A German bishop has kicked the can down the road on Catholics sharing Communion with Protestants, but theologians are still hopeful that intercommunion between the denominations can one day become a reality.

Driving the news

In September 2019, the German Ecumenical Working Group of Evangelical and Catholic Theologians (ÖAK) presented a paper, “Together Around the Lord’s Table”.

The document backs shared “Eucharistic hospitality” and sees Catholic and Protestant theological justification for “mutual participation in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist with respect for each other’s liturgical traditions”.

But at a roundtable at the University of Erfurt January 8, Gerhard Feige, the Bishop of Magdeburg and head of the German bishops’ commission on ecumenism, said the agreements formulated in the ÖAK paper “do not necessarily correspond to the reality of church practice” yet.

Feige added that there was a risk the “informed and highly intelligent” study on which the intercommunion proposal was based could fuel expectations “that could not be theologically processed in the short time available” between now and the 2021 Third Ecumenical Convention in Frankfurt, for example.

But it wasn’t necessarily a definitive ‘no’ from the Magdeburg bishop, who said he expected that the German prelates would look further into the intercommunion issue in their Spring plenary assembly.

Go deeper

It was precisely into Feige’s miniscule opening to the possibility of shared Communion in the future that theologians from the ÖAK working group continued to look after the roundtable.

Dorothea Sattler, a Munster-based Catholic theologian and member of the study group, explained that not only did the shared hospitality proposal build on the results of previous ecumenical dialogues, but it also did not advocate for any new liturgical forms to the detriment of those in place for centuries now.

“It is about being invited to different forms of liturgical celebration”, said Sattler, adding that the working group wanted the proposal to stimulate, too, other forms of ecumenical collaboration.

For her part, Jena-based theologian and President of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe Miriam Rose said “the fact that the vote [the ÖAK paper] pleads for recognition of the Protestant offices is a very strong, big step”.

Rose was full of praise for the fact that the ÖAK paper recognised the worship of Protestant congregations as an expression of the Holy Spirit, and insisted that theology must further deepen this insight.

“I think this is the future of ecumenical dialogue”, Rose added.

Why it matters

Another theologian who participated at the Erfurt University roundtable on intercommunion Wednesday was Erfurt-based Julia Knop, who in an interview with Domradio January 8 defended the ÖAK proposal as “an intermediate step on the way to full Eucharistic communion”.

The ÖAK paper “gives good reasons why I, as a Catholic Christian, can take part in the Protestant sacrament and why, conversely, it is theologically justified that Protestant Christians – not just those who live in an ecumenical marriage – can be invited to the Catholic Eucharist”, Knop explained.

Theologian Knop also praised Hanover Protestant bishop Ralf Meister’s recent call for Catholic-Protestant ecumenical congregations, a proposal that was seconded by Hildesheim Catholic bishop Heiner Wilmer.

“It is a great, attractive vision of the future”, Knop said of Meister and Wilmer’s idea, recalling the many “good ecumenical experiences” the Churches already share in everyday life, theological faculties and interdenominational institutions.

” Why not at the community level too?”, Knop asked.

“For me, the proposal [of ecumenical congregations] also shows that the understanding of denomination is changing”, the theologian added.

“One no longer thinks of denomination so strongly from the institution, from authorities and structures, but rather as a Christian style or a spirituality that can appeal to someone, even if he belongs to the other denomination institutionally”, Knop explained, insisting that in a secular contexts Christians “will only be convincing and ultimately survive if we stand up for the Christian faith together”.

For the record

For his part, the rector of the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology, Jesuit Ansgar Wucherpfennig, recalled in Church paper Der Sonntag that “according to the Gospel, Protestant and Catholic Christians shouldn’t be celebrating the Lord’s Supper together tomorrow, but actually [they should be doing it] since the day before yesterday”.

A shared Lord’s Supper between Catholics and Protestants is possible because God gives without asking anything, the Jesuit said.

Humans can not give the food of God, “but that also means that no Church can claim sole power over this food”, Wucherpfennig added.

Nobody could get the bread of heaven cheaply either, but rather, it is a gift, the theologian said.

“God’s precious community is free for everyone who accepts it”, the Jesuit concluded.

Wucherpfennig’s comments came just before Pope Francis received January 10 in an audience Reverend Michael Jonas, the pastor of the Lutheran Evangelical Community in Rome.

According to Jonas, quoted in German press reports, Francis said that Catholics and Lutherans were “very close” in what they do in their respective Communion liturgies.

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