A Response to Cardinal Kasper
Cardinal Walter Kasper is proposing that the Synod of Bishops on the Family consider relaxing the Catholic Church’s discipline on who can present themselves for Holy Communion. While no doubt motivated by genuine compassion, the influential German cleric’s suggestion would have far-reaching and destructive ramifications for the Church’s understanding of marriage and for the common good of society.
In his address at the recent consistory Cardinal Kasper remarked that “between the doctrine of the Church on marriage and the family and the lived convictions of many Christians an abyss has been created”. Based upon this observation, the cardinal makes two proposals: a more generous widening of the procedures for investigating the nullity of marriages and, invoking the criteria of mercy, a dispensation to allow, in certain cases, the divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion.
Our culture doesn’t value permanence. It does not share the fundamental Catholic convictions about sacramental marriage: an exclusive, lifelong union of man and woman that is open to new life, a faithful and unbreakable bond mirroring God’s love for humanity and, specifically, Christ’s love for the Church. Hence, it is quite probable that at the present time there is a much higher incidence of invalidity in marriages than was previously the case. Canon lawyers would argue that what is needed is a better application of the existing provisions of canon law rather than some sort of watering down of the present dispensation that would risk encouraging laxity and creating injustices. We leave this question to the experts.
“The fidelity of the marriage bond is the earthly reality which most powerfully points us towards God’s faithful love”
Cardinal Kasper’s second proposal has a number of flaws born of weak scholarship. He argues there is a historic precedent for the toleration of divorce and remarriage. He bases this assertion on the work of the Italian patristic scholar Giovanni Cereti, whose research is now over 30 years old. Cereti’s thesis was that the fourth-century Council of Nicea had tolerated divorce and remarriage. Even at the time of its publication such claims were totally discredited. Canon 8 of the Council of Nicea, whose interpretation constitutes the heart of Cereti’s argument, does indeed condemn those who do not permit a second marriage. However, it was directed against an extremist sect that refused the possibility of remarriage even after the death of the first spouse. It said nothing about those whose first spouses were still living. The unchanging tradition of the Church is clear: the sacramental bond of marriage is indissoluble. It has always been a case of “till death do us part”. Anyone who opposes this teaching sets themselves against Christ: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Lk 16:18).
Moreover, invoking mercy as a kind of Trojan horse that might open the gates to the possibility of divorce and remarriage is problematic. Our faith in God’s mercy is itself founded on God’s fidelity to his covenant with us. As St Paul teaches us: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13). The marriage covenant between two spouses is the living image of this faithful love of God. The fidelity, the indissolubility, of the marriage bond between two spouses is precisely that earthly reality which most powerfully points us towards God’s faithful love. This is marriage’s sacramental meaning. It is because God is faithful that we can count on his mercy. To set mercy in opposition to the indissoluble bond of marriage is to set mercy against fidelity, and for someone who believes in the God of Jesus Christ that entails an irresolvable internal contradiction.
''Could we be more generous (and more demanding) in our provision of marriage preparation? Could we do more to support those who are already married?''
Not only are Cardinal Kasper’s conclusions flawed but his starting point also needs to be questioned. In the Italian original of his text the “abyss” he describes is between Church teaching and “le convinzioni vissute” of many Christians. It might not be idiomatic English, but literally that means “the lived convictions”. Here the question needs to be raised: are these really “convictions”? They are lived realities in many cases, certainly, but “convictions”? One of the extraordinary graces of the priesthood is the privileged degree of access it gives into the interior depths of the lives of the faithful. Many priests would attest that those who are on the receiving end of family breakdown frequently live in one way but are convinced – that is, their “convictions” lie – in quite another direction. Often a priest will encounter a mother (and it is so often mothers who are literally left “holding the baby”) who is on, perhaps, her third or even fourth partner and who is overwhelmed by the circumstances of her life. Ask her, though, and she certainly doesn’t want this life for her children. She aspires to something higher, better and more beautiful for them. This aspiration is an implicit recognition of Christ’s teaching that married love should be for life.
That said, Cardinal Kasper has done the Church a service because the observation that there is an “abyss” between what the Church teaches and how so many of her children actually live is demonstrably true. What, then, is to be done about this “abyss”?
One option might be for the Church to close the gap by embracing the values of the world. In this way the Church might make herself more “relevant”. The Church might jettison anything too challenging in her Scriptures and Tradition and simply accommodate herself to modernity. She could then become a vaguely benevolent NGO operating according to the nebulous and malleable principles often labelled “gospel values”. This has been tried. It is called liberal Protestantism. It has not brought the affluent West flocking back to these ecclesial communities. In fact, such Christian bodies have largely become an irrelevance. This strategy has not worked in the past. It will not work now for the Catholic Church. Vastly more important than its lack of efficacy, however, would be its unfaithfulness to Christ. The Church cannot countenance this. One thinks immediately of that episode in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Jesus has given his teaching on the Eucharist and the response of the crowd is: “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?” (v. 60). Peter responds on behalf of the Twelve, that is on behalf of the new people of God, on behalf of the Church, and for all time: “Lord, to who shall we go? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we have come to know you are the Holy one of God” (vv. 67-9).
The problem is not with the teaching of the Church, but might it be with the way the Church has taught in recent decades? It is one thing for the Successor of Peter to travel the world and teach the truths of the faith in a prophetic way. In recent pontificates, and especially at World Youth Days from Denver to Sydney and Rio de Janeiro, we have seen the galvanising effect that coherent and challenging catechesis can have on the faithful. Such teaching, however, must also be taught at a local level. Certainly in the United Kingdom we can no longer presume that the ordinary parish structure is sufficient to credibly communicate the life-giving truth of Christ’s teaching on sex and marriage. The spiritual temperature outside the Church has plunged to arctic levels and the flame of faith flickering in the hearts of the faithful needs more shelter than our weakened parish structures can provide.
There are so many initiatives that could be undertaken. How many resources does any given diocese devote to supporting marriage and family life? Could we be more generous (and more demanding) in our provision of marriage preparation? Could we do more to support those who are already married? In spiritual ways, for example, with days of recollection, weekend retreats, or in other practical ways. Church-run youth clubs and crèches offer cheap babysitting and are a real boon for parents. Could we be more energetic in how we catechise on marriage and the family in our schools?
In these months running up to the synod on marriage and the family we can either spend our time performing mental summersaults, casuistically trying to get around the more inconvenient of the Church’s teaching, or we can give ourselves over to heartfelt examination of conscience. We can ask ourselves: what efforts have we made, what measures have we taken, to live and make known the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family? Only the latter course will lead us to the “message of eternal life” given us by “the Holy One of God.”