Vatican cardinal clashes with German theologian over ‘Eucharistic meal fellowship’

CardinalKurtKochbluebackground.jpg Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in Rome on Oct. 23, 2019. Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

A Vatican cardinal has responded to a German theologian who criticized him for opposing a proposal for a "Eucharistic meal fellowship" between Catholics and Protestants.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, answered the criticisms in an open letter dated Feb. 8. 

The six-page letter was addressed to Volker Leppin, a professor of Church history at the University of Tübingen and academic director of the Protestant part of the Ecumenical Study Group of Protestant and Catholic Theologians (known by its German initials, ÖAK.)

In a Feb. 3 interview with, the website of the Catholic Church in Germany, Leppin lamented what he called the cardinal's "brusque dismissal" of a 26-page statement issued by the ÖAK on Jan. 24.

Koch told CNA Deutsch, CNA's German-language news partner, last month that he was surprised by the tone and choice of words in the statement, as well as its content and timing.

In their statement, ÖAK theologians contested a critical assessment of the group's proposal for a "reciprocal Eucharistic hospitality" between Catholics and Protestants by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

The CDF raised concerns last September about a 2019 document prepared by the ÖAK entitled "Together at the Lord's Table," which envisaged a "Eucharistic meal fellowship" between Catholics and Protestants.

The study found "the practice of mutual participation at the celebrations of the Holy Communion/Eucharist, respecting each other's liturgical traditions, to be theologically well-founded."

The ÖAK was established in 1946 to strengthen ecumenical ties. It is independent of both the German Catholic bishops' conference and the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), an organization representing 20 Protestant groups. But the ÖAK informs both bodies about its deliberations.

CNA Deutsch has previously reported that the ÖAK adopted the intercommunion document under the co-chairmanship of Bishop Georg Bätzing, who is now the president of the Catholic bishops' conference, and the retired Lutheran Bishop Martin Hein. 

In May 2020, an association of members of the EKD and the bishops' conference concluded "that the study develops a theological framework for the individual decision of conscience, regarding reciprocal participation in the Eucharist/Lord's Supper."

A note on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity's website said that the CDF's intervention "had become necessary because the ÖAK study had now been given the status of an expert opinion of the DBK [German bishops' conference], on ​​the basis of which the individual Catholic bishops were to position themselves in terms of doctrine."

The bishops' conference was due to vote on the assessment of the official contact discussion group at the end of September but the vote was postponed due to the CDF's intervention.

In a letter to Bätzing, the doctrinal congregation said that the proposal did not do justice to the Catholic understanding of the Church, the Eucharist, and Holy Orders. 

The CDF cautioned against any steps towards intercommunion between Catholics and members of the EKD.

In his open letter, Koch denied that he was refusing to engage with the ÖAK's arguments. He also highlighted what he called a "serious discrepancy" between the ÖAK's claims and common practice in Protestant churches. 

The Swiss cardinal offered the example of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau (EKHN), one of the member churches of the EKD. He noted that the EKHN invites people who have not been baptized to take part in the Lord's Supper service. 

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Koch said that this practice contradicted the ÖAK's claim that there is a "basic understanding" concerning an analogous "recognition" to baptism also in the "respective liturgical form of the celebration of the Lord's Supper."

"If, on the one hand, baptism and the mutual recognition of baptism are considered to represent the foundation of ecumenism, and if, on the other hand, an ecumenical partner relativizes baptism in such a way that it is no longer even a prerequisite for participation in the Lord's Supper, the question must be allowed as to just who is questioning the foundation of ecumenism here," Koch wrote in his open letter.

The cardinal said he was surprised "that such discrepancies between claimed ecumenical consensuses and the factual reality in the Protestant churches are not noted by the members of the ÖAK or, if they are, are not voiced, at least only in an extremely minimal way."

Koch nevertheless expressed gratitude that the ecumenical study group had invested "a lot of energy and passion" in overcoming questions that divide Catholics and Protestants. But he said that such steps could only truly succeed by confronting "concrete reality." 

He added that unresolved questions should be named openly and then addressed.

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