1. My contribution to this Panel refers to a pertinent and current ecumenical question which is of particular significance in Germany.
In Germany we have a clear division between the people who count themselves as members of the biggest Christian churches in two equal halves. Half of the Christians in Germany that belong to a church and that participate in their community are Roman Catholic, the other half are members of the Protestant church, of which 80% are Lutheran.
Since the Second Vatican Council. a development has taken place that is especially importance in Germany for those families in which the marriage partners belong to different Christian confessions. These are many millions of people and their families that are affected.
In my family too, half of them belong to the Catholic Church, with the other half being Protestant, of which 80% are Lutheran. My sisters are both married with Catholic partners. The husband of one was excommunicated, because he had married a Protestant. That was in 1982. At the Confirmation of his son, which took place in a Protestant church, he did not partake with his son in the Communion service, because he felt himself bound to the Roman Catholic Church. But our hearts went out to him and we all felt the pain of his predicament that he could not participate.
The Catholic Church in Germany up to last year, has not in any way found a
positive approach that allowed the possibility for married partners that belong to different confessions to come together in the Communion service. These married couples share everything, kitchen, table and bed – but the Church separates them.
The Church was behaving as an institution dividing people. That was the situation up to and until 2018.
So, this question of communion is about millions of Christians and their families. In the past, the German Catholic Bishops' Conference have made three attempts to reach agreement on this issue. It had failed three times in the years between 1998 and 2017.
Now, the German Bishops Conference have, after great effort and long painful debate, published a document.
In this document are recommendations for each Bishop in Germany, on how to deal with this question responsibly in a pastoral and spiritual manner, in accordance with the Canon Law (Codex Iuris Canonici) of the Catholic Church.
I would like to report on this issue, to inform you concerning the debate in Germany.
So, I will now share it here with you.
2. On several occasions, notably in 2017, both partners – Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran – jointly expressed their concern and their wish to improve the situation of couples in interconfessional marriages. For example, at the ecumenical commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, the President of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Munib Younan, and Pope Francis stated: “We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table. We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ.” Consequently intercommunion for interconfessional married couples has time and again been cited – at the national and international level - as an issue with which to test the voluntary commitments made by Catholics and Protestants at Lund and Hildesheim.
Hopes were raised that there could be genuine progress in this important ecumenical question when the German Bishops Conference - after its meeting in February 2018 - announced its intention to publish a pastoral guide to enable non-Catholic spouses in an interconfessional marriage to receive communion in certain cases. After this announcement and before the publication of the pastoral guide in June German bishops engaged in a sometimes heated debate – and the Vatican got involved.
3. Pope Francis himself had finally pointed out in various doctrinal letters that the national Bishops’ Conference should make greater use of their room for manoeuvre in pastoral questions. For example, he stressed in Evangelii Gaudium that “Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” Francis added that pastoral ministry in a missionary sense needed to abandon the comfortable attitude of “We have always done it this way”, declaring “I invite everyone to be bold and creative.”
It is worth having a brief look at the possibilities and limits of the pastoral guide, called an aid to orientation when it was finally published in June 2018 – keeping in mind the effort involved for it to squeeze through a narrow birth canal and see the light of day.
4. The document “Walking with Christ – Tracing Unity” deals with the topic of interconfessional couples receiving communion together by presenting two lines of argument. The first one aims to find an arrangement that is compatible with the provisions of canon law and has some trust in the conscience of the individual believers who feel attached to their church. The second line of argument refers to the condition mentioned in Canon 844 of the Code of Canon Law as “serious necessity” (gravis necessitas) and undertakes to broaden the understanding of how to describe such a necessity. In doing so, it has recourse to existing interpretations by the Catholic magisterium.
The authors of the aid to orientation found a key to canon law in Canon 844. This states in section 1: “Catholic ministers administer the sacraments licitly to Catholic members of the Christian faithful alone.” We should note here that the canon does not impose a rule on believers – be they Catholic or non-Catholic. The canon is addressed to the celebrants administering the sacrament, i.e. Catholic ministers, and stipulates the conditions under which they are permitted to give communion to non-Catholics. Section 4 of Canon 844 states: “If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgement of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.”
In view of this narrow room for manoeuvre the authors of the aid to orientation had to find an approach to the topic by which they would not simply contradict the stipulations of Canon 844. They do this by setting out the conditions under which a Catholic minister can give communion to a non-Catholic spouse with permission and in harmony with the rules of his church. As you have heard, the provisions of section 4 provide a very narrow framework for this. It only seems possible in “serious necessity” (gravis necessitas) such as danger of death, in which a minister of the person’s own community is not available.
Now the key line of argument of the aid to orientation comes into play. Back in 2003, in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II had evoked a broader understanding of the relevant provisions when he wrote that the ban on admitting non-Catholics to the Eucharist did not apply “to the administration of the Eucharist, under special circumstances to individual persons”. In this case, the intention was to “meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer”. In his encyclical Pope John Paul II referred back to Canon 844 when introducing the concept of “grave spiritual need” (gravis necessitas spirtualis) and made it the yardstick of a pastoral interpretation of the provisions of the canon.
Accordingly, it is possible to understand the “serious necessity” as a “spiritual need” in which it is necessary to help people. The aid to orientation takes this up: “A grave need arises when the faith that has led a women and a man to bestow on each another and receive from each other the sacrament of marriage, then leads to a yearning to share Holy Communion, when they can see no way to satisfy this longing with the church’s blessing. If this ‘grave spiritual need’ is not remedied, the marriage that is founded on Christ’s love for the church may even be jeopardised. Providing this help is a pastoral ministry that strengthens the bond of marriage and supports the salvation of people.”
The articulation of the argument suggests that the statements in Canon 844, §4 of the Code of Canon Law should be understood as examples, and not in an exclusive sense. That makes it possible to better appreciate the real-life situations of people and related questions. Life produces ever new hardships; and these cannot be reduced to the exceptional cases expressly mentioned in section 4. The aid to orientation credits the couple with having their own ability to judge and describe what is meant by a ‘grave spiritual need’, which is also discerned in the special longing with which the spouses share not only their table and bed but also their belonging to Christ.
Hence “the decision about partaking in communion” has to “shift from the minister (administering the communion) to the recipient”. The faithful Christian is respected and taken seriously on the basis of his or her personal conscience. The couple may use the opportunities of conversation with a priest in order to review their own conscientious decision. The door opened by the aid to orientation does not settle the question of access to the Eucharist – to put it bluntly. Instead, it focuses on the conscientious decision of the individual. With the path taken by the aid to orientation the Catholic Church takes the believers seriously and accepts their personal decision based on their conscience. The priest is permitted to give them the Eucharist if, in conversation, he refers to the faith of the Catholic Church and its understanding of the Eucharist.
Nevertheless, speaking from a Protestant angle, we should not be silent about the weaknesses of this document. The non-Catholic spouse is expected to consent to the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Eucharist on the basis of the Eucharistic Prayer, and this is problematic when you remember that this prayer can take different forms in the course of the service. It has been pointed out several times in ecumenical discussion that, in particular, the third Eucharistic prayer contains statements that are very questionable and controversial theologically, e.g. with respect to understanding the Eucharist as a sacrifice.
It is and remains painful for interconfessional couples that, according to the above argumentation, they are only really welcome to come to the Lord’s Table together at a celebration of the Eucharist when their marital bond is interpreted under canon law as a “serious necessity”.
It must be particularly painful for the couples in interconfessional matrimony that the invitation expressed in the aid to orientation is not reciprocal – that is made explicit. It is to be welcomed if the situation of the relevant couples of not being able to receive the Eucharist together is perceived to be one of “grave spiritual need”. However, we will be forgiven for supposing that they cherish the equally urgent wish to be able to take communion in the church of the Protestant spouse.
And yet, in my view, this document marks important progress. Even if it could not be published as a joint document of the German Bishops’ Conference it now exists and will open up ways and means of enabling people living in a trusting relationship, in marriage, to go to the Lord’s Table together. To that extent, it seems to me that the aid to orientation has taken a crucial step forward. That is why I dare to speak of a paradigm shift in the way the Catholic Church deals pastorally with believers – those of them who have a heartfelt wish that the churches will accompany their journey together positively and not hinder it with rules and regulations. And that is something to welcome unconditionally!
Let us wait and see how the individual dioceses handle the document in practice. However, it has already changed ecumenical reality for the better – not only in Germany.
5. We have come a long way since the Second Vatican Council in Germany.
The brother of my father, my uncle - was ordained as Pastor in 1961 in a Lutheran church.
He then fell hopelessly in love with a Roman-Catholic woman – and they got married.
He became problems with his church leaders – the church authorities. His wife had to convert to the Lutheran confession. And she was met with consternation by her family and they rejected her; - they could not contemplate that she would consider marriage with a Lutheran Pastor.
She was shunned by her family, disinherited and excommunicated by her Catholic bishop.
Up until last year, 2018, it was totally out of the question that the Catholic Church in Germany would find and take a positive attitude to a joint participation in the Eucharist.
It was through the celebrations of the anniversary of the Reformation in 2018 when the Pope came to Lund, and took part in a concelebrated mass with the Lutheran World Federation, that the moment came where something good was started.
It was also, through his encyclical letter ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ that Pope Francis exhorted his Church to find a pastoral solution for the families of these spouses.
In 2018 the Catholic Church in Germany has at last, after much hard internal debate, came to make it a possibility to its members.
Until 2018 it were the Churches that were responsible for this separation - and they were no help for the people. But, it shows that perseverance and patience pays-off in Ecumenical Talks.
And it is; - in the words of Pope Francis, high time that the Church be reminded that it is neither a Customs Station nor a mere Administrative Authority, but a place where people are raised and led to Christ.