Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, a member of Pope Francis’ “Group of Eight” cardinal advisors, has challenged Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The issue is Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics and was raised by the Archdiocese of Freiburg.
The Archdiocese of Freiburg recently indicated, in a new pastoral document, a willingness to allow remarried divorced Catholics to receive communion. In fact Freiburg had raised the issue in 1993 but was immediately shot down by the then head of the CDF, Joseph Ratzinger.
The issue has been vigorously raised once again due to a perception of a different style Vatican under Pope Francis. The new pope has warned against burying the faithful under a mountain of rules and the change of tone has inspired a new confidence among many Catholics in Germany.
Robert Zollitsch, now retired Archbishop but still Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Freiburg and Chairman of the German Episcopal conference since 2008, has often demonstrated his openness toward a new approach for divorced and remarried Catholics. Most recently, in September at a meeting of the German bishops, he stressed: “They belong to the church,” and said pastors must “find solutions [that apply] across the entire church.”
A solution was already being proposed in his own home diocese: a paper titled “Recommendations for Pastoral Ministry,” published by the Freiburg diocese’s Office of Pastoral Care.
The document reaffirms the Catholic understanding of marriage but also makes recommendations for those who have remarried; and it opens a door that has until now remained shut. It reads: “Following a decision taken responsibly and according to one’s conscience, the possibility can also arise, under concrete circumstances, to receive the sacraments of baptism, holy communion, confirmation, confession, and anointing of the sick as long as the necessary faithful disposition is present.”
Andreas Möhrle, head of the Freiburg Office of Pastoral Care, explained: “In contact with divorced and civilly married congregants, our concern is that the hospitable and respectful attitude of Jesus can be experienced … The faithfulness and mercy of God also applies to those whose life plans have failed.”
That was the good news. Now the bad news.
Archbishop Müller, from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, has ruled out categorically that remarried divorced Catholics could ever hope to receive the sacraments without an annulment of previous marriages. “The Magisterium underlines the practice based on Holy Scripture that remarried divorcees may not be allowed to receive the Eucharist,” Archbishop Müller wrote in his response to Freiburg. And he warned against “confusing the faithful regarding the Church’s teaching.”
This is where the plot thickens.
A Freiburg Archdiocese spokesman, Robert Eberle, said the Archdiocese of Freiburg was “completely unperturbed” by Archbishop Müller’s demand. He recalled Pope Francis’ words to religious from Latin America on 6 June 2013: “Don’t worry if you get a letter from the CDF. Explain what you have to explain to the CDF but carry on.”
Apparently in sync with Freiburg, Munich’s Cardinal Marx said (remarkably I would say) at a press conference after a gathering of the Bavarian bishops’ conference in the first week of November 2013: “The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cannot put a stop to the discussion [of how the Church is to deal with remarried divorcees]. It will be discussed in its entire breadth and depth [at the Extraordinary Synod in October 2014].”
The Vatican questionnaire on the family, sent to bishops’ conferences last month, is designed to reflect the opinion of grass-roots Catholics, Cardinal Marx said. “‘Look, this is what the faithful think’ is what Rome expressly wishes to hear,” he explained and added: “While the majority of Catholics desire lifelong marriage, there are circumstances which lead to marriage breakdown and people expect the Church to understand this.”
Four days later, the conservative German daily Die Tagespost published a letter by Archbishop Müller to the president of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, saying that a Freiburg Diocese statement on allowing remarried divorcees to receive the sacraments – in individual cases, after consultation with a priest – had to be revoked.
This story is not finished. How does one say episcopal chutzpah in German?