German bishops could look to Britain for advice on Communion for Protestants

Catholics have become used to cardinals and bishops forcefully opposing each other. But the recent furore in Germany has been exceptional. The majority of German bishops approved a draft plan to admit Protestant spouses of Catholics to the Eucharist – when those spouses were suffering “serious spiritual distress”. Cardinal Willem Eijk said that the plan was contrary to Church teaching.

He added that the Pope’s refusal to make a ruling, after a minority of German bishops made their objections to Rome, was “completely incomprehensible”. Eijk said he was reminded of the Catechism’s words about “a final trial” of apostasy which “will shake the faith of many believers”. Other senior churchmen have used language which was nearly as strong.

But the conversation over the Eucharist and Protestantism did not begin in Germany. It has been an unresolved issue since Paul VI issued ambiguous guidelines in 1967. Then John Paul II’s 1983 revision of canon law permitted Protestants and Anglicans to receive Communion, Confession or Anointing – but under certain conditions: if there was a “grave necessity” such as “danger of death”, if no minister of their community was available, and if they had “Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed”. The Eastern Orthodox and others who have valid sacraments, if “properly disposed”, could also receive.

The Germans are not the first bishops’ conference to come up with their own reading of canon law in this regard. Twenty years ago – the exact anniversary falls in October – the bishops of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland jointly issued One Bread, One Body. These guidelines said that on “unique occasions of joy and sorrow” – such as marriages or funerals – a non-Catholic might be able to receive Communion if they agreed with Catholic belief on the Eucharist.

One Bread, One Body disappointed some Protestant leaders at the time, because it emphasised that the occasion must be “unrepeatable, a ‘one-off’ situation at a given moment which will not come again”. The idea of continuous reception – which the German bishops have implied – was not envisaged. The British and Irish bishops also stressed that someone receiving Communion must not be “in a state of serious or scandalous sin” – a firmer tone than the German bishops have taken.

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