Cardinal Kasper’s Indulgent Accommodation
The Gospel of the Family
By Cardinal Walter Kasper
Publisher: Paulist Press
Pages: 53 pages
Review Author: Stephen J. Kovacs
An extraordinary consistory of the College of Cardinals was convened in Rome this past February with the plan that all that transpired there would remain confidential, including Walter Cardinal Kasper’s keynote address on the family. But no sooner had the event ended than word got out that the cardinal’s address contained some controversial proposals, and the text was quickly published under the title The Gospel of the Family. On top of the controversy Kasper’s address has caused, the ideas he presented are likely to have an ongoing impact on the Church, since Pope Francis invited the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity to speak in order to set the trajectory for the extraordinary synod of bishops next month and the ordinary synod of bishops next year. Thus, the text of Cardinal Kasper’s address warrants serious attention.
Although the German cardinal’s address does indeed contain problematic passages, in the introduction and first four sections he presents a solid synthesis of Catholic teaching on marriage and the family, and makes some astute observations of the challenges the Church faces in these areas. He notes that the world is experiencing an “anthropological crisis,” wherein individualism and consumerism have done extensive harm to traditional family life. The progression of this crisis has led to the development of a “wide gap” between the Church’s perennial teachings on marriage and the family and the lifestyles of many Christians, who in many ways are more like “baptized pagans.” Even though this is a major problem, Kasper explains that the Church has faced deviant concepts of marriage and family since day one, when she went out to proclaim the Gospel to the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. “Therefore,” he says, “our position cannot be that of a liberal accommodation to the status quo, but rather a radical position that goes back to the…gospel and that looks forward from that perspective.” For this reason, he calls for the upcoming synods to adopt a renewed expression of “the gospel of the family.”
In the first section, Kasper presents an overview of the natural-law and Old Testament roots of the family. The family — “the primordial organization in human culture” — has been understood by societies since ancient times to be a fundamental part of the created order, with the destiny of mankind dependent on the proper observance of its “customs and laws.” This common awareness of the natural law, an order existing in creation, provides a foundation for understanding the truths of the family, and yet it can be difficult to apply. Revelation supplies for this limitation. For instance, according to the Church Fathers, the second tablet of the Decalogue, with its commandments on how to treat one’s family and neighbors, is simply an elaboration on the basic moral principles of the natural law. As such, these commandments are “not a unique Judeo-Christian code of morality” but “guiding principles” for all mankind.
Additional elaboration on the natural law is found in the book of Genesis, and Cardinal Kasper points out three basic and universal truths of the family revealed in its first chapter. The first truth is that man is created not as a “single entity” but as male and female — two complementary sexes of equal dignity (cf. Gen. 1:27). The second is that the love between man and woman “transcends and objectifies itself in children,” who are the “fruit of God’s blessing” and the future of humanity (cf. Gen. 1:28). The third truth is that man has dominion over the earth, and so is tasked with a “social and political mission” to develop a humane society with the family as its “fundamental and living cell” (cf. Gen. 1:28).
In the second section, Kasper discusses the “structures of sin” (i.e., concupiscence) in family life. The first two chapters of Genesis present the “paradisiacal reality of marriage and family,” but we get a very different picture in chapter three. Adam’s sin brings about man’s alienation from God, and from this comes each person’s alienation from all other human beings. No relationship is left undamaged, and family life is now marked by “sorrows,” “worries,” and “tears.” Yet already in Genesis 3, as man is expelled from paradise, he is given the hope of a Savior to be born of his own lineage, within a human family. The genealogies of Jesus found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Mt. 1:1-17; Lk. 3:23-38) show that this promise has been fulfilled.
In the third section, Cardinal Kasper looks at the place of marriage and the family within the economy of salvation. “Jesus’ good news,” he says, “is that the [marital] covenant, which the spouses establish, is embraced and borne by God’s covenant, which continues to exist even when the fragile human bond of love becomes weaker or even dies.” Thus, Christian marriage is indissoluble (cf. Mt. 19:8). Kasper makes note of the fact that this does not always sit well with modern couples, but he argues that it is an error to see the indissoluble bond of marriage as a “yoke.” Rather, this divinely sealed bond is “an ever new source of strength for maintaining fidelity to one another in the midst of life’s vicissitudes.” Developing the Church’s understanding of Christ’s teaching, St. Paul taught that in a marriage covenant the spouses become a “real symbol for God’s covenant with human beings, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” Through the centuries, the Church continued to grow in her appreciation of the sacred mystery of marriage, and in the sixteenth century the Council of Trent definitively recognized its sacramentality. As a sacrament, marriage serves as a “remedy for the consequences of sin as well as a means of sanctifying grace,” and the cardinal explains that the family as a whole has also been healed and made holy in Christ as a path to salvation. In this way, “the order of salvation takes up the order of creation.”
In the fourth section, Kasper examines the role of the family as a “domestic church.” The family has been central to the life of the Church since the apostolic age, and the Church herself is even referred to in the liturgy as the familia Dei. It is primarily within the family that the Catholic faith is fostered, and as such the family plays a key role in evangelization. Today, families are increasingly broken and isolated, and the Church is losing her footing in places where ecclesiastical establishments once thrived. Cardinal Kasper sees a great need for individual families to network into a “new kind of extended family” so that strong grassroots communities are established for keeping and spreading the faith in these times when the “institutional Church” is on the wane: “Families need the Church and the Church needs families in order to be present in the midst of life and in the milieus of modern living.” Families are, in essence, “the way of the Church.”
The fifth and final section is the bombshell. Here Cardinal Kasper takes up the “complex and thorny” issue of Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried, and makes some highly questionable proposals for how the Church can provide them better pastoral care. This issue is a relatively new one in the Church; civil marriage only first appeared with the promulgation of the Napoleonic Code in 1804. Kasper says that since that time the Church’s attitude toward the divorced and civilly remarried has gradually softened, noting that the Church has gone from calling them “bigamists” in the 1917 Code of Canon Law to speaking “well-nigh lovingly” of them in the post-synodal apostolic exhortations Familiaris Consortio (1981) and Sacramentum Caritatis (2007). He sees this as progress. In light of the need for greater attention to Catholics in this situation, he says that more developments should now be made in this area. He states up front, however, that the Church “cannot propose a solution apart from or contrary to Jesus’ words,” and that she must respect the indissolubility of sacramental marriage as a “binding part” of her faith tradition.
To this end, Kasper makes two proposals. The first is that a reform be made in the annulment process, whereby the “juridical path” (i.e., canon law) is abandoned. The juridical path, Kasper explains, is not “divine law” but a development of history, and so he argues that a new approach could not only be a legitimate alternative to the marriage tribunals required by canon law but that it could also be “more pastoral and spiritual.” In this respect, he suggests the possibility of a “penitentiary or episcopal vicar” being appointed by the bishop. This vicar would meet with divorced-and-remarried Catholics who are “subjectively convinced” that their first marriages were invalidly contracted in order to determine if an annulment should be granted.
While Kasper makes a fair point that reform of the annulment process may be due, his proposal for how this could be done seems at best counterproductive. It’s difficult to see how one cleric, however qualified, could be as objective and thorough as a tribunal. It’s also unclear how such a vicar could justly determine the validity of a marriage without any recourse to Church law. Without referring to such a standard, decisions of this nature would become biased and inevitably lead to the indiscriminate handing out of annulments, which, according to popular knowledge, are already easy enough to get from tribunals. And to be too free in granting annulments would be a disservice to the parties involved and an abysmal failure to witness to the indissolubility of marriage. Regardless of any imperfections, the canonical approach is in fact very pastoral and spiritual. Canon law serves the Church in concrete and practical ways by providing governing norms faithful to the teachings of Christ for the direct benefit of souls. If a new approach like the one Kasper proposes were to be implemented, it would no doubt take many years, if not centuries, to become more methodical and orthodox than the already existing canonical approach — if it ever could.
The cardinal’s second proposal is far more controversial. He proposes that, in some specific cases, Catholics who have divorced and remarried civilly after having validly contracted a prior sacramental marriage ought to be admitted to Holy Communion. He rightly says that “one may not reduce the problem [of Catholics who are divorced and remarried] to the question of admission to communion,” yet this remains his focus for the bulk of section five, two excursuses, a concluding commentary, and an afterword. He makes several arguments in favor of his proposal, all of which cannot be addressed within the scope of this review, but he provides a summary of his main position in the form of a rhetorical question: “If a divorced and remarried person is truly sorry that he or she failed in the first marriage, if the commitments from the first marriage are clarified and a return is definitively out of the question, if he or she cannot undo the commitments that were assumed in the second civil marriage without new guilt, if he or she strives to the best of his or her abilities to live out the second civil marriage on the basis of faith and to raise their children in the faith, if he or she longs for the sacraments as a source of strength in his or her situation, do we then have to refuse or can we refuse him or her the sacrament of penance and communion, after a period of reorientation?”
Cardinal Kasper correctly notes that someone in such a situation requires the sacrament of penance before receiving Holy Communion. Our Lord Himself said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk. 10:11-12). The Church has always recognized adultery to be a mortal sin, and persons in such a state are not properly disposed to receiving Christ in the Eucharist and would increase their guilt were they to do so (cf. 1 Cor. 11:27-29). In arguing his proposal, Kasper repeatedly emphasizes that the Church must show Christ’s mercy and forgive the divorced and remarried, and he states, “If forgiveness is possible for the murderer, then it is also possible for the adulterer.” But really, who in the Church today is arguing that adultery is an unforgivable sin? The real issue here is not that the Church needs to be more willing to forgive the repentant sinner but that the sinner needs to repent! When Christ forgave the woman caught in adultery, He said, “Do not sin again” (Jn. 8:11), yet Cardinal Kasper says that the Church should administer Holy Communion to divorced-and-remarried persons while they continue to live in a state of sin, contrary to authentic repentance.
The Church understands that it is possible that a Catholic may find himself in a place where a second civil marriage has been contracted and regrets about the first marriage are now present along with good intentions going forward. But the Church cannot pass judgment on the subjective state of individual souls; God alone can do this. Therefore, when a person expresses a desire for the Eucharist yet remains in an objectively and manifestly sinful situation, such as the divorced and civilly remarried do, the Church is obliged in charity to withhold the sacrament (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2384; Code of Canon Law, can. 915). For true repentance to be shown, and thus absolution and reception of Communion possible, the parties in question must separate. If extraordinary circumstances prevent a complete separation, then at the very least all sexual relations must cease (cf. Catechism, no. 1650), and then Holy Communion may be received only if there is no danger of public scandal. Although repentance by and forgiveness of the divorced and remarried are central to his proposal and are discussed at length, Cardinal Kasper makes no mention of these essential requirements. The closest he comes is when he says, ambiguously, that a “period of reorientation” would be needed, but since he clearly accepts that the individual remains in the second civil marriage, he most likely has something else in mind.
By making this proposal, Kasper gives the impression that this matter is open to change. But what he is actually doing is trying to open a closed case. In 1994 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope St. John Paul II, responded to this very question raised by Kasper and some other German bishops in its “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful.” Echoing the Catechism and rooted in the teachings of the Council of Trent and Familiaris Consortio, the letter authoritatively states, “In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, the Church affirms that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the preceding marriage was valid. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists” (no. 4). Bottom line: The Church cannot change her position on this matter. It’s not open to debate.
It’s puzzling, to say the least, why Cardinal Kasper would speak of the need to be true to the words of Jesus and the indissolubility of marriage and then make a proposal that directly undermines them. He is by all appearances sincere and has an admirable concern for the spiritual well-being of the divorced and remarried, yet his proposal is not in keeping with the Gospel but is in fact the kind of “liberal accommodation to the status quo” that he condemned at the beginning of his address. True mercy can be shown to the divorced and remarried by telling them the truth of their situation and helping them to live the faith fully, not by telling them that things are all right as they are and they may approach Christ in the Eucharist without guilt.
In the impassioned closing to his address, Cardinal Kasper says that there are “great expectations” among Catholics that through the upcoming synods the Church will make allowances for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion. He says that not all of these expectations can be fulfilled, but he warns that “it would cause a terrible disappointment if we would only repeat the answers that have supposedly always been given.” He adds that “we may not allow ourselves to be led by a hermeneutic of fear,” and ends by saying that “we should at least open the door a crack for people’s hope and expectations.” These hopes will be dashed, for it is unrealistic to expect that the synods will change Church teaching. Instead, we should hope that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the synods will develop a program to teach effectively the full truth of marriage and the family. The serious failure of so many bishops and priests to catechize the faithful properly in recent decades is perhaps the main reason why we have a crisis in Catholic marriages and families in the first place. Rather than focusing entirely on “minimizing the damage,” the Church needs to attack the problem at its source.
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