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Pope Francis shifts on Protestant intercommunion after bishops publicly reject it

John-Henry Westen John-Henry Westen Follow John-Henry

June 18, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – One of the most significant turnarounds, or at least temporary retreats, on the part of Pope Francis has been his seeming about-face on the issue of allowing Holy Communion for Protestant spouses of Catholics. It was indeed Pope Francis who launched the anticipation for intercommunion when he joined Lutheran leaders in celebrating the 500th anniversary of Lutheranism in Lund, Sweden, in 2016.

But the latest news is that in a letter sent to the head of the German Bishops’ Conference, “with the explicit approval of the pope” by Archbishop Luis Ladaria, S.J., prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the bishops of Germany were told not to publish a document permitting intercommunion that they had approved.

Pope Francis creates anticipation for intercommunion

In November 2015, in anticipation of the following year’s Lutheran anniversary, the pope travelled to a Lutheran church in Rome to give a talk and was asked by a Lutheran woman, whose husband was a Catholic, if she was permitted to receive Communion in the Catholic Church. The pope acknowledged that “explanations and interpretations” of Communion may differ between Catholics and Lutherans, but “life is bigger than explanations and interpretations.” He advised the woman to “talk to the Lord and then go forward.”

Just after the 2016 meeting in Sweden, a group of Finnish Lutherans were offered Holy Communion by priests at a Mass held in St. Peter's Basilica following a meeting with Pope Francis on January 15, 2017.

Samuel Salmi, a Lutheran bishop, met privately with Pope Francis. After the personal audience with the pope, the delegation was present at a celebration of the Catholic Mass. 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,” and nor was it a coincidence when last year the pope seemed to accept the notion of a Lutheran woman receiving Communion with her Catholic husband.

German Bishops allow intercommunion

In February 2018, Munich’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops Conference and a member of the pope’s advisory Council of Cardinals, announced that the German bishops decided to allow the Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion in individual cases.

A flurry of condemnations of the action followed from cardinals and bishops around the world.

Cardinals and bishops counter

The first to do so was Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who Pope Francis demoted from his post as head of the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2017. In an interview, the cardinal said the German bishops are misusing canon law to support their decision. Müller described the expression “in individual cases” as a “rhetorical trick.”

While the Code of Canon Law (in Canon 844 § 4) allows such intercommunion in cases of “a grave spiritual need,” Müller suggests it is “not right” for the German bishops to invoke that provision of the Code in this circumstance.

The Code of Canon Law is not applicable here, according to Müller, since the canonical exceptions deal with the eternal salvation of souls and with danger of death. A mixed marriage, on the other hand, is not an emergency situation.

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.”

Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, one of the two living “dubia” cardinals, criticized his fellow German bishops’ “wholly dishonest ploy” of allowing Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion. He warned in March that normalizing "emergency" exceptions allowed in Canon Law is a “wicked trick.”

“A Christian who truly yearns for Holy Communion and who knows that there is no Eucharist without the Church and no Church without the Eucharist, will ask for admittance into the Catholic Church,” said Brandmüller. “Anything else would be doubtful and dishonest.”

Seven German bishops, led by the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Rainer Woelki, wrote an open letter to the Vatican about their concerns, saying that they consider the proposal “unlawful” and in violation of Catholic doctrine and the unity of the Church.

The three-page letter was published in the Cologne newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. It was sent also to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Luis Ladaria, and to Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Swiss president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Besides Cardinal Woelki, the letter was signed by Archbishop Ludwig Schick and Bishops Konrad Zdarsa (Augsburg), Gregor Maria Hanke (Eichstätt), Wolfgang Ipolt (Görlitz), Rudolf Voderholzer (Regensburg), and Stefan Oster (Passau).

Pope’s first intervention rebuffed

After a May 3 meeting at the Vatican between opposing factions of German bishops and Vatican officials, Pope Francis asked the bishops of Germany to come to a “unanimous” decision.

However, the pope’s attempt to push back the matter into the hands of the German hierarchy did not quell the vocal opposition of bishops in Germany or around the globe.

In Germany, Cardinal Woelki, gave a moving speech at the end of the Corpus Christi Procession and Pontifical Mass in his Cathedral of Cologne. He said he would not stop fighting for the truth on intercommunion. “It is about questions of life and death! ... It is about death and resurrection. It is about eternal life … Here, it is about Christ, it is about His Church, and thus it goes straight to the heart of the matter."

Holland’s Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk called Pope Francis’ directive for unanimity “completely incomprehensible.” Eijk asked: “Unanimity about what?”

“The practice of the Catholic Church, based on her faith, is not determined and does not change when the majority of an episcopal conference votes in favor of it, not even if unanimously,” he said.

As “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful” (Lumen gentium no. 23), Eijk said, the Holy Father should have given the German bishops clear directives based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law.  

Pope Francis’ lack of clarity on the issue of intercommunion is having the opposite effect, creating “great confusion” among the faithful and “endangering” the unity of the Church, he said.

Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast called the intercommunion proposal against Catholic teaching. “This kind of open communion is against Catholic teaching ,and from what I can see in non-Catholic congregations that follow a discipline of ‘open communion,’ it is also spiritually and pastorally unfruitful,” the Jesuit archbishop told the Catholic Register’s Deborah Gyapong in an interview.

“It is puzzling to learn that the Holy Father told the bishops that whatever they determine is acceptable as long as they all agree,” he said.

In the U.S., Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote a column noting that the intercommunion proposal was a “serious offense before God.”

“The essence of the German intercommunion proposal is that there would be a sharing in Holy Communion even when there is not true Church unity,” Chaput said. The archbishop added that “It implies, in its effect, a Protestantization of the Catholic theology of the sacraments.”

He questioned that if Church teaching can be ignored or renegotiated, even that with a conciliar definition, as in this case, at Trent, then “can all councils be historically relativized and renegotiated?”

In his characteristically blunt and humorous style, retired Vatican Cardinal Francis Arinze said it’s important to understand that “the Holy Eucharist is not our private possession which we can share with our friends.”

“Our tea is such and also our bottle of beer,” he said. “We can share those with our friends.”

“Come, be received into the Church,” he said, “and then you can receive Holy Communion seven times a week. Otherwise, no.”

The Pope changes course

The backlash seems to have had an effect. One month after directing the bishops of Germany to reach a “unanimous” decision on whether a Protestant spouse married to a Catholic may receive the Holy Eucharist, Pope Francis changed course and told the German bishops that their document allowing intercommunion “is not ready to be published.”

In his May 25 missive, Cardinal Ladaria informed the German bishops that the text proposed by the German bishops’ “raises a number of significant issues.” “The Holy Father has therefore come to the conclusion that the document is not ready to be published.”

The Vatican doctrinal chief gives three reasons for the decision:

  1. The question of admitting evangelical Christians in interfaith marriages to Communion is a topic which touches on the faith of the Church and has relevance for the universal Church.
  2. The matter effects ecumenical relations with other Churches (e.g. the Orthodox) and ecclesial communities which should not be underestimated.
  3. The decision affects the interpretation of Church law, specifically canon 844, that allows Protestant Communion only in cases of “grave necessity” [imminent death].

Ladaria further notes that the “competent discastries” of the Holy See have been tasked with “producing a timely clarification of these questions at the level of the universal Church.” This indicates that the question of intercommunion is no longer being left to the German bishops’ conference, as Pope Francis has originally directed.

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