German Catholic, Protestant leaders share communion at ecumenical event

Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK). | Rudolf Gehrig/CNA Deutsch.

An ecumenical event in Germany last weekend culminated with the Catholic and Protestant leaders of the initiative publicly receiving communion in each others’ churches.

Bettina Limperg, the Lutheran co-president of the Ecumenical Church Congress, received Holy Communion in a Catholic church.

Thomas Sternberg, fellow co-president and head of the influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), received communion during a service at a Protestant church.

The Ecumenical Church Congress took place in Frankfurt and online amid a controversy about intercommunion that drew the Vatican’s attention.

In the run-up to the May 13-16 event, Rome expressed concerns that the congress might promote a controversial proposal for a “Eucharistic meal fellowship” between Catholics and Protestants.

The proposal was made by the Ecumenical Study Group of Protestant and Catholic Theologians (ÖAK) in a 2019 document entitled “Together at the Lord’s Table.”

The ÖAK adopted the text under the co-chairmanship of Bishop Georg Bätzing, now chairman of the German bishops’ conference, and the retired Lutheran Bishop Martin Hein.

The ÖAK document prompted an intervention by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in September 2020.

In a four-page critique and a letter to Bätzing, the doctrinal congregation emphasized that significant differences in understanding of the Eucharist and ministry remain between Protestants and Catholics.

“The doctrinal differences are still so important that they currently rule out reciprocal participation in the Lord’s Supper and the Eucharist,” it said.

“The document cannot, therefore, serve as a guide for an individual decision of conscience about approaching the Eucharist.”

The CDF cautioned against any steps towards intercommunion between Catholics and members of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), an organization representing 20 Protestant groups.

Following the Vatican intervention, Bätzing repeatedly ruled out general intercommunion, while saying that he respects the “personal decision of conscience” of individual Protestants to receive Communion in Catholic churches.

Bätzing wrote a letter to clergy in his Diocese of Limburg in March, advising them to give Holy Communion to non-Catholic individuals only if they requested it after examining their consciences.

In the four-page letter issued in light of the Ecumenical Church Congress, he told priests that there could be “no general, inter-denominational reception of the Eucharist” or “new forms of Eucharistic celebration.”

He wrote: “The prerequisite for a worthy reception of the Eucharistic gifts, for both Catholics and non-Catholics, is the examination of one’s conscience.”

“As pastors, we respect the decision of conscience when someone receives Holy Communion after serious examination and in accordance with the Catholic faith.”

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On May 15, the Ecumenical Church Congress encouraged participants to attend services at each others’ churches.

On the eve of the event, Bätzing insisted that the church services would be “ecumenically sensitive.”

Meetings and liturgical celebrations took place at more than 100 locations in Frankfurt.

CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, reported that Fr. Johannes zu Eltz, Catholic dean of the city, offered an apology to Protestants at the beginning of Mass in Frankfurt Cathedral.

He asked forgiveness for the times that they had encountered arrogance and an insistence on boundaries on the Catholic side.

“I ask for forgiveness for this and thank you for your patience,” he said.

In video interviews during the Ecumenical Church Congress, Bishop Bätzing and Thomas Sternberg discussed the German Catholic Church’s controversial “Synodal Way.”

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The multi-year process, expected to end in February 2022, brings together bishops and lay people to discuss four main topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.

The German bishops initially said that the process would end with a series of “binding” votes -- raising concerns at the Vatican that the resolutions might challenge the Church’s teaching and discipline.

Bätzing said in the video interview: “If we come to decisions, and we will, then that will develop a dynamic that also leads to results.”

Asked about his comment that a day of blessing of same-sex couples in Germany in protest at the Vatican was not a “helpful sign,” the bishop clarified that he was objecting to the polemical nature of the event.

“I wanted to react against this, not against our taking steps in this direction,” he said.

Bätzing added that he understood the desire of same-sex couples to receive a blessing in a church.

He said that what he considered important was “that we give partnerships that live in faithfulness and trust with one another, which shape this life on the basis of their Christian faith and thus give a witness of faith, the blessing of God.”

He also said that he was surprised by the Vatican’s “no” to same-sex blessings.

The CDF issued its pronouncement on March 15 in a document known as a “Responsum ad dubium” (response to a question).

In reply to the query, “does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” the CDF answered, “Negative.” The congregation outlined its reasoning in an explanatory note and accompanying commentary.

Bätzing said he learned about the Responsum just minutes before it was published and believed it was directed at Germany.

He added that the Vatican’s intervention was not “helpful” as pastoral practice had gone beyond the Church’s teaching and therefore the teaching needed to be “developed” further.

Sternberg said that the topics of the “Synodal Way” were relevant for the universal Church, and this was evident from the fact that Austria, Ireland, Australia, France, and Italy were launching similar processes.

According to Sternberg, the “Way” will become a "network of ways.”

He also referred to the debate about the ordination of women priests. He argued that with his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II tried to “stifle this question.”

“The question was not raised in the Church, and now it is breaking out with all its might,” he commented.

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