19 April 2018
Christopher Lamb in Rome
Marx to meet Pope over communion for non-Catholics
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, above left, with Cardinal Rainer Woelki, is to meet Pope Francis over the communion issue
Cardinal Reinhard Marx is to meet Pope Francis to discuss a proposal by the German bishops to loosen restrictions on giving communion to Protestants married to Catholics.
The bishops’ conference revealed the forthcoming meeting at the Vatican in a statement where they described reports that the Vatican – on the Pope’s instruction – had rejected the German plan as "false".
While a convincing majority of the bishops voted to agree a “pastoral handout” on how more spouses in interchurch marriages might receive the Eucharist, seven prelates have written to the Vatican asking for clarification on the matter.
The seven were led by Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne (pictured above with Cardinal Marx). They did not consult Cardinal Marx before making an approach to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the request for clarification.
This story brings two major issues of Church governance into focus.
The first is the role of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now led by Archbishop Luis Ladaria, appointed to the role last summer and, like Pope Francs, a Jesuit.
For most of Francis’ papacy the once-feared congregation has almost stopped investigating theologians suspected of drifting into heresy and has generally taken a far less prominent position than under the last two pontificates.
This is due partly to this Pope’s focus on evangelisation rather than debating theological niceties and partly to the uneasy working relationship he had with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former doctrinal prefect dismissed last summer after five years in post. Now that he has his own man at the helm the congregation is being brought more into the loop.
The German bishops’ appeal is a significant test case for the congregation.
Church teaching, as set out in the Ecumenical Directory of 1967 and 1970, allows for non-Catholic Christians to receive communion in certain, tightly-prescribed circumstances, though in 2015 Francis advised a Lutheran spouse of a Catholic to undertake her own discernment over whether or not to receive communion when they attended Mass together.
The second big question is that of decentralisation and the authority of bishops’ conferences. Francis made it clear in “Amoris Laetitia”, his family life document, that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issue” need to be settled by Rome, while in “Evangelii Gaudium”, the manifesto for his papacy, he called for a bishops’ conferences to be given “genuine doctrinal authority”.
In the case of the communion issue, a more than two-thirds majority of German bishops have ruled in favour of shifting the church’s discipline – although according to John Paul II’s document “Apostolos Suos”, declarations by bishops’ conferences need to be approved unanimously in order to have magisterial authority. At their last meeting, the Pope and his council of cardinals – of which Cardinal Marx is a member – discussed the status of bishops’ conferences. A “re-reading” of Apostolos Suos was discussed in light of Francis' call for a “healthy decentralisation” in the Church.
The restrictions on communion for members of other Christian denominations married to Catholics remain a point of puzzlement and tension, particularly in countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom where Catholics often marry Christians from other denominations.
A famous case was Tony Blair who in 1996 was told by Cardinal Basil Hume, then Archbishop of Westminster, to stop receiving communion when attending Mass with his family.
At that time the former Prime Minister was an Anglican and the Leader of the Opposition. Only after he left office was Blair was received into the Catholic Church.
While he accepted the cardinal’s instruction, Blair he did pose a question to Cardinal Hume which remains pertinent: “I wonder what Jesus would have made of it?”
Pic: Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich-Freising, president of the German bishops' conference, left, and Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne concelebrate Mass March 6 during the opening of the annual meeting of Germany's bishops at the cathedral in Cologne. (CNS photo/Sascha Steinbach, EPA)
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