A split has opened among the German bishops over the question of communion for Catholic couples when one is Catholic and the other not.
Seven bishops have written to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) requesting clarification on a ruling already made by the conference president, who has rejected their points.
After their spring plenary in February, the German bishops voted in favour of allowing mixed married couples to receive the Catholic Eucharist together in individual cases and published a “pastoral handout” to help priests clarify whether they were dealing with an exception to canon law. The vote passed with a two-thirds majority.
Conference president Cardinal Reinhard Marx recalled at the time that in Germany this was a pressing issue as the percentage of mixed marriages was “naturally” very high (58.3 per cent of the German population are Christian: 28.6 per cent are Catholic and 26.6 per cent Protestant).
Led by Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, and without consulting conference Cardinal Marx beforehand, seven German bishops have now asked the Vatican for clarification.
In their three-page letter to the Vatican, the seven bishops explain that in their view the German bishops’ conference had overstepped its competences with its decision to allow mixed marriage couples to receive the Catholic Eucharist in individual cases and that the decision is therefore unlawful (“unrechtsmässig”), that is against canon law.
The letter, which is signed by Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt, Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg and Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt of Görlitz, was sent to Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith Prefect Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer and to the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch.
In a letter addressed to the seven bishops published on 4 April on the German bishops’ conference’s website, Cardinal Marx emphatically defended the conference’s decision and rejected the seven bishops’ arguments.
In his reply Marx made the following points: “Of course a bishops’ conference (and according to c.844§ 4 CIC even a diocesan bishop) can formulate criteria which allow Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church to receive the Eucharist. This has repeatedly been clearly stated and existing rules in other parts of the church referred to."
He continued: “The plenary came to its decision against the background of theological and ecumenical text on the subject and regulatory options proved by canon law and therefore regards it as quite clear that the decision is consistent with the Universal Church especially since Pope Francis’ encouragement to take further steps as far as ecumenism and pastoral work are concerned. The [German bishops’ conference] handout carefully puts this wish of the Pope’s into practice with the aim of further clarifying the matter both for priests and for married couples.”
Pic: Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich-Freising, president of the German bishops' conference, celebrates Mass in 2017 during the opening of the annual meeting of Germany's bishops at the cathedral in Cologne. (CNS photo/Sascha Steinbach, EPA)