Just how serious is the rift that has opened up in the German episcopacy, and where will it lead? The rare, if not unprecedented, move by seven German bishops to write a letter to the Vatican, seeking clarification on the question of Protestant spouses of Catholics receiving Holy Communion, shows not only that there is a deep split within the German Bishops’ Conference. It also raises questions about how the bishops’ conference as an institution is serving the Church, especially bishops and their flocks in Germany.

When the German bishops gathered in the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt on February 20, they voted on the latest draft of a “handout” aimed at helping pastoral workers to determine when Protestant spouses of Catholics should be admitted to Holy Communion (“in individual cases” and “under certain conditions”). After what Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the bishops’ conference, acknowledged was an “intensive debate”, the required two-thirds majority voted to accept the draft. Thirteen of the 60 bishops present voted to reject it.

What is noteworthy here is that the German bishops did not vote on the actual final text. Although they could submit amendments to the draft until mid March, the bishops were not allowed to change the final version of the text, which they had approved in principle – even though they would be responsible for implementing it in their dioceses.

What is more, at the end of the bishops’ meeting in February, the draft text was not made public, even though it was announced that the bishops had approved the coming handout. The idea of creating such a “pastoral handout” did not initially come from the bishops themselves, it appears.

The move by seven diocesan bishops to write to Rome – without first informing the conference president, Cardinal Reinhard Marx – arguably betrays a profound level of discomfort, if not distrust, with how the machinery of the German bishops’ conference is operating. One might – rightly or wrongly – put all this down to a Teutonic proclivity for attention to process and procedure. But the bishops’ concern over how topics are introduced at the conference level, how consensus is achieved and how things then get implemented may well end up being a decisive factor in this conflict.

The German bishops’ conference can trace its roots back to 1848. It is currently based in Bonn, from where its secretary-general, Fr Hans Langendörfer SJ, and his 150 staff have been running things efficiently since 1996. But the conference risks becoming a victim of its own success at shaping processes in such a way that ensures that the outcome desired by its president and other key players is achieved.

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