Cardinal Kasper and the Church Fathers

In seeking pastoral solutions for divorced and remarried Catholics, Kasper misrepresents the position of the Church Fathers.

In Cardinal Walter Kasper’s recent address to the extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals (February 20-21, 2014), published in English with additional material as The Gospel of the Family (New York: Paulist, 2014), he makes mention of certain early Christian sources in the hope of suggesting “a way out of the dilemma” (p. 30) presented by the question of whether and under what circumstances the Church may admit “properly disposed” (p. 30) divorced Catholics, living in a “quasi-marital liaison” (p. 31), to full sacramental communion.  In light of the fact that the early Church also faced this perplexing pastoral challenge, Kasper introduces a number of witnesses who, he argues, potentially indicate a way forward for the contemporary Church toward a pastoral praxis that goes “beyond both rigorism and laxity.” (p. 31).

However, in invoking the early Christian sources, it appears that Kasper, despite acknowledging that the response of the early church Fathers was “not uniform” (p. 31), somewhat misrepresents the evidence, and does so in such a way as to advance his argument in a certain direction as though it were supported by the sources he cites. Moreover, having quoted just one author, he goes on to give the impression that the statement reflects a united and considered witness, even a consensus proceeding from certain justifications and eventually “confirmed” at a conciliar level (pp. 31 and 37). Limiting itself to the Greek sources explicitly mentioned by Kasper—Origen, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Council of Nicaea—and leaving aside the position of Augustine and later western Christian practice, it is the purpose of this report to clarify what in fact these sources actually say, not in order to discredit the cardinal or his proposals, but all the better to elucidate the real difficulties currently faced by the Church in its effort faithfully and pastorally to bring the Gospel to bear in the concrete life-situations of divorced and remarried Catholics.


Kasper mentions Origen twice (pp. 31 and 37), quoting him directly, giving as his reference Origen’s Commentary on Matthew 14:23. The sentence introducing Origen follows a reference to the early Church’s response to cases of adultery that led to “a subsequent, second, quasi-marital union” (p. 31). He writes:

The response of the church fathers was not uniform. So much is nevertheless certain, that in individual local churches there existed the customary law, according to which Christians, who were living in a second relationship during the lifetime of the first partner, had available to them, after a period of penance, admittedly no second ship—no second marriage—but indeed a plank of salvation through participation in communion. Origen reports on this custom and describes it as “not unreasonable.” (p. 31)

Later, in the second Excursus, where Kasper expands on points of detail, he again cites this phrase from Origen, slightly modifying his interpretive introduction:

There can…be no doubt about the fact that in the early church there was, according to customary law in many local churches, the praxis of pastoral tolerance, clemency, and forbearance after a period of penance. It is against the background of this practice that canon 8 of the Council of Nicaea (325), which was directed against the rigorism of Novatian, must surely be understood. This customary law is expressly attested to by Origen, who considers it not unreasonable (Commentary on Matthew, 14:23). (p. 37)

I leave aside for the moment discussion concerning canon 8 of Nicaea and the Novations, and instead ask the question: what in fact did Origen say, and in what context do the words “not unreasonable” arise in his commentary on Matthew?

In its original context, within an extensive commentary on Matthew 19:3, the passage in question arises in a section in which Origen has been discussing certain Scriptural commands about marriage which have been granted as concessions to human weakness or hardness of heart. So when, in 1 Corinthians 7:39, St. Paul allowed a woman to remarry a Christian man after the death of her husband, he said this, comments Origen, “in view of our hardness of heart and weakness, to those who do not wish to desire earnestly the greater gifts (1 Cor 12:31) and become more blessed.” Immediately there follows the passage containing the phrase cited by Kasper:

But now contrary to what stands written, even some leaders of the Church have allowed things to pass so as to let a woman marry during the lifetime of the husband, acting against what stands written, where it is said, “A wife is bound for as long as her husband lives” (1 Cor 7:39) and “So then, if while her husband is alive, she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress” (Rom 7:3). However not altogether perhaps without reason, for probably they yielded in the matter of such unions to avoid greater evil against what is laid down as law from the beginning and against what stands written.

This passage shows that Kasper is correct in three respects. First, there were certain Christian leaders who permitted remarriage while the former spouse was still alive. Second, Kasper rightly invokes Origen’s judgment about this custom as being “not altogether perhaps without reason.” Third, he is also correct in noting that the rationale for this custom, as reported by Origen, lay in the pastoral intention of “avoiding something worse” (p. 37).

But read in context the passage makes clear that Origen’s conviction was that such a custom is contrary to Scripture and the explicit words of the Lord. He referred to it in disapproval. The only concession that Origen in fact approves as scripturally permissible, and then only as directed “to those who do not wish to desire earnestly the greater gifts and become more blessed,” is remarriage for a widow or widower after the death of their first spouse.

 Basil the Great

Having mentioned Origen, Kasper goes on to say that “Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus referred to this praxis too” (p. 31). On page 37 he provides two references to Basil’s writings, Letter 188:4 and Letter 199:18, and having again mentioned Gregory of Nazianzus adds: “They justify the ‘not unreasonable’ statement with the pastoral intention of ‘preventing something worse’” (p. 37). The impression thus given is that both Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus, two of the early Church’s most revered teachers, “justified” the practice referred to (disapprovingly) by Origen.

But what in fact do these two letters by Basil say? In Letter 188, Basil is discussing questions of pastoral practice in connection with a number of difficult circumstances, including appropriate penitential discipline for schism, deliberate abortion, fornication by deacons, and marital digamy, trigamy, and polygamy. In these marital cases, Basil commends a range of penitential exclusions from full communion: one or two years for digamy, while trigamy and polygamy, which he regards not as marriage, but as “limited fornication,” deserve three or four years’ exclusion.

But what precisely do these terms “digamy,” “trigamy,” and “polygamy” refer to? Do they refer to consecutive marriages following the death of a spouse, or to consecutive marriages after separation while the former spouse or spouses are still alive? The answer becomes a little clearer when, referring to Jesus’ words to the woman at the well—that the man she was currently with was not her husband (Jn 4:18)—Basil concludes that the Lord here “does not reckon those who had exceeded the limits of second marriages as worthy of the title of husband or wife.” (Letter 188:4) This reference to “the limits of second marriages” points to the apostolically approved concession, already recalled by Origen, for widowed Christians to remarry, beyond which further marriages are regarded as unworthy of the status of marriage. It indicates that by “digamy” Basil means not remarriage while the former spouse is still alive, but remarriage of a widow. This is why he calls twice-widowed persons who marry a third time or more “offenders.” Yet despite this sharp judgment, Basil does not think such persons should be altogether excluded from “the privileges of the Church.” After a penitential period of “two or three years,” during which time they “must be kept from the communion of the good gift” (that is, Holy Communion), they should eventually be “restored to the place of communion after showing some fruit of repentance.”

What about Basil’s Letter 199? In the section cited by Kasper, Basil recounts the traditional pastoral response to dealing with “fallen virgins”:

Concerning fallen virgins, who, after professing a chaste life before the Lord, make their vows vain, because they have fallen under the lusts of the flesh, our fathers, tenderly and meekly making allowance for the infirmities of them that fall, laid down that they might be received after a year, ranking them with the digamists. (Letter 199:18)

However, in view of the burgeoning ranks of consecrated virgins, and taking into account “the mind of Scripture” and particular conditions on a case-by-case basis, Basil goes on to propose a distinction in the way the Church responds to fallen virgins, in contrast to digamists. On what basis? “Widowhood is inferior to virginity; consequently the sin of the widows comes far behind that of the virgins.” (This comment, by the way, confirms our interpretation of “digamists” in Letter 188 as referring to remarried widows, not remarried divorcees.) By this rationale, Basil suggests a stricter penitential discipline for fallen virgins and their illicit partners:

We call the man who lives with another man’s wife an adulterer, and do not receive him into communion until he has ceased from his sin; and so we shall ordain in the case of him who has the virgin. (Letter 199:18)

From these excerpts it can be seen that Basil in no way approves, let alone justifies, the practice of receiving remarried divorcees into communion. In fact, he commends a level of strictness towards remarried widows—“digamists”—that we today would quite rightly, I believe, judge as overly rigorous. He allows them Communion, but only after a period of penitential exclusion.

Gregory Nazianzen

The third source referred to by Kasper is Gregory Nazianzen (p. 31), with specific mention of his Oration 37 (p. 37). Again, Kasper includes Gregory along with Origen and Basil as authorities who “justify” (p. 37) and “were willing to tolerate” (p. 31) the custom of admitting divorced and remarried Christians to Eucharistic communion. So far we have seen with Origen and Basil that this was in fact not the case. What does Gregory say?

As in the case with Origen, the relevant passage arises in an extended commentary on the question of the Pharisees to Jesus about divorce in Matthew 19:3. Having criticized the popular cultural practice of granting men sexual license while holding women to stricter account (Letter 37:6), and having affirmed the equality of the spouses in the Christian teaching on marriage (Letter 37:7), Gregory goes on to discuss the application of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 to the question of digamy:

For I think that the Word here seems to deprecate second marriage. For, if there were two Christs, there may be two husbands or two wives; but if Christ is one, one head of the Church, let there also be one flesh, and let a second be rejected; and if it [the Word] hinder the second what is to be said for a third? The first is law, the second is indulgence, the third is transgression, and anything beyond this is swinish. (Letter 37:8)

As we found with both Origen and Basil, Gregory is hesitant to accept the remarriage of a widow or widower after the death of their spouse. In the main, the Word “deprecates” it; properly speaking it should be “rejected”; it is permissible only as an “indulgence.” Yet it is to be distinguished from trigamy or polygamy, which he regards as decisively offensive. 

Council of Nicaea

We come at last to the fourth authority cited by Kasper in his text and quoted in an endnote (p. 40, n. 21), the Council of Nicaea (325), which he alleges “confirmed” (p. 31) the “customary law” (pp. 31 and 37) of admitting, after a period of penance, properly disposed divorced and remarried persons to Holy Communion to prevent something worse. Kasper gives the reference to the council’s canon 8, which he says was “directed against the rigorism of Novation.” Before examining the said canon, it will be enlightening to quote from two earlier local synods, the Council of Elvira (300) and the Council of Arles (314), both of which treated the question of remarriage and Communion. First, from canon 9 of Elvira:             

Let a baptised woman, who has left an adulterous husband and is marrying another, be forbidden to do so; but if she has already married him, let her be excommunicate until the husband whom she left is dead, except in her own danger of death when the excommunication may be removed.

Next, from the Council of Arles:

With regard to those who discover their wives in adultery, and who, though in early manhood, are as Christians forbidden to remarry, it has seemed good [to this council] that as far as possible they should be advised during the lifetime of their wives, though adulteresses, not to marry others.

These two quotes reflect similar attitudes to the remarriage of separated spouses, even in cases where, due to adultery or abandonment, the innocent party is involved. In the first synod, although second unions after separation were permitted by the laws of the state, it is reaffirmed that they are forbidden for Christians by the word of Christ, and therefore render the remarried person excommunicate. Similarly, the synod of Arles urges the clergy to advise separated spouses “as far as possible” not to remarry. However, in danger of death, the synod of Elvira commends the primacy of pastoral and evangelical concern for the person’s salvation, enabling him or her to die in full communion with the Church.

Moving on to the Council of Nicaea, we read the following canon:

Concerning those who have given themselves the name of Cathars, and who from time to time come over publicly to the catholic and apostolic Church, this holy and great synod decrees that they may remain among the clergy after receiving an imposition of hands. But before all this it is fitting that they give a written undertaking that they will accept and follow the decrees of the catholic Church, namely, that they will be in communion with those who have entered into a second marriage and with those who have lapsed in time of persecution, and for whom a period [of penance] has been fixed and an occasion [for reconciliation] allotted, so as in all things to follow the decrees of the catholic and apostolic Church. (Canon 8)

The “Cathars” (or Cathari, from the Greek katharos, meaning “pure”) here refers to a schismatic ecclesial community, with somewhat dualist tendencies, among which there were clergy who wanted to enter back into fellowship and pastoral service with the Church. Some early sources associate the Cathars with the Novationists, others with the Manichees. Either way, canon 8 makes clear that some Cathar clergy had reservations about entering into Eucharistic fellowship with “those who have entered a second marriage (lit. ‘digamists’) and with those who have lapsed in time of persecution.”  From our analysis of the previously quoted texts, it is apparent that the word “digamists” here used in canon 8 again refers to remarried widows or widowers, whose marriages from Apostolic times had been widely regarded as somewhat less than ideal and permissible only out of concession to weakness of the flesh. It is highly unlikely that it refers to persons in second unions while their separated spouses are still alive, a situation regarded as morally illicit not only by the Cathars but also by the Catholic Church. While this passage does raise the question of how the Church should properly negotiate its way between—or “beyond”—the extremes of laxity and rigorism, it can hardly be interpreted as in any way “confirming” an alleged “customary law” according to which, in certain circumstances, separated and remarried Christians were admitted to Communion out of pastoral clemency.


Cardinal Kasper’s The Gospel of the Family is a commendable document, and frankly sets the tone for the Church’s forthcoming discussions on pastoral care for the married and families. Its strengths, in my view, lie in three main areas. First, it reaffirms the divinely established dignity and indissolubility of sacramental marriage, identifying it as a “gift of grace” (p. 15) and locating it firmly within “God’s definitive and indissoluble pledge of fidelity and covenant” (p. 16). Second, it emphasizes the essentially evangelical character and salvific scope of the New Testament teaching on marriage, to which the Church’s pastoral practice and canonical provisions must rightly be subordinated. A legalistic approach to questions surrounding Christian marriage cannot be sustained, for the Gospel “is not a code of law. It is the light and the power of life…it bestows what it requires” (pp. 3-4). Third, it rejects a blanket approach to divorce and remarriage, arguing instead that each situation be treated individually according to particular circumstances. Just as the Church cannot propose a solution “apart from or contrary to Jesus’ words” (p. 26), so there can be no “general solution” applicable without respect to particular persons and their circumstances (p. 32). Rather each case must be assessed on its own terms, with genuine spiritual discretion and pastoral prudence (p. 33).

Notwithstanding these strengths, it is unfortunate that Cardinal Kasper has appeared to misrepresent the witness of the early Church in such a way as to lend support to a certain pastoral solution for which he is apparently in favor. Of course, in negotiable or ambiguous matters, the Church today is not bound in every respect to follow the decisions and practices of the Church of earlier centuries. As Kasper says, “[W]e cannot simply replicate the early church’s solutions in our situation….” (p. 38) I agree that the contemporary scenario Kasper outlines on page 32—in which a divorced and civilly-remarried Catholic sincerely regrets the failure of the first marriage, wants to be faithful, longs for the sacraments, yet apparently “cannot undo the commitments that were assumed in the second civil marriage without incurring new guilt”—presents a complex and difficult pastoral challenge, though to suggest that under current practice such a person is being left to “starve sacramentally” (p. 30) overlooks the ongoing and powerful sacramental efficacy of baptism and the ministry of the Spirit-filled word of God.

I also agree that no blanket rule can be applied without considering what concrete shape repentance could or should take in each case and what commensurate goals might be proposed, both of which will possibly vary according to particular circumstances. Yet it has been shown in this clarification that the sources Cardinal Kasper cites in fact are not especially applicable to the case in hand, since they deal in the main with the remarriage of widows. In any case they are much more rigorous in dealing with the question of remarriage, penance, and Communion than his treatment otherwise suggests. The only openings towards the kind of pastoral solution towards which Kasper seems to tend come either from the unnamed leaders cited critically by Origen, or else from a source he overlooks, namely the Council of Elvira with its provision “in danger of death.” Each in its own way, read and developed in concert with the full plethora of the Church’s doctrinal, catechetical, and pastoral resources, could perhaps direct us towards a faithful passage through the current dilemma, but only if, as Kasper insists, mercy remains united to truth (p. 44).

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About Adam G. Cooper 0 Articles
Adam G. Cooper is senior lecturer at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage & Family in Melbourne, Australia. He previously served on the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne and the Lutheran School of Theology and was an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Life in the Flesh: An Anti-Gnostic Spiritual Philosophy (2008), The Body in St. Maximus the Confessor (2005), and Naturally Human, Supernaturally God: Deification in Pre-Conciliar Catholicism (2014).