Church in Germany embroiled in intercommunion debate

By Anian Christoph Wimmer

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The unresolved debate over a proposal to allow Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive communion in German dioceses under some limited circumstances has gathered steam after the country's president waded into the debate at the major national Catholic conference in the town of Münster.
The planned proposal has been championed by  Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, president of the German bishops' conference, who announced in February that the conference would publish a pastoral handout for married couples that allows Protestant spouses of Catholics "in individual cases" and "under certain conditions" to receive Holy Communion, provided they "affirm the Catholic faith in the Eucharist”.

Subsequently, seven German bishops, led by Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for clarification, asking whether the question of Holy Communion for Protestant spouses in interdenominational marriages can be decided on the level of a national bishops' conference, or if rather, "a decision of the Universal Church" is required in the matter.

Speaking in an interview with EWTN this week, Cardinal Woelki reaffirmed his position, calling for all parties to "consider and recognize that the Eucharist is ordered to the unity of the creed".

The Katholikentag event drew several tens of thousands of Catholics from German-speaking Europe to Münster May 9-11, and saw not only politicians and Cardinals Marx and Woelki restating and clarifying their respective positions, but provided a stage to Germany's president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, saying, in the keynote speech that opened the event: "Let us seek ways of expressing the common Christian faith by sharing in the Last Supper and Communion. I am sure: Thousands of Christians in interdenominational marriages are hoping for this".

Similarly, Cardinal Marx stated that he hoped there soon would be a solution to the Communion debate, declaring May 9: "When someone is hungry and has faith, they must have access to the Eucharist. That must be our passion, and I will not let up on this."

A peculiarly polemical form of this "hunger" caused something of a public scandal shortly after, when an official panel discussion played host to one celebrity's demand to be "handed that wafer [the Most Blessed Sacrament]" since he pays for it with his Church tax.

Speaking on stage with Cardinal Woelki, the comedian and TV personality Eckart von Hirschhausen sharply criticised the Catholic Church's teaching - to applause from the predominantly Catholic audience – saying, "I don't see the point of a public debate about wafers" since climate change, on his view, was a "far more serious" issue.

Since he, as a Protestant spouse to a Catholic, pays Church tax and thus considered himself "a major sponsor", the Church had "better happily hand out a wafer for it, or give me back my money!", demanded von Hirschhausen, to an applauding crowd.

The crowd's mood notwithstanding, Cardinal Woelki politely but firmly disagreed. "As a Catholic, I would never speak of a wafer. Using this concept alone demonstrates that we have a very different understanding" of what the Archbishop of Cologne then reminded the audience "is the Most Blessed Sacrament", in which "Catholics encounter Christ Himself".

With CNA Deutsch covering the diatribe, Catholics on social media quickly reacted with outrage to Hirschhausen's pronouncements, triggering an apology on the following day, which in turn was widely discussed.

In an interview with EWTN's German edition, Cardinal Woelki noted the ecclesiological import of the Eucharist: “The Eucharist constitutes the ecclesial community of the Church. The Eucharist and the Church's community are very, very close to one another.”

“Now, of course I understand that this constitutes a certain challenge, and that people may experience it as a form of suffering, in particular in the case of interdenominational marriages, that they may not be able to receive the Eucharist together.”

At the same time, the Archbishop of Cologne said, "it is of vital importance for us to recognize that whoever says 'yes' to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, acknowledging that Christ is indeed really present, thereby naturally also says 'yes' to the Papacy, and the hierarchical structure of the Church, and the veneration of the saints and much, much more".

Any solution found in Germany could also not constitute some form of exceptionalism, but would have to be fully compatible with the universal Church, Woelki told EWTN's Christina Link-Blumrath, again making an ecclesiological point: “As the Catholic Church, we also have to point out that we are a part and parcel of the universal Church. There can be no German exceptionalism.”

Just before these latest developments, on May 3, seven German bishops attended an inconclusive meeting at the Vatican to discuss prospective guidelines allowing non-Catholic spouses of Catholics to receive the Eucharist in certain "limited circumstances", with the Vatican sending the Germans back, saying Pope Francis wants the bishops to come to an agreement among themselves.


Rudolf Gehrig contributed to this report.

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