It turns out that after intense debate, Cardinal Marx, the progressive president of the German Bishops Conference, announced in February that the Conference would issue guidelines explaining that Protestant spouses of Catholics could receive Holy Communion in “individual cases” and “under certain conditions.” Some opposing German bishops then appealed to the Vatican for clarification as to whether the question of inter-communion for non-Catholic spouses in inter-denominational marriages could be decided at a local level, or whether it needed Vatican intervention.
On May 3, a meeting took place between German bishops in favor of Marx’s proposal and Vatican officials in Rome. On May 25, Cardinal-elect Luis Ladaria SJ, the current head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), wrote a letter to Cardinal Marx in response to this meeting which has now been made public and authenticated by the Holy See Press Office.
Ladaria gave three reasons why Pope Francis “came to the conclusion that the document is not mature enough to be published.” I found interpreting these reasons to be a fascinating exercise of reading between the lines.
The first reason given was that admission to Communion of Protestant spouses in inter-confessional marriages “is a topic that touches the faith of the Church and has relevance for the universal Church.” Thus, the Pope is rejecting a decision made on the level of a bishops’ conference on this matter when the universal Church (aka Pope Francis) has not spoken (officially) on it. But this reason could easily be resolved by Francis settling the matter himself for the universal church.
The second reason given is that the question of Communion is a matter of Church law. The letter cites canon 844 of the Code of Canon Law, which deals with access to the Sacraments of the Catholic Church. This reason is rich as Francis has been known to dispose of canon law whenever it suits him. He did so when he violated its norms on Holy Thursday repeatedly. He also issued motu proprios changing the entire annulment process and could rewrite canon law tomorrow to explicitly allow what Cardinal Marx is asking for.
Thus, the third reason is the true reason. The third reason given in the letter is that allowing non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist, even in certain limited conditions, would have an impact on ecumenical relations with other Churches and ecclesial communities “which should not be underestimated.” Yes, in an ironic twist of fate, it appears the only reason Francis denied the German Bishops conference to allow inter-communion in certain cases, is because of objections from Protestant denominations, and possibly the Orthodox, to this practice.
Amusingly, we can only assume that Lutheran leaders in Germany see allowing Lutheran spouses of Catholics to receive Communion to be some sort of sinister mechanism Cardinal Marx wants to use to lure these spouses away from Lutheranism and have them convert to the Catholic Faith. Perhaps they believe if the Lutheran spouses can receive Communion in the Catholic Church, they will simply start going to Catholic masses and will no longer have to go to Lutheran services to receive. Thus, the one of the few incentives to keeping these spouses in their rapidly dying Lutheran churches, will have been extinguished.
Thus, Cardinal Marx’s plan to allow inter-communion was foiled, not because of the Traditional teaching forbidding Holy Communion to non-Catholics and not because Francis in any way supports this teaching, but only because allowing it would offend the very non-Catholics they are trying so desperately to appease. You have to love it.
But not to fear. In case you thought this news was a total victory for Catholicism, Pope Francis is not defeated so easily. The CNA article reported:
In his letter to Cardinal Marx, Ladaria noted that while there are “open questions” in some sectors of the Church in regards to the interpretation of canon 844, “the competent dicasteries of the Holy See have already been charged with producing a timely clarification of these questions at the level of the universal Church.”
If you believe Francis or “dicasteries of the Holy See” will be clarifying anything, much less this issue, in the near future, good luck. The trick is that neither Pope Francis nor his “dicasteries” have any intention of making a decision on this matter for the universal Church. While it is clear that Francis favors inter-communion for non-Catholic spouses, his making a universal rule permitting it would incite opposition and turmoil in ecumenical relations which he sees as completely avoidable and unnecessary in order to accomplish the goal.
Instead the letter simply reminds the diocesan bishops in Germany (wink, wink) that they are in charge of judging when there is a “grave impending need” regarding non-Catholic spouses receiving Holy Communion. In other words, Francis is punting the decision to the local bishops to allow inter-communion, as it would be easy for Marx or any other bishop to say the need for non-Catholic spouses to receive the Eucharist is, “grave” and “impending.” This way if any local Lutheran leader objects, Francis can just point to canon law, shrug, and say his hands are tied until the matter is officially settled by his “dicasteries.” Dicasteries that are, no doubt, working feverishly to clarify this issue for the universal church, though no estimated timeline of any such decision can currently be given.