German Catholics’ confusing attempt to allow Communion for Protestants

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If you’re a Protestant married to a Catholic in Germany, you might be able to receive Communion along with your spouse in the Catholic Church.

Then again, you may not be welcome to do so, or you could find yourself simply unsure.

This confusing situation, created by a proposed change to the tradition that the Catholic Eucharist was “for Catholics only,” leaves German Catholicism caught between its majority’s desire for a relaxation of the rules — a view shared by Pope Francis — and the limits to change in the world’s largest church.

In February, the German Catholic bishops approved draft guidelines for priests on when they may distribute Catholic Communion to Protestants attending Mass, signaling a new openness.

But the guidelines immediately sparked a tussle between reformers and conservatives and surprising flip-flops from the Vatican.

Since then, some dioceses have reflected the new attitude toward inter-Communion on their official websites.

Other churches hardly post even a passing reference to it. Meanwhile, a debate has gripped the country’s Catholic Church, exacerbated by mixed signals from the Vatican.

The question of inter-Communion, which hardly arises in many other countries, is a recurrent one in Germany.

The country’s Christians are almost evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants (mostly Lutherans), and many marriages cross denominational boundaries.

As a result, many German Protestants already receive Communion with their Catholic spouses, often with the agreement of their parish priest.

They do so discreetly, however, because the Vatican seemed opposed to it and because many church leaders fear that officially condoning individual exceptions could be a slippery slope toward full doctrinal change.

Apparently Catholicism’s ecumenical principles and their inclusive understanding of the church … are still foreign to some people 50 years after the Second Vatican Council,” complained Bishop Gerhard Feige, the bishops conference delegate for ecumenical relations and a co-author of the guidelines.

Pope Francis has taken a more flexible approach to interpreting Catholic canon law than his conservative predecessors and has made better relations with other Christians a priority.

Thinking the time was right to tackle the issue, the German bishops conference — led by Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a senior papal adviser — drew up a 38-page “pastoral guide” meant to help priests lead mixed couples to a solution.

The Protestant spouse must share the Catholic understanding of Jesus Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist — to which Lutheran doctrine is close — and be in “severe spiritual distress” by being excluded from it, it said.

A large majority of the bishops present — 47 out of 60 — voted in February to publish the document, titled “Walking with Christ —  Tracing Unity,” in the near future.

A month later, seven dissenting bishops led by Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki asked the Vatican to rule whether the guidelines violated Catholic doctrine and the unity of the worldwide church. Continue reading

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