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Does the Kasper Proposal make Pope Francis a heretic? Invalid marriages and mortal sin

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 28, 2014

I have been, from the first, among those who have opposed the Kasper Proposal. My first commentary on the subject suggested that Cardinal Kasper’s emphasis on moral principles as mere ideals seemed to presuppose a world without grace (see Does the Kasper proposal undermine the New Covenant?). Later, however, I thought it appropriate to point out that those who thought the Kasper Proposal was intrinsically contrary to the Faith—and so altogether unworthy of discussion—had made a category mistake (see Do not confuse sacramental discipline and Catholic doctrine).

Many of our most vocal readers greeted this second essay with something very close to outrage. They could see no basis in the case of marriage for the distinction I made between sacramental discipline and Catholic doctrine. To them, the counter-argument seems completely obvious. Indeed, the argument against my position is so straightforward that it may be presented as a syllogism:

Premise 1: It is a matter of apostolic Catholic teaching that those in mortal sin, for their own good, must not receive Communion.
Premise 2: Divorced and invalidly remarried couples are committing adultery and so are living in a state of mortal sin.
Conclusion: Therefore any effort by the Church to approve Communion for those in invalid marriages is a contradiction of Catholic teaching, not merely a change in sacramental discipline.

I confess I am astonished that any reader could suppose I was unaware of so obvious an argument. But never mind me. More important—far more important—is the even more astonishing assumption that Pope Francis, who clearly wanted the Kasper Proposal to be carefully considered, could have been unaware.

A far more sensible approach is to examine this obvious argument more closely, to see if something has been overlooked.

The Weak Premise

I think we must admit that the Conclusion is perfectly sound if both premises are true. Moreover, I do not see how Premise 1 can be attacked, especially given St. Paul’s discussion of this problem (1 Cor 11). But what about Premise 2?

What I think some have missed in evaluating the Kasper Proposal is the weakness of Premise 2 because of its ambivalence concerning mortal sin. In Catholic teaching, sins may be called “mortal” in two different senses. The first sense means, objectively speaking, that the sin involves grave matter: the substance of the transgression is not just evil but seriously evil. In the present case, for example, we are not dealing with the proverbial kiss lasting longer than three seconds, but with adultery itself.

But the second use of the term “mortal” refers to the elimination of sanctifying grace from the soul of the sinner, and this requires more than grave matter. The sinner must also (a) be aware of the gravity of the sin, and (b) commit the sin with full consent of the will. I think it is fair to say that Premise 2 is necessarily correct only in its objective reference to grave matter. But unless it is correct also for the subjective elements—awareness of the gravity of the sin and full consent of the will—it cannot lead to the Conclusion as stated.

Using an Example

The Kasper Proposal was really a question: Would it be possible for the Church to extend Communion to divorced and remarried couples in certain circumstances, perhaps after a period of penance? But what circumstances? Since I typically oppose Cardinal Kasper’s ideas with such vehemence, I am almost sorry that I can think of circumstances which might fit the bill. These may be illustrated by an example.

The man in our example (call him Fred) marries in the Church but with only the bare minimum of spiritual focus required for validity. In a separate wedding, the woman in our example (call her JoAnn) also marries in the Church with the same minimal focus. Not long after these two weddings, things fall apart for both couples. There are no children, and both Fred and JoAnn divorce their respective spouses. A little while later, Fred and JoAnn meet, fall in love, and marry each other, without the requisite annulments, and therefore invalidly, outside the Church.

Here we must raise the question of the first of the two subjective elements necessary for a sin to be mortal: Can we conceive that Fred and JoAnn (especially as a modern Catholic couple) could have married each other outside the Church without comprehending the gravity of the evil of this putative marriage?

If this is conceivable, then we can continue with our example. Over the course of time, Fred and JoAnn have several children. As is common when people who have children, Fred and JoAnn gradually experience a spiritual awakening. Eventually they begin to realize that their irregular marital situation has created a serious spiritual problem. They grow at length to the point of wanting to solve this problem.

But now they cannot see a way out. It would not be right for them to abandon their children and revert to their valid marriages, even if this were possible. This, presumably, is one of those cases the Synod Fathers had in mind when they spoke in their message to families about situations to which there is really no solution.

We would suppose, I think, that living as brother and sister would be the best solution, but even this does not answer the problem posed by their abandonment of their previous spouses. Also, it seems fair to suppose that, while Fred and JoAnn have some willingness to consider the brother-sister solution, they currently lack either the light or the strength to commit to it.

In other words, Fred and JoAnn now feel spiritually trapped. They don’t see how they can escape the problem they have created for themselves.

This gives rise to a question about the second subjective element required for mortal sin: Can we conceive that Fred and JoAnn, in continuing their irregular marital situation, no longer give full consent of the will to the sin it involves?

If this is conceivable, then what we have is a couple in an irregular marital situation, objectively gravely sinful, but without necessarily being in personal mortal sin.

The Key Point of Discussion

On its best possible interpretation, the Kasper Proposal raises the question of whether it is possible in these circumstances for the Church to strengthen Fred and JoAnn through a penitential ministry followed by the reception of Holy Communion. Again on its best possible interpretation, this would be done in the hope of fostering the spiritual growth necessary for them to live in the best possible way in a situation which has no perfect solution.

Now if it is ultimately inconceivable that Fred and JoAnn can be in this situation without continuing personal mortal sin, then the Kasper Proposal self-evidently has no legs. I am not arguing that the example I have presented should be accepted as somehow definitive. What I am arguing—and the only thing I am arguing—is that raising the question is not absurd on its face; it is not a question which in and of itself contradicts Catholic teaching. In fact, I believe we must presume that it is not absurd if we are to avoid ascribing either marked stupidity or seriously evil motives to Pope Francis, who so clearly has wanted it to be explored, and to the many bishops who were willing to explore it.


Again, what I have explained here is why I do not regard the Kasper Proposal to be unworthy of discussion, and especially why there is no reason to presume that only a heretical pope or heretical bishops could wish to discuss it. I certainly admit the possibility of error in my scenario. Please let me emphasize one more time: My only point is to suggest that the question is considerably more complex than it may appear to critics, and easily complex enough to merit careful examination.

However this may be, the Church understands marriage to be an essentially public institution, under ecclesiastical jurisdiction, conferring attendant rights and duties. Therefore, to attempt to base sacramental discipline as it relates to marriage purely on the subjective elements of mortal sin is to distance this sacramental discipline from the very reality it is supposed to nourish and protect. This necessarily entails grave dangers, particularly the danger of further undermining the indissolubility of marriage in the minds of the faithful.

Most bishops concluded, on careful consideration, that this cure would only worsen the disease. For my part, I continue to believe that they were right.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 01, 2014 10:29 AM ET USA

    Baseballbuddy: It is necessary to read arguments carefully. If you do that, you will realize: (1) I am opposed to the Kasper Proposal; (2) My only point was to explain some of the complexities at work in it which merited examination and discussion. And in fact the main reason I did that is to defend the Holy Father from charges that he must be personally unorthodox to want it considered. It is also necessary to know something about the topic under discussion to understand this point. Again, if you did, you would know that Pope Francis wanted this discussed, because he praised Kasper's book and asked him to make a presentation to the assembled cardinals on the topic several months before the Synod, which he did. Finally, I urge you to study the problem of mortal and venial sin more thoroughly. Ignorance does not eliminate the objective sinfulness of an action, but it does mitigate guilt, which can render a sin venial, even if it involves grave matter.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 31, 2014 2:56 PM ET USA

    That Kasper's proposal was even considered, in itself, is appalling. You seem to see it as the "fait accompli" that its proponents desire. I am not sure how that escapes you, Dr. Mirus. You say that the HF "clearly wanted the Kasper proposal to be carefully considered." Why? To what end? As to being aware that one has committed a sin for it to be a sin, when is ignorance a defense? God wrote the law in our hearts! Please don't write on this anymore. You add to the confusion.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 30, 2014 9:20 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, "Now our pastors must explore risky out of the box solutions";"forgotten what it really means to love";"Is absolution possible...";"...might have a point". How many "commenters" are counseling pro's or ordained Priests w/ 1000s of hours of real counseling experience? WOW...I am disappointed by the reaction you received to your article. Even the thief on the cross was allowed home. Since when is it wrong to think, consider, and seek sol's that heal as well as preserve?

  • Posted by: garedawg - Oct. 30, 2014 11:38 AM ET USA

    Here's an even more tough case. A baptized Protestant man marries another baptized Protestant in their church. The marriage ends in divorce, and the man is eventually remarried in his church, with its blessing. They have kids. Then, the man wishes to become Catholic. He fails to obtain an annulment of his first marriage. He tries to convince his Protestant wife of the "brother-sister" solution. Good luck, buddy!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 30, 2014 11:04 AM ET USA

    The Church has always exhibited a certain sobriety in her solicitude for souls. Today we appear uncertain. Sobriety is outdated. But the world continues to look to the Church for certitude and consolation even if doing her own thing most of the time. The Church must be our consolation; Our Lord established his Church as a visible institution so that we might rejoice in this vessel of grace. The Church can know; the Church can teach. Let's own this reality and grow in solicitude for souls.

  • Posted by: Edward I. - Oct. 30, 2014 6:13 AM ET USA

    Your commenters puzzle me, Dr. Mirus. It's like nothing's worth commenting on unless it involves some aspect of argumentative "combat". I don't know what brings about this attitude, but I do find it creeping up on me w/r/t liberals the more I read conservative blogs. In myself I don't see it as a healthy emotion... it seems like more like a substitute for real spirituality. Hell, the search for a substitute for God might be why I check your site every day. Just food for thought, don't post it.

  • Posted by: family-man - Oct. 30, 2014 1:15 AM ET USA

    No, christhavemercy821235, we should not. We should assume (as does the Church) that all apparently valid marriages are indeed valid. However, we should not be surprised if a tribunal concludes that assumption is incorrect in a case (or even every case) where a person questions the validity of his own apparent marriage. We need to educate people about Christian marriage, not only to avoid invalid marriages but to allow spouses to thrive in their marriages and become holy through them.

  • Posted by: christhavemercy821235 - Oct. 29, 2014 7:47 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus might have a point. How about nowadays most married couples do not understand what a marriage means? Some lady in my parish proposed this scenario to me and I had no answer. I think that is the position of the tribunal in Los Angeles Archdiocese takes and that is why year after year it is 100% approved on annulment of marriage as long as there is a divorce(that number is close to 600 last year). It is an annulment mill. Should we assume most marriage are not valid?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 29, 2014 7:37 PM ET USA

    There are several excellent comments here. I emphasize again that I was not proposing the scenario I offered as a good reason to change Catholic sacramental practice, which I oppose. My purpose was to call attention to one of several possible complexities to the question, using the best example I could think of. In other words, I wanted to respond to those who assert that interest in discussing the issue is evidence of a lack of personal orthodoxy. Many thanks to all who have offered their reflections without acrimony!

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Oct. 29, 2014 6:12 PM ET USA

    Following up on skall391825's comment,"they currently lack either the light or the strength." Does lacking light mean they don't understand what they are doing is wrong, even after talking to a good priest? Well, refusing to believe a truth you don't like is not invincible ignorance. Does lacking the strength mean they lack a fully free will? Some sort of compulsion is usually required for that. Just because it's hard to live as brother and sister does not mean one is compelled not to.

  • Posted by: JosephAnthony - Oct. 29, 2014 4:20 PM ET USA

    The stronger argument to me seem to be absolution rather than communion. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there is no teaching of the Church that absolution can be given for an incomplete confession or, re fortiori, when there is a lack of intention to "sin no more." But those living in adultery who confess their sins without any intention of avoiding consummation of their invalid union must either give an incomplete confession or manifest a lack of resolution to sin no more. Is absolution possible?

  • Posted by: sam.bright3962 - Oct. 29, 2014 4:18 PM ET USA

    If today, in their "spiritual awakening", they know (or suspect) that the previous marriage was valid, then each day they live together they are consenting to an adulterous union. A marriage tribunal will clarify the situation. Cardinal Ratzinger didn't seem to think it was an open question:

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Oct. 29, 2014 7:03 AM ET USA

    Another difficulty with allowing Fred and JoAnn to receive Communion is this: "Exceptions quickly become the rule." If you grant that "it is possible in these circumstances for the Church to strengthen Fred and JoAnn through a penitential ministry followed by the reception of Holy Communion," you will soon find that every divorced and remarried Catholic is receiving Communion. After that, the Faith will become meaningless for many more Catholics, and additional millions will leave the Church.

  • Posted by: mhains8491 - Oct. 29, 2014 2:52 AM ET USA

    I can see the point you are making Jeff and while it maybe worthy of discussion, I do not think this is what Cardinal Kasper had in mind when raising it.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Oct. 29, 2014 1:18 AM ET USA

    "Can we conceive that Fred and JoAnn, in continuing their irregular marital situation, no longer give full consent of the will to the sin it involves?" First, no, it's not conceivable. It's not even understandable. Second, even if it were conceivable, their pastor, before allowing them to receive Communion, would be obligated to set them straight about the only solution--the brother and sister solution. But you know that! So, please, Jeff, stop digging this hole for yourself.

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Oct. 29, 2014 12:09 AM ET USA

    Now that you have written an excellent apologia pro Papa, let us agree that the “Kasper Proposal” is so reckless and inherently scandalous (if not heretical, then next door to it) that is should be consigned forever to the dustbin of history, no matter who, for whatever reasons, wants to explore it.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 28, 2014 7:16 PM ET USA

    The reality is that things have gotten out of control as you describe in your assessment of premise 2. We threw off an outdated, severe, approach; we dare not return. We have discovered mercy. Now our pastors must explore risky, outside the box solutions to problems largely of their own complicity. We are the kinder and gentler ones. We continue to pursue kinder, gentler solutions to our not so kind or gentle problems. Sadly, in the process we have forgotten what it really means to love.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 28, 2014 6:03 PM ET USA

    As I said elsewhere here at CC, I haven't seen many utter or imply the word "heretic" in relation to the pope. What alarms them (and me) is his aparent lack of prudence about discussing this question publicly when marriage is under serious assault almost everywhere. Given the current circumstances in Europe and most of the Americas if not elsewhere, opening up this conversation as he did absolutely guaranteed confusion and worse. He as pope should have foreseen this. Did he? If so, did he care?

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Oct. 28, 2014 3:54 PM ET USA

    If you read the first part of the First Letter to the Corinthians, you will see that, though a different example, the same situation exists. St. Paul upbraids the Corinthians for admitting a couple in manifest mortal sin to Communion and notes "no wonder so many of you are sick, and some have died." Communion is not the answer to the predicament of your hypothetical couple. Repentence is.