02 May 2018, The Tablet

German bishops bring communion dispute to Rome

Francis saw fit to invite the disputatious bishops to Rome, where seven of their representatives will meet with four heads of dicasteries

German bishops bring communion dispute to Rome

A delegation of seven German bishops and cardinals are to meet at the Vatican tomorrow with four heads of dicasteries to attempt to iron out a problem that has divided a majority of the German bishops’ conference from a minority.

This disagreement concerns whether non-Catholic spouses of Catholics may receive communion.

The question of under what circumstances the non-Catholic spouse may receive Communion has long been discussed and debated, but the matter came to a head on 22 February when, at the end of their spring plenary, the bishops endorsed a “pastoral handout” for the guidance of priests. It allowed couples in inter-church marriages in individual cases to both receive communion, and was passed by a two-thirds to one third majority.

Germany’s Christian population is evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants and there are a large number of mixed-denomination married couples attending Mass. (Christians make up 58.3 per cent of the German population, with 28.6 per cent of these Catholic and 26.6 per cent Protestant.) Among the main concerns of the episcopal majority was the improvement of ecumenical relations.  

On 22 March, seven bishops including Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) asking for clarification of whether the issue was within the competence of a local bishops’ conference to decide.

A number of bishops then condemned the seven signatories, with Bishop Stephen Ackermann of Trier one of those leading the charge. He said Cardinal Woelki and his six cohorts were “wrecking” the “sign of appreciation” that the bishops had planned for couples in inter-church marriages. On 23 April Cardinal Walter Kasper weighed in. The former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity said the controversy had “caused serious damage within the bishops’ conference”.

Pope Francis then decided it was time to intervene. The Pope is on record as having a preference for local disputes to be resolved at a local level, rather than the parties heading off to Rome for a Vatican ruling at the first opportunity. He has not specified exactly what kinds of disputes should be resolved at this level, but in defending the 22 February plenary’s decision Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the bishops’ conference president, said that the decision “is clearly consistent with the Universal Church, especially since Pope Francis’ encouragement to take further steps regarding ecumenism and pastoral work … The handout carefully puts this wish of the Pope’s into practice.”

These remarks of Cardinal Marx notwithstanding, Francis saw fit to invite the disputatious bishops to Rome, where seven of their representatives, including two of the signatories of the letter to the CDF, will meet with four heads of dicasteries tomorrow, 3 May.

The names of the participants were published by the Vatican this week. In the seven-strong German delegation are Cardinal Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising; Bishop of Munster Felix Genn – well-known for his mediation skills; Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesmann, in charge of doctrinal matters at the conference; Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg, in charge of ecumenism; and Hans Langendorfer S.I., the conference secretary-general. These five will be accompanied by two of the seven signatories to the letter to the CDF: Cardinal Woelki, and the Bishop of Regensburg Rudolf Voderholzer.

Around – or across – the same table on behalf of the dicasteries will be the Spanish Jesuit who succeeded Cardinal Gerhard Muller as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop  Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer; Cardinal Kurt Koch, Cardinal Kasper’s successor as president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity; Mgr Markus Graulich SDB, undersecretary of the pontifical council for legislative texts; and Fr Hermann Geissler, head of the doctrinal section of the CDF.

PICTURE: Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Germany, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich elevate the Eucharist during Mass in the cathedral in Fulda, Germany, Sept. 23, 2014. (CNS photo/Jorg Loeffke, KNA) 

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