The German bishops are having trouble getting along, and Pope Francis wants to see if he can’t help smooth things over. That is the short version of why the Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx and the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainer Maria Woelki, have been called to Rome along with the Bishop of Münster, Dr Felix Genn. If that version is short, it is also sweet – too short, and too sweet.

The matter in dispute is a pastoral pamphlet (Handreichung in German) offering guidelines to pastors and the faithful regarding when and under what circumstances non-Catholics who attend Catholic rites with their Catholic spouses may be admitted to Eucharistic Communion. A press packet prepared by Cardinal Marx’s office to accompany the announcement of bishops’ vote to approve the pamphlet in February explained that the bishops saw this as a serious pastoral issue. “In interdenominational marriages,” the packet explained, “the spiritual hunger for receiving Communion together can be so strong that it might jeopardise the marriage”, as well as the faith of the Catholic party to the union.

The bishops propose “mature examination in a spiritual conversation with their priest or another person charged with pastoral care,” after which people who have “come to a decision of conscience to affirm the [Eucharistic] Faith of the Catholic Church”, and “discovering a grave spiritual need” that includes receiving the Eucharist “may approach the Lord’s table and receive Communion” from the Catholic Church.

The invocation of “grave spiritual need” is significant, because Church law (Canon 844§4) forbids non-Catholics from receiving Holy Communion except when there is danger of death “or some other grave necessity”. The law also places responsibility for determining the presence of “grave necessity” on the local Ordinary (the bishop of a diocese) or the bishops’ conference.

Cardinal Marx insisted in February that neither the vote nor the handout ought to be construed as giving general permission for giving Holy Communion across confessional lines. “We are talking about decisions in individual cases that require a careful spiritual discernment,” he said. The issue has been framed differently in the past. In December, 2016, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück reportedly told the press agency of the Lutheran Church in Germany: “We must give a foundation to what often already is in place in practice”, ie that non-Catholics with Catholic spouses often do receive Holy Communion in Catholic churches. That is, arguably, a very different matter.

The proposal was controversial within the German bishops’ conference (DBK) and was approved after what Cardinal Marx – president of the DBK – called “intensive debate” during plenary assembly in Ingolstadt, Bavaria on February 19-22.

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