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Vatican stalls German bishops’ plan to give Protestants Communion

Pope Francis holds up the host as he celebrates Mass in San Gelasio parish church in the Ponte Mammolo neighborhood of Rome on Feb. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

ROME (RNS) – Disagreements between Catholic bishops in Germany about plans to give Communion to Protestants have spilled out into the wider Roman Catholic Church.

Last Monday (June 4), the Vatican’s doctrine chief, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, informed senior members of the German Catholic hierarchy that the pope believes their plans to make it easier for Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Communion are “not ready” to be published. The letter signaled that top leaders in Rome were not prepared to let these guidelines become accepted practice in the German church — at least not yet.

The dispute highlights Pope Francis’ plans to move the church away from obsessing over doctrinal purity while giving bishops on the ground more decision-making power.

Archbishop Ladaria’s letter was a surprise to many, given that Pope Francis in 2015 seemed to suggest to a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic that she could receive Communion after consulting her conscience. It also followed a summit in Rome last month at which the pope told the German bishops to find an agreement on the matter that was as “unanimous as possible.”

While two-thirds of the German bishops agreed with the Communion plan, seven of those who opposed the move, including a cardinal, appealed to the Vatican.

For now, the German proposals to loosen restrictions on who can receive Communion have been stalled. The row highlights the delicate balance Pope Francis faces as he tries to widen the Catholic Church’s doors while avoiding damaging internal disagreements. He is already facing bruising criticisms over plans to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

Archbishop Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the Vatican on May 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Even so, Pope Francis is not shying away from controversial issues. On Friday, a Vatican document appeared to open up the debate over allowing married men to be priests, while calling for “official” roles for women to serve in the church.

These proposals are targeted at South America’s Amazon region, where priests are scarce and communities are unable to attend Mass for weeks on end. But like the German Communion question, they could set precedents with global implications. The challenge for Pope Francis is how the church makes these decisions as a whole while accounting for unique local circumstances.

Since his election in 2013, the pope has dealt with difficult issues by starting a direct discussion about them. “Make a mess,” he once told young people in Brazil at the beginning of his papacy.

On the question of whether Protestants can receive Communion, many Catholic theologians have called for a loosening of restrictions that bar Christians from non-Catholic traditions.

In Germany, as in the United States, the population includes a large number of “mixed marriages” — Catholics married to Christians from other traditions. Many German non-Catholics regularly attend Mass with their spouses and want to receive Communion. Current rules, however, bar Protestants from doing so except within tightly prescribed circumstances.

Paul Murray, a Catholic member of the Anglican–Roman Catholic Dialogue Forum and professor at the University of Durham (UK), says that Catholic guidelines have long allowed for “exceptional receipt” of Communion, such as on the day of their marriage or at a child’s baptism.

Paul Murray. Photo courtesy of Durham University

The German bishops, feeling emboldened by the pope’s wish to empower local leaders, devised a pastoral plan to loosen restrictions. They reportedly proposed that Protestant spouses could receive Communion if they affirm the church’s faith, are in serious spiritual distress and express a hunger for Communion.

“The majority of the German bishops are agreeing with those who understandably claim that such inter-church marriages are themselves an exceptional circumstance, and that any occasion of sharing together in a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist should be viewed as a proper exceptional circumstance for joint reception,” Murray said.

“This is pastorally and theologically sound: as with each Catholic Eucharist, devout inter-church marriages both celebrate a real presence and reality of communion in Christ and anticipate the fulfilment of such communion.”

Murray noted, however, that this “requires some Catholic rethinking” of the “boundary markers.” But, he added, “This should not be used as a reason for a continuing failure to recognize the exceptional, indeed prophetic, character of inter-church marriages.”

German cardinal Reinhard Marx is president of the German Bishops’ Conference and supports the Communion plan. He is in Rome this week (June 11-13) to meet with the pope and his council of cardinal advisers. Marx is reportedly planning to raise the matter with Vatican officials and said he was “surprised” by Ladaria’s letter.

Archbishop Cardinal Reinhard Marx speaks in Munich, southern Germany, on Feb. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

But his attempts will likely face resistance inside the Vatican. In his letter, Archbishop Ladaria said the pope was blocking the German bishops’ plans for now because their proposals touch on the fundamentals of church teaching and law. The letter signals that the Vatican believes such matters need to be discerned by the whole church, not just one country’s bishops.

For Catholics, Communion is the source and summit of Christian life. It involves receiving the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ under the appearances of bread and wine. Transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine are Christ’s actual body and blood, sets Catholics apart from other Christian traditions. It is a doctrine that Western Christendom fought over during the Protestant Reformation.

While Catholics see Communion as a sign of church unity, it is also understood as a means to achieving unity. For that reason, many would like Christians from other traditions to be admitted in some circumstances as a foretaste of when all Christians are visibly united.

Pope Francis has called for Christians to put the divisions of the past behind them. He’s made some bold gestures, such as visiting Sweden to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation last year. On June 21, he will visit the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

The letter stalling the Germans’ Communion proposals was not a definitive no. Archbishop Ladaria noted that it’s up to local bishops to work out the exceptional circumstances for Protestants to receive Communion. He also said there could easily be new global guidelines on the topic.

“We must journey and continue: not with the enthusiasm of running ahead to reach coveted goals, but walking patiently together, under the gaze of God,” Pope Francis told a delegation of Lutherans visiting him in the Vatican last Monday (June 4).

“Walking together” is one of the pope’s favorite mantras. When dealing with tense theological debates inside the church, he is putting equal weight on both words.

Christopher Lamb is Rome Correspondent for The Tablet and a contributor to RNS.

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  • I applaud Pope Francis’ desire to leave past divisions within the church in the past. Jesus’ last prayer on earth, after all, was “that they all may be one.” (John 17:21) But the slavish devotion to rules and regulations the Vatican’s letter to the German bishops reveals is exactly what turns people off to religion. That letter is not helping.

    The Catholic Church’s teaching magisterium considers it a “scandal” if people who have different understandings of the Holy Eucharist share the Lord’s Supper together, which is why it opposes intercommunion. But isn’t it a bigger scandal to ignore Jesus’ last prayer on earth in favor of strict adherence to rules and regulations? It was Jesus, after all, who said, “‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

    I think God will be able to sort it all out without any help from us. S/he’ll just be sad and disappointed that we constructed so many barriers between ourselves and think about all that time we wasted on something that was never very important to begin with.

  • This nicely illustrates the major schism that is taking place between the control-freaks of Roman Catholic theory-world and ordinary people in Roman Catholic parish-world. In most parishes, anybody who might want to can take Communion, in practice.
    Interestingly, the control-freaks of Roman Catholic theory-world want to deny all but “the worthy” the opportunity for Communion, but they don’t want to deny anyone the opportunity to put money in the collection plate. This is a very convenient double-standard.

  • Your post nicely illustrates the schism taking place between those who actually know something about the specifics of Christianity and the beliefs of various denominations, and those who simply want a take-off point for their usual anti-Catholic venom.

    St. Paul wrote that the unworthy who received communion did so to their own condemnation.

    Closed communion is practiced by the majority of Christians, not just Catholics.

    No member of the Orthodox Communion would argue against the Catholic position, and in fact the bishop who heads the Orthodox organization in Germany supported the bishops who opposed this innovation.

    In the United States the Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Evangelical Synod Lutherans also do not practice open communion.

    So, it has zero to do with the collection plate, zero to do with “control freaks”, and a lot to do with the theology of the Eucharist, about which you appear to know zilch.

  • Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    And the Last Supper? It was not an historic event. See http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php/016_Supper_and_Eucharist

    An excerpt:

    “At the same time, Luedemann concludes that the portrayal of Jesus celebrating such a ritual on the night before his death is not historical. He is clear that there is “no generic relationship” between any actual final meal and the Lord’s Supper understood in cultic terms. He also denies the Passover character of the supper as a Markan creation. Like Meier (below), Luedemann does accept the saying (Mark 14:25) about drinking wine in the kingdom of God as authentic. He concludes: (this saying) “hardly came into being in the early community, for in it Jesus does not exercise any special function for believers at the festal meal in heaven which is imminent. Only Jesus’ expectation of a the future kingdom of God stands at the centre, not Jesus as saviour, judge or intercessor.”

  • Eastern Orthodoxy, Missouri and Wisconsin synod Lutherans – all examples of uber-conservative branches of Christianity. Naturally and conveniently you leave out the multitude of Western Churches which do practice open communion, thus offering no sense of balance. Dishonest as usual.

  • Always freaking out has no idea what it is talking about. I’ve been to numerous catholic parishes in multiple states and most of not all have guidelines in either the bulletin or missal that explicitly states that non-Catholics should not receive communion; unless you are a member of the church that is aligned with the RCC.

  • Other churches do not believe in the transfiguration of the bread and wine; the very essence of what separates the RCC’s mass from other church services. Communion is not interchangeable across the denominations; so it should not be shared-it doesn’t mean the same thing.
    I always enjoy how you point out the fault and scandals of the church(es) and invoke the name of Jesus when it suits you; yet you never mention the part where he says to repent for your sins.

  • “guidelines in either the bulletin or missal”

    These guidelines don’t mean squat in actual practice. As the old saying goes, “You pays your money, you gets your thrills.”

  • Again-always talking out your backside. You really think that the three Lutherans who may show up at a catholic mass are going to support the parish with anything that they put in the plate. You just sound stupid.

  • Odd, isn’t it, that the Christian bodies which make up 85% or more of Christianity are, to your mind, “uber conservative” while the tiny minority, including your own denomination which has lost half its membership in four decades, is apparently a “norm”.

    Speaking of no sense of balance and dishonest as usual.

  • “the theology of the Eucharist, about which you appear to know zilch”
    The Host, if it contains gluten, is Jesus.
    The officiating priest, who may or may not like touching little boys or girls, is Jesus (in persona Christi)
    So the Eucharist consists of Jesus worshiping himself by cannibalizing himself.

  • Wow, you got one fact right – it has something to do with Jesus.

    That, for you, is a record.

    I’ve run into intellectual anti-Catholics.

    You aren’t one of them.

  • Of course, none of them are in Germany, and none of them report to Reinhard Cardinal Marx, who is well-named.

  • I must go to really conservative churches-even when I travel. I have never heard a priest announce prior to any mass that communion is open to all. However, I have heard them say during weddings that it is not allowed.

  • Who the heck is “Luedemann”?? I didn’t see his name in any gospel. Was he there? 🤓

  • Professor Gerd Ludemann: “Gerd Lüdemann (born 5 July 1946 in Visselhövede, Lower Saxony), is a German New Testament scholar. He taught this subject from 1983 to 1999 at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Göttingen. Since 1999 he has taught there with a special status as Chair of History and Literature of Early Christianity. He is married with four children and seven grandchildren.”

    Was he at the Last Supper? Of course not but neither were Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke or John.

  • I do not like attending funerals, marriages or other special occasions where Christian attendees are excluded from parts of the service because they come from a different denomination. I have been a member of churches that have open communion and close communion, but have the same understanding for what communion is .

    If the goal is to promote a more ecumenical approach to other Christians, then open communion is good.

    If the concern is that one is repentant of his sins and believes Christ is present in someway in the bread (gluten or non-gluten) and wine (with or without alcohol), then a limited open communion should be allowed. This would include the Orthodox and many post Reformation churches. Included a statement that describes the particular denomination’s understanding of communion and that the communicant agrees with the statement.

    If the goal is closed communion because only those who believe 100% in a denomination’s full body of doctrine can take communion, you can never have more then one person at communion because no two people have the same understanding of something as complicated as Christian doctrine..

  • Cardinal Marx is one of the Catholic prelates for whom I have much respect. God bless him.

  • I belonged to a Catholic cathedral parish for nearly twenty years, and I don’t recall a single Sunday when the vicar or assistant told us that only Catholics were allowed to receive the eucharist at the cathedral. There were no “communion police” checking people’s bona fides. You mention that you “must go to really conservative churches – even when [you] travel.” I’m not surprised. American hierarchs, for the most part, have been ordaining “JPII priests” for years on end. Of course, these guys are going to quote canon law and so-called “tradition” ad nauseum. The late sociologist Dean Hoge of Catholic University of America concluded one of his articles by writing:

    “Laypeople in the post-Vatican II and millennial generations are going in one direction while ‘John Paul II priests’ are going in another. The full effect of this division is not yet felt or discernible, but that will change in coming years. In a decade or two, today’s older generation of priests and laypeople will be gone, leaving all the decisions to today’s younger priests and laity, precisely where the expectation gap is widest” (“Mind the gap: The return of the lay-clerical divide”, COMMONWEAL MAGAZINE, November 19, 2007; available free online).

    These JPII clerics are as useful to most Catholics as “tits on a chicken”.

  • “R.A.”, aka “Bob”, cannot see the sunshine from his bedroom to which he retired after picking up his marbles and taking them home to pout.

    “Come on out ‘n play!”

  • And Jesus instituted the Eucharist before his followers instituted Christianized Jewish communities, which began before Christian churches instituted ministerial ordinations and so-called “priests”.

  • “Other churches do not believe in the transfiguration of the bread and wine…”

    The term is “transubstantiation”.

    “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

    The “one faith” is Christianity. If this reality is not a valid reason to have intercommunion among at least those Christians sharing identical understanding of the doctrine, I don’t know what is.

    Jesus’ wish, not some provision of canon law, takes precedence.

  • BLAM!!! Again, nasty and typical Christian “Bob Arnzen” fires off yet another personal attack. Time to take all his guns away.

  • Religion.

    Division.

    God’s love.

    Power of jesus.

    You’ll know we’re Christians by our love. Tralalalala.

    Heretic!

  • Observer, it is not that protestants are excluded…it is why would protestants want to take communion with people who worship an idol?

  • Well, right off the bat, inter-communion between Orthodox and Catholics is precluded because they do not even confess the same Creed, which would be the most minimal indicator of the possibility of communion fellowship between two religious bodies. Without that, it would be pointless to even continue the discussion by moving onto other considerations.

  • Hyper conservative Christians wish, not some provision of Jesus’s word, Takes precedence.

    FIFY. 😜😘

  • If my memory serves me well, the only difference between the creeds recited by Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches is that the eastern churches omit the “filioque,” i.e. the phrase where it states “who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” referring to the Holy Spirit. To make such a big deal out of that minute difference by saying it would be “pointless to even continue the discussion [of ecumenical dialogue]” just goes to show how completely out-of-touch you arch-conservatives are with the simple message of Jesus. You have become latter-day Pharisees quibbling over persnickety details in order to construct barriers between people. As Jesus said of the hypocrites of his day, ” But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” (Matthew 23:13) Take heed, Father.

  • So, are you saying one more time that Catholics are not Christian? Because it sounds like it.
    Or maybe, you are still just “not sure” if they are Christians.

  • 1. “…the simple message of Jesus.” One of Jesus’ simple messages was that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26), not from the Father and the Son.

    2. “…persnickety details…” If you think a falsehood about the Lord is a “persnickety detail”, all I can say is that I guess I place a higher value on telling the truth about Him (as well as remaining faithful to Jesus’ “simple message”) than you do.

  • So that people may understand the text you cite I include it here:

    When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.

    When Jesus says, “whom I will send to you from the Father,” it seems like he’s saying he’s somewhat involved in the matter. But really, does it matter that much to you that you would allow THAT slight difference in belief to be a stumbling block to reconciliation between Christian believers? Really??? If so, you truly are a modern-day Pharisee, not able to see the Christian forest for the orthodox trees.

  • I have heard some Catholics say that Protestantism is worse than Atheism…or at least is the first step to Atheism.

    So (German Bishops) why no communion for Atheists? Maybe would warm those pews a bit more than team Luther !!

  • Because you would be covering more bases…and not end up in Hell because you accidently were born into the wrong Christian dogma — so why not be in more than one denomination…if you are not a Calvinist of course.

    …When working in Asia, people did that…I once met a guy named Jesus Buddha Mohamed !!

  • Jesus is involved in the temporal (in time) sending of the Spirit to his disciples (“…whom I will send you from the Father…”)

    But, the Son of God is not involved in the pre-eternal (before the creation of time) procession of the Spirit, hence He specified “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father”.

    The sending in time, and the proceeding before time began, are two very different things. Confounding them is no “slight difference”.

    Telling falsehoods about anyone should be repugnant to all honest people. How much more so if they are about “the Spirit of truth”!

  • Some are, Ben, some aren’t – just like any other denomination. For someone who hates Christ, you certainly are interested in those who serve Him. Look to Him, Ben. He is the One who will help you

  • Once again I’m reminded of the absurd scene in one of my favorite movies, “The Name of the Rose,” in which Franciscans and a well-bedecked delegation of Vatican clergy meet during the Middle Ages in order to have a serious debate on the pressing issue of the day: Did Jesus own the clothes he wore?

  • Sorry if people telling lies about those we love (in this instance, the Lord) is okay for you. It isn’t for me.

  • Like our friend “sandinwindsor”, they quote anything *but* the Gospel when challenged to quote Jesus on matters. We’ve been informed, for instance, that Jesus taught the Israelites of O.T. times.

  • It strikes me that if she meant Catholics are not Christians, she would write that.

    Given your general lack of bona fides in matters religious, how did you conclude that she said Catholics are not Christians>

    I’ll get some popcorn.

  • I believe that the RCC does allow Orthodox members to have communion, but the Orthodox do not allow RCC members to communion.

    As far as creeds go, several churches profess the same three ecumenical creeds. If that is the standard for who takes communion then the Lutherans, Anglicans, and others can take communion in the RCC.

  • In the first Sunday “And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. ………
    Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
    And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?…..” (Dr. Luke 24)

    This is the first Sunday sermon and first Sunday communion. Jesus is the high priest, only a couple, most likely husband and wife.

  • Yes, that is more precise on Orthodox and Catholics vis a vis Communion. I was approaching it from the Orthodox point of view.

    Although widely used, the phrase “three ecumenical creeds” is actually a misnomer. Only one of them (Nicene Creed) is truly ecumenical, having been composed by Ecumenical Councils. The Apostles’ Creed is a local Western creed, never used in the East (although recognized as Orthodox in content). The Athanasian Creed is also of local Western origin, never used in the East, and is rejected by the Orthodox since it contains heretical filioquist theology.

    So the only creed which could possibly claim to be an ecumenical creed is the Nicene Creed. But insofar as the wording of the article on the Holy Spirit now differs between between East and West, in a certain real sense there actually aren’t any ecumenical creeds.

  • It would then open the door to at least allowing some post Reformation churches to have communion in an RCC service.

  • For anyone with normal intelligence and grade 8 reading skills its meaning is clear in the context of the discussion.

  • It should be noted that many churches believe that Christ is present in the bread and wine. Some explain it as a mystery and leave it at that or as a Sacramental Union of Christ and the elements. Since the Bible does not explain how the blood and wine change to flesh and blood, stating it as a mystery seems the most prudent way to describe how Christ is present. Mankind gets into trouble when he tries to explain the divine.

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