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Catholic Culture Solidarity

The intractable practical problems with the Kasper proposal

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 28, 2015

We all know that “the Kasper proposal” will be front and center in the October discussions of the Synod of Bishops. But what is the Kasper proposal, exactly?

Cardinal Walter Kasper has suggested opening a “penitential path” for Catholics who have divorced and remarried, creating the possibility that they might eventually be able to receive Communion once again. If the Synod follows his suggestion, the bishops will need to flesh out the details, give a concrete structure to his idea, and make that “penitential path” a canonical policy.

As it stands, the Kasper proposal is broad enough to attract at least some measure of support from prelates who would adamantly oppose a change in Church teaching. With only a bit of stretching, the “penitential path” could be interpreted as meaning the current annulment process. Or it might mean the willingness of divorced/remarried Catholics to live as brothers and sisters, in accordance with existing norms.

Everyone agrees that the Church should provide some sort of help for Catholics in irregular marriages, giving them a means to enrich their faith. The challenge for the Synod is to determine how this can be done without damage to immutable Church teachings.

Two perceptive commentators, John Allen and Ross Douthat, have recently turned their attention to serious practical problems that arise when one tries to put the “Kasper proposal” into concrete form.

Allen observes that if bishops (or pastors, as their delegates) are given the authority to admit some divorced/remarried Catholics to Communion, there will inevitably be complaints from couples who are not given that dispensation; there will be complaints that the pastors are biased, that the process is unfair. Therefore:

First, bishops would probably feel the need for an objective forum to resolve such disputes, which basically means a court. What starts out as a pastoral process could quickly turn into a legal one, with all its contentiousness, delays, and cost.

So what was intended to be a pastoral process, with an emphasis on mercy, becomes a canonical inquiry, with a focus on facts. The appeal of the Kasper proposal is quickly vitiated.

Douthat, in his turn, raises the question of what would happen if pastors in one area made it easy for divorced/remarried couples to receive Communion, while those in another area continued to uphold the existing discipline. That result (which is already nearly a fait accompli, with the German hierarchy opting for its own new rules) threatens to destroy the universal nature of the Church, Douthat argues. Catholicism can accommodate differences in language, differences in custom, even differences in rite; but not differences in doctrine. Douthat writes that “a Catholicism where the rules on remarriage vary from one diocese to another, one country to another, will seem from a Catholic perspective more scandalous, more a sign of real and growing and dangerous disunity, than variances in liturgy or Lenten observances have made things seem to date.”

If we are not united by a shared faith in essential doctrines, then we are no longer one universal Church. Marriage cannot mean one thing in one jurisdiction, a temporary commitment in another. Nor can the unity of the Church survive tampering with the clear and unambiguous teaching of Jesus Himself, whose words set the policy that the Church has always followed.

Both Allen and Douthat foresee another enormous practical problem with the Kasper alternative. If pastors are given the authority to dispense Catholic couples from the existing laws of the Church, they will be under heavy pressure to dispense all couples. Human nature being what it is, they will be inclined to follow the path of least resistance, and, as Allen puts it, “therefore would be tempted to say yes to almost anyone who asks.”

Thus the proposal introduced by Kasper, seeking to admit divorced/remarried Catholics to the Eucharist under some limited circumstances, would quickly devolve into a practice admitting them under all circumstances. That tendency, Douthat notes, is amply confirmed by the pastoral experience of the Church over the past half-century: “The exception has tended to become an expectation, and eventually a default.”

If both Allen and Douthat are right, to implement the Kasper proposal would require some sort of new canonical process, but the ultimate result of that process would, in the vast majority of cases, be a finding that the divorced/remarried couple could receive Communion. Does that sound familiar? Isn’t that a reasonably accurate description of how marriage tribunals operate, in processing petitions for annulments?

So what’s the point of a new process? If there are legitimate grounds for declaring the marriage null, then there is no need for a new canonical process. (There may be a need to make the marriage tribunals more efficient; that’s a separate issue.) If there are not legitimate grounds for annulment, it’s difficult to imagine how a new process, admitting divorced/remarried couples to Communion, can be reconciled with the words of the Lord:

“What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."
And in the house the disciples asked Him again about this matter.
And He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

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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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Bernadette - Sep. 01, 2015 7:51 PM ET USA

    It would be like the Anglican church in 1930 when they allowed contraception in very limited/isolated cases and it was not long before "everyone" was contracepting! Let the genii out of the bottle and all Hell will break loose. I cannot envision this happening to Jesus's Church. Anyway, why is this particular issue taking over the Synod on the Family? It is really unjust the way this and the homosexual agenda have taken center stage. The family desperately needs help in so many other ways

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 30, 2015 10:47 PM ET USA

    Douthat writes that “a Catholicism where the rules on remarriage vary from one diocese to another, one country to another, will seem from a Catholic perspective more scandalous, more a sign of real and growing and dangerous disunity, than variances in liturgy...” Aha! Connect the two and solve the riddle. It's this connection that's always been vital to the Church. It's never been about "bells and smells." Today's Catholics surveyed on doctrine globally bear witness categorically: "Bereft!"

  • Posted by: garedawg - Aug. 30, 2015 3:00 PM ET USA

    Raising kids while living separately is easier said than done.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Aug. 29, 2015 12:41 PM ET USA

    All the Church needs to do is stick to the definition of adultery given by Jesus. As to people who have wandered into that area, and brought children into the picture, all they need to do is separate until an annulment is completed. If not, they can parent their children while living separately.