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Pope Francis asks German bishops for ‘unanimous’ decision on intercommunion with Protestants

Diane Montagna Diane Montagna Follow Diane

VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) —  Pope Francis has asked the bishops of Germany to come to a “unanimous” decision on whether a Protestant spouse who is married to a Catholic may receive the Holy Eucharist in some exceptional cases. 

The news follows reports that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the Pope’s approval, had already written a letter to German bishops rejecting their proposal to allow some Protestant spouses to receive Holy Communion. According to the reports, Pope Francis did not wish the letter to be made public because it didn’t “fit the narrative and direction” of this pontificate. 

In a statement released this evening, after a meeting between German bishops and Vatican officials, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, SJ, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explained that Pope Francis “appreciates the ecumenical commitment of the German bishops and asks them to find, in a spirit of ecclesial communion, a unanimous result if possible.” 

During the talks, which were convened at 4pm at the offices of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “various points of view” were discussed, including “the relationship of the question [of intercommunion] with faith and pastoral care, its relevance for the universal Church and its juridical dimension,” the statement read.

It also noted that Archbishop Ladaria “will inform the Holy Father about the content of the conversations” and said the meeting took place “in a cordial and fraternal atmosphere.” 

Pope Francis was not in attendance at the meeting.

Present at today’s talks were Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne and Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg. The two bishops are among seven signatories of a letter to the Vatican who oppose a proposal and pastoral handout approving Intercommunion — which the German bishops voted in favor of on February 20, by a two thirds majority.

With the vote, held at their Spring plenary assembly in Ingolstadt, the German bishops overwhelmingly decided that permission could be granted to a Protestant spouse if, after having made a “serious examination” of conscience with a priest or another person with pastoral responsibilities, he or she “affirms the faith of the Catholic Church,” wishes to end “serious spiritual distress,” and has a “longing to satisfy a hunger for the Eucharist.”

At the time, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, made clear that the proposal did not require the Protestant spouse to convert to Catholicism.

In a March 22 letter to the Vatican, seven bishops said they did not consider the vote to be “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.”

Bishop Voderholzer, who is vice-president of the German bishops’ conference’s doctrinal commission and the only German member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was invited on April 30 by Pope Francis to attend the talks. 

Also present at today’s meeting were three German bishops supporting the proposal: Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer, and Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg, president of the bishops’ commission for ecumenism. 

Jesuit Fr. Hans Langendörfer, Secretary of the German bishops’ conference — who is thought to be the mastermind behind the German bishops’ intercommunion proposal — also attended the meeting. 

Taking part on the Vatican side were Archbishop Luis Ladaria, SJ, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Salesian canonist Msgr. Markus Graulich, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts; and Father Hermann Geissler, head of the doctrinal section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. All are understood to be sympathetic to the seven bishops’ letter.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is also known to oppose the German bishops’ intercommunion proposal and to support the seven bishops’ initiative. 

Pope Francis, for his part, is believed to have some sympathies for the German bishops’ proposal, having appeared to endorse the idea at a meeting with Lutherans in Rome in November 2015 (see video of the event here). Shortly thereafter, Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, reaffirmed that “intercommunion is not permitted between Catholics and non-Catholics.”

“You must confess the Catholic Faith. A non-Catholic cannot receive Communion. That is very, very clear. It’s not a matter of following your conscience,” Cardinal Sarah said.

As Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register has reported, the German bishops’ recent proposal on intercommunion has caused considerable concern in Rome. Cardinals Francis Arinze, Gerhard Müller, Walter Brandmüller, and Paul Cordes have all decried the move. 

Cardinal Müller has called the proposal a “rhetorical trick” pulled on believers, adding that interdenominational marriage is “not an emergency situation.”

For his part, Cardinal Brandmüller has called the German bishops’ weak opposition to the proposal an unquestionable “scandal.”

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