The German bishops have announced that they will soon publish new guidelines for reception of the Holy Eucharist. In the future, non-Catholics married to Catholic spouses and attending Mass with their families could, in certain cases, be admitted to communion if they profess the Catholic faith in that sacrament. Already I have been asked about this change at the German-speaking parish in Canada’s capital city of Ottawa, where I am pastor. Our people pay close attention to what the bishops at home are up to. Members of the German community abroad, especially in the first generation, often are married to other people with German background, and some of these very stable marriages are “mixed,” with one Catholic and one Protestant spouse.
No one can deny the objective difficulty that arises when a family attends Church regularly and one of the parents (or even some of the children) cannot receive communion, either because as Catholics they do not receive it in Protestant churches, or as Protestants they are not admitted to the Catholic Eucharist. It feels strange, in a way that is hard to explain.
The ecumenical imperative is: Thou shalt be hospitable! And the ecumenically correct language is: Mixed marriages “unite” the confessions (they are konfessionsverbindende Ehen—gotta love these long German words). But much of this talk is delusional, or at least shallow. And the project very quickly leads to bizarre situations: Should a pastor stop giving communion to the non-Catholic spouse after the death of the Catholic one? We do have non-Catholic people attending our parish occasionally, even after the deaths of their Catholic spouses.
The bishops, of course, propose that pastors should discern in each individual case whether admission of a non-Catholic to communion would be permissible. Discernment über alles. According to the bishops, the basic condition for receiving Holy Communion is profession of the Catholic faith in the Eucharist. But that profession, as we have understood it up to now, entails that no one may receive communion who is not a Catholic (or does not at least belong to a church in which all sacraments are considered such and valid), and that one must be in the state of grace, which in normal adult life requires going to confession once in a while. Talk of these things is ecumenically incorrect, of course.
My predecessor in Ottawa and I have consistently explained why the Church does what it does, and why it sometimes says no. What the bishops in the Fatherland now are about to release sounds like yet another compromise for the sake of being—or rather, sounding—inclusive and pastoral, with very questionable pastoral consequences. The Church in Germany, with its great institutional strength, seems to become ever less resilient and less reliable, ever less willing to resist trends, even some that have already failed in the Christian communities that adopted them long ago. On loosening Eucharistic discipline, the trial and error has been done by others, and it turned out to be an error every time. Of course, such a change would also be a huge impediment to ecumenism with the Eastern Churches—but the Germans care less about Russia and other theologically underdeveloped countries.
The German church tax is often thought to increase the freedom of the Church, as it makes parishes and dioceses less dependent on the wishes of donors. I have myself believed this for some time. But I am losing my faith. A normal diocese in Germany has a budget in the hundreds of millions; in larger dioceses the combined budget of diocese, bishop, parishes, and social services is beyond the billion mark. Money, lots of it, is the common denominator amid the many discontinuities of the last centuries, through reformation, secularization, social and political revolutions, and wars. To this day, the Church in Germany is holding on to its preferred income sources and its inclusion in the institutional grid of public institutions. The Church in Germany is recognized and treated by the state as something close to an entity of public law. In theory, this status should ensure its freedom, to a degree that churches in other countries should envy. But the same Church is increasingly unable to stand for core principles of the Christian message. The best-funded Catholic bishops in the world are not on the Olympic podium in the doctrinal-fidelity-and-courage competition. It seems they are not even running to win that prize (1 Cor. 9:24).
Theologians and prelates in Germany have long been champions of collegiality among the bishops. And there seems in fact to be very strong collegiality within the Conference of German Bishops itself. (Maybe there is also some peer pressure.) But when it comes to bishops outside the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the Germans’ interest in collegiality is less strong—to say nothing of their longstanding difficulty with following laws and guidelines issued by the Holy See. For themselves, the Germans like exceptions. (Just wait for their whining about how they cannot implement the guidelines recently issued for theological faculties—never mind that Pope Francis himself signed off on them.) I am sure there are bishops and theologians in Germany who do not agree with the direction the Bishops’ Conference is taking under the leadership of its current Westphalian bosses. But they dare not disagree publicly. They do not seem to have the courage simply to say Non possumus, for fear of being relegated, by their confreres and colleagues, to the ranks of the “controversial” or those “against Francis.” Maybe a secret workshop needs to be organized for them with Jordan Peterson?
Breaking from the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, as the German bishops propose, is a bad idea, both doctrinally and pastorally—which goes to show that these things can be distinguished, yes, but not separated. It also goes to show that breaking up the discipline of the Church along the lines of nation-states is a model unfit for the globalized world (and thus shockingly old-fashioned!). More importantly, it is incompatible with the Catholic faith.
It is interesting that the Holy Father has not picked up on the difficulties and temptations of the well-funded Church in German-speaking lands. His message of a Church of the poor, informed by the needs of those on the margins, has not been heard in diocesan curias north of the Alps, concerned as they are with the needs of the good Catholic burghers. The projects presently advanced by the German bishops seriously undermine doctrinal integrity and fidelity, ecclesial unity, and pastoral practice. I wonder what it will take to change course, and I wonder whether and how Francis and his dicasteries will weigh in.
But then again, there are miracles—such as Germany’s victory over Canada in ice hockey at the Olympics. Every giant will fall at some point. While Rome seems to be sleeping, the time has come for bishops outside Germany to hold their brothers accountable, and for pastors in Germany simply to ignore episcopal guidelines and musings that are in stark contrast to the traditional wisdom, teaching, and discipline of the universal Church. That Church (in the documents of Vatican II, believe it or not) “affirms that underlying all changes there are many things that do not change; they have their ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.”
Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is the pastor of St. George’s Parish and St. Albertus’s Parish in Ottawa.