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This article appeared in the Summer 2000 volume of The Journal.

A Tribute to Johannes Cardinal Willebrands

Last year a double number of the Information Service of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity celebrated the ecumenical work of Cardinal Jan Willebrands, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday.

The 140-page volume starts by recalling how, as a young priest and seminary professor who had studied the thought of John Henry Newman for his doctoral thesis, he became interested in ecumenical questions. He was President of the St Willibrord Association for ecumenical work in the Netherlands in 1946, and with a colleague organized the “Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions” and acted as its secretary (1952-1963). By bringing together in an international framework Catholic theologians interested in ecumenism, and maintaining informal contacts with the World Council of Churches, this Conference helped to pave the way for the ecumenical work of the Second Vatican Council. When in June 1960 Pope John XXIII set up the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (SPCU) he appointed Jan Willebrands its Secretary, under the presidency of Cardinal Bea. In 1969 Pope Paul VI named him President in succession to Cardinal Bea, and created him Cardinal. He remained President of the SPCU (later the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) until 1989. He was also Archbishop of Utrecht from 1975-1983.

Most of this celebratory volume is devoted to the re-publication of a number of the addresses given by Cardinal Willebrands, particularly during the time that he served as President of the PCPCU, 1969-1989. Collecting them together in this way helps to show the tremendous impact he had both in developing relationships with other churches and in putting theology at the service of ecumenism.

A tribute from interchurch families

From the point of view of interchurch families, however, one important address is missing from the collection. We reprint it here, as our own tribute both to the ecumenical work of Cardinal Willebrands and also to his pastoral concern for the welfare of those who share the sacraments of baptism and marriage. It is the intervention the Cardinal made to the Synod of Bishops that met in Rome in the autumn of 1980 to consider questions related to Marriage and Family Life. From the point of view of an ecumenist, he was offering what he could to a Synod whose focus was to study and strengthen marriage and family life in the Catholic Church.

It is in the case of mixed marriages between baptized Christians that concern to promote Christian unity meets up with concern to strengthen marriage and family life. The Cardinal weaves the two themes together. The union of two Christians who have been baptized in different churches is a true sacrament and gives rise to a “domestic church”. (Not all mixed marriages live the ideal, says the Cardinal – but nor do all marriages between Catholics.) It is the Synod’s pastoral duty to address them with a gospel message that will give them new heart and new hope.

A mixed marriage can do much to further the unity of Christians. A good way for the churches to give common witness on behalf of Christian marriage is through the pastoral care, wherever possible the joint pastoral care, of mixed marriages.

Eucharistic sharing

These are important points that still need to be heard. Here, however, we would like to single out another one for further comment. The Cardinal’s address to the Synod marks a turning-point in the long effort to obtain official recognition by the Catholic Church of the spiritual need of interchurch families to share communion together. It is therefore of great historical importance for such families, as well as for all who are concerned with the question of sharing communion.

The first international conference of English-speaking interchurch families was held in May 1980 in the English Lake District. It brought together representatives of the English Association of Interchurch Families, the AIF in the Irish Republic and the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association. An interchurch couple from Australia was also there. By coming together at the international level, interchurch families found that many of the problems that faced them were similar in all countries, and they felt that together they had found a voice at international level. They agreed that they would send a letter to the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, since it was due to deal with the subject of Marriage and Family Life. One section concerned the question of eucharistic sharing for interchurch families:

Our Associations ask for an explicit statement from the Roman Catholic authorities that the serious spiritual needs of interchurch couples and families constitutes a situation different from that of an individual’s separation from the ministry of his own church, but nevertheless laying a claim on the pastoral responsibility of bishops.

One of the conditions which had to be fulfilled, at that time, by a Christian of another tradition who desired to receive communion in the Catholic Church was that he “be unable for a prolonged period to have recourse to a minister of his own Church”. The “for a prolonged period” had been added to the condition in 1973, apparently directed against the applications by the Bishop of Strasbourg and the Bishop of Wisconsin of the rules on eucharistic sharing to interchurch families. It was the one condition that could not usually be fulfilled by interchurch families who deeply desired to share communion. Cardinal Willebrands dealt with it in a masterly way in his intervention to the Synod, when he commented on the “fourth condition”.

Three years later, when the revised Code of Canon Law was published in 1983, the phrase “for a prolonged period” had been dropped from this condition. The omission of this phrase was crucial for interchurch families. Once it had gone, they could in some cases fulfil all the canonical requirements for admission. One partner cannot have recourse to another minister, when the two are at the eucharist together, since the need of the couple is to receive communion together as a couple. The Code had opened the way for the identification of those who share the sacraments of baptism and marriage as in possible need of eucharistic sharing “in individual cases and after due examination”, as the Cardinal put it in 1980. This identification of the need of the couple who share baptism and marriage was explicitly made at world level by the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism ten years later, in 1993.

We re-print the text of Cardinal Willebrand’s intervention, therefore, in gratitude for all that he did for mixed marriages between baptised Christians. It was originally printed in the AIF Newsletter of Spring 1981. He addressed the assembled bishops as follows:


The Instrumentum Laboris rightly draws attention to the need for a sincere dialogue with Christian families themselves (n.90). Among Christian families there are many which are joined in what we usually call mixed marriages. This is why it is necessary for the Synod also to bear in mind another dialogue, namely the theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches and ecclesial Communities.

Bilateral dialogues on marriage

Two Joint Commissions - one with the Anglican Communion, the other with the Lutheran and Reformed Churches - have dealt with the Theology of Marriage and the Problems of Mixed Marriages. Both Commissions have prepared reports. From these it is clear that these Churches are already in agreement with us on many elements of the fundamental doctrine concerning marriage and the Christian family:

(a) In particular it is clear that, although these Churches do not call matrimony a sacrament of the New Law, they do acknowledge it to be a sacred reality, a state instituted by the Creator and renewed in Christ as a mystery of the new covenant in Christ with the Church; indeed they admit that it is promised a special grace by Christ. They certainly do not regard matrimony as a merely civil matter.

(b) It is also clear that they admit the principle of indissolubility, as taught by Christ our Lord, even though their practice in difficult cases, especially regarding divorce, is very different from ours.

The Orthodox Churches are in total agreement with us about the sacramentality and indissolubility of marriage, although, for different reasons, they admit in certain circumstances the possibility of divorce and so of a new marriage.

Furthermore it is clear from our dialogues that the social and moral problems that beset the Christian family today are felt equally by all Christian Churches and Communities. The Synod should be able to speak of these problems in such a way as will make it easier for other Christians to join their voices with ours to give a common witness to these values which are so endangered today.

Mixed marriages between baptized Christians

It is in light of all this that we should give careful attention to mixed marriages (the more so since such marriages are explicitly treated of in only one paragraph, n.90, of the Instrumentum Laboris). I am speaking of the marriage of a Catholic with a baptised member of another Church or ecclesial community, and particular of those mixed marriages in which each partner is professing and living the Christian faith in such a way that both are striving to foster "the unity of their conjugal and family life, a unity which ... is based on their baptism too" (Matr. Mixta, n.14). We know that not every mixed marriage attains to this "ideal" (and we must admit with sorrow that this has to be said of many marriages between Catholics too). It is hoped that this Synod will not content itself with stating the well-known difficulties involved in mixed marriages, but that it will fulfil its pastoral duty in a positive way by addressing to them an evangelical message that will give them new heart and new hope.

We have already seen that the number of mixed marriages is very large. Throughout the world one in every twelve of the marriages solemnised in the Catholic Church is celebrated with a dispensation either from the impediment of mixed religion or from that of disparity of cult. In many countries and dioceses at least one in two marriages of Catholics are with a baptised member of another Church or ecclesial Community.

A true sacrament and a "domestic church"

The Church teaches that every valid marriage between baptised persons is a true sacrament which gives rise to "a certain communion of spiritual benefits" (Matr. Mixta, Proem.). The difference between such marriage and one with a non-baptised person is far from being a merely juridical one; it rests upon a fundamental truth of Catholic doctrine concerning baptism. So it is that the Instrumentum Laboris, especially in its doctrinal section, can speak primarily of the Christian family and has only more rarely to restrict its teaching to the Catholic Christian family. Therefore it can be said of the marriage of two Christians who have been baptised in different Churches, as it is of a marriage between two Catholics, that their union is a true sacrament and gives rise to a "domestic church"; that the partners are called to a unity which reflects the union of Christ with the Church; that the family, as a family, is bound to bear witness before the world, a witness based on that "spiritual union ... which is founded on a common faith and hope, and works through love". Thus "the family itself, as a little church, is somehow called, in a similar way to the Church itself, to become a sign of unity for the world" (Instr. Lab. 85).

There are many foundations for such witness. The partners are one in believing marriage to be holy in Christ and in the Church, and therefore indissoluble; in their family life they profess the value of the Christian virtues. Both partners have rights, and duties regarding the religious education of their children, as Pope Paul VI reminded us in Evangelii Nuntiandi when he said: "Families resulting from a mixed marriage also have the duty of proclaiming Christ to the children in the fullness of the consequences of a common baptism; they have moreover the difficult task of becoming builders of unity (Ev. Nunt., 71). The family is also called to help their neighbours in their need, and to do so for Christian motives. Their family life should be nourished by truly Christian prayer, by meditation on the Word of God, by a spirituality which runs through their whole family life.

Admission to eucharistic communion

Such spiritual communion, an outstanding feature in many mixed families too, eventually affects even sacramental life and prompts the partners to ask permission to approach the Holy Eucharist together. For this is a moment at which they keenly feel their division, and also feel keenly their need for the spiritual nourishment that is the Eucharist. In the dialogue with other Churches and ecclesial Communities we have spoken of doctrine about the Eucharist and the Church, and of the relationship between the mystery of the Eucharist and that of the Church. This dialogue is not yet complete, but the differences seem to be less, particularly between Catholics and Anglicans. Christian life in marriage and in the education of children can lead towards unity. Therefore I wish to ask whether the time has now come to study afresh the possibility of admitting the non-Catholic partners in mixed marriages to Eucharistic Communion in the Catholic Church, obviously in individual cases and after due examination.

The Catholic Church, in the Instruction of June 1972, has already recognised the possibility of such admission as long as a number of conditions are fulfilled: it is required that the non-Catholic Christian should profess a eucharistic faith in conformity with that of the Catholic Church; that he should ask for Communion of his own accord; and that he should experience a real need for this sacrament. This need is described in the following terms: "A need for an increase in spiritual life and a need for a deeper involvement into the mystery of the Church and of its unity" (IV, 2; AAS LXIV 523a). It seems to me that these conditions are often fulfilled in mixed marriages. But there is a fourth condition: it is required that the non-Catholic Christian be unable for a prolonged period to have recourse to a minister of his own Church. To my mind this condition is less closely connected with eucharistic doctrine and faith.

Such a study will also need to study the pressures for "reciprocity" (that is, allowing the Catholic partner to approach the Eucharist of another Church): the Catholic Church cannot grant such reciprocity in the case of those Churches which we believe, "especially because of the lack (defectus) of the sacrament of Orders, have not preserved the genuine and total reality of the Eucharistic mystery" (Unit. Red., 22). This is a serious difficulty, but it should not prevent the undertaking of this study.

Mixed marriages and Christian unity

Between the Catholic Church and other Churches the degrees of communion vary. The Orthodox Churches "are joined to us in a very close relationship" (Matr. Mixta, Proem.) and this "almost total communion" had found initial expression in the legislation of the Decree CrescensMatrimoniorum. The Churches that take their origin from the Reformation are established in a real, though not perfect, communion with the Catholic Church (cf. Unit. Red., 3). This communion should find expression in our pastoral practice regarding family life. The Catholic Church cannot acknowledge mixed marriages to be the ordinary means for the restoration of unity among Christians (Instr. Lab., 90), but it should show a real "solicitude" for mixed families. For a mixed marriage that is inspired by a Christian spirit can do much to further the unity of Christians.

Over and above the witness given by families themselves, we should also consider the common witness that Christian Churches and Communities should give on behalf of Christian marriage and the Christian family. As I have already said, our dialogue has shown some convergences in doctrine; and, despite serious differences on some moral issues, on others there is no disagreement between us. The way is thus open to a common witness on behalf of Christian marriage, a witness already called for by Pope Paul VI and the Archbishop of Canterbury in their Common Declaration of 1977 (AAS LXIX 287-8).

An important way of giving such witness is through the pastoral care, wherever possible the joint pastoral care, of mixed marriages. This has been widely accepted in principle (a principle stated in norm 14 of Matrimonia Mixta, but much remains to be done to put this principle into practice, particularly as regards preparation for marriage and also the provision of proper help in the first year of family life. It is to be hoped that this Synod will urge priests to take this duty very seriously and to seek suitable collaboration with ministers of other Churches. Above all, the parish communities from which mixed marriage partners come can give them enormous help in strengthening their family unity and in making their own contribution to the life and unity of the Church. Pastoral care, skilfully given, can help to allay the unnecessary suspicions and friction which can arise in this connection.

Finally, you will note that the words "unio" and "communio" occur on almost every page of our Instrumentum Laboris. As is obvious, these refer first and foremost to the unity of the family itself. But when we find these words in the context of mixed marriages we may also see a reference to the overall quest for Christian unity. "The family can respond to the desire of the Lord that they may be one” (Instr. Lab.,52).

This article appeared in the Summer 2000 volume of The Journal.



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