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By Fr. Dwight Longenecker, May 2018
Edward Pentin reports here on the results of a recent summit meeting between German bishops and Pope Francis over the proposal that for “pastoral reasons” the Protestant spouses of Catholics should be allowed to receive the Eucharist at Catholic Mass.
The so-called “pastoral handout,” which German bishops overwhelmingly voted for in February, proposed that a Protestant spouse could receive the Eucharist after having made a “serious examination” of conscience with a priest or another person with pastoral responsibilities, and “affirms the faith of the Catholic Church,” wishes to end “serious spiritual distress,” and has a “longing to satisfy a hunger for the Eucharist.”
Proponents said it would help to resolve the suffering of some Protestant spouses unable to receive Holy Communion with their Catholic wives or husbands. Critics called it a “rhetorical trick” that wrongly sought to redefine the sacraments as a means of alleviating mental distress and satisfying spiritual needs.
As a convert myself, and with family members who are separated from full communion, I feel their pain. However, what I don’t understand is why the German bishops cannot see the obvious answer. If a Protestant has made a “serious examination of conscience” and “affirms the faith of the Catholic Church” and has a “hunger for the Eucharist” then why don’t they simply become Catholic?
Why is this such a heart wrenching and difficult decision?
I can remember when I called myself a “Catholic in the Anglican Church”. I felt bad that I was told not to receive the Catholic Eucharist. I protested (being a Protestant and that’s what they do) to a Catholic priest that “I believe the Catholic faith! I believe in the real presence! I follow all the Pope’s teachings!”
He said very kindly, “But one of the Pope’s teachings is that to believe the Catholic faith one needs to be in full communion with the Holy Father.”
In other words it is a half truth to say that the Protestant “affirms the Catholic faith” and yet stays outside full communion with the Catholic Church because part of the Catholic faith is that if you are a Christian and you understand the claims of the Catholic faith you should come into full communion. It is also part of the Catholic faith that Catholics are to evangelize and encourage non-Catholics to do so.
I have had conversations with good non-Catholic Christians who have said, “But why don’t you permit me to receive communion? We believe the same thing. I think I should be able to come to communion!”
I replied, “But you can come to communion. Full communion. Just become a Catholic. If it is true that we believe the same thing, then you would have no objection to being received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Welcome aboard!”
Then the clouds descend and they say, “Harumph. I could never kiss the pope’s toe…and what about that stupid artificial contraception thing?”
“Right then” I respond, “then it is clear that we do not, in fact, believe the same thing and are not in full communion…which I respect and it is good that we are now clear about it. Therefore you should not receive communion….but I still love you and think you’re a wonderful person and I know you love Jesus.”
This is a perfectly reasonable response that is at once ecumenical, evangelistic, apologetical and personal. Why do the German bishops need to have high level talks with the Pope to sort this out?
The bishops say this is a “pastoral response” but every Catholic priest already has a perfectly good pastoral response at hand. We are empowered to receive into full communion any of our separated brethren whenever they ask at our own discretion. If I have a parishioner who knows the Catholic faith, attends Mass with his Catholic spouse, loves the church and is a Catholic in all but fact and he says, “Father, I’d like to be received into the Church” I can, at my own discretion hear his profession of faith and hear his confession and admit him into the church.
Bam. Just like that.
That’s just as pastoral as can be.
So why the big fuss by the German bishops? Why all the wringing of hands and high level Vatican meetings?
This is something my eighth grade Catholic school students would be able to explain.
It’s beyond me.
The only reason they could possibly have for such an artificial quandary is that there is another agenda, and I suspect it has to do with the huge cash pipeline the German bishops get from the German “church tax”. It is no secret that an increasing number of Germans are opting out of the Catholic Church and when they do, their church tax disappears. Shall we follow the money? Are the German bishops eager not to offend and alienate more of their flock by telling Protestant spouses to either refrain from communion or come into full communion?
Or maybe this is part of a larger agenda which is revealed by Pope Francis’ peculiar response. According to Pentin’s report the Holy Father’s response was not to respond. They say “Rome has spoken. That settles it.” Increasingly we are in a situation where “Rome has not spoken. Nothing is settled.” The pope bounced it back to the German bishops neither approving the innovation nor rejecting it outright.
Is the real agenda here another way to continue the move toward papal disempowerment? By deferring the question and allowing ambiguity and different practices in different parts of the world is the pope implementing what is his most radical reform–the emasculation of the papacy in favor of local bishops’ conferences?
While it certainly makes some sense to devolve questions of discipline down to the local level, it is alarming if questions of doctrine should be shuffled out to the various bishops conferences. Such a move would break all precedents from the Council of Jerusalem onward. Furthermore, we’ve already seen with the varied interpretations of Amoris Letitia that different bishops have extremely differing views on the subject.
If this is Pope Francis’ agenda, then I’m open minded and ready to be convinced. He’s the pope. Maybe through him the Spirit is leading us to new understandings of authority in the church, but I wish he would be more open about it and allow the discussions to go on openly rather than what comes across as stealth change and back room manipulation.
The problem with various interpretations in different parts of the world is that the clear water teaching of the Catholic faith is bound to get muddy.
When I was an Anglican a relative used to quiz me and say, “Dwight. Tell me. What do Anglicans believe about (for example) infant baptism?”
I’d say, “First pick your Anglican. Then I’ll tell you what he probably believes, but then again maybe not, and it could of course be the other and I would not wish to say in any real sense that it could be true except in a metaphorical understanding which, all things being equal could also mean that of course I am not saying that there is such a thing as objective theology which means (if ‘means’ means anything) that the other could be true if you are able in any real sense to make a definition, but we surely all accept that such definitions are divisive and therefore we suggest that one allows a certain latitude of interpretation….” you get the idea.
In other words, by not making a decision, like Stan Laurel, it seems Pope Francis has landed Cardinal (Ollie) Marx in “another fine mess.”