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Pope Francis with Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops conference.
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A handy timeline of the controversy over the German bishops’ intercommunion plan

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Analysis

ROME, July 5, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) — Despite strong opposition from senior Vatican officials and several members of the German episcopate, the permanent council of the German bishops’ conference last week went ahead and published their controversial ‘intercommunion’ handout, with the tacit but sufficient approval of Pope Francis.

The first indication that Pope Francis could favor the kind of innovations initially proposed by German Cardinal Walter Kasper came when he visited the Roman Lutheran congregation in November 2015 accompanied by the Cardinal, and delivered an ambiguous response to a woman asking why she was unable to receive Communion in the Church of her Catholic spouse. Pope Francis’ answer appeared to suggest that if she was comfortable in her conscience doing so she should feel free.

The implications of this were taken up in a document prepared by the German bishops conference but opposed by a minority of its members in March. Since then, a war of attrition over the admissibility of such proposals has been waged within Germany and the Roman Curia leading to a cacophony of opposed legal and doctrinal pronouncements of disputed and varying authority.

Confused? The following timeline is offered as a guide for the concerned reader.

Timeline

November 15, 2015: Pope Francis visits the Lutheran community in Rome. Asked by a Lutheran woman married to a Roman Catholic what can be done so that they can receive Communion together, Pope Francis appears to suggest that if she is comfortable in her conscience receiving the Holy Eucharist she should feel free. He tells her: “Speak with the Lord and move forward. I dare not say more.” Watch their exchange here.

January 15, 2017: A group of Finnish Lutherans were offered Holy Communion by priests at a Mass held in St. Peter's Basilica. Prior to the Mass, the delegation led by Lutheran Bishop Samuel Salmi had met privately with Pope Francis. According to Salmi, at the time of communion the non-Catholics placed their right hands on their left shoulders, a traditional way of indicating that they were ineligible to receive the Eucharist. However, the celebrating priests insisted on giving them Communion. Salmi told a newspaper “I myself accepted it [Holy Communion].” He added that “this was not a coincidence.”

February 20, 2018: The German Bishops’ Conference votes by a large majority at their spring conference to produce a pastoral guide allowing a Protestant spouse of a Catholic to receive the Holy Eucharist in some cases. At the time, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, said there was no need for the  spouse to convert to Catholicism. 

March 22, 2018: In a letter to the Vatican, seven bishops oppose the handout, arguing that the vote was not “right” because the issue of intercommunion is not a “pastoral one,” but “a question of the faith and unity of the Church, which is not subject to a vote.”

April 8, 2018: A delegation of German bishops representing the opposing sides are sent a confidential letter summoning them to Rome for a meeting with Vatican officials at the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

May 3, 2018: A meeting between German Bishops and Vatican officials is held at the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Archbishop Luis Ladaria, SJ, prefect of the CDF, ends the meeting with a message from Pope Francis directing the German bishops to reach a unanimous decision if possible.

May 5, 2018: Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht, Netherlands, issues a statement saying Pope Francis’ failure to give German bishops proper directives, based on the clear doctrine and practice of the Church, points to a drift towards apostasy from the truth.

May 24, 2018: Archbishop Luis Ladaria, SJ, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, meets with Pope Francis to finalize a letter to German Bishops regarding their intercommunion proposal.

May 25, 2018: Archbishop Luis Ladaria sends a letter to the German Bishops saying that the Pope has come to the conclusion that the document is not ready to be published, because it is a matter that “touches on the faith of the Church and has relevance for the universal Church.” Ladaria also tells the German bishops it has effects for ecumenical relations with the Orthodox and other Christians, and concerns the law of the Church. Ladaria explains that the “competent dicasteries of the Holy See” have been charged with “producing a timely clarification of these questions at the level of the universal Church.” In a note that seems added on to an already prepared text, he says: “In particular, it seems appropriate to leave the judgment on the existence of an ‘imminent grave necessity’ to the diocesan bishop.”

June 11, 2018: Cardinal Reinhard Marx meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican during the latest C9 meetings.

June 12, 2018: Cardinal Marx sends Pope Francis a letter outlining the content of the meeting. The letter is initialed with an “F” and dated by Pope Francis.

June 21, 2018: During his inflight press conference on his return from the meeting of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Pope Francis tells a German reporter, for an agency with close ties to the German bishops’ conference, that Archbishop Ladaria’s letter has not “put the breaks on” the intercommunion proposal. He tells journalists that the difficulty he has with the handout is “not so much the content,” but that if approved by the bishops’ conference, it “immediately becomes universal.” He said it falls to the diocesan bishop to ascertain whether a Protestant spouse who is married to a Catholic may receive the Holy Eucharist. 

June 25, 2018: Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg, Germany — one of the main authors of the intercommunion proposal — says in an interview that the German bishops were inspired in their proposal by Pope Francis' words in November 2015 during his visit to the Lutheran community in Rome. Recalling a conversation with the Pope one week after the visit, Bishop Feige said:

During the German bishops’ so-called Ad Limina visit to Rome [in November of 2015], I directly asked the Pope one week later [after the pope’s comments in the Lutheran Church of Rome] how we are to understand his words. He then repeated, nearly verbatim, that which he had said in the Christuskirche: “Generally, I cannot change anything, but speak with the Lord and move forward.”

Feige concludes, saying: “With our handout, we only took the Pope at his words.”

June 27, 2018: The permanent council of the German Bishops’ publish their pastoral handout as is but remove any reference attributing it to the bishops’ conference. In a statement, they stress that it is not a document of the bishops’ conference but rather an aid to diocesan bishops.

June 27, 2018: Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker of Paderborn decides to allow Protestant spouses of Catholics living in his diocese to receive holy Communion "in individual cases.”

Part of the origins of this dispute go back to the celebrated 2000 document Dominus Iesus, in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, speaking with the apostolic authority of Pope John Paul II, taught:

The ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church. Baptism in fact tends per se toward the full development of life in Christ, through the integral profession of faith, the Eucharist, and full communion in the Church.

At the time, this document provoked considerable uproar among those with heterodox views of ecumenism. The Anglican leader Rowan Williams famously complained upon his return from his first audience with the newly elected Benedict XVI, author of Dominus Iesus, that, having been grouped not with the Orthodox bishops but with the leaders of Protestant communities, “I felt as though I ought to be wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘gravely deficient’ written on it.”

He was alluding to Dominus Iesus description of non-Christian religions. In fact, Dominus Iesus merely described the Church of England as “not a Church in the proper sense.” Why Rowan Williams would have grouped it with non-Christian religions is a question best left to him. Be that as it may, as indicated above, Dominus Iesus expresses the hope that the common baptism shared between Catholics and their separated brethren will ultimately lead them to the “integral profession of faith, the Eucharist, and full communion in the Church.”

For those, however, with more heterodox “ecumenical” views, this is asking too much, certainly of our separated brethren and possibly of themselves. In the hope of softening this twofold burden, theologians and ecclesiastics of the stamp of Cardinal Kasper have long aspired to make a breach in the Church’s ecclesiastical discipline through the admission of non-Catholic Christians “lacking a valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery” to the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.

As a consequence, such proposals inspire intense passions both in those who make them and those who oppose them. A perceived weak point in the defenses surrounding the Holy Eucharist is canon 844, which envisages the admission of non-Catholic Christians in vaguely defined “grave circumstances” to Communion. However, such individuals would, according to Canon 844, “manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments,” be “properly disposed” and be unable to have access to their ministers.

Prelates such as Bishop Athanasius Schneider and canonists have called for a reform of Canon 844. How they and Cardinal Kasper understand this canon radically differ, and until this is resolved, this canon poses a significant challenge to Eucharistic discipline.

RELATED

Cardinal Burke, Bishop Schneider respond to Pope Francis’ inflight intercommunion comments

WATCH: Pope Francis says individual bishops can decide on intercommunion for Protestant spouses

Vatican’s liturgy chief contradicts Pope Francis on Communion for non-Catholics

Pope’s advice to Lutheran woman: A clue to how he’ll rule on Communion for the ‘remarried’?

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