The President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), Cardinal Kurt Koch, has addressed an “Open Letter” to Professor Dr Volker Leppin of Tübingen.
Professor Leppin, academic director of the Protestant part of the Ecumenical Study Group of Protestant and Catholic Theologians (ÖAK), together with Professor Dr Dorothea Sattler of Münster, the Catholic counterpart, is the Chief Editor of the study “Together at the Lord's Table”.
The study, which was published in autumn 2019, considers that “the practice of mutual participation at the celebrations of the Holy Communion/Eucharist, respecting each other’s liturgical traditions, to be theologically well–founded”.
On 6 May 2020, the official contact discussion group, an association of members of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and the German Bishops' Conference (DBK), found “that the study develops a theological framework for the individual decision of conscience, regarding reciprocal participation in the Eucharist /Lord's Supper”. In view of the Third Ecumenical Kirchentag in Frankfurt am Main in 2021, this assessment could have a strong impact.
At the autumn plenary meeting of the DBK at the end of September 2020 in Fulda, a vote on the assessment of the official contact discussion group was planned, but this was then temporarily suspended because the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria, SJ, addressed a letter of 18 September 2020 to the President , Bishop Georg Bätzing, and all members of the DBK. The letter was accompanied by doctrinal comments on the document “Together at the Lord's Table” referring “in particular to theological questions that had not been sufficiently clarified in the document regarding the fundamental Catholic interpretation of Church, Eucharist and ministry”.
The intervention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had become necessary because the ÖAK study had now been given the status of an expert opinion of the DBK, on the basis of which the individual Catholic bishops were to position themselves in terms of doctrine.
To date, the President of the DBK, Bishop Bätzing, has not given an official response to the doctrinal comments of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In the meantime, however, a statement from the ÖAK on 6 January 2021 was affirmed by Bishop Bätzing “to be appreciated and factually written”. It was intended to support the work in the DBK's episcopal commissions in further work, and to offer a critical appraisal of the vote.
In its statement, the ÖAK rejects the Vatican’s criticism. The directors of the ÖAK consider the possibility of individually practised reciprocal communion of the Lord's Supper or Eucharist to be “theologically justified and pastorally welcome”.
In an interview at the end of January 2021, Cardinal Koch, the President of the PCPCU, expressed his amazement at the style and tone of the statement. He also lamented the fact that many of the affirmations in the text remained at a purely academic level and were not linked to church reality. Moreover, it is not understandable why the statement was published at the current time, i.e., before the general assembly of the DBK in spring 2021. “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has addressed its letter to the President of the German Bishops' Conference; an answer from him is expected here in Rome. "
In view of these statements by Cardinal Koch, Professor Leppin defended once again the theological principles and the closeness to practice of the study “Together at the Lord's Table” in an interview on 3 February 2021 for “katholisch.de”. He even thought that he could see a “refusal to talk [...] in the current attitude of the Cardinal responsible for ecumenism”, attributing to “the office of the Council for Unity in Rome” a certain “distance from the ecumenical reality” and trusting in a “substantive response” from the Cardinal.
In his “Open Letter”, Cardinal Koch answers and counters Professor Leppin's objections and at the same time emphasizes the ecumenical relevance of the theological concerns that still exist on the Catholic side.