The German Church has been thrown deeper into controversy after seven bishops appealed to the Vatican against new guidelines that would allow Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion. If adopted, these rules would significantly relax the existing ones.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg and the bishops of Görlitz, Augsburg, Eichstätt, Passau and Regensburg have signed a three-page letter to Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and Vatican ecumenical chief Cardinal Kurt Koch. They have asked for a ruling on whether the text approved at the February meeting of the German bishops’ conference (DBK) has exceeded the national bishops’ competence and breached canon law.

Notably, the letter was sent without prior consultation with DBK president Cardinal Reinhard Marx. Five of the seven bishops are also from dioceses in Bavaria, where Cardinal Marx is president of the state bishops’ conference. For his part, Marx has rejected the seven bishops’ questions and stressed that the guidelines were only a draft and could yet be altered. He had previously said that the new document was merely a “pastoral handbook” and that “we don’t want to create any new dogma”.

The seven bishops’ letter is not unprecedented, but such an initiative is unusual. The last time Rome was formally asked to intervene in the German Church’s internal disputes was in 1999, when the majority of bishops voted to remain part of the state pregnancy counselling service. Cardinal Joachim Meisner appealed directly to Pope John Paul II and secured a Vatican ruling overturning their decision. But that was a solo effort from Meisner, the leader of the German Church’s almost defunct conservative faction. An appeal to Rome by seven relatively centrist bishops is a dramatic development.

Non-Catholic spouses receiving Communion isn’t, of course, an issue confined to Germany. Tony Blair famously received Communion regularly before his conversion, despite it being against the rules (as Cardinal Basil Hume later reminded him). In Germany the practice is quite common, just as it is common for civilly remarried divorcees to receive Communion, and there is a clear link with the Amoris Laetitia controversy. But, as we saw with Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the family, there is a difference between having an important rule that is widely disregarded, and changing the rule – even just to allow exceptions, because exceptions have a way of becoming the new norm. And, where the sacraments are concerned, the stakes are high.

The new German guidelines are framed as providing for exceptions to be made on a case-by-case basis, after the communicant has gone through a process of discernment under the guidance of a priest. Ultimately, it would come down to the individual’s conscience – that is, Protestant spouses wishing to receive Communion should decide for themselves whether they should be able to. There is an obvious similarity with the proposal for allowing Communion for remarried divorcees put forward by future cardinals Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann in 1993, which was the basis for Cardinal Kasper’s intervention at the two family synods preceding the publication of Amoris. The superiority of conscience over the law is a common German Catholic position.

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