but more a matter of the constant striving of the couple to live their path of faith together. The pastor who accompanies a couple has a particular role here.

A new situation?

In recent years the ‘profound ecclesial character of communion in marriage’ has been intensively studied at world level in the 2014-15 Synods on the Family and in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (1916). The intention has not been to bring in new legislation related to marriage, but to focus hearts and minds on the need for a pastoral understanding of the situation of married couples in a new way. Pope Francis has stressed the importance of pastoral support for marriage and family life, and the pastoral discernment that is needed by each and every couple in its own particular situation. He showed his understanding of the deep need felt by some interchurch families for eucharistic sharing and his encouragement for them to ‘go forward’ in his visit to the Lutheran church in Rome in November 2015 (One in Christ, 50/1, 2016, pp. 83-5). He did not appear to wish to make a ruling himself; he wanted to allow the couple to make their own discernment and to follow their conscience.

It seemed at first that Pope Francis did not wish to give a ruling in the case of the dispute among the German bishops, he wanted them to work hard to reach a unanimous decision as far as they possibly could. (The precise meaning of his words was disputed.) This is consistent with the approach of the Roman Catholic Church to mixed marriages since the Second Vatican Council. It could never be the same again since the Decree on Ecumenism, the Declaration on Religious Liberty, and the new understanding of marriage that came with Vatican II. The subject of mixed marriages has always been a contentious one, particularly where there are large numbers of divided Christians living side by side, as in Germany and England. It has never become a top priority at world level. The motu proprio of 1970 laid down certain clear boundaries (for example, no promise about the children’s upbringing could be asked of the other Christian partner) but there was a good deal of latitude left for decisions to be made by national episcopal conferences. The national directories that applied the motu proprio to their own territories differed considerably between themselves (see One in Christ 7/2-3, 1971, pp. 210-34, and additional updates in the following numbers). These directories were open to revision; for example, the wording of the promise required from the Catholic partner has been revised twice in England since the first national directory in 1970.

The 1970 motu proprio stated that mixed marriages do not help in promoting Christian unity ‘except in some cases’. It is those exceptional cases already identified in 1970 that are those most likely to be the exceptional cases who experience a deep desire for eucharistic sharing. Many of the couples who ‘share the sacraments of baptism and marriage’ do not, indeed, wish to share the eucharist; like many one-church couples, they are not in church at all. There are other reasons for which mixed couples do not wish to share the eucharist, while some who do experience a deep need and desire have found that they have been able to share communion without causing any problems in their local communities. The number of those interchurch spouses who ask for admission to communion and fulfil the conditions are not as great as has been suggested on both sides of the debate. But there is certainly a great fear in some quarters that the proposal will be understood as a blanket permission for all those spouses who share the sacraments of baptism and marriage, shortly to be followed by a more general admission for other Christians. This fear makes it very difficult for some to see the issue as a pastoral one of the greatest importance to some interchurch couples and families.

The controversy that was been raised not only inside but outside Germany attracted more attention at world level than the subject received at the 2014-15 Synods on the Family. Following the meeting of 3 May it looked as though a very heavy responsibility rested with the German bishops; what happened to their guidelines would surely have an influence beyond Germany itself. Would the German Bishops be able to come to a unanimous decision? Would they find a way to witness clearly both to the Catholic conviction of the close link between ecclesial and eucharistic unity, and also to the nature of marriage as an on-going, lifelong relationship, not a series of exceptional moments——wedding, baptism, first communion, confirmation, funeral?

A letter from Rome

But they were not to be left alone with this responsibility. Pope Francis decided that the questions raised at the 3 May meeting must be studied further at world level. This was made clear in a leaked letter from Archbishop (Cardinal-designate) Ladaria to Cardinal Marx, copied to the other German bishops who had been at the Rome meeting; it was dated 25 May and appeared in the press on 4 June.

Archbishop Ladaria wrote that as agreed on 3 May, he had informed Pope Francis about the discussion; he had spoken twice with the Pope, giving him a summary of the conversation on 11 May, and discussing the question further on 2.4 June. The points made in his letter had the explicit approval of the pope.

First, he appreciated the ecumenical efforts of the German Episcopal Conference, and their close collaboration with the Evangelical Church of Germany. The shared commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 showed the possibility of common witness and encouraged us to go forward with trust towards ever deeper unity. Second, the discussions of 3 May showed that the text of the guide raises many problems, and Pope Francis concludes that the document is not ready for publication. This is because the issue touches the faith of the Church and is significant for the universal Church. It also affects ecumenical relations with other Churches. Further, it concerns the interpretation of canon 844, and the dicasteries of the Holy See are to clarify the questions this leaves open, at the level of the universal Church; in particular it appears opportune to leave to the diocesan bishop the judgment on the existence of ‘grave and urgent necessity’. Thirdly, Pope Francis is greatly concerned that the spirit of episcopal collegiality should remain alive in the German Episcopal Conference.

Since the letter appeared there has been a proliferation of commentaries and forecasts, from many different points of view. No doubt there will be many more. A thorough re-thinking of the question at world level may take a long time. There are many apparently conflicting values and concerns to be recognised and held together. It took from 1965 to 1970 to establish at world level the basic parameters of the parental ‘promise’ required when a Roman Catholic married a Christian of another communion, and there are still different applications and attitudes in different regions.

Fifty years on, there has been enormous progress in ecumenical relations, and there has been a renewed understanding of the nature of married life on the part of the Catholic Church, particularly since the Synods on the Family and the appearance of Amoris Laetitia. As Pope St John Paul ll said to interchurch families at York in 1982: ‘You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity’. The ‘exceptional cases’ of those mixed marriages who promote Christian unity referred to in the 1970 motu proprio have become the ‘exceptional cases’ who appealed to the 2014 and 2015 Synods to recognise their on-going need for eucharistic sharing for the sake of their family life. By such sharing they can embody and express more fully the hopes as well as the difficulties of the path to Christian unity.

They would like to offer this as a small service to the whole Church.

*    Ruth Reardon was a founder-member of the Association of lnterchurch Families in 1968. its Secretary until 2000, editor of the journal Interchurch

Families 1993-2004, and is now a President of AlF.



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