A German bishop has accused the Vatican of raising ever-higher “dogmatic and canonical walls” to shared Communion with Protestants.

– Vatican “hastily cobbled together” response to intercommunion question: Bishops’ ecumenism head

Bishop Gerhard Feige of the Magdeburg diocese, the head of the German bishops’ commission on ecumenism, analysed in an interview with the German Catholic news agency KNA October 27 the substance and consequences of the Vatican’s ‘no’ last month to a September 2019 proposal from the German Ecumenical Working Group of Evangelical and Catholic Theologians (ÖAK) that the Protestant and Catholic Churches open themselves to shared Eucharistic hospitality.

Pointing to the fact that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)’s negative response to the ÖAK proposal contained errors and inaccuracies in its language, Feige said he had the impression that the Vatican had “hastily cobbled together” a response to the intercommunion question.

The German Bishops’ ecumenism pointman added that in the Vatican text “there are some things that one seems not to have understood or does not want to understand” with regard to shared Communion.

Feige also revealed that he has doubts about who wrote what in the CDF text and why CDF members were not consulted about it before it was sent out.

– Shades of “exclusivist view of the Church” in Vatican document but no “self-criticism” or “appreciation” for work of theologians

For all those reasons, Feige said he has “questions upon questions” about the CDF document on shared Communion, such as how the Vatican deals with the ideas of experts who specialise in the search for Christian unity.

“Is this done in the style of earlier apologetics and confessionalist controversial theology, or is there ecumenical sensitivity in looking for what unites and gratefully acknowledging that?”, Feige asked.

“Is there perhaps still an exclusivist view of the Church and the idea that the only path to Christian unity can ultimately only be a return to the Roman Catholic Church?

“Do we therefore expect the complete adoption of all our own doctrinal ideas, or can we see in differentiated consensus a common method for taking further responsible steps?”, the bishop queried, expressing under all those points his doubts about the Vatican response to the German intercommunion proposal.

“In any case, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith only points out what allegedly does not correspond to Catholic truths”, Feige continued, lamenting that in the Vatican response to the shared communion proposal “questions to the Catholic side” such as Protestants doubts about communicating under only one kind or about the Catholic theology of sacrifice are “not mentioned at all”.

In the CDF response, “self-criticism” on the part of the Catholic Church is also likewise not taken up, Feige lamented, nor is there “even a small word of appreciation for the considerations of the ÖAK”.

“Instead, once again dogmatic and canonical walls are being raised” in the Vatican document, Feige decried, comparing the Vatican’s approach to ecumenism to author Hermann Hesse’s involved and detailed but ultimately arbitrary and inconsequential “glass bead game”.

“Many have long since lost all understanding of the moves [of the ecumenism “game”] and are going their own ways anyway” on shared Communion, Feige pointed out.

– Bishop of Trier, lay leader call for more “proactive communication” from Rome to calm Vatican’s “nervousness and irritability” arising from “false impression” of German Church

Feige defended the ÖAK proposal, explaining that what the experts were advocating was not “an intercelebration or concelebration across denominations, but rather that both Protestant and Catholic Christians can communicate in each other’s churches”.

That being said, the bishop also admitted he had “reservations” about the ÖAK proposal, including that it was designed to put “pressure” on before the Ecumenical Church Day in Frankfurt in May 2021, and could for that reason actually end up rushing and thereby harming the cause of Christian unity.

Relations between the Vatican and the German Bishops are currently at a low ebb, not only because of the shared Communion issue but also because of tensions over the Vatican’s controversial July parish instruction and also over the German Church’s ongoing ‘synodal path’ reform process.

Referring to the tensions, Bishop of Trier Stephan Ackermann – who has been in the Roman spotlight over his plans to drastically reduce the number of parishes in his diocese – called this week for more “proactive communication” between the Vatican and the German Church to calm the former’s noticeable – and increasing – “nervousness and irritability” with regard to the direction of the latter.

For his part, Thomas Sternberg – the president of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), who has been barred by the Vatican from participating in its forthcoming preliminary talks with the German Bishops on the parish instruction – also said this week that that first Vatican veto does not necessarily mean that Rome is “slam[ming] the door” on future discussions with laypeople.

“I think it would be very important that German representatives of the laity are also involved in the talks in the Vatican”, Sternberg insisted, lamenting that in the Vatican “there seems to be a false impression of the Church in Germany”.

“We are by no means revolutionaries. Of course we have no plans to found a German national church, for example. But bishops and laity are jointly implementing what the bishops already formulated in 2015 in their paper ‘Being Church Together’ – the joint responsibility of bishops, priests, ministries and laity for the Church in Germany towards a synodal Church”, the German lay leader highlighted.

More on Novena on the debate over shared Communion:

One third of Germans want union of Catholic, Protestant Churches as desire for shared Communion persists despite Vatican objections

German cardinal, Protestant head pledge “we will not give up” on search for shared Communion

Author of paper on shared Communion with Protestants rejects Vatican criticism: “The CDF is one voice among many in theology”

More news on the Church in Germany


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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.