German Cardinal Walter Kasper arrives at Rome's Church of St. Anselm in early March. (CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool)
the steady stream of scholarly critiques emerging in response to
Cardinal Walter Kasper’s specific proposal concerning the admission to
communion of Catholics who have been divorced and civilly-remarried, the
German theologian continues to publicly defend his position with
statements that are, to put it charitably, very debatable and
problematic. The latest examples were cited in a recent article circulated by Religion News Service. To illustrate the contestability of these statements, let’s consider them one by one.
Even a murderer can confess and receive Communion, as Kasper likes to note.
indeed. A murdereror a thief, or a liar, or an apostate, or an
idol-worshipper, or an adultererwho confesses his sin and, crucially, resolves to “go and sin no more”
(Jn 8:11) is restored to fullness of communion with Christ and His
Church. Hence they are in a state whereby they can approach the Lord’s
Table to receive His Body and Blood.
That, however, is completely
different from, from example, a Catholic who, although sacramentally
married to another person, has (1) contracted a civil marriage with
someone else, (2) has regular sexual relations with that someone else,
and (3) declines to cease engaging in such relations. Such a person is,
objectively-speaking, a persistent adulterer.
always taught that adultery is an intrinsically evil act, no matter how
well-intentioned the participants or extenuating the circumstances. And
until a person freely chooses to cease engaging in adulterous acts, he
remains in a state of mortal sin. To persist in mortal sin damages our
communion with Christ, and this, as no less than St. Paul states (1 Cor.
11:27), has consequences with regard to the sacrament of Communion.
said he was confident that the process of debate that Francis had
launched on the topic of family life and sexuality would in the end
produce some significant reforms, in part “because there are very high
Pope Francis recently clarified
that, like Benedict XVI, he wants to look at the annulment process.
That may or may not produce changes in the way the Church handles
annulments. But “high expectations” in themselves are not an argument
for change in Church teaching or canon law. Some peoplemost of them, it
seems, from Western Europemay have expectations concerning
the admission to the sacrament of Communion of divorced and
civilly-remarried Catholics who decline to abstain from sexual acts with
their civil partner. Yet as the events surrounding the encyclical
recently praised by Pope FrancisHumanae Vitaeillustrated,
it is one thing for people, even many Catholics, to have expectations,
and quite another for those expectations to be confirmed as consistent
with Catholic faith.
noted that the church has often changed, or “developed,” over the
centuries, and quite recently in the 1960s when, for example, the Second
Vatican Council reversed long-standing teachings against religious
freedom and dialogue with other believers.
The Church’s teaching has of course developed over the centuries. But authentic development, as Blessed John Henry Newman specified, cannot involve contradiction in the Church’s teaching. Let’s consider one of the cases to which Cardinal Kasper refers: religious liberty.
The Church’s nineteenth-century condemnations of religious liberty, for instance, were censures of religious liberty understood as
indifferentism (one religion is as good as one another), or as efforts
(most notably by French revolutionaries) to “free people” from religion
(via the guillotine, state terrorism, destroying and looting churches
and monasteries, and mass executions of priests, monks and nuns).
Yet in its declaration Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II taught that religious liberty, understood ashumans
being free to seek religious truth free from coercion and to live in
accordance with that truth, is a rather different affair. The Church can
affirm and promote religious liberty in this sense, while continuing to condemn the two understandings outlined in the previous paragraph. Dignitatis Humanae
never said, for instance, that all religions are the same. Indeed, it
states that the “one true religion subsists in the Catholic and
Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of
spreading it abroad among all men. . . [and that] all men are bound to
seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to
embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it” (DH 1).
Additionally, if you examine the footnotes attached to Dignitatis Humanae’s
arguments in favor of religious liberty, you quickly see they refer to
Scripture, Church fathers such as St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St.
Gregory the Great, as well as previous councils and popes. In that
sense, Dignitatis Humanae may be understood as simultaneous
clarifying, recovering, deepening, and thereby developing Catholic
teaching on religious liberty.
By contrast, Cardinal Kasper’s proposal directly contradicts
the Church’s constant teaching about adultery, marriage’s
indissolubility, and admission to the sacrament of Communion. As far as I
can judge, there’s really no way around these basic facts. The Kasper
proposal has also already been shown
to contradict the overwhelming majority of Church Fathers on the
impermissibility of being married to another person while your
sacramental spouse still lives.
As a side note, it’s worth
recalling that Cardinal Charles Journet, the Swiss theologian who played
a decisive role in Vatican II’s acceptance of Dignitatis Humanae’s
development of doctrine on religious liberty, was also quick to refute
in detail a proposal very similar to that of Cardinal Kasper’s put
forward during the Second Vatican Council by Bishop Elias Zoghby. The
divine law concerning marriage’s indissolubility, Journet stated, did
not allow the Church to make exceptions or derogations. So compelling
was Journet’s refutation that the subject never resurfaced during the
reiterates that he’s not advocating a change in the church’s dogma on
the sanctity of marriage, but a change in the “pastoral practice” about
who can receive Communion. “To say we will not admit divorced and
remarried people to Holy Communion? That’s not a dogma. That’s an
application of a dogma in a concrete pastoral practice. This can be
Leaving aside the loose use of the word “dogma,”
the Church’s inability to admit those who choose to remain in a state of
mortal sin isn’t a practice that can be changed at will. Among other
things, it’s immediately derived from St. Paul’s admonition concerning
who may and may not approach the Lord’s Table. It’s also a direct
implication of Catholic doctrine concerning (1) the nature of sin, (2)
how declining to go and sin no more damages our communion with Christ
and His Church, and (3) the character of the sacrament of Communion
itself as a sacrament ofthe Church. It would take more
than a few mental gymnastics to reconcile the Kasper proposal to all
these dimensions (and more) of Church doctrine. Furthermore, no
pastoral practiceas countless popes, councils and bishops have
reiterated throughout the centuriescan contradict doctrine if it is to
be truly pastoral. Orthopraxis (right action) flows from orthodoxy (right belief), not the other way around.
said it is the voice of the faithful that has made the difference. “The
strongest support comes from the people, and you cannot overlook that,”
A lot depends on who are “the people”. Certainly
some Western Europeans would like to see something like Kasper’s
proposal implemented. But plenty of “the people” in Western Europe don’t
agreeeven in the German-speaking world. Many European Catholics are
far more concerned about the efforts of their governments and
unaccountable Brussels bureaucrats to destroy marriage through imposing
gender theory nonsense upon their societies.
And if one listens to
the voice of “the people” outside the setting of comfortable Western
Europe, in continents such as Africa, the answer to Kasper’s proposals
is very likely to be quite negative. In Africa, for example, Catholics
are confronting the problem of polygamy (be it of the tribal or Islamic
variety), not to mention the neo-colonial-like efforts of Western
governments who use foreign aid to try and impose contemporary
secular-hedonist sexual mores antithetical to true marriage upon their
societies. These Africans know that any hint of a watering down
of Catholic doctrine on this issue will undermine their ability to
uphold true marriage’s indissolubility among the faithful in their
countries, especially in the face of missionary efforts from those
religions who do accept polygamy.
Moreover, even if a majority of
“the people” agreed with Kasper’s proposal (something for which there is
no reliable empirical evidence whatsoever), that still
wouldn’t mean that the Church would be somehow obliged to change its
teaching. As Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, observed many years ago, not all
the ideas circulating among the People of God at any one time are
compatible with Catholic faith.
Looking even more broadly, it is
difficult to believe that Cardinal Kasper doesn’t know that those whom
the Church considers “the faithful” aren’t limited to those Catholics
who happen to be alive today. “The faithful” also include the faithful departed:
those who now enjoy the beatific vision of God. Hence, one needs to
inquire as to what martyrs for marriage’s indissolubility such as John
Fisher and Thomas More would have thought of the Kasper proposal (the answer,
I think, is rather clear). The faithful departed also embraces the
ancient witnesses to the truths of Catholic faith, such as the Church
Fathers whose position on marriage, as noted, overwhelming runs counter
to Cardinal Kasper’s proposal.
what people are doing and what the church is teaching, if there is an
abyss, that doesn’t help the credibility of the church,” he said. “One
has to change.”
This is what’s known as a non sequitur:
i.e., the conclusion doesn’t flow from the premise. If, for instance,
many Catholics decided that a particular ethnic group was somehow
unworthy of life and acted accordingly, would anyone expect the Church
to bridge the gap between its teaching and the racially-discriminatory
practices of these Catholics by saying the Church can
tolerate-but-not-accept such practices? Obviously not. The correct
response would be for the Church to explain clearly, more often, and
with considerable forcefulness why such unjust discrimination is wrong.
Or, if millions of African Catholics suddenly reverted to polygamy,
would anyone reasonably expect Catholic bishops to throw their arms in
the air and decide to tolerate-but-not-accept this behavior (which,
besides being intrinsically evil, is deeply demeaning of women) in order
to bridge an abyss between Church teaching and the practices of
As for the Church’s credibility, you can be sure that the
single most damaging course of action would be for the Catholic Church
to adopt a church of England-like approach to addressing gapsotherwise
known as sinbetween people’s free choices and Catholic moral teaching.
One of the primary reasons why most of today’s church of England is
increasingly regarded as a politically-correct non-entity devoid of
substance (including by most Anglican Christians outside England) is
precisely because it has accommodated itself to the hedonist,
hyper-sexualized utilitarian culture that dominates contemporary
England. As Cardinal Gerhard Müller wrote in his carefully argued October 23, 2013 L’Osservatore Romano letter,
“By adapting to the spirit of the age, a weary prophet seeks his own
salvation but not the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ.”
What puzzles many observers is why
Cardinal Kasper continues to make such unconvincing arguments, at least
in public, for his tolerate-but-not-accept proposition. He is, after
all, an accomplished theologian who has written
widely and well on many topics. It wasn’t for trivial reasons that he
was called upon to assume high office in his native Germany and then in
Rome by St. John Paul the Great.
In the end, I think, the
cardinal’s ongoing stream of sound-bites are at least partly designed to
pressure the forthcoming Synods on the family by conjuring up an
atmosphere of “expectations”. And he seems to be trying to do so via a
media that (1) apparently has no real interest in the truths of the
Catholic faith, (2) seems obsessed by questions related to sex, and (3)
hasn’t grasped that the Church’s teachings about sex, marriage and the
familyincluding all the difficult teachingsare in fact
integral to the path to authentic liberation and the narrow way that
leads to the fullness of life in Christ, so much so that some have given
their lives for these teachings.
Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher, pray for us and Christ’s Church.