German Bishops Debate Who Can Receive the Eucharist

Protestantism comes from Germany, its original spark with Martin Luther, and its earliest excesses with the Anabaptist rule over Münster; the latter crushed finally by the prince-bishop’s army, the former however enjoyed enduring success. From Germany, Reformation ideas spread to other European countries, and from there into the whole world, creating new epicenters of Protestant Christianity. Back home, several northern German states are about to introduce Reformation Day, October 31, as a legal holiday.

As in many other countries, mainline Protestantism is declining in Germany. But thanks to its solid financial basis, and to its often more politically correct positions, the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland is alive and well, relatively speaking. Long term demographics are not looking good, however. What is alive and well is the system of post-Reformation peace by which Catholics and Protestants are publicly represented and active in harmonious parity. Ecumenism is an important aspect of Church life in Germany, both on the ground in many parishes, and on the highest official levels of the bishops conference and synods. And after centuries of theological debate, political hostilities, and societal segregation (cuius regio eius religio), many people today have a hard time understanding what the fuss was, and is, about. Aren’t we all just Christians? Why can’t we tear down the old walls, let go of all things that divide us, and be united? Wouldn’t that be so much better, and also what Christ wanted? Would it not make our lives simpler, and church administration more practical, and economical, and credible?

On the one hand, this is all true; on the other, by now we know the fate and future of fast-track church unification: behold the United Church of Canada, which is not quite sure about how to deal with ministers who really do not believe in God. It should be a warning to us all.

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But back to Germany: for many years, bishops have been looking for a way to allow Protestant Christians, mostly Lutherans, to receive Holy Communion at Mass. Mostly the case was made for people in mixed marriages attending Catholic liturgy with their children, or alternating between, let’s say, “Holy Redeemer” Lutheran and “St. Theresa” Catholic Church: at “Holy Redeemer,” everyone has been “welcome” to receive for a long time, even if Catholics are not supposed to. Let’s just say, it is happening anyway, and by that I mean not only Catholics receiving from the Lord’s Supper at the Lutheran place, but also Lutherans going to communion at “St. Theresa.” For many pastors, taking the initiative to stop such things is just too much hassle: people will be offended, the diocese will most likely not back you up, the public will not appreciate it—so just let it go, ignore it, and move one.

The German bishops have known this for a long time. Their desire is to regularize a situation that has been developing for decades, and maybe widespread, even if it does not affect a huge number of cases. Church attendance is low, and among mixed couples especially so. The bishops are German, after all; they like regularizing.

And there is a rule about all this in Church law, the famous canon 844 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The canon outlines how normally Catholics receive the sacraments from Catholic ministers (§1). Exceptionally, Catholics can approach ministers of (non-Catholic Oriental) Churches that have valid sacraments (§2), and Christians of such Churches, vice versa, can go to Catholic ministers, for Confession, Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist (§3). Other Christians can receive these sacraments from Catholic ministers only if “the danger of death is present or if, in the judgement of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it” (§4). You can imagine the amount of discussion, and abuse, this rule has created since its promulgation, or maybe you cannot.

From a doctrinal point of view, it is quite clear who may receive communion, but that has never stopped theologians and canonists from pushing their agendas. The fact is, even more recent Vatican documents have not really resolved the interpretive problems. In the past, however, the Holy See did intervene when bishops conferences published documents that obfuscated the essential difference between (Christians who belong to) Churches with valid sacraments and other denominations, a difference explicitly referenced in the documents of Vatican II.

The Germans had been holding back, also because there was hope the Holy See itself might produce a definitive clarification, by either releasing an official interpretation of canon 844, or even modifying its text. Allegedly, the late Cardinal Joachim Meisner put an end to discussions in the conference on intercommunion some years ago by telling his confreres that Rome was about to do something anyway, and soon.

Rome never did. So the Germans finally wanted to act, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the new president of the bishops conference, is a doer anyway, certain of the (new) pope not getting in the way of his pastoral and ecumenical ideas, as opposed to the pope’s doctrinally intransigent predecessors, who always tried to dam the Rhine’s water from flowing into the Tiber. It all seemed to go well. A new document was discussed, a near-finished draft approved by a large majority of the German bishops (especially large because all the auxiliary bishops, who are many, get to vote). The publication of the new document was pre-announced to the media, presumably to raise expectations and to make objects difficult once the document was officially released. Media strategy and theological politics enjoyed one of their finest hours. And Hillary was about to be president, with 99 percent certainty.

But then the Rhine actually rose to high levels, as did the Danube and several other rivers, mostly in Bavaria: Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, the Bishop of Görlitz (Saxony), and, last but not least, all Bavarian (arch-) bishops—except Cardinal Marx, obviously—wrote to the Holy See seeking clarification whether the proposed guidelines are in fact compatible with the Catholic faith, and with canon law (that is still a thing, too). Cardinal Marx and the majority of bishops in Germany were slightly upset, but also condescendingly certain things would go their way in the end. By then, however, bishops and lay Catholics world-wide had found out about the German plans, and beyond Germany news about this project was generally not favorably received. Also, Pope Francis himself only recently stated, “eucharistic sharing can only be exceptional and in each case according to stated norms.”

What most German bishops propose is the habitual reception of the Eucharist by people who (continue to) belong to (mostly) Catholic families and, at the same time, remain members of Christian denominations that do not have valid sacraments and also do not share the Catholic faith in what sacraments are and mean. But when individual persons, as opposed to their own denomination, do share the Catholic faith (in the Eucharist, specifically) they could receive the Eucharist at Mass. It is not difficult to see that such a proposal passes over serious contradictions, which cannot be explained away as “theoretical stuff.” Instead, the relevance of church membership is both a highly practical and a doctrinal issue, which is what makes it pastorally so important. What do you believe, what/who do you belong to, whose authority and laws do you embrace?

The Marx-proposal takes a rule designed for highly exceptional circumstances and makes it habitual, on a weekly basis. Where canon law speaks of a “grave and urgent need” exception that allows Protestants to receive Catholic sacraments, such need refers to situations that are somehow comparable to danger of death (otherwise you could hardly call it “another” need). In 2018, such situations, thanks be to God, are not present in parishes of German dioceses, not even outside blessed Bavaria.

In order to resolve the controversy between cardinals and bishops in Germany, Pope Francis decided that representatives of the majority and the minority in the German conference should be invited to talk with high-ranking Vatican officials in Rome on May 3, 2018. And the Roman Curia was particularly hospitable: a meeting in German, for the Germans, was held. Afterwards, in arch-typical Vaticanese, it was announced that the atmosphere of the encounter was “cordial and fraternal.” Pope Francis had let the Germans know how he appreciated their ecumenical efforts, asking them to work out a proposal that could find unanimous assent in the conference. It was also communicated that, in the meeting, several issues were discussed: how the question relates to faith and pastoral practice, how it is relevant for the universal church, and its juridical dimension.

As could be expected, both official reactions (from the majority) and media reports immediately after the meeting focused on the fact that the Holy See, and Pope Francis in particular, had not simply told the bishops what they had to do—the subtext being: as opposed to his authoritarian predecessors. Pope Francis had not given an order, he is leaving the decision in the hands of the national bishops conference—hurrah, less (universal) canon law, more (local) pastoral flexibility! But in reality, this is exactly what canon 844 § 4 describes. Canon law leaves it to the (conference of) bishops to determine whether or not there is a situation of urgent grave need, but not to redefine what urgent grave need is. When bishops (conferences) are making such determinations, they have to remember what the canon says at its core (mens legislatoris): if you belong to a Protestant denomination, you cannot receive sacraments in the Catholic Church habitually.

Church membership, both visible and in virtue of faith, cannot be separated from the sacramental life, which is itself also visible and intimately related to the faith, the faith of both the Church and your own. The German bishops, when they meet again to discuss this, will have to realize that what they have touched on is not simply a German issue but has worldwide significance and ramifications. Such questions of sacramental practice cannot be answered one way in Dresden and another way in Danzig.

You could look at the pope’s decision and call it an abdication from his specific role as universal pastor and lawgiver in the Church. But you could also look at it as a teachable moment: if bishops conferences want to be taken more seriously, they need to act more responsibly, and take into account that what they are doing, as soon as the faith and the sacraments are in play, must never be (perceived as) a national solution only. If they want the Holy See to intervene less often and “respect” their own authority, they must respect church doctrine and universal church law much more than in the past. They must be able to say no, be the bad cop, at times, and can no longer rely on the fact that “Rome” will step in anyway and take all the heat and the bad press—which you will always get when you defend Catholic doctrine against the ecumenically correct winds of change. This doctrine does develop, but it does not change, not as fast and not as much, as today’s believers in progress would like.

Let us be clear: German bishops possess theological competence, juridical autonomy, and financial security in a degree that bishops in other countries could envy. It is a problem, and a disappointment, that they still are not over the old temptation of forgetting about the universal Church (doctrine and discipline) while looking to resolve Germanic issues, and of succumbing to politically expedient, and pastorally questionable, compromises in their own dioceses. The amount of interest and concern they receive under Pope Francis is out of proportion, and at odds with his general preference for churches in the periphery, and poor churches. The questions of intercommunion is an important test case for how the bishops in Germany, and the Holy Father with the Roman Curia, will help the Church to be faithful to her doctrinal and sacramental tradition, “in season, out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).

However, not only is there a lesson for most Germans here, but also for everyone in the universal Catholic Church who preaches the need for greater synodality—that increasingly confused concept, recently re-evaluated by the International Theological Commission. First, because synodality is at heart a principle of cooperation between bishops, only analogously can it be applied to the clergy and the faithful in general. Second, because synodality is not in itself a guarantee of finding better pastoral solutions and more adequate doctrinal formulations: many synods, even councils, have produced what in hindsight can only be called meagre results, and conciliarism is certainly dead, and a heresy. Synodality only works with a good sense of faith.

The Church could learn something from what is happening in liberal political culture worldwide: beware of putting too much trust in procedures and structures as if they will inevitably produce good results. If you are too concerned about yourself, not much can be achieved: the ecclesio-centric approach predominant after Vatican II has run its course; its results both in the Church and ecumenically are not quite as plentiful as its proponents had been promising. The post-modern churches, and bishops, need to remember that the Gospel is still in force: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another” (John 15, 16-17).

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising (l) and Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne in Rome, Italy on March 14, 2013. (Photo credit: Paul Badde/ CNA)


  • Msgr. Hans Feichtinger

    Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is a priest of the Diocese of Passau (Germany) and pastor of St. Albertus and St. George’s in Ottawa. He also teaches at St. Augustine Seminary (Toronto). He holds an STD from the Augustinianum in Rome, a Ph.D. from the Faculty of Philosophy SJ in Munich, and an MA in Classics from Dalhousie University. He was an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2004-2012.

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