Editor’s Note: In February, the German bishops’ conference discussed a draft set of guidelines for giving Communion to the Protestant spouses of Catholics, the gist of which was to give a green light under certain circumstances.
The draft was approved by two-thirds of the German bishops, but seven, including Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, wrote to the Vatican requesting clarification as to whether this is something that can be decided by a local bishops’ conference, or if what’s needed is a “decision of the universal Church.”
That led to a Vatican meeting on May 3, where a message to the Germans was presented from Pope Francis asking them to find a “possibly unanimous solution” to the dispute.
In the United States, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has joined Woelki and the other German objectors, writing in a recent essay in First Things that “the German proposal in effect adopts a Protestant notion of ecclesial identity.”
Crux spoke with Chaput to understand more about his objections. The following is that exchange, which was conducted by email.
Crux: What do you think is at stake here?
Chaput: In a situation such as the German intercommunion debate, quite a lot is at stake: the identity of the Church; the meaning of the sacraments; the nature of the Real Presence, which connects to the reality of the Incarnation and the on-going, tangible presence of God in the world; and so on, in a long list.
It’s worth recalling that Martin Luther, despite his break with the Catholic Church, was a strong believer in the Real Presence. He understood that it has a vital place in Christian life. But Luther’s theology and Catholic theology on the Eucharist finally differ in important ways: He denied the crucial role of the priest, the legitimacy of holy orders and apostolic succession as a condition for valid Eucharistic celebrations, and he rejected the central importance of sacramental penance.
Nonetheless, Luther was quite willing to split the early Protestant movement apart in his dispute about the Real Presence with Zwingli — and he did, and in his own way he was right, because he saw very clearly that the nature of the Eucharist matters decisively for Christian life.
Doctrinal differences about the Eucharist are not just verbal debris from a dead past. Belief helps to shape thought and behavior. It guides how we understand the world. Intercommunion based on a mutually tepid attachment to what the various Christian communities have always believed about the Eucharist isn’t really “communion” at all.
Do you believe the German proposal would stop at communion for the Protestant spouses of Catholics, or would it logically open the door to others?
I don’t think that’s intended. In fact, I’m sure the intentions behind the proposal are entirely well-meaning, limited, and moved by pastoral concern. But good will doesn’t make an action prudent or right. Once this step is taken, pressure to widen intercommunion will naturally increase, with diminishing reasons and credibility to resist it.
What explains the reaction this proposal is generating?
Read Carlos Eire’s Reformations. Somewhere in the text, he makes the point that Reform (Calvinist) theology, by eliminating things such as purgatory, the sacraments, devotion to the saints, the Real Presence, etc., effectively pushed God out of and above the world, and paved the way – unintentionally – for modern unbelief.
The Lutheran tradition, in contrast, does retain some elements of sacramentality, but they’re much weaker than in any authentically Catholic sense.
Again, these differences are not just religious quirks. They have meaning. For Catholics, God is not simply transcendent, but also immanent and active in the world in an on-going, accessible, tangible way. And the sacraments are not simply rituals or symbols to stimulate our memories and piety; they have power; they’re living channels of healing and grace.
Any proposal that seems to downplay or gloss over the gravity of these differences, these realities, risks misleading the faithful, and triggering division and pushback.
The Catholic doctrine of communion was defined formally at the Council of Trent. Does that add a level of concern about our understanding of tradition?
Obviously. Vatican II did nothing to fundamentally change our understanding of the Eucharist.
Ultimately, do you believe this proposal implies, or at least risks implying, that there’s little meaningful difference between Catholicism and Protestantism?
That’s how many everyday Catholics will experience it and internalize its meaning. And what happens in Germany will not stay in Germany. Modern media make it impossible to contain or localize these things. This is why any sense of synodality that ignores this fact is likely to produce confusion, rather than the healthy decentralization it quite sensibly seeks.
We’re at a moment in the Church when careful reasoning and a hunger for truth are being displaced by a compassion rooted mainly in emotion, and a kind of Christianity that’s essentially ethical and horizontal, as opposed to supernatural.
The German intercommunion proposal can seem like a simple thing, a small thing. But it’s part of much larger issues in the Church, and important for that reason.