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The practical dangers of the Kasper proposal

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 14, 2014

Last week when I insisted (not for the first time) that Pope Francis is not going to change Church teaching on remarriage and Communion, one reader gently suggested that I might be answering the wrong question. “I believe,” he tweeted, “the main concern is not that Francis will ‘change Church doctrine’ but accept pastoral practices which undermine it.” Good point.

The Synod of Bishops will not call for change in Catholic doctrine. But the October meeting of the Synod (and/or next year’s meeting, which is dedicated to the same topic: marriage and the family) will do something. Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have spoken of the need for a pastoral response to the plight of Catholics who are divorced and remarried, and while Cardinal Kasper’s proposal has encountered heavy opposition, there seems to be a broad consensus that the Church could do more to help people living in irregular marital situations.

The most likely response will be a broader access to marital tribunals. As a practical matter, that sort of change would make very little difference to Catholics in the US, where annulments are already notoriously easy to obtain. And if the tribunals function properly, they only provide annulments in cases when a valid marriage did not actually take place. So they will not resolve the problems of Catholics who were validly married before a divorce and remarriage.

The Church can never accept a 2nd marriage. The Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is based not merely on the traditions of the Church or the inferences of theologians, but on the clear and unmistakable words of Jesus Christ: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery." [Mt: 19:9] Traditions can be adapted and inferences can be redrawn, but the words of Christ cannot be contradicted. To accept a 2nd marriage is to accept adultery. It is true that Jesus refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery, but it is also true that He cautioned her to “sin no more.”

We are all sinners, and have no right to condemn other for their sins. Yet we are also the holy People of God, with a duty to preserve the purity of the Eucharistic assembly. So the Church can extend Communion to those who sin (that is, all of us), but not to those who “live in sin”—whose way of life is openly at odds with the moral standards that we uphold.

Nor would it be really merciful to allow people who live in sin to receive Communion. St. Paul warns us that anyone who receives the Eucharist unworthily “will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord,” and thus “drinks judgment upon himself.” Rather than allowing people to jeopardize their own souls, it is far more charitable, far more merciful, to stop them. Sometimes people who are living in disordered situations need an “intervention” to set them straight; in such cases, “tough love” is true mercy.

So the challenge facing the Synod of Bishops is to devise a pastoral approach that will draw Catholics who are divorced and remarried back toward the sacramental life of the Church, without violating the principle that adulterous relationships can never become acceptable. And the great danger facing the Church is the likelihood that pastors might adopt the Kasper proposal as a working pastoral solution, even without authorization from Rome.

Will liberal priests begin inviting remarried Catholics to receive Communion? Apparently that practice is already widespread in the German-speaking world. Will ill-informed Catholics, hearing the buzz in the media, leap to the inaccurate conclusion that the Church’s stand has already changed? Will bishops allow their priests to ignore the official teachings of the Church—and perhaps even ostracize those priests who uphold Church discipline? Unfortunately, in the years since Vatican II, we have seen many illustrations of how a wide rift can develop between the formal pronouncements of the Church and the actual experiences of the faithful.

Some people may misinterpret Church pronouncements intentionally, because they want a more radical result. Others will then be lend into misunderstanding, simply because they never hear the Church’s stand accurately explained. To guard against that sort of innocent misunderstanding—and to make intentional misrepresentation more difficult—it is absolutely essential for loyal Catholics to insist on accurate reporting about what the Vatican is saying. That is why I am so dismayed by the tendency of a few conservative Catholics to convey the impression that acceptance of the Kasper proposal is a foregone conclusion. It is not; and saying that it is only lends strength to those who will advance Kasper’s ideas without Vatican approval.

The Kasper proposal takes a passive approach to the problem of marital breakdown: accepting the high incidence of divorce and remarriage as a given. Rather than accepting that unhappy reality, the Synod should look for ways to change it. Then the discussion would proceed in an entirely different direction. Positive statements about preserving marriage, and positive policies aimed at helping troubled couples, would be far less prone to misunderstanding.

Let me suggest, just for example, four ways in which the Synod could shift the focus of the discussion:

  • Strengthen programs of preparation for marriage. If it is true that a high proportion of couples who wed in the Catholic Church are not validly married—as Pope Francis has suggested, and Pope Benedict suggested before him—then we have a pastoral crisis on our hands. Ordinary people are capable of forming a true marital bond. If they fail to do so, is it because they lack the understanding of what marriage entails, or the will to make a real commitment? As society’s notion of marriage diverges ever further from the Christian understanding, it is imperative to ensure that couples understand what they are undertaking when they marry in the Catholic Church.
  • Redouble efforts to help troubled couples. In the US, at least, pastors often hear about a marital breakdown only after the divorce lawyers are involved. The Church should offer resources for couples who are experiencing difficulties, and pastors should stress, in preaching and their counseling, that married couples should work constantly to strengthen their bonds—and that it may be gravely sinful to allow a marriage to disintegrate.
  • Call Catholics back to the confessionals. Pastors cannot offer useful personal advice unless they know the particular problems of the couples in difficulty. By encouraging regular confession, and encouraging penitents to reflect on the damage they may be doing to their marriages, priests might help couples to address marital problems before they become critical.
  • Explain the idea of “being in communion” with the Church. If the world understands why divorced and remarried Catholics cannot receive Communion, perhaps it can also understand why Catholics who support abortion should not, either. The Eucharist is not a reward for good behavior, and conversely, denial of the Eucharist is not a punishment inflicted by the Church. Rather, it is a recognition of an objective fact: that an individual, because of his beliefs or his public actions or his way of life, has separated himself from the Catholic community. As Catholics we do not condemn Orthodox or Protestant Christians, yet we recognize the painful reality that we are not in full communion with them. Acknowledging that reality should be the first step toward repairing the divisions.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: shrink - May. 21, 2014 12:08 PM ET USA

    These proposals are good, but we must realize that the ordinary means of training and support will only be helpful on the margins, because the cycle of divorce and family disintegration have reached critical mass. In the US, we are in a meltdown, reinforced by aggressively secular govt. policy. There's no ordinary way to stop marital decline under these circumstances. In youth, the core habits of self-control have disintegrated on a large scale; stable marriage is beyond their ability.

  • Posted by: mateskub8508 - May. 20, 2014 1:27 PM ET USA

    Alas, I have talked to and heard about so many priests who are afraid to be truly merciful with persons living in this sort of sin. Beside those following the German style (inviting them to receive communion anyway) there are those who perhaps do not openly say it, but think that it is a *too severe punishment to bar* them from communion. This is what the synod should do: a (mandatory) guideline for priests how to tell the truth mercifully, and to show people in sin the beauty of conversion.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - May. 18, 2014 2:46 AM ET USA

    Thanks for addressing some of the problems inherent in the Kasper "fix." I can see Humanae Vitae all over again; There is another problem, a grave matter, that I think is being ignored in all this talk about marriage, remarriage, admission to the sacraments: Co-Habitation. I think this is an even more serious problem because, as you well know, it is a widespread practice. Most have no intention of getting married and seem happy to remain in a relationship for as long as it lasts.

  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - May. 17, 2014 7:47 AM ET USA

    Ah, jg, you have pointed out the elephant in the room! The Orthodox are no longer schismatics but are now heretics. In so many ways they do not adhere to the faith given to us by the Fathers, and this matter of allowing divorce and 'remarriage' is only one such example of their deviancy. Needless to say, the Catholic Church does not recognize these '2nd Orthodox marriages', which, I suppose, is a major sticking point in all Catholic-Orthodox talks that are held in the hope of seeking reunion.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - May. 16, 2014 10:13 PM ET USA

    When the Church did away with the three hour fast required to receive Communion, everyone marched up for Communion because they didn't want people to think they were in a state of mortal sin. The Church needs to go back to the former discipline on fasting before Communion. They might also bring back the communion rail with kneeling for reception so as to restore the proper reverence for Holy Communion.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 15, 2014 8:39 AM ET USA

    "Yet we are also the holy People of God, with a duty to preserve the purity of the Eucharistic assembly." Very important. Catholic educators owe the truth to the faithful. So many Catholics do not receive the sacrament with a sound comprehension of its meaning. So many are not taught the principle ends of the sacrament; many do not know the beauty of selfless love. We have been "liberated" in recent decades. But we are haunted, and unworthy communions won't make it any better.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - May. 14, 2014 7:25 PM ET USA

    Phil: I understand and accept fully the Church's teachings on marriage. I also know that (1) the Church accepts the validity of the sacraments administered by our Orthodox brethren and (2) that the Orthodox seem to accept divorce at least once in a life (I remember the case of Alexander Solzhenitsyn). What I do not understand is how the Orthodox justify this practice nor how the Catholic Church views those 2nd Orthodox marriages following on divorce.

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