A Revolution on Marriage – in Rome?

On Saturday, Il Foglio, the most important conservative newspaper in Italy, published the complete text of a long opening discourse given at the Vatican by Cardinal Walter Kasper to the Consistory on the Family, a preparatory meeting for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family that will take place October 5-19 in Rome. The text is still only available in Italian (though some of the significant passages are in English here). But that won’t last long because the good Cardinal, as he described it, has “posed questions,” highly controversial questions, about the pastoral treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics, particularly whether they can be re-admitted to Communion.

The lecture was not intended to remain secret – in fact, it was going to be published in book form, presumably with other materials. But appearing suddenly as it has, and with seemingly revolutionary suggestions drawn from some ancient practices, it’s bound to become a hot topic in coming months. Some commentators are already saying that if the Church does not permit the divorced and remarried to receive Communion now, we will have another period of widespread shock and anger, similar to what followed Paul VI’s 1968 publication of Humanae vitae, which re-affirmed Christian teaching on contraception.

That gets several carts before several horses. Kasper’s text is cautious and tentative – though he seems to point in a revolutionary direction. He affirms Jesus’ prohibition of divorce while probing how to deal with what has become a difficult modern problem.

Just about every Catholic today knows someone in irregular matrimonial circumstances. Divorce, even among practicing Catholics, is all-too-common and – given the sexual madness and economic and cultural pressures of modern societies – not always the fault of one of the parties. That’s one reason that several popes – John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis – have suggested exploring pastoral solutions. The Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi has said that Kasper’s thinking is in tune with the pope’s.

That said, however, the lecture gives the appearance of trying to do something that, at least on the surface, seems self-contradictory. Kasper speaks of the need for a “paradigm shift” in which the Church should become a Good Samaritan to those crying out for relief. But in the very same passage, he affirms the indissolubility of marriage, which “cannot be abandoned or undone by appealing to a superficial understanding of cheapened mercy.”

He likens our situation to the one at Vatican II, when dogmatic principles seem to preclude certain actions, yet the Council “opened doors.” Despite the alarm bells this comparison may set off for some people, he tentatively offers two possible “openings.”

The first is what might be regarded as a streamlining and personalizing of annulment. Instead of running it through a formal canonical process, “the bishop could entrust this task to a priest with spiritual and pastoral experience as a penitentiary or episcopal vicar.” He would presumably know the person and the situation better, thereby avoiding the clumsiness of a more impersonal process. Some canon lawyers have already raised questions about how this might work in practice, but at least in theory it’s not much more than an adjustment to the existing understanding that a marriage may be judged to have been null under certain conditions.

The more revolutionary “opening,” the second, offers, after a period of penance, “not a second marriage, but rather through participation in communion a table of salvation.”

Here, the argument turns murky and needs further clarifications. Roberto de Mattei, a historian who has written for us here at The Catholic Thing, replied in Il Foglio the same day as the Kasper text appeared, that the Cardinal cannot cancel history and doctrine “with a blatant revolution in culture and practice.”

It’s difficult to say whether that is what Kasper is proposing – though de Mattei is a very sharp mind and seems to be onto something. The Cardinal rightly adds that repentance in certain condition should lead to confession. So far so good. But then he lists five conditions and adds, as the culmination, return to Communion for a person:

1. if he repents of his failure in the first marriage,

2. if he has clarified the obligations of the first marriage, if it is definitively ruled out that he could turn back,

3. if he cannot abandon without further harm the responsibilities taken on with the new civil marriage,

4. if however he is doing the best he can to live out the possibilities of the second marriage on the basis of the faith and to raise his children in the faith,

5. if he has a desire for the sacraments as a source of strength in his situation, should we or can we deny him, after a period of time in a new direction, of “metanoia,” the sacrament of penance and then of Communion.

Cardinal Kasper claims that this would not be a mass solution, but only one that applied to a few people in bad situations who really want the sacraments. And he supports his tentative proposal with instances drawn from early Church history – the Orthodox still allow divorce and remarriage – that might be carefully applied. Some scholars deny that there were any such early cases, until standards centuries later went lax in the Byzantine Empire.

I asked a trusted priest about this whole line of argument. He came back with a different “pastoral” perspective:

As a parish priest, I feel for good people who were/are in bad marriages.  There are some heroic and saintly people in them – even some who’ve contracted second civil marriages. I would truly love to find a way to help them receive the Eucharist and regularize their situation, but I can’t see Kasper’s “solution” working.  I know the way some in the early Church dealt with second marriages, and that there was a period of penance, and even a penitential character to the second marriage, but can anyone really see us implementing these penitential practices?  Can anyone see them being accepted?  I can’t.  And with all respect, this would be another bullet fired at a sacrament that’s already reeling from the cultural firing squad.  
Get ready. We’re going to be hearing a lot more on this subject in the very near future.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.