On German bishops’ proposal, the Pope’s non-decision is revealing

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 04, 2018

A few weeks ago we were told—by usually reliable sources—that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had rejected the German bishops’ proposal for administering Communion to the non-Catholic spouses of Catholics. We were further informed that Pope Francis had approved the CDF decision.

Evidently that report was inaccurate. Or if it was accurate at the time, the decision has been rescinded.

Now the Pope has instructed the German bishops to seek consensus—ideally, unanimity—on the hotly disputed question, for the sake of “ecclesial communion.”

Three observations here:

1) The role of the Roman Pontiff is to resolve disputes among the world’s bishops. Here is a dispute. The Pope has not resolved it; he’s told the bishops involved to try to resolve it by themselves.

2) In their plea to the Vatican, the minority of German bishops who opposed the new policy did not argue that it was imprudent; they argued that it was impossible because it would be incompatible with Church teaching. (Would you blame me for suspecting that the CDF sided with the minority, and the Pope chose to overrule—or at least suspend—the decision?) If the issue is framed as a question of whether or not the policy can possibly be reconciled with Church teaching, it makes little sense to send the German bishops back home with a mandate to find unanimity; they can’t reconcile the irreconcilable. On the other hand, if this is only a question of prudence, then compromise makes sense. So has the Pope, by declining to make a decision, actually made a decision?

3) By prodding the German hierarchy to reach consensus, the Pope’s non-decision puts extra pressure on the minority that resisted the new policy. If the goal is “ecclesial communion” rather than doctrinal purity, it’s easy to see which side is expected to give ground.

There may be more to the story than what the Vatican has announced. Maybe the German bishops have been given further instructions on how to alter their proposal, bringing it into line with existing Church teaching. But there is little in the Vatican’s non-decision to bolster confidence.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - May. 05, 2018 10:56 PM ET USA

    When apparently bad things happen in the Church, I always try to think what the Holy Spirit could be trying to teach us. In the present case, I think He might be calling the laity to know the Faith as it has been handed down to us from the Apostles, and then to demand—not ask, but DEMAND—that popes, bishops, and clergy lead according to its teaching. Some of them have been messing with the Faith for 50 years. Shouldn’t we be fed up by now??

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 05, 2018 12:18 PM ET USA

    For a long time those who have been critical of abuses and novelties in the Church have been criticized by others for not "giving the benefit of the doubt'or looking for the best take. Now even the most reticent to speak negatively are so doing. There really is no choice. It's the nature of the trouble. Regardless of intent, harm happens. The Holy Father could have solved the crisis yesterday and decisively. Now the debate continues- as if there is a debate. And harm comes of it.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - May. 05, 2018 8:13 AM ET USA

    How can Pope Francis not support clear teaching of the church? If he is doing this then he is not being supported by the holy spirit to protect him from making erroneous actions regarding faith and morals. If that is the case is Pope Francis really Pope? Come Jesus come. Have mercy on us.

  • Posted by: Cory - May. 05, 2018 6:55 AM ET USA

    <"But there is little in the Vatican’s non-decision to bolster confidence."> There is nothing in the Vatican that bolsters confidence period. Unless you are one advocating for the demise of the Catholic faith.

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 04, 2018 6:31 PM ET USA

    I recall on the first day, that Francis sees himself as the Bishop of Rome, and not, the Vicar of Christ. Perhaps his ultimate purpose is to dismantle papal primacy. Are we all orthodox now? Just asking.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - May. 04, 2018 4:47 PM ET USA

    Another possibility is that Pope Francis is after a decentralized Church, where doctrine and pastoral practices are determined by national bishops. If that is the case, he is trying to destroy oneness in the Catholic Church. This is what I believe is currently happening regarding giving communion to those in adulterous relationship as a result of Amoris Laetitia.

  • Posted by: john.n.akiko7522 - May. 04, 2018 3:43 PM ET USA

    Didn't the Holy Father say in the past that this was a difficult issue, one to he didn't understand well and to be decided by theologians? Well the theologians at the CDF have decided, so I would hope he would listen to them.