Cardinal Kasper, Communion, and Divorce—Again

The German prelate continues to make unconvincing arguments for his tolerate-but-not-accept propositions

Despite 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.

Yes, indeed. A murderer—or a thief, or a liar, or an apostate, or an idol-worshipper, or an adulterer—who 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.

Christianity has 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.

Kasper 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 expectations.”

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 people—most of them, it seems, from Western Europe—may 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 Francis—Humanae Vitae—illustrated, 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.

He 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 Council’s proceedings.

Kasper 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 changed.”

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 practice—as countless popes, councils and bishops have reiterated throughout the centuries—can contradict doctrine if it is to be truly pastoral. Orthopraxis (right action) flows from orthodoxy (right belief), not the other way around.

Kasper 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,” he said.

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 agree—even 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.

If 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 polygamous Catholics?

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 gaps—otherwise known as sin—between 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 family—including all the difficult teachings—are 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.

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About Dr. Samuel Gregg 39 Articles
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. The author of many books—including the prize-winning The Commercial Society (Rowman & Littlefield), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (Edward Elgar), Becoming Europe (Encounter), the prize-winning Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Regnery), and over 400 articles and opinion-pieces—he writes regularly on political economy, finance, American conservatism, Western civilization, and natural law theory. He can be followed on Twitter @drsamuelgregg