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Does the Kasper proposal undermine the New Covenant?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 02, 2014

In yesterday’s City Gates piece, Using the figure of Pope Francis for evangelization, I alluded to aspects of Pope Francis’ approach which keep us off balance and raise questions in our minds. But I also wrote that “Catholic doctrine is deep in his bones”. As Francis himself said to the bishops of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference earlier this year:

You have spoken to me of some of the serious pastoral challenges facing your communities…. I am confident that you will not weaken in your resolve to teach the truth “in season and out of season”, sustained by prayer and discernment, and always with great compassion.

In contrast, it would seem that Cardinal Walter Kasper has rarely kept anybody off-balance. I am afraid one always expects him to say things that indicate he himself does not have Catholic doctrine deep in his bones.

We need to recall that churchmen with reservations about Catholic moral teaching were able to elevate practical dissent to a fine art in the period following the Second Vatican Council. Modernist moral theologians in university life mastered this art as well, but quickly found that they could get away with going significantly farther in their opposition to Catholic moral principles. But bishops who expected to have bright futures were forced by their positions to hide both doubt and cowardice behind a veneer of pastoral concern.

The two main tricks of light and darkness used in this “fine art” were these: First, admit the truth of Catholic moral teaching but emphasize that the prescribed moral behavior is just an ideal, which the Church understands people cannot often meet. Second, admit the truth of Catholic moral teaching, but immediately relativize it by recognizing the conscience rights of the faithful. After all, each person is obliged to follow his or her own conscience.

Kasper’s Preparation for the Synod

Cardinal Kasper has spent the year leading up to this month’s Synod on the Family in promoting a book which, while in many respects very good, specifically advocates the practice of admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion without the need for annulment—a practice that, in any form, would undermine Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Our Lord called the violation of this teaching “adultery” (Mk 10:11-12; Lk 16:18). It has to be said that Pope Francis seemed to want Kasper to stir the pot in this general area, but it would be a mistake to conclude that the Pope had this particular “Kasper Proposal” most in mind, or that he approved of it. In fact, there is strong evidence that Pope Francis has already told other bishops that this proposal is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

It seems clear that Pope Francis is primarily interested in a deep reflection by the whole Church on how Christian marriage and family life can be genuinely fostered in their fullness. Insofar as the Pope’s Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may be taken to represent the Church’s doctrinal position, Cardinal Ludwig Müller has been forthright in rejecting Kasper’s suggestion. Moreover, most other bishops and cardinals who have weighed in on this particular question have emphasized in no uncertain terms that what Cardinal Kasper has proposed in this instance simply is not within the Church’s power.

Now, on the very verge of the Synod, Kasper has scaled back some of his comments a bit and is insisting that he is not proposing anything unorthodox. He claims that all the debates at the Synod will be good for the Church (something with which it is very difficult to disagree) and he (rather predictably) used an opportunity given by a question about contraception to indicate where he believes the Church has some fruitful wiggle room.

Unfortunately, it is just here that Cardinal Kasper tips his hand.

The Pastoral and the Ideal

“I think there’s a difference between doctrine and discipline, how to apply it”, said Cardinal Kasper, “and this is the pastoral level.” Of course it goes without saying that there is a difference between doctrine and discipline. Doctrine states the truth. Discipline, or pastoral activity generally, comprises the methods and approaches which lead people to actually live in accordance with the truth. Thus there is always a strong and necessary connection between doctrine and discipline, between catechesis and pastoral activity. In fact, whenever there is a disconnect between the two, doctrine is being denied not in teaching, but in practice.

Is it not marvelous, then, to see Walter Kasper trot out the classic arguments which have always been used to effect precisely this sort of disconnect? Using Pope Paul VI’s teaching on the immorality of contraception in Humanae Vitae as a case in point, Cardinal Kasper states: “I think what he said is true, but…it’s an ideal and we have to tell people, but then we have also to respect the conscience of the couples.” How long, O Lord?

The moral teachings of Jesus Christ, which have been elucidated as needed by the teaching authority He invested in His Church, are not “ideals”. We may consider them “ideal” in the sense that they are the most perfect of all moral teachings, but they are not “ideal” in the sense of some generalized goal to which we can only aspire. No, they are specific guidelines that we cannot fail to observe without sin.

This actually goes to the very heart of Christianity. Because all the commands of God have this character, St. Paul wrote repeatedly that the Old Covenant of the Law led to condemnation and death, because nobody could keep it. In contrast, he insisted, the New Covenant of Christ leads to justification and life because Our Lord makes it possible through His grace.

When you scratch the myth that Catholic moral teachings are mere ideals, you actually deny the power of grace. In other words, you deny the entire basis of the Christian dispensation. To continue with Cardinal Kasper’s own example, then, we can see it is wise pastoral practice to encourage people to keep coming to Mass, keep praying, and keep striving to overcome their habits of contraception, especially making use of frequent confession. The Church’s ministers must understand and be sympathetic to the weaknesses of those they serve just as Christ was. It often takes time for us to learn to depend on Him.

But it is completely illegitimate pastorally to suggest that every intentional act of contraception within marriage is not a serious personal sin.

Conscience and Love

As for respecting the individual conscience, the Church knows that conscience is worthless unless it is properly formed. Therefore, while we are bound to follow whatever our conscience tells us is right at any given moment, the failure to work hard to form our consciences, according to what God has revealed to us through His Church in Jesus Christ, is also a very serious sin. Genuine confusion can mitigate subjective guilt for objective sin; but cooperation in confusion is itself sinful—significantly increasing responsibility for whatever sins are committed in this state.

Thus the Church does not (nor is she bound to) respect a malformed conscience, a lax conscience, or a dead conscience. Insofar as the malformation is innocent, the Church instructs. Insofar as the conscience is lax or dead, she both instructs and exhorts. She may also use various forms of external discipline to awaken sinners to their spiritual peril, and she is careful to avoid any discipline which undermines the moral teachings of her Lord and Savior. This is the Church’s pastoral response to problems of conscience—especially in an age in which nearly all habitual sinners use mistaken notions of conscience to pretend that what is evil is actually right and good.

The special importance of this Catholic posture with respect to everything that relates to marriage becomes even more obvious when we remember that marriage itself is the very mirror of the absolute fidelity of Christ to the Church. We recall in this context the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish…. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. [Eph 5:25:32]

This fidelity, both to marriage and to the entire moral law, is what the love of Christ demands. It is not for nothing that Our Lord said: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn 14:21).

When it comes to conscience and moral ideals, the New Covenant changes everything. We have no cause to doubt it, reject it or hinder it, whether in theory, in practice, or in the formation of conscience. It is rooted in how we are made, it is reflected in the natural law, and it imposes no impossible commands. In fact, the New Covenant rightly demands our commitment for exactly one special reason: It alone enables us to join successfully in making all things new.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Oct. 06, 2014 11:13 AM ET USA

    Cardinal Kasper believes, "There can also be a controversial debate, but I think it doesn’t damage the Church, it helps the Church … We had the same during the Council, and this was a positive effect." Here in Germany, and in America as well, this 'positive effect' has been that in the last fifty years millions have left the Church, thousands of priests have been laicized, countless parishes and Catholic schools have closed, and the Church has had to pay out hundreds of millions in damages to those who have been sexually abused. You cannot help wondering if this 'positive effect' hasn't brought us to the gates of hell itself.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Oct. 05, 2014 6:21 PM ET USA

    Great article. The mystery for me is why is Kasper still allowed to talk let alone remain a Cardinal. For the good of the Church he should be silenced. If he is successful in subverting the Sacrament of marriage he will also change the Church for the negative in a very real way. The change will destroy belief in the Sacraments especially the Eucharist and when that happens the Church will become like all the other 'christian' churches.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 05, 2014 3:47 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis' comments of 5 Oct. are not at all encouraging; they seem to lend further weight to the assertion that the pope, in fact, is in the Kasper camp. I don't know about others, but I am weary of the intellectual gymnastics necessary to defend as totally consonant with tradition what Francis is by turns either implying, hinting, saying, or sometimes refusing to state clearly. His approach to serious questions is no longer refreshing; it is alarming.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Oct. 04, 2014 12:40 AM ET USA

    Interesting. I was thought that "the Law" encompassed "Christian Law" as well. Didn't know about this take by St. Paul. Will reflect on that.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 03, 2014 7:14 AM ET USA

    Excellent points- particularly with reference to the conclusion and to the New Covenant. I've been looking to see this point about the New Covenant made somewhere, and the final three paragraphs here do an excellent job! Yes, "the New Covenant changes everything"! And yes "marriage itself is the very mirror of the absolute fidelity of Christ to the Church."