The German bishops and the limits of synodality

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Germany, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising distribute Communion during Cardinal Woelki’s installation Mass at the cathedral in Cologne Sept. 20, 2014. Six German bishops will meet May 3 with Vatican officials to discuss German plans to allow greater access to the Eucharist for Protestants married to Catholics.
CNS photo/Jorg Loeffke, KNA

The German bishops at their Feb. 19-22 general assembly announced that “after intensive debate,” 49 of the 62 members that were present under the leadership of Cardinal Reinhard Marx petitioned that the church in Germany should allow in some cases spouses in interdenominational marriages to be permitted to receive Communion together for the spiritual wellbeing of the marriage. To this end they issued proposed pastoral guidelines for determining situations in which a non-Catholic spouse married to a Catholic could receive Communion. The statement read, “In individual cases, the spiritual hunger for receiving Communion together in interdenominational marriages can be so strong that it could jeopardize the marriage and the faith of the spouse.” It emphasizes that this permission applies to spouses who “already want to live out their marriage very consciously” as a Christian couple.

The German bishops who approved of the statement believe “that everyone in a marriage that binds denominations, after a mature examination in a spiritual conversation with their priest or another person charged with pastoral care, that has come to a decision of conscience to affirm the faith of the Catholic Church as well as thereby concluding a ‘grave spiritual need’ as well as fulfilling the desire to receive the Eucharist, may approach the Lord’s table and receive Communion.” It added, “We are talking about decisions in individual cases that require a careful spiritual discernment.” Cardinal Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, said, “The background is the high proportion of mixed marriages and families in Germany, where we recognize a challenging and urgent pastoral task” of determining how faithful couples who attend church regularly together can also receive the Eucharist together.

Last month, a group of seven German bishops who opposed the statement, including Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne, sent a letter to Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, saying they “do not consider” the statement that allows Protestant spouses to receive Communion in some cases to be “right” because they do not agree that the issue to be a pastoral issue but rather a “question of the faith and unity of the church which is not subject to a vote.” The opposing German bishops laid out four points that need clarification: they ask whether such a proposal is a pastoral matter or one concerning the faith and church unity; they ask why a person who shares the Catholic faith on the Eucharist should not become Catholic; they question whether “spiritual distress” is really exceptional or simply part of striving for unity; and they ask if a bishops’ conference should be making such a decision without reference to the universal church. They added that they have “many other fundamental questions and reservations” about the proposed statement, saying, “We ask for your help, in light of our doubts, as to whether the draft solution presented in this document is compatible with the faith and unity of the church.”

Opposition to the proposal also came from a number of cardinals in Rome, including, Cardinals Francis Arinze, Gerhard Muller, Walter Brandmuller and Paul Cordes. They called the proposal a “rhetorical trick,” as they stressed that interdenominational marriage is “not an emergency situation.” The 89-year-old retired German Cardinal Brandmuller said the German bishops’ weak opposition to the proposal was a “scandal, no question.”

Pope Francis has called Cardinals Marx, Woelki and Bishop Felix Genn of Munster to Rome to discuss the proposal. It seems that more is at stake and on the table besides the question of interdenominational reception of Communion. It is playing out to be a question of the limits of synodality and collegiality vs. a top down method of decision making in the universal church. The Second Vatican Council called for a return to the first millennium church’s style of governance, where the local church, in dioceses as well as bishops’ conferences, should play a larger part in decisions affecting their people. What comes of this final decision should give a good insight into the strength of the notion of synodality in the church, as well as the Magisterium’s reach into the decisions of particular bishops’ conference decisions for the good of their local church. Should be interesting. Stay tuned.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.