On intercommunion, Vatican returns the ball to German bishops

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising and Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne in Rome Italy on March 14 2013 Credit Paul Badde EWTN 3 CNA Cardinal Reinhard Marx and Cardinal Rainer Woelki. | Paul Badde

After several German bishops appealed to the Vatican over an alleged proposal to allow non-Catholic spouses in mixed faith marriages to receive communion, the Church's top authority on doctrine has sent the ball back, saying Pope Francis wants Germany's bishops to come to an agreement among themselves.

Released after a 4-hour meeting between German bishops and the heads of certain curial offices, a Vatican communique said that Archbishop Luis Ladaria SJ, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told the bishops that the pope "appreciates the ecumenical commitment of the German bishops" and asked them "to find, in a spirit of ecumenical communion, a possibly unanimous decision."

It is not clear whether a "possibly unanimous decision" asks the German bishops' conference for a fully unanimous vote on the issue, or asks for a nearly unanimous decision, or whether the bishops are simply being asked to discuss the matter further to see if they can resolve the issue themselves before a central authority steps in.

The Vatican declined to comment on the meaning of the phrase.

Announced over the weekend, the May 3 meeting followed reports, later denied by the German bishops' conference, that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had rejected a proposal by the conference to publish guidelines allowing the non-Catholic spouses of Catholics to receive the Eucharist in certain limited circumstances.

In February, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops conference, announced that the conference would publish a pastoral handout explaining that Protestant spouses of Catholics "in individual cases" and "under certain conditions" could receive Holy Communion, provided they "affirm the Catholic faith in the Eucharist."

Marx's statement concerned a draft version of the guidelines, which was adopted "after intensive debate" during a Feb. 19-22 general assembly of the conference..

The Vatican's communique noted that while more than three-quarters of the German bishops voted in favor of the guidelines, "a not indifferent number" of voters, including seven diocesan bishops, "did not feel capable, for various reasons, of giving their consent."

The bishops, the Vatican said, then appealed to the Vatican for an answer as to whether the question of Holy Communion for Protestant spouses in interdenominational marriages can be decided at a local level by a national bishops' conference, or if a decision from the universal Church was required in the matter.

Specifically, they wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Council for Legislative Texts.

Signatories, who did not consult Cardinal Marx before writing the letter, included: Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg; Bishop Gregor Hanke of Eichstätt; Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg; Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau; Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg; Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt of Görlitz and Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Cologne.

None of the signatories, apart from Cardinal Woelki, were present for the May 3 meeting, which was held at the Vatican and conducted in German.

Members of the German delegation also included: Cardinal Marx; Bishop Felix Genn of Munster; Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer and president of the Doctrinal Commission for the German bishops conference; Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg and president of the German bishops' Commission for Ecumenism and Fr. Hans Langendörfer SJ, secretary of the German bishops conference.

On the Vatican side, the meeting was attended by: Archbishop Ladaria; Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Msgr. Markus Graulich, undersecretary for the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and Fr. Herman Geissler, who serves as a kind of office manager for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

During the meeting, several questions were discussed, centered around the relationship between faith and pastoral care.

Archbishop Ladaria will now inform Pope Francis about the discussion, which the Vatican said took place in a "cordial and fraternal atmosphere."

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