It’s not often that one Vatican get-together manages to capture three grand ironies about the state of things in Catholicism, but such would seem to be the case with a summit involving Vatican officials and German prelates this coming Thursday on the issue of Communion for the Protestant spouses of Catholics in mixed marriages.

In one way or another, the session reflects these three insights:

  • Even when a pope or a Vatican regime are genuinely committed to decentralization, it’s tough in a global village for Rome to sit things out for very long.
  • Some issues in the Church carry tremendous symbolic importance in one part of the world, but may have their greatest impact in another.
  • Pope Francis is the first pope from the global south, but much of the ad intra drama of his papacy revolves around a first world setting par excellence – the wealthy and theologically combustible German Catholic Church.

The impetus for Thursday’s meeting stems from a late February session of the German bishops’ conference, which adopted guidelines allowing Protestant spouses to receive Communion under certain conditions, most notably that they “share the Catholic faith” on the Eucharist.

That led a group of seven German bishops, including Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, to write 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.”

The letter was written without the knowledge of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, president of the German bishops’ conference and a member of the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisors. In an April 4 reply, Marx professed surprise since the text discussed in February, he said, is just a draft and can still be modified.

On the German side, both Marx and Woelki will be take part in Thursday’s meeting, joined by Italian Archbishop Luis Ladaria, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, who runs the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

In all honesty, this may not be a decision Francis really wants to make. When he’s addressed inter-communion in the past, for instance during a 2015 visit to Rome’s German Lutheran community and in his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, he’s styled it as a question of conscience to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

In other words, Francis might be content to let local bishops figure it out for themselves, yet here some of those very same bishops are insisting Rome needs to provide direction.

Notably, the Vatican didn’t ask for this meeting, and there’s no particular indication it’s eager to get involved. Yet in a 21st century, social media-saturated world, the distinction between “local” and “universal” is, to some extent, an anachronism. We all know everything that happens everywhere immediately, and pressures on Rome to react, whether from the grassroots or the hierarchy, often make some sort of intervention inevitable.

In other words, irony #1 is that Francis is striving to be a decentralizing pope in a highly centralizing era.

Second, Marx’s response to the letter by seven of his fellow prelates was especially telling when he said, in essence, he doesn’t quite get what the fuss is about, since allowing Protestant spouses to receive Communion when they share the Catholic faith on the Eucharist and have spoken with a pastor is already established practice in Germany, based on existing Church legislation and papal teaching.

The German bishops often cite the 2003 document from St. Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucaristia, which said that in addition to permitting intercommunion in cases of “grave necessity,” such as the risk of death, it can also happen when there’s a “serious spiritual need.”

Those who know the reality of German Catholicism generally say things break down like this: Most Catholics and Protestants in mixed marriages aren’t going to church on a regular basis anyway, so the issue of intercommunion doesn’t really arise. For those who do, and when the Protestant partner desires to receive Communion, most long ago found an understanding pastor and quietly have been taking part in the sacrament all along. Observers say the numbers who want Communion but who, for one reason or another, are blocked from it, are comparatively small.

Granted, given the legacy of the Reformation and the Gospel imperative of the pursuit of Christian unity, this is a culturally and theologically charged question, but whatever happens Thursday may not mean much in terms of practice in Germany.

Where it could mean more is other parts of the world, especially where mixed marriages are most common. There is obviously a difference between saying “the Germans do x” and “the Germans now have papal authorization to do x,” making it difficult to explain why other local churches shouldn’t have the same latitude. Thus irony #2: An accommodation justified by German exigencies could, if granted, have it greatest impact elsewhere.

Third, it’s striking that once again, German-speaking Catholicism is acting as prime mover in internal ecclesiastical debates in the Francis era.

That was the case in the ferment surrounding Amoris Laetitia and the issue of Communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church, where German Cardinal Walter Kasper is the intellectual architect of the proposal and Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn one of its most articulate interpreters. It was also the case in the pope’s September 2017 document Magnum Principium, which shifted lead responsibility for liturgical translation in many cases to local bishops. Marx was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of that move, after the German and Austrian bishops had steadfastly refused for four years to adopt a new Roman-approved translation of the Mass.

Now once again, the theological and pastoral agenda of the German-speaking Church is informing the terms of debate of the Francis papacy, in this case on intercommunion.

Admirers will say that some of the finest theological reflection in Catholicism over the last several centuries has come out of the German-speaking realm, and it’s completely appropriate that the fruits of that tradition are being collected. Critics generally look askance, wondering why plummeting vocations and Mass attendance rates qualify Germany to be teaching lessons to the rest of the Catholic world.

Whichever view one adopts, here’s irony #3: Even under a “third world” pope, the first world is hardly irrelevant. In good Catholic both/and fashion, the reality of the 21st century Church isn’t south instead of north, but rather south plus north.

Those three points, by the way, don’t depend at all on what happens when the German shepherds and Vatican heavyweights get together on Thursday. For that, we’ll just have to wait and see!