A new volume of Benedict XVI’s collected works includes an updated version of a 1972 essay in which he had suggested that the divorced and remarried could receive Communion—but the Pope had long since abandoned that position, scholars noted.
“In his book The Gospel of the Family, Cardinal Walter Kasper cites a 1972 essay by Joseph Ratzinger…it is unfortunate that Cardinal Kasper failed to mention that Ratzinger retracted the proposal or ‘Vorschlag’ outlined in his 1972 essay,” Dr. Nicholas Healy, an assistant professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., told CNA Nov. 24.
As a priest of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, Joseph Ratzinger—who would later become Pope Benedict XVI—published an essay in 1972 which argued for access, under certain limited conditions, to Communion for the divorced and remarried. While affirming the indissolubility of marriage, Ratzinger and similar authors “appealed to certain passages in the Church Fathers that seem to allow leniency in emergency situations,” Healy wrote in a recent issue of Communio.
This line of argument was taken up in a 1977 book by Walter Kasper, who was then a priest of the Diocese of Rottenburg.
That year, Ratzinger was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and in that capacity he participated in the 1980 Synod on the Family, where he stated that “it will be up to the synod to show the correct approach to pastors” in the matter of Communion for the divorced and remarried.
The concluding document of that synod, 1981’s Familiaris consortio, found that “reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.’”
Days after that document was issued, Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Then, in 1991, a canon lawyer, Fr. Theodore Davey, suggested that confession and spiritual direction could open up the way for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion, and cited Ratzinger’s 1972 essay in support of his position.
Cardinal Ratzinger quickly retracted the “suggestions” of his 1972 essay as no longer tenable, because they were made “as a theologian in 1972. Their implementation in pastoral practice would of course necessarily depend on their corroboration by an official act of the magisterium to whose judgment I would submit…. Now the Magisterium subsequently spoke decisively on this question in the person of (St. John Paul II) in Familiaris consortio.”
The issue re-emerged in 1993, when Kasper, then bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, as well as two other German bishops, wrote a letter referring, according to Healy, to the teaching of Familiaris consortio as “a general norm that, while true, cannot regulate all of the very complex individual cases.”
The following year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a letter to bishops, reminding them that “if the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists.”
The letter, written by Cardinal Ratzinger and approved by St. John Paul II, moreover stated that “members of the faithful who live together as husband and wife with persons other than their legitimate spouses may not receive Holy Communion…pastors in their teaching must also remind the faithful entrusted to their care of this doctrine.”
Cardinal Ratzinger and his congregation followed up on that letter, which “was met with a very lively response,” by studying several of the more significant objections to it.
The cardinal’s follow-up letter, published in 1998, noting that while varying from the “oikonomia” practice of the Eastern Orthodox and the opinions of a few among the Church Fathers, the practice of the Catholic Church “recovered…the original concept of the Church Fathers,” which prohibits a “more varied praxis” regarding Communion for the divorced and remarried.
Finally, after his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger wrote Sacramentum caritatis, the concluding document of the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, which noted that “where the nullity of the marriage bond is not declared and objective circumstances make it impossible to cease cohabitation, the Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God’s law, as friends, as brother and sister; in this way they will be able to return to the table of the Eucharist, taking care to observe the Church’s established and approved practice in this regard.”
Healy described each of these final three writings of Ratzinger—from 1994, 1998, and 2007—saying that “on each occasion he reaffirmed the ‘constant and universal’ practice of the Church of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried.”
“In short, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is adamantly opposed to the proposal of Cardinal Kasper and suggests that the teaching office of the Church already has resolved this question with a certain definitiveness.”
Despite this, Ratzinger’s 1972 essay has been cited by Cardinal Kasper in support of his desire to admit the divorced and remarried, under certain conditions, to the Eucharist.
Yet in a newly-published edition of his collected works, available in German at the end of November, Ratzinger has amended the text of his 1972 essay. The emendation was first noted by Matthias Drobinski, of the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung.
“The new version excludes the crucial final paragraphs quoted by Cardinal Kasper,” according to The Irish Times. “Now Benedict stops short of his earlier call, arguing instead for the Church to rethink existing marriage annulment procedures to allow greater leeway on dealing with remarried couples.”
“Church watchers suggest the redacted essay should be seen as a warning by Benedict to his little-loved German rival in the Vatican, Cardinal Kasper, who has been liberally quoting the essay to justify a more liberal church teaching on remarriage.”
Fr. Vincent Twomey, who studied under Ratzinger, told The Irish Times that the omission of those paragraphs “was a ‘significant’ attempt by the former pope to prevent his earlier words—written in a different context, time, and role—being used against him now.”
Healy told CNA that the development in Ratzinger’s thought since his 1972 essay reflects a willingness to think with the Church in the light of the Magisterium.
“Joseph Ratzinger’s writings will remain a source and guide for future generations not only because of the breadth and depth of his wisdom, but, above all, because he shows us what it means to think with the Church. Sentire cum ecclesia means allowing one’s partial perspectives to be integrated into the greater whole of the Church’s faith and occasionally corrected by the teaching office of the Church.”
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.