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The Kasper proposal should be DOA when the Synod meets

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 17, 2015

In light of the new streamlined annulment procedures announced by Pope Francis last week, the Kasper proposal should be stamped ‘Dead on Arrival’ when the Synod of Bishop convenes in October.

Cardinal Walter Kasper himself will be on hand again to press for adoption of his proposal, and his supporters are already insisting that the annulment reforms do not go far enough to satisfy their demands. But the papal reform of the annulment process has swept away the strongest argument for a change in Church practices. What remains, now, is a call for radical change in Church teaching: a call that should meet a solid wall of resistance.

The Kasper proposal (for those who have somehow missed the arguments of the past year or more) is a suggestion that the Church should make it possible for Catholics who are divorced and remarried to receive Communion. The proposal is certainly in line with the desire of Pope Francis to highlight God’s mercy, and the Holy Father has done a great deal to advance discussion of Cardinal Kasper’s idea. And it was Pope Benedict XVI—ordinarily considered a hardliner on Church teaching—who first issued the call for bringing the divorced and remarried into more active involvement in Church life.

However, the proposal collides with a fixed teaching of the Church: that Catholics who leave one valid marriage and enter into another union are living in adultery. This teaching is not merely a matter of convention or of canon law; it is based on the unmistakable words of Jesus Christ (Mk 10:11-12):

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

How could the Church welcome divorced and remarried Catholics to the Lord’s table, then, without violating the clear instruction of the Lord Himself? Any attempt to answer that challenge runs into a second major problem with Cardinal Kasper’s idea.

Although it is described everywhere as the “Kasper proposal,” the suggestion made by the German prelate really isn’t a “proposal” at all. Cardinal Kasper has not put forward a practical proposal; he has not offered details as to how the suggestion could be carried out. He has only said that a divorced and remarried Catholics might take a “penitential path” that could lead them back to reception of the Eucharist. Moreover he has said that only some divorced Catholics, not all, would be eligible for this process—although he has not clarified which couples would fall into which category.

Because the proposal is vague, it has lent itself to speculative discussion. At last year’s Synod meeting, many bishops were obviously exploring the possibility that somehow, Cardinal Kasper’s suggestion could be reconciled with the fixed teaching of the Church on the permanence of marriage.

The Catholic Church has taught, semper et ubique-- that a valid marriage is permanent and indissoluble. As the Synod fathers universally agree, that doctrine cannot and will not change. So to accept the Kasper suggestion, the Synod would have to accept one of two premises: either many Catholic couples were not validly married, or couples engaged in second marital unions—which Jesus characterized as adulterous relationships-- should be allowed to receive Communion.

The latter argument is also clearly at odds with Church teaching. True, every sin, no matter how grievous, can be forgiven. Murderers can repent, confess, receive absolution, and receive the Eucharist. But couples engaged in a second union—unless they agree to live as brother and sister—are not only guilty of a past sin; they are living in an objectively sinful relationship. Since marriage is a public act, their continued relationship is a source of scandal. Worse, since they are truly “living in sin,” when they receive the Eucharist they further imperil their own souls. Recalls the words of St. Paul (1 Cor 11:27): “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.”

To approve the Kasper proposal, then, it seems that the Synod fathers would have to conclude that many Catholic couples are not engaged in valid marriages. That notion is by no means absurd, nor is novel. Pope Benedict XVI had raised the possibility, in his discussion of pastoral outreach to divorced couples, that perhaps many had not properly understood the nature of marriage. Pope Francis, more recently, has been quoted as wondering whether as many as half of all Catholic marriages are not genuine sacramental unions.

If a first union was not a valid marriage, then the Church certainly can, and should, bring those involved back into the sacramental life of the Church. At last year’s Synod meeting much of the discussion revolved around ways of streamlining the work of Church tribunals, so that divorced couples could quickly receive annulments.

An annulment, remember, is not a benefit, not a favor granted by Church officials. A “declaration of nullity,” as it is properly called, is a juridical verdict: a finding that a valid marriage did not take place. If there was no marriage, then as a matter of justice, the Church should reach that verdict as quickly as practicable. If they were not really married the first time, the couples should be free to enter a new union.

Unfortunately, as the Synod fathers observed, in many parts of the world Catholics do not have ready access to marriage tribunals. Even where they operate with reasonable efficiency, the tribunals work slowly; the process can be cumbersome and costly. So there was an easy consensus, emerging from last October’s Synod sessions, that the annulment process should be streamlined.

Now, with the motu proprio released last week, Pope Francis has swept away those difficulties. The process has been simplified; the costs (to petitioner) have been eliminated. In cases where there are obvious grounds for annulment, the diocesan bishop can issue a quick verdict. Once the papal reforms are in place, it should be easy—too easy, critics say—for Catholic couples to obtain a declaration of nullity.

With their first unions annulled and their new marriages regularized, thousands of Catholic couples would then be welcome to receive the Eucharist. So who would be left as potential beneficiaries of the Kasper proposal? Only those who could not receive annulments, because they were truly married the first time. And again, it seems clearly impossible to accept those couples back into the full sacramental life of the Church—and thus to accept their second unions—without rejecting the words of Jesus.

On Sunday, October 4—the opening day of this year’s Synod meeting—Catholics all around the world will hear the Gospel reading for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, taken from the 10th chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel. Do you believe in coincidences? As the bishops begin their deliberations, the Catholic world will be reminded:

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

He answered them, "What did Moses command you?"

They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away."

But Jesus said to them, "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.

But from the beginning of creation, `God made them male and female.'

`For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh.

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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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 19, 2015 4:18 PM ET USA

    Pray that the Holy Father will preach the Gospel of Repentance, which is something he would do well to remind Americans about.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Sep. 18, 2015 5:46 PM ET USA

    Let us all pray that the Synod strongly urges Pope Francis to tighten up the provisions of his proclaimed reform before they come into effect in December.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 18, 2015 10:57 AM ET USA

    I have been around enough to follow the process in the lives of several friends. The declaration of nullity looked--shall we say--sleazy; and lo and behold, no more was a second union "regularized" that it fell completely apart. Please look deeper and count on God's grace even when these procedures are flawed by our shortsightedness.

  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Sep. 17, 2015 9:16 AM ET USA

    When a Decree of Nullity becomes easy to obtain, Kasper's wishes will have been fulfilled in fact, if not in name. Can't receive Communion because you're divorced and remarried? Hey, no problem -- just get a quick, free annulment. I've been a defender of Pope Francis from the get-go, but this is an exceedingly bad move on his part.