The Tyranny of “Mercy”

How Cardinal Kasper’s pastoralism would harm women and children

Synods of Bishops rarely attract so much attention as the current one has. Much of the interest, of course, is due to the German Cardinal Walter Kasper’s pre-synod proposal on divorce, remarriage, and the reception of Holy Communion, aided by his subsequent book tour and multiple interviews before and during the synod.

At the heart of Cardinal Kasper’s proposal is a pastoral concern to extend mercy to those people who have been divorced and remarried, and to bring about a more welcoming environment in the Church.  These are, of course, very important issues that need to be addressed.  Divorced and remarried Catholics need to be in the Church as much as anyone else. Yet mercy separated from truth and unhinged from prudence can end up creating incentives that cause great harm. 

There are already a number of excellent commentaries on the fundamental problem with Cardinal Kasper’s suggestion: it seems at odds with the unequivocal teaching of Jesus Christ in the Gospels about marriage, and the tradition of the Catholic Church on being in a state of grace before reception of the Holy Eucharist.  What, however, I want to do is address the pastoral effects of the cardinal’s proposal and how his plan will harm the family and the people he is trying to help.

In seeing some of the early material coming from this synod, I am reminded of a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas stating that injustice comes not only from violent acts of men with power, but from the “false prudence of the sage.”  I am also reminded of orphans in Haiti.

While I was in Haiti, I met Shelly and Corrigan Clay, an American couple who went there to adopt a child and start an orphanage. Just as they were about to adopt, the orphanage director asked the couple if they would like to meet the biological mother.  They were surprised because they thought the boy had been abandoned.  As they talked, it was clear the mother loved the child, and they asked why she was giving him up.  She said she couldn’t afford him.  “It was this shock,” Shelly said, “here I am about to spend twenty thousand dollars to adopt a child that this mother wants…and the injustice of it all hit me.”  

After working in an orphanage they learned that 22 of the 24 children had at least one living parent.  And this was not unusual. An anthropologist explained that “an orphan is a coveted position because it means school, books, and maybe even a visa.” The Haitian government reports that about 80 percent of Haitian children in orphanages have at least one living parent.  Corrigan explained that our desire to help orphans was actually creating them.  Charity without prudence can lead to injustice. 

Let’s think for a moment about the effect of Kapser’s proposal upon millions of married couples—especially those who are struggling in their marriages.  There are many married couples throughout the world who go through rough patches and have to work to stay together; maybe they are struggling to get by financially, or are struck by a tragedy, or just go through times when they don’t get along very well. Yet, despite this, they know there is no other option for them. They realize they made a commitment to one another, and to God, to stay together for life and so they try to work things out—not necessarily because they like each other at the moment but because they made a vow.  Often, they stay together for one simple reason: because of Jesus’ clear teaching on the matter.  How does the cardinal’s mercy extend to them? 

It can be tempting to feel sorry for these people—lives and aspirations having been drained out by a marriage without passion—and imagine them as tragic figures in a Graham Greene novel. If only they could break away and find true love.  But this sentimentality has caused untold tragedy and sorrow not only for countless couples, but also for millions of children. And the less economically advantaged you are the worse it is.  It turns out that a dull and even unhappy marriage is better for children than no marriage at all. 

In contrast to the false narrative of living your passion, the reality is much different. The data is increasingly clear that those who make it through and stay married have higher levels of health, personal fulfillment, career success, and longer lives—not to mention the many advantages to children.  Divorce hasn’t even delivered the holy grail of sexual satisfaction. That prize goes to devout Catholic women in stable marriages—who reported the highest level of sexual satisfaction of any women surveyed. What a shock it must have been for all of the secularists on the enlightened East and West Coasts to imagine some haggard, Midwestern, homeschooling mother getting all of the sexual pleasure that they can only write or tweet about.

There are a number of reasons for this, many of which St. Pope John Paul II wrote about in his theology of the body and his pre-papal book, Love and Responsibility.  One obvious reason (or one that should be obvious) is the deep sense of trust that comes from a permanent public commitment where each partner feels secure in the knowledge that no matter what may come their marriage will stay together.  

If Cardinal Kasper’s proposal is accepted it is naïve to think it will have little or no effect on those struggling to stay married.  If the Church tells you that divorce and remarriage is frowned upon but, well, we clerics understand that sometimes things just don’t work out  and we know it’s hard to be lonely—and while you could try to live like brother and sister, that’s not really for the average Christian, only for “heroic” ones.  So, you should receive Communion because you must not feel excluded. Does Cardinal Kasper really think this won’t open the door to more people considering divorce and pursuing another marriage?  

And let us not forget the effect on the many men and women who, after a divorce, never marry, not because they are happy being alone, but simply to be faithful to the teachings of Christ.  Why else would they do it?  They sacrifice themselves and offer their loneliness to God so they are able to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  Divorced people who do not remarry give witness both to the beauty and indissolubility of marriage and to the reality and truth of the Blessed Sacrament.  Have their sacrifice and witness been for nothing?  Or perhaps it counted before, but not now?

One of the hallmarks of a modern democratic society is to think that if we can all agree on something, then everything will be fine.  If we all agree to pretend that something once considered wrong or harmful is no longer so—then it will be fine.  Democratic culture tends to embrace the mistaken notion of stigma as deriving from artificial social norms, disassociating it from actual personal and social harm.  Thus the idea emerges that divorce and remarriage is only harmful because we deem it so, not because it actually is harmful.  So, the way to solve the problem is to change the consensus and declare it normal and necessary for personal fulfillment. 

What Cardinal Kasper is suggesting is, put bluntly, tantamount to Catholic no-fault divorce. I am convinced that Cardinal Kasper’s proposal, if implemented, will almost certainly lead to an increase in divorce and remarriage among Catholics.  The “beneficiaries” will mostly be middle-aged men and those who will suffer the most will be women and children.  

The negative effects, however, will not stop at marriage and family.  It will have profound consequences for how people understand the Eucharist.  If the cardinal’s proposal is accepted and those in persistent adulterous relationships can receive Communion, why couldn’t others who are in persistent and public sin also receive?  Why should there be any fuss about pro-abortion politicians?  And why not allow Christians from other Christian groups to receive Communion?   Will other mortal sins no longer require confession, or only certain kinds of adulterous relationships?  If the requirements for receiving Holy Communion are no longer in place for some, then it would be strange to keep them in place for others.

It would be a mistake to think that Cardinal Kasper’s proposal only fails on scriptural and doctrinal grounds. It also fails pastorally. Why? Because mercy, charity, and pastoral care are only effective when they are rooted in truth.  “Without truth,” Benedict XVI reminds us, “charity degenerates into sentimentality” and what we get is not mercy, but a “tyranny of kindness.”

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Michael Matheson Miller 0 Articles
Michael Matheson Miller is a research fellow at the Acton Institute and the director of the documentary Poverty, Inc. Follow him on Twitter @mmathesonmiller.