Photo: Cdls. Kaspar and Marx
By Robert Royal, Editor-in-Chief, The Catholic Thing, May 7, 2018
It’s tiresome to write about Rome these days. Confusion continues, seemingly without anyone taking much notice. But some things that happen don’t allow you to ignore them. This time, it’s the meeting of German bishops in Rome last Thursday – a meeting called because there is division within the German bishops’ conference about whether to allow Communion, in some instances, to Protestant spouses of Catholics.
The conflict seemed to have been resolved a few weeks earlier. According to reports, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – the Vatican office charged with handling doctrinal matters – sent the Germans a letter saying that they could not change longstanding practice. Former CDF head Cardinal Gerhard Mueller has argued the same point at length and with great clarity. Pope Emeritus Benedict also is said to agree.
Reports also appeared that Pope Francis did not want the letter published. Instead, he called bishops on both sides to Rome. The head of the German bishops’ conference, Cardinal Marx, expected the pope’s support, since many believe Pope Francis favors such changes. But the current head of the CDF merely told the German bishops that the pope’s decision was that they go home and reach a “unanimous” decision on their own.
Now, as with many things the pope does, the meaning is unclear, and you could read that decision in several ways. The first and most obvious interpretation is that the pope is trying to further his vision of a “decentralized” Church, in which individual bishops and bishops’ conferences don’t always turn to Rome for answers to questions.
But the problems with such a decentralized, “synodal” institution are legion. After the Synods on the Family, several of us pointed out that we could get different teachings about the Eucharist on different sides of the Germany/Poland border. In Poland, it remains a sacrilege to receive Communion after divorcing and remarrying (without an annulment); but in Germany taking Communion after a “penitential period” would be regarded as wonderful progress in mercy.
It’s now clear that even this scenario was too rosy. The Germans – some, anyway – have played an unexpected role in the Vatican under the first Latin American pope. Cardinals Marx and Kasper have been pushing 1970s liberal goals and getting a hearing. But at the same time, even in Germany, Rainer Maria Woelki, the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Germany’s largest and richest diocese, and other prelates oppose such “pastoral” adjustments because they lead to different “doctrinal” positions on the Eucharist – and even the Church.
Which brings us to a second way to look at the pope’s decision. If you are committed, as he is, to a more “synodal” Church, conflicts like this are going to multiply rapidly, perhaps in the same way that doctrinal matters quickly splintered the Protestant Reformers into multiple, conflicting groups. If the German bishops all lived a hundred years, they will never reach a “unanimous” view about this question because the two sides have deep opposing positions.