Pope Francis refuses to use his authority to resolve the question of granting sacramental Communion to Protestant spouses of Catholics. He has asked the German bishops to agree among themselves on the best decision.
On May 3, 2018, the main actors in the quarrel on access to sacramental Communion for Protestant spouses of Catholics – Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Rainer Maria Woelki – met at the Palace of the Holy Office with Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
After the meeting, the Holy See Press Office published a statement in Italian and German. The statement explains that “Pope Francis appreciates the ecumenical commitment of the German bishops and asks them to find, in a spirit of ecclesial communion, a result as unanimously as possible.” In other words, he refuses to resolve this disciplinary issue that is oh-so-closely connected to doctrine.
In February 2018, three quarters of the German hierarchy voted in favor of a pastoral handbook that would grant access to Communion for Protestants married to Catholics. But seven bishops, including Cardinal Rainer Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, asked the Holy Father to step in. Hence the May 3 meeting at the Palace of the Holy Office.
The problem of inter-communion and the non-decision of the sovereign pontiff highlight not only the doctrinal question, but also the intentional “decentralization” of the Church and the authority of the episcopal conferences. Ever since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has consistently delegated as much power as possible to the local Churches, at the risk of diluting and weakening the supreme authority in the Church and promoting a form of Synodality.
The rules that currently apply were established by John Paul II in the Motu Proprio Apostolos Suos on May 21, 1998. They stipulate that the doctrinal declarations of the episcopal conference must be unanimously approved in order to have any magisterial authority. If such is not the case, they need recognition by the Holy See. The Holy See’s refusal to grant this recognition for the time being is doubtless a sign of its discomfort, but also of its desire to obtain a consensus. For the “recognitio of the Holy See serves furthermore to guarantee that the doctrinal response will favor communion and not harm it and will rather prepare an eventual intervention of the universal magisterium” (§22). Does this mean that if unanimity is reached, the decision of the German Conference could prepare a universal decision from Rome?
A little over a year ago, on April 18, 2017, Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, warned: “Without a common faith, the Church is threatened by confusion and then, progressively, she can slide into dispersion and schism.”
This is precisely the current problem of the crisis of the Church, that maintains a state of latent schism; it is a lack of Faith that affects the liturgy, doctrinal teaching, and the very government of the Church.
A Cardinal Finds Rome’s Answer Incomprehensible
The Cardinal-Archbishop of Utrecht, Willem Eijk, has called Pope Francis’s dilatory answer on the controversy over granting communion to Protestant spouses of Catholics “completely incomprehensible”.
After the meeting at the Palace of the Holy Office on May 3, 2018, the Holy Father sent the German bishops home with no more of an answer than “find a consensus as unanimously as possible” on intercommunion.
Cardinal Eijk chose the National Catholic Register to voice his reaction to the papal response on May 7, 2018. He said the position of the German episcopate is “contrary to what the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church say in this regard.”
“The Holy Father should have given the delegation of the German episcopal conference clear directives, based on the clear doctrine and practice of the Church,” explained Cardinal Eijk, adding that it “is not acceptable to suggest that a (Lutheran woman married to a Catholic) could receive Communion on the basis of her being baptized, and in accordance with her conscience.”
“By failing to create clarity, great confusion is created among the faithful and the unity of the Church is endangered,” warned the archbishop of Utrecht, who concluded his letter by speaking of the “mystery of iniquity” that will live in the Catholic Church until the end of time.