The synodal path has barely been able to resume in Germany, limited however to local meetings, but it has already given rise to sparing between bishops. It was not however due to him who occupied the German episcopate during its fall meeting in Fulda, but a Roman letter.
We must go back in time to understand the ins and outs of the new tension between the German Church and Rome.
A Proposal for Intercommunion
The working group of evangelical and Catholic theologians (ÖAK) has existed since 1947. It does not depend on the German episcopal conference (DBK), but is sponsored, on the Catholic side, by a bishop. For several years now, it has been Bishop Georg Bätzing, Bishop of Limburg.
The ÖAK proposed a appeal for intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants: “Mutual participation in the celebration of the Last Supper or the Eucharist is theologically justified,” states the document presented on September 11, 2019, entitled Together at the Lord’s Table. Ecumenical perspectives on the celebration of the Last Supper and the Eucharist. The text was on the agenda for the spring 2020 meeting of German bishops.
This appeal received the support of Bishop Bätzing, and that of Mgr. Gerhard Feige, Bishop of Magdeburg, president of the ecumenical commission of the DBK. The latter, however, asked for caution, on January 9, 2020, regarding the too high expectations that were at risk of being disappointed.
A few days later, a first Roman warning was issued. Cardinal Kurt Koch—once a very advanced theologian—president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity since 2010, pointed out the document’s shortcomings. The latter, he explained, did not address the sacrificial nature of the Mass, nor the question of ordained ministers.
But on March 5, 2020, at the end of the general assembly of the DBK, in Mainz, Bishop Bätzing, newly elected president of the episcopal conference, welcomed the ÖAK’s document, specifying that it was rather about theological support for a decision of conscience. In other words, the DBK, by its voice, encouraged intercommunion as long as it was an individual decision.
On September 3, Bishop Bätzing confirmed the holding of the third ecumenical meeting between Catholics and Protestants (Ökumenischen Kirchentag) in May 2021, in Frankfurt. He took the opportunity to clarify that intercommunion would be practiced during this gathering. The matter to be considered and clarified at the annual meeting of the episcopate in Fulda, September 22-24.
The Reaction of the CDF
On September 20, Bishop Bätzing received a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), dated 18 of the same month, warning the German episcopate. The letter criticizes the text of the ÖAK, noting that the differences in understanding of the Eucharist and the ministry are “still so substantial” that they currently preclude intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants. Nor is there any basis for an “individual decision of conscience,” the text adds, against Bishop Bätzing’s interpretation.
The letter adds that such an intercommunion “would necessarily open, in the present state of affairs, new trenches in ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox Churches” beyond the borders of Germany.
The DBK then simply announced that the letter from Rome would be discussed at the autumn plenary assembly in Fulda. Which startled Cardinal Koch. “If the German bishops give a letter from the CDF a lower value than a document from an ecumenical working group, then something is no longer be right about the hierarchy of criteria among the bishops,” he said in an interview with Herder Korrespondenz published on September 22.
But within the DBK, some see the Vatican’s letter as a “resounding slap” for the German bishops and their president.
Theologians add their two cents worth. Christoph Böttigheimer, professor at the Catholic University of Eichstätt asks: “Is the ordained ministry absolutely linked to the celebration of the Eucharist?” He adds: “It is not possible that a letter from the Vatican can render decision-making in episcopal conferences unnecessary…The CDF is only one voice among many others in theological discourse.”
As for Dorothea Sattler, a Catholic theologian and member of the ÖAK, she said, with annoyance, “We cannot start from scratch every time.We are certainly ready to examine and develop our document theologically, but only if there is at least hope that something will change in practice afterwards.”
If further proof were needed of the schismatic - because heretical - spirit of a notable part of the German Church, it has now been given.
Finally, on September 24, during the presentation of the results of the assembly in Fulda, Bishop Bätzing announced that, “instead of dealing with the contents of the letter, the Bishops’ Conference has agreed to entrust to its committees for ecumenism and faith an ‘examination and evaluation of the Magisterium’s remarks.” Moreover, the ÖAK itself must prepare a response.”
A way to pass the buck? It is possible and even probable. But only the future will tell. In the meantime, this will not calm the overheated minds across the Rhine, who more and more seem to want to appropriate the famous slogan of Protestant origin: Los von Rom! - Far from Rome!
However, we must ask ourselves where the real responsibilities lie and why the CDF should intervene in this way. With the promulgation of the Novus Ordo, hailed by Protestants, Paul VI introduced the germ that has matured today. Did he himself not say in the encyclical Ecclesiam suam (109): “We would even go further and declare our readiness to examine how we can meet the legitimate desires of our separated Christian brothers on many points of difference concerning tradition, spirituality, canon law, and worship, for it is Our dearest wish to embrace them in a perfect union of faith and charity.”
Moreover, the forced march of ecumenism, since the Council document Unitatis redintegratio, dangles the possibilities that some want to obtain at all costs today in Germany and elsewhere. The base does not understand the Roman procrastination, and realizes in a practical way the theoretically impossible advances.
The wind of the fresh air of aggiornamento, sown at the Council, reaped in the whirlwind.