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Cardinal Kasper's public support for dissent undermines his own proposal

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 07, 2014

In a May 5 interview broadcast by WYNC radio in New York—in which he was repeatedly identified by host Brian Lehrer as “the Pope’s theologian”—Cardinal Walter Kasper made the striking statement: “The Church is not against birth control at all.”

As is his wont, the judicious Cardinal Kasper stopped short of a clear dissent from Church teaching. He left himself a bit of wiggle room by saying that the question is “about the methods of birth control.” If you were inclined to give the cardinal the benefit of the doubt, you might think that he had Natural Family Planning in mind. But if you were more inclined to focus on reality, you would note that host Lehrer had referred explicitly to the use of condoms. Surely the vast majority of WYNC listeners interpreted the cardinal’s statement as a claim that the Church does not condemn contraception. And it strains credulity to suggest that Cardinal Kasper did not intend exactly that outcome.

The cardinal could have cleared up any confusion by explaining his statement. Instead he followed up by saying that he didn’t want to talk about the different methods of birth control. In other words, he didn’t want to be pinned down. He preferred to leave his statement ambiguous, allowing listeners to hear what they wanted to hear. He showed no interest in explaining to the radio audience what the Church really teaches about birth control.

At worst the German cardinal encouraged people to ignore the Church’s teaching. At best he passed up a golden opportunity to promote that teaching. And this happened in New York, whose Cardinal Dolan told the Wall Street Journal: “We have gotten gun-shy…in speaking with any amount of cogency on chastity and sexual morality." Speaking directly to the question of birth control, Cardinal Dolan said that as a result of this shyness: “We forfeited the chance to be a coherent moral voice when it comes to one of the more burning issues of the day."

Cardinal Kasper—who’s in the US on a tour promoting his book Mercy, in which he explains the “Kasper proposal” for allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion—has been making some waves this week. He has criticized the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and expressed his admiration for a theologian whose work has been criticized by the US bishops’ conference. If he’s trying to persuade the American bishops to back the “Kasper proposal” at the Synod meeting in October, he’s going about it in a very strange way. As the evidence piles up that Cardinal Kasper is unwilling to defend the teachings of the Church, the bishops who are willing are less likely to be sympathetic.


And there’s more…

In a lengthy interview with Commonweal, Cardinal Kasper says that Pope Francis told him that “he believes that 50% of marriages are not valid.” (Now don’t blame the Pope for making another provocative public statement here; if the cardinal’s report is accurate, the Holy Father made this remark in a private conversation.) My reaction to the cardinal’s statement matches that of my friend the canon-law expert, Edward Peters: “I am stunned at the pastoral recklessness of such an assertion.”

Peters has his own convincing reasons for that reaction; let me state mine simply. At a time when pastors should be doing everything possible to help strengthen marriage, and to help troubled couples patch up their difficulties and revive their relationships, Cardinal Kasper’s statement is likely to prompt such couples to wonder whether they’re really married at all.

If you’re wondering whether it’s worthwhile to try to salvage your marriage, and then you hear someone touted as “the Pope’s theologian” saying that 50% of marriages aren’t real marriages, isn’t it likely that your first thought is that your marriage is one of those false unions, and might as well be abandoned? So the next stop is the divorce lawyer’s office, and then, with Cardinal Kasper’s quote in hand, a petition for annulment.

And what about the children of those unions? Does the “mercy” of which Cardinal Kasper speaks so often extend to them?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: schndj2254 - May. 12, 2014 11:42 AM ET USA

    Cardinal Kaspar has over the past few weeks opined that the CDF is irrelevant with respect to the beliefs and practices of the LCWR, lowered the bar on sainthood is heroic faith might be an element of such(thank goodness he wasn't there to advise the early martyrs), and now has introduced even more wiggle-room into Church teaching on sexuality (as if the readers of Commonweal and America needed more). If this is the Pope's theologian, I fear for the upcoming marriage synod.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - May. 09, 2014 5:36 PM ET USA

    Lack of adequate catechesis is a way more likely cause of marriage invalidity than having mental health defects. If one party wasn't intentionally deceiving the other, and the mental health problem doesn't prevent the afflicted person from understanding what marriage is and freely consenting to it, the couple should be able to enter validly into marriage. Right? Surely 50% of men don't have "antisocial disorder" or other mental health problems so grave as to render them incapable of marriage.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 09, 2014 1:09 PM ET USA

    On 28 July 2013 the Vatican published an interview wherein Pope Francis brought up Cardinal Quarracino who said that "as far as he was concerned, half of all marriages are null." The Pope explained in essence that the lack of adequate catechesis was a stumbling block for half of those who appeared to confect a sacramental marriage. The Pope went on to say that "ecclesiastical [marriage] tribunals are not sufficient for this. It is complex." It is complex indeed.

  • Posted by: jacquebquique5708 - May. 09, 2014 12:01 PM ET USA

    Thought provoking assessment.

  • Posted by: bnewman - May. 08, 2014 10:08 PM ET USA

    I see the concern about Cardinal Jasper’s reported remarks on marriage. On the other hand, a large fraction of people in the developed world no longer see any intrinsic difference in ‘marriages’ between heterosexual or homosexual couples. The popular and legal understanding of ‘marriage’ is undergoing drastic revision to something not even close to any traditional meaning of marriage. Perhaps many ‘civic marriages’ (so-called) are in fact not marriages at all in any real sense.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 08, 2014 9:36 PM ET USA

    How anyone could be stunned about "pastoral recklessness" at this point is astonishing. What has been happening acutely over recent years is the logical outcome of pastoral recklessness. The polls show overwhelming tolerance among Catholics of homosexual marriage, divorce and remarriage, artificial contraception etc. Obama's revolutionary healthcare proposals shocked us, but we Catholics elected him. In light of Dr. Mirus' recent series, I'd settle for "Smaller Church, basic, intact faith."

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - May. 08, 2014 4:01 PM ET USA

    I just saw your update. Again, what better opportunity for Pope Francis to say, "Hey, that's not what I said at all, and you KNOW it isn't, Card. Kasper!" It isn't just the children of this "50% of marriages" who need mercy; every sincere Catholic on the planet is suffering from this kind of talk. I know I'm losing a lot of sleep thanks to it! If anyone in Rome is reading this, please ask the pope to take Kasper to the woodshed for a reasoning session.

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 08, 2014 2:16 PM ET USA

    It would be interesting to see the actual statistics of US marriage tribunal findings. I know a few people who sit on marriage tribunals, and the belief is common that many marriages are invalid, hence, these tribunals often determine that marriages are null/void based upon psychological incapacity. One tribunal leader told me that antisocial personality disorder was very common among men involved in divorce!

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 08, 2014 10:34 AM ET USA

    A curious but illuminating juxtaposition of articles: on the one hand, there's Phil's astute commentary on the Kasper proposal, a proposal that has a ring of sympathy and charity but is being marketed by confusing people. On the other hand, there's Jeff's insightful commentary "I can see clearly now" and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. After reading both, I gather that Kasper's fixation on revision comes up way short on Wisdom, Understanding, and Counsel.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - May. 08, 2014 9:13 AM ET USA

    But all this begs the question: Why doesn't the pope rein in the good cardinal? Why is the pope allowing confusion to spread around the globe thanks to Kasper's loose words? This isn't 'hands-off' management on Pope Francis' part, it is no management at all. Surely someone at the Vatican must have said to the pope recently, "Have you heard what Kasper said yesterday in NYC?"

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - May. 08, 2014 1:33 AM ET USA

    Pope Francis' support of this character saddens and really kind of scandalizes me. It is hard to understand what the Holy Spirit is up to.

  • Posted by: Joseph Paul - May. 07, 2014 11:51 PM ET USA

    This man is doing grave damage to the Church. May God have mercy on his soul.