Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference. Courtesy: Diocese of Limburg
The head of the German Catholic bishops has said that a major ecumenical event on Saturday is “not about intercommunion.”
Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, insisted that church services attended by both Catholics and Protestants on the evening of May 15 would be “ecumenically sensitive.”
The event has provoked anxiety at the Vatican over concerns that the congress might promote a controversial proposal for a “Eucharistic meal fellowship” between Catholics and Protestants.
Bätzing, the bishop of Limburg, noted that he would celebrate Mass in Frankfurt Cathedral on Saturday, the day on which German Catholics and Protestants are invited to attend services in one another’s churches.
Bätzing said: “Just to once again confirm: The form of celebration proposed is not about intercommunion in the sense of a general reciprocal invitation to participate in the Eucharist and Lord’s Supper, but about the question of how we deal with the personal decisions of conscience of individual Catholic or Protestant Christians.”
“For me, I respect such a decision and give Communion when someone asks to receive [the Body of Christ] who believes what we Catholics believe and wants to faithfully receive the Body of the Lord in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ.”
He continued: “It is not about inviting non-Catholic Christians to Communion in general, because there is still no full communion between the separate churches.”
“Catholic canon law also recognizes the possibility that non-Catholics can receive Holy Communion under certain conditions. There is no doubt, however, that we must continue the theological dialogue on the meaning of the Eucharist and the Lord’s Supper and their meaning for church communion.”
CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, reported that Bätzing added that the German Catholic Church’s contentious “Synodal Way” would have an impact on ecumenical ties, though it is primarily about “an internal reform of the Catholic Church in our country.”
Bätzing wrote a letter to clergy in his Diocese of Limburg in March, advising them to give Holy Communion to non-Catholic individuals only if they requested it after examining their consciences.
In the four-page letter issued in light of the Ecumenical Church Congress, he told priests that there could be “no general, inter-denominational reception of the Eucharist” or “new forms of Eucharistic celebration.”
He wrote: “The prerequisite for a worthy reception of the Eucharistic gifts, for both Catholics and non-Catholics, is the examination of one’s conscience.”
“As pastors, we respect the decision of conscience when someone receives Holy Communion after serious examination and in accordance with the Catholic faith.”
He issued the letter amid debate over the proposed “Eucharistic meal fellowship” between Catholics and Protestants in Germany.
The proposal was made by the Ecumenical Study Group of Protestant and Catholic Theologians (known by its German initials, ÖAK) in a 2019 document entitled “Together at the Lord’s Table.”
The ÖAK adopted the text under the co-chairmanship of Bätzing and the retired Lutheran Bishop Martin Hein.
The study group, founded in 1946, is independent of both the German Catholic bishops’ conference and the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), an organization representing 20 Protestant groups. But the ÖAK informs both bodies about its deliberations.
The ÖAK document raised alarm at the Vatican, prompting an intervention by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in September 2020.
In a four-page critique and a letter to Bätzing, the doctrinal congregation emphasized that significant differences in understanding of the Eucharist and ministry remain between Protestants and Catholics.
“The doctrinal differences are still so important that they currently rule out reciprocal participation in the Lord’s Supper and the Eucharist,” it said.
“The document cannot, therefore, serve as a guide for an individual decision of conscience about approaching the Eucharist.”
The CDF cautioned against any steps towards intercommunion between Catholics and members of the EKD.
Following the Vatican intervention, Bätzing has repeatedly ruled out general intercommunion, while saying that he respects the “personal decision of conscience” of individual Protestants to receive Communion in Catholic churches.
The 60-year-old bishop told ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language news partner, in a May 6 interview that the current debate was not about a general invitation to Protestants to receive Communion, but rather about the Church’s approach to individual non-Catholic Christians who wish to receive the Eucharist.
He said: “It is not a question of generically extending the invitation to Communion to all non-Catholic Christians.”
He also noted that canon law permits non-Catholics to receive Communion on certain occasions.
Canon 844, § 4, of the Code of Canon Law says: “If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.”
Bätzing told ACI Stampa: “We must undoubtedly continue the theological dialogue on the importance of the Eucharist and the Lord’s Supper. And fortunately, there are already clear convergences in recent years.”