Top Vatican officials talk China, intercommunion, and al-Sistani

Top Vatican officials talk China, intercommunion, and al-Sistani

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Two prominent Vatican prelates waded into hot-button issues in the areas of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, voicing a desire to increase dialogue with China and outlining the Catholic Church’s rules for intercommunion.

ROME – In comments to the media Friday, two prominent Vatican prelates waded into hot-button issues in the areas of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, voicing a desire to increase dialogue with China and outlining the Catholic Church’s rules for intercommunion.

During the March 26 media roundtable, Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, gave journalists updates in their respective areas.

Asked whether there was ever a commission to study the topic of intercommunion, which has long been a source of debate in Christianity, and whether the Catholic Church might ever allow intercommunion on a general basis, Farrell said the issue is “still being talked about today.”

Several years ago, there were rumors that Pope Francis had set up a secret commission to study the issue of intercommunion with other Christian confessions, but those rumors were never verified, and to this day Church teaching on the matter remains unchanged.

In 2018, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rejected a proposal made by the German bishops allowing non-Catholics to receive communion under certain conditions. The draft of the proposal was approved by roughly three-quarters of the bishops, however the Vatican rejected it on grounds that the proposal was “not mature enough to be published.”

When it comes to intercommunion, “We have certain rules,” Farrell said, explaining that with certain Orthodox churches, who share many of the same beliefs as Catholics but do not recognize the pope’s authority, Farrell said there are “no problems of faith,” meaning they can receive each other’s sacraments.

“The rules are very clear, but they are also very generous in the sense that where it’s necessary, they do it,” he said, saying the more serious problems with intercommunion arise with Protestantism, since many Protestant churches “have differences in faith on the sacraments, for example the Eucharist.”

“What happens in the celebration of liturgy? Is it a transformation, or something symbolic? When there is this difference, intercommunion is much more difficult,” he said, but noted that the Catholic Church does allow Protestants who truly believe in the sacraments to receive them.

In his 1980 letter on the Eucharist Dominicae Cenae, Pope John Paul II said the Catholic Church “is pleased to give its sacraments” when it can, Farrell said, but stressed that “we should not diminish the difficulties or differences in faith that still exist, because of this, there is the controversy and polemic.”

Most of the modern-day polemic over intercommunion is related to the generic reception of the Eucharist, whereas the Catholic Church “looks to the individual, not to a category,” Farrell said.

“Each one singularly must be in the right disposition to receive communion. Not everyone indiscriminately,” he said. “Each one individual must examine their conscience and evaluate individually whether they can receive intercommunion. This is our position.”

Calling ecumenical dialogue “not just our work, but our passion” as a Church, Farrell stressed the importance of continuing discussion on this and other similar points, saying “our only hope is to create a more fraternal world.”

“If we don’t work together, if we don’t try to be unified, we cannot work toward building that world,” he said.

When it comes to relations with other religions, Ayuso said, this also includes dialogue with non-believers, including the Communist Party in China.

At the moment, the Holy See has several partners and collaborators “with whom we work closely,” but there is nothing beyond this.

Many observers believe that the Vatican’s agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, reached in 2018 and which was renewed for an additional two years in October 2020, is a down payment on eventual diplomatic relations with China, which has been a longstanding goal of the Vatican.

According to Ayuso, “What we hope is that this openness continues, that this long process continues, because in a globalized world, there are no differences, there are no borders,” which makes contact easier.

What the Vatican hopes for, he said, is “an openness that allows us to make a step forward.”

Pursing interreligious dialogue, including with non-believers, is needed now more than ever, Ayuso said, “because it favors processes of peace,” and brings different communities together to find solutions to modern problems such as poverty, war, climate change, migration, and human trafficking.

This dialogue is not simplistic or superficial, and it must be done with mutual respect, openness, and without fear, he said, calling it a path “of awareness, sharing, and collaboration” that involves “making concrete steps together with members of other religions and with other people.”

“Everyone is called, in our difficult time, to be messengers of peace, artisans of communion,” he said, insisting the present moment must be “a time of fraternity.”

Recalling the pope’s recent March 5-8 visit to Iraq, Ayuso called Pope Francis’s meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husaymi al-Sistani, the most prominent authority in Shia Islam, a milestone.

Asked why the two did not sign the Human Fraternity document signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar during the pope’s trip to Abu Dhabi in 2019, which denounces extremism and commits to eradicating violence perpetuated in the name of religion, Ayuso said “it’s not necessary to have a document every time you meet someone.”

He recalled how during a preparation meeting for a similar encounter to that of Pope Francis and al-Sistani, his predecessor, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, was presented with the draft of a proposed 15-20 declaration.

Tauran in response said “enough declarations,” and asked his counterparts to go back to previous declarations and pick one point of interest and present it so it can be reflected on, implemented, and then discussed during the next meeting.

“By now it’s become a classic to sign declarations. It’s not necessary to always sign something new,” Ayuso said, insisting that “what’s important is that there is the work.”

Ayuso also spoke on the Syrian civil war, which just entered into its 10th year earlier this month, saying Pope Francis wants to visit the country, and intends to when conditions allow.

He offered his solidarity with the Syrian people, which he called “a proxy war,” saying it has plunged the country “into a vortex that it can’t get out of.”

“We know Pope Francis, as a ‘church that goes out,’ goes to the peripheries, to the places at the border,” Ayuso said. “Just as with Iraq, with Syria also, as we know, and also South Sudan, unfortunately there are still not the conditions for the pope to go,” but as soon as he can go, he will, he said, “because the Holy Father always seeks out the last ones.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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