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This is the fifth in a series of reflections by Cardinal Müller on questions of present importance in the life of the Church.

According to Reinhard Cardinal Marx, the German bishops recently prepared guidelines that contemplate the possible admission to Holy Communion of Protestants who are married to a Catholic spouse. The only absolute prerequisite would be that these Protestants affirm the faith of the Catholic Church. (More recent reports indicate that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the pope’s backing, has rejected the German bishops’ proposal. The German bishops, however, deny that this is the case.)

Cardinal Marx added that opening up this possibility would not mean changing doctrine but only modifying one’s pastoral approach. However, wouldn’t this new “pastoral” procedure have doctrinal implications? Is it enough to affirm the faith of the Catholic Church in order to be able to receive the Eucharist, or is it necessary actually to belong to the Catholic Church?

For the Catholic faith the connection between the Church and the Eucharist is constitutive. Therefore, in principle, only those baptized can receive sacramental communion who are in full ecclesial communion with “the one Church of Christ … constituted and organized in the world as a society, which subsists in the Catholic Church and is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium n. 8). Anyone who questions this revealed truth in theory or overrides it in practice enters into open contrast with the Catholic faith. As I now proceed to show the connection that exists between sacramental communion on the one hand and ecclesial communion on the other, I will do so from the perspective of Revelation, as it is faithfully and completely preserved in the Catholic Church, without discussing the controversial guidelines of the German Bishops’ Conference.

Today theology is often subordinated to ideology and ecclesiastical politics. Instead of exchanging arguments in open debate, one discredits people. Every problem is made to center on persons, and thus it is neutralized. Even if someone knows Holy Scripture by heart, has studied the Fathers of the Church and proves to be an expert in modern philosophy and science, to discredit him it is enough for some backwater journalist or amateur theologian to call him “conservative,” and all his knowledge will be neutralized, just as the best wine becomes undrinkable when a drop of poison is mixed into it. Each newly appointed bishop is tested at the first press conference and labeled conservative or liberal—whatever this is supposed to mean—depending on whether he expresses himself “for or against” the ordination of women, “for or against” the blessing of homosexual couples, “for or against” priestly celibacy, and “for or against” Holy Communion for the “divorced and remarried.” Other topics are of no interest and differentiated arguments do not count. Thus, allegations of personal ideological bias take the place of objective discussion. Those who would like to see a looser connection between ecclesial communion and the communion of the sacraments—allegedly in order to make it easier for the people of today to come to the faith—immediately accuse their critics of closed-mindedness and rigid pharisaic adherence to dogmas that the secularized Christian can no longer understand.

Today we witness an anti-dogmatic climate that has negative effects on the understanding of the sacraments. The sacraments are then no longer regarded as the visible signs instituted by Christ and celebrated in the Church, effecting invisible grace in those who are well disposed. The sacraments are turned into psychological and social means of support to facilitate our inner mystical experiences with a “Christ” that is shaped in our consciousness according to our own image and likeness. The grace of the sacraments is certainly not a reward for good moral conduct, but even less is it a justification for immoral conduct and a life lived against God’s commandments. When it comes to the relation between grace and morality, there is no “either-or,” but a “both-and,” just as we read in the documents of the Second Vatican Council: “It is through the sacraments and the exercise of the virtues that the sacred nature and organic structure of the priestly community is brought into operation” (Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium n. 11).

Many people today are incapable of truly entering the liturgy because they do not trace the Church’s life and dogma back to the fact of the Incarnation, but instead consider Christianity simply a historical variation of a general religious feeling that is induced by some vague transcendence. The nature, action, and effect of the sacraments are disclosed only in the light of the Incarnation and the real historical mediation of salvation in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. From this perspective one will immediately perceive that the mindset of those who say, “This may be dogmatically correct, but it does not work for pastoral care” is completely un-Catholic. Christ the Teacher of the Truth that is God himself, who makes us come to know and love him, is at the same time the Good Shepherd and the “Bishop of our souls” (1 Pet 2:25), who gave his life for us on the Cross. Therefore, there cannot be a double truth in Catholic teaching. What is dogmatically wrong will have harmful effects on pastoral work to the extent that the latter will be guided by false principles, endangering the salvation of souls.

In our age of social media, digital communication, and totalitarian mainstreaming, what is of primary importance is not whether the pope and the bishops reach people, but rather that through their message Christ reaches people, Christ who is the truth and the life of God. Therefore, as the Church’s one and only indivisible magisterium, the pope and the bishops in union with him carry the gravest responsibility that no ambiguous sign or unclear teaching comes from them, confusing the faithful or lulling them into a false sense of security. For the pope and the bishops, it is part of their occupational hazard to find themselves in situations where the opinion leaders and the mighty of this world accuse them of being out of touch with reality, hostile to life, or stuck in medieval times. The prophets of old were persecuted. Jesus warned his disciples that people would “utter all kinds of evil” against them falsely on account of the true faith (cf. Mt 5:11). Why then do the bishops, as successors of the Apostles, think that the reason for persecution and slander is found merely in a false media policy, which could then easily be remedied by improved communication skills?

In the epoch of dogmatic relativism, which quickly turns into a verbal and violent persecution of the witnesses of revealed truth, one needs clarity in one’s theological thinking and the courage of the martyrs in order to bear witness to the truth, as Jesus did before Pilate. The Church’s concern is with following Christ in the truth of God, and not with the power of the world. But we want to witness to the Catholic faith and be living examples of it in a manner that allows us to walk together with Christians from the orthodox churches and other denominations on the path to the full unity of the Church, just as her founder Jesus Christ desires it.

At the moment of instituting the Eucharist, Jesus did not give detailed answers to all the individual questions that would arise in later reflection. But all the Church’s dogmatic declarations are based on the nature of this sacrament as Jesus has instituted it. Whoever wants to receive the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ must already be integrated into the body of Christ, which is the Church, through the confession of faith and sacramental baptism. Thus, there is no mystical, individualistic, and emotional communion with Christ that can be thought of apart from baptism and Church membership. After all, Christ is always the Head of his body, and his body is the Church. There does not exist any mystical and individualistic communion with Christ based on emotion, prescinding from membership in the ecclesial body of Christ.

It has always been clear to every Catholic that to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist in a lawful and fruitful manner, one needs to be in full communion with the ecclesial body of Christ in the profession of the Creed, in the sacraments, and in the hierarchical constitution of the visible Church. In addition, believers must be in the state of sanctifying grace—that is, they need to have repented sincerely of any mortal sin and confessed it, firmly resolving not to sin again. Ordinarily it is in sacramental absolution that the faithful are freed from grave guilt that radically separates them from God and the Church.

When the popes and councils excommunicated heretics and schismatics, they excluded these baptized believers from Eucharistic communion until the day they converted and were reconciled with God and the Church. And conversely also the heterodox, who regarded themselves as orthodox, denied ecclesial communion to Catholics by not granting them Eucharistic communion.

It was not until the Leuenberg Agreement between Reformation Churches in Europe in 1973 that the Lutherans and the Reformed allowed their respective members to participate in each other’s celebrations of the Lord’s Supper and permitted their respective clergy to preach in each other’s congregations. Indeed, up to this point in time, they had held fast to a principle that goes back to the early Church, namely the principle that communion in the sacraments cannot be separated from ecclesial communion. And as a matter of fact, not all ecclesial communities deriving from the Reformation have joined the Leuenberg Agreement. To some, this accord had resolved the controversy about Christ’s Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper in a manner that excessively favored the Calvinistic view, thus failing to arrive at a true unity of faith about this matter.

There has certainly been significant progress in the Catholic Church’s dialogue with various Protestant communities. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church cannot stray from the essential doctrines of the faith that concern her own mission and the sacraments she dispenses. If she did, she would become unfaithful to Christ. It is not enough for a non-Catholic Christian selectively to accept for him- or herself some of the Church’s teachings and reject others or consider them unimportant. In the teaching about the Eucharist, there is an almost complete agreement between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches (the Real Presence, the sacrificial character of the Mass, the necessity of an ordained priest, without whom there is no Eucharist). There is a partial agreement between the Catholic Church and some Protestant communities, especially the Lutherans.

For Catholics, the sacraments are not simply signs of the sinner’s justification that has already occurred by faith alone. Rather, they are signs that bring about what they signify. And yes, there may be circumstances under which the sacraments of grace cannot be administered as visible signs, and God nonetheless communicates the grace of the sacraments to those who open themselves up to him in faith, hope, and love. But he does so for the salvation of human beings without thereby rendering less important the visible, sacramental mediation of salvation, which is based on the Incarnation and is in accord with human nature.

The moment one interprets the human being’s spiritual hunger for God and divine grace in psychological instead of theological terms, there is the danger of confusing the Christian sacraments with pagan magic. On account of supernatural faith and grace, the Eucharist is a “medicine of immortality” (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians); it is not a remedy for psycho-dramatic experiences and traumas. Here it is important to use the natural aids of medicine and therapy. It is impossible for the Eucharist to restore physically, as it were, the lost ecclesial communion in absence of the supernatural union that derives from a common confession of faith, the sacraments, and the visible unity with the pope and the bishops.

Some argue, with ostensible generosity, that things should not be interpreted too strictly, and that ultimately the decision to receive Holy Communion should be left to people’s pious feelings and goodwill. In reality, however, this appeal to subjective sentiments that override sacramental discipline exhibits a contempt for the faith as it has been revealed by God and entrusted to the Catholic Church. When individual bishops’ conferences seek to resolve difficulties by an exercise of power, renouncing any efforts at coming to a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith and emanating an authoritarian dictate instead, while tacitly presupposing the pope’s approval, then the Church’s magisterium is undermining itself. After all, its authority is based not on administrative power, but on “the Word of God, whether written or handed on.” The magisterium “is not above the Word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission, and with the help of the Holy Spirit it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (Vatican Council II,  Dei Verbum n. 10).

God has appointed but a single magisterium in the Catholic Church. Some propose that in the Church there could be a diversity and divergence in matters of faith and in the administration of the sacraments. It is even suggested that bishops’ conferences or individual bishops have a magisterium of their own by which they can interpret Revelation in their own right in a manner that is dogmatically binding without ties to the pope and the universal episcopate. This proposal not only reveals a frightening lack of theological education, but it is nothing more than a monstrous attack on the unity of the Church in Christ. To the universal Church and to the college of bishops, the pope is the principle of the unity of faith and the foundation of the communion in the sacraments. Individual bishops play an analogous role for their local churches (cf. Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium 18; n. 22). They must not be the cause of the universal Church’s division into autocephalous national churches. The secular principle of decentralizing political power can be applied to the Church only analogously and only with respect to logistical matters of ecclesiastical administration. It definitely cannot be applied to the truth that unites all believers in God as they continue “steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Nevertheless, in the extreme situation of mortal danger, when what is at stake is the believer’s immediate preparation for his or her particular judgment and eternal life, the Church cannot deny pastoral help to a non-Catholic Christian who is baptized when he or she seriously asks for it. Evidently this can happen only in respecting the believer’s faith. Indeed, most non-Catholic Christians have not themselves been guilty of heresy and have not fallen away from the Catholic Church on their own initiative. Because of baptism, and because of many other elements that build up the Church, the Christians of the ecclesial communities that have emerged from the Reformation have a real connection with the Catholic Church. There is indeed a communion, though it is not a full communion (Vatican Council II, Unitatis Redintegratio n.3).

When non-Catholic Christians in situations of grave need that bear on their eternal salvation—situations that must not be confused with social or psychological predicaments—ask a Catholic priest for the sacramental forgiveness of their sins and for Holy Communion as a viaticum, that is, as a nourishment for their final journey, then indeed these sacraments of grace can be given to them. No other condition needs to be met than that they affirm the Church’s faith regarding these sacraments at least implicitly. In fact, because of their faith, hope, and love, God gives them the grace of the sacraments. Any appearance of relativism must be avoided.

However, one must not arbitrarily widen concepts like “grave and pressing need” (Codex Iuris Canonici, can. 844 §4) so as to give rise to a de facto sacramental union of the Catholic Church with ecclesial communities that are not in full communion with her. Canon law must be interpreted in the light of the revealed faith and, as far as merely ecclesiastical law is concerned, it must also be corrected in the same light. Conversely it is impossible that positive, merely human canonical dispositions ever practically invalidate the faith. A divergence between the faith’s doctrine and its practice is not possible if we want to remain Catholic. In the end, the goal is not intercommunion between visible churches that remain separate, but rather the visible unity of the Church that is represented and realized in the unity of the faith, the sacraments, and the recognition of the teaching and governing office of the pope and the bishops (Vatican Council II, Unitatis Redintegratio n. 4).

Though a denominationally mixed marriage and family is likely to be a great challenge for spouses and their children, it may, at the same time, be an opportunity from the ecumenical point of view. Most certainly, however, it does not represent a situation of “grave and pressing need,” requiring the administration of the Catholic Church’s sacraments to the non-Catholic party for the salvation of his or her soul. If Protestant Christians come to the inner conviction that in their conscience they affirm the whole Catholic faith and its ecclesial form, then they must also seek full visible communion with the Catholic Church.

With regard to the Orthodox Churches, the question is different both dogmatically and practically, inasmuch as they have the same understanding of the Church as sacramental reality as Catholics do. They have valid sacraments, the sacramental priesthood, and the valid ordination of bishops, who are true and legitimate successors of the Apostles. Thus, provided that “necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it,” and the error of indifferentism is avoided, and “it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister,” a Catholic believer may ask an Orthodox priest for the sacrament of penance, the anointing of the sick, and the Eucharist (Codex Iuris Canonici, can. 844 §2). As far as the dispositions of the Catholic Church are concerned, a Catholic priest can lawfully offer these sacraments to Orthodox Christians under the sole condition that “they spontaneously ask for them and are properly disposed” (Codex Iuris Canonici, can. 844 §3). The Orthodox, in contrast, are more reserved in their relation to the Catholic Church. The reason is that in their doctrine of the sacraments, they have not always, at least not consistently, drawn the Catholic Church’s conclusions from the fundamental anti-Donatist decisions in the fourth and fifth centuries. Following these decisions, the Catholic Church believes that even a heretical or schismatic priest, or one who is not living a morally irreprehensible life, can validly administer the sacraments, provided he is validly ordained and celebrates the sacraments according to the mind of the Church.

When it comes to the competence of the bishops’ conferences in doctrinal matters, one must not limit the question to their legal, canonical competences. It is of utmost importance to remember that neither the bishops nor the pope have any competence to intervene in the substance of the sacraments (Council of Trent, Decree on Communion under Both Species, DH 1728) or tacitly to initiate processes that establish errors and confusion in sacramental practice, thus endangering the salvation of souls.

Ecumenism must aim at overcoming doctrinal differences in the substance of the matter itself. It cannot limit itself to finding formulas of verbal compromise, which are ultimately unsustainable. By laying the blame for the division of Western Christianity on academic theology, one only promotes indifference in matters of faith. The consequence would then be an ecclesiological nihilism that opens an abyss that would ultimately swallow up the Church. However, there is an alternative that it is important to hold on to: “the Church of the living God ... is the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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