From the Editor’s Desk of THE TABLET, 9 May 2018:
With mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants in Germany now very common, pressure is increasing on the Catholic Church to relax its rules on the reception of Holy Communion by the non-Catholic partner. In many parishes it happens already. Responding to such pressure from below and because they are not themselves satisfied with a strict interpretation of the rules, at their plenary in February the German bishops voted by a two-thirds majority in favour of allowing couples in interchurch marriages to receive Communion together. Seven German bishops who oppose this change then wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seeking clarification as to whether the issue fell within the competence of local bishops’ conferences.
The debate is being followed anxiously by many millions in interchurch marriages around the world. It is reported that Pope Francis has told the German bishops to try to seek unanimity. What is decided in the German case will have repercussions everywhere else. This year is the 20th anniversary of One Bread, One Body, the document signed by the presidents of the three episcopal conferences covering Great Britain and Ireland. It faithfully reflects canon law as it then stood. The bishops felt the admission of non-Catholics to Catholic Holy Communion was only permissible when there were “grave and pressing reasons”, or on a one-off special occasion such as the First Communion of a Catholic child of an interchurch marriage.
Pope Francis has made it plain that he believes theological and pastoral questions should not be answered simply by turning to the rule book. Nor, as the new report on Synodality from the International Theological Commission forcefully argues, should the views of lay people be ignored in such matters. The couples the German bishops are concerned with are presumed to be practising members of their respective Churches, sacramentally married in the eyes of the Catholic Church: united by baptism and matrimony, but, Sunday by Sunday, divided by the Eucharist. This is painfully anomalous. Arguably, the mere existence of such a marriage should create its own “grave and pressing reason” for Eucharistic sharing.
If the rules are to be reinterpreted, a reasonable condition would require the non-Catholic partner to respect Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist. In Germany, Lutheran understanding differs from the Catholic position, though the two appear to be converging. Anglicans, however, will know that “substantial agreement” on Eucharistic doctrine was reached between leading theologians representing the Anglican and the Roman Catholic Communions as long ago as 1971, reaffirmed in 1981, and again in 1993, in the course of the ARCIC discussions.
To burden couples trying to live a Christian marriage with the particular pain of Christian disunity, as if they could do anything about it, is helping no one live a faithful Christian life. If the rules currently insist on it, they should be rewritten.