Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Germany, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising distribute Communion during Cardinal Woelki's installation Mass at the cathedral in Cologne Sept. 20, 2014. CNS photo/Jorg Loeffke, KNA

Germany’s communion discussion ‘puzzling,’ says Canadian archbishop

  • May 23, 2018

Even a consensus among German Catholic bishops allowing intercommunion with Protestants cannot change Catholic teaching, says a Canadian archbishop.

“Even more important is the challenge to remain faithful to Catholic doctrine and not to propose practices that undermine the faith, and the need to foster loyalty and communion with the universal Church,” said Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, SJ, of Ottawa in an interview. “It is puzzling to learn that the Holy Father told the bishops that whatever they determine is acceptable as long as they all agree.”

A majority of German bishops would like to offer communion to Protestant spouses of Catholics under some circumstances. A minority disagrees. After a meeting May 3 at the Vatican of representatives of both sides of the debate, the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith told them Pope Francis wanted the German bishops to find consensus on the matter.

Dutch Cardinal Willem Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht, in an open letter May 5, urged the Pope to provide clarity, explaining both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Canon Law do not permit intercommunion with Protestants.

“Pope Francis is right when he says that not every theological debate needs to be settled by authoritative interventions of the papal magisterium,” Prendergast said. “And Cardinal Eijk is right when he says that the question of intercommunion is a doctrinal matter that cannot be settled by an isolated decision of a national conference of bishops.”

“This is, in fact, a classical situation of discerning between things that are changeable — or possible — and others that are not,” the Jesuit archbishop said. “It seems clear by now that many bishops and Catholics in the world consider ill-advised and doctrinally impossible what a number of bishops in Germany have proposed.”

The intercommunion debate reaches the limit on pastoral diversity, he said. 

“Receiving the Eucharist is intrinsically linked to the faith, my personal faith and the faith of the community to which I belong,” Prendergast said. “What the majority of bishops in Germany proposes means that a person who does not belong to the Catholic Church routinely, perhaps every Sunday, receives the Eucharist in the Catholic Church.

“This kind of open communion is against Catholic teaching and from what I can see in non-Catholic congregations that follow a discipline of ‘open communion,’ it is also spiritually and pastorally unfruitful.”

The archbishop said he cannot ignore the German intercommunion debate because “the church is a close-knit network” and people of Ottawa are asking about it.

“Catholics in Canada generally know that receiving communion requires belonging to the Church, among other things,” he said. “This discipline is well-known and widely appreciated in our parishes.”

The intercommunion debate offers an opportunity for Catholics in Canada to reconsider their own Eucharistic practices, he said, noting often Catholics who come to church after years of not attending receive communion “as a matter of course.”

More needs to be taught concerning the benefits of attending Mass without receiving communion as well as what it means “to be properly disposed and in the state of grace,” the archbishop said. “I feel we need to invest more in receiving the sacraments worthily and fruitfully. This is true for the Eucharist, but also for Baptism and Confirmation.”

“Formalism and cultural routine alone will not cut it,” he said. “Receiving communion has to make a difference in our lives, and be meaningful. Otherwise we are deceiving ourselves, and as pastors we are deceiving others.

“In Holy Communion we receive the Lord, and so, to receiving worthily, we need to be fully open to Him and connected to His Church, visibly and invisibly, institutionally and internally. That and nothing less is Catholic teaching.”

On a personal note, the Archbishop had some words for Pope Francis as a fellow Jesuit.

“I would say thanks for reminding us that accompanying people through their lives, especially in dark times, is essential for being a priest,” he said. “And thanks for resisting much media hysteria. We Jesuits always have to remember that most Catholics are not Jesuits — a fact we tend to overlook sometimes. Our spirituality is not for everyone — perhaps hard to say, but so true.

“For me, becoming a bishop was a real change, for then I had to recognize the whole spectrum of theologies, spiritualties, ministries and charisms present in the diocese entrusted to me,” he said. “Through this I came to realize what a great gift doctrine is for the Church, enabling it to be one, holy, and catholic.”

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