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After a clear division over giving Communion to the Protestant spouses of Catholics in mixed marriages led to a rare summit between German prelates and Vatican officials on Thursday, the Germans were told that Pope Francis appreciates their “ecumenical commitment” and would like them to find a “possibly unanimous” solution.
The outcome seems to make clear that Francis is not inclined to settle the dispute himself, preferring that the German bishops work it out among themselves.
A Vatican statement released late on Thursday provided a brief summary of the background to the meeting, which involved six German bishops and a Jesuit priest who serves as the bishops’ secretary, along with four Vatican officials.
“In its last plenary session held Feb. 19-22, 2018, the German Episcopal Conference dealt with pastoral guidelines with the title ‘To Walk with Christ, In the Footsteps of Unity: Mixed Marriages and Common Participation in the Eucharist.’”
“More than three-quarters of the members of the Episcopal Conference approved that text,” the Vatican statement said. Yet, “a not indifferent number of pastors, among which are seven diocesan bishops, didn’t feel for various reasons they could give their assent.”
“These seven bishops appealed to the [Vatican’s] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts,” the statement said. “Based on the desire of Pope Francis, a meeting was arranged between some bishops and officials of the Holy See.”
The statement indicates that it was Spanish Archbishop Luis Ladaria, a Jesuit named last July by Francis as the new head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who delivered Francis’s message to the German prelates.
“In the meeting, which took place in German, Archbishop Ladaria illustrated that Pope Francis appreciates the ecumenical commitment of the German bishops, and asks them to find, in a spirit of ecclesial communion, a possibly unanimous result.”
The statement said the meeting involved a discussion of “various points of view,” including “the relationship of this question with the faith and with pastoral care, [as well as] its relevance for the universal Church and its juridical dimension.”
Ladaria, the statement said, will inform Francis about the content of the meeting.
The impetus for Thursday’s meeting stems from a late February session of the German bishops’ conference, which adopted guidelines allowing Protestant spouses to receive Communion under certain conditions, most notably that they “share the Catholic faith” on the Eucharist.
That led a group of seven German bishops, including Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, to write to the Vatican requesting clarification as to whether this is something that can be decided by a local bishops’ conference, or if what’s needed is a “decision of the universal Church.”
The letter was written without the knowledge of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, president of the German bishops’ conference and a member of the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisors. In an April 4 reply, Marx professed surprise since the text discussed in February, he said, is just a draft and can still be modified.
On the German side, the participants in Thursday’s Rome summit were:
- Bishop Felix Genn of Münster.
- Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer and President of the Doctrinal Commission of the German Episcopal Conference.
- Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg and Vice-President of the Doctrinal Commission of the German Episcopal Conference.
- Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg and President of the Commission for Ecumenism of the German Bishops’ Conference.
- Father Hans Langendörfer, Secretary of the German Episcopal Conference.
Representing the Vatican were:
- Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
- Monsignor Markus Graulich, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interpreting Legislative Texts.
- Father Hermann Geissler, a senior official in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
A spokesman for the German bishops said Thursday that beyond the Vatican communique, “No press conference, statement or interview of any participant is planned.”