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The Church needs to find a way to minister to Catholics whose marriages have failed, who are committed to making a new union work and who long to do so within the Church and with the grace of Communion, Cardinal Walter Kasper told a meeting of the world's cardinals.
The Church needed to offer healing, strength and salvation to such Catholics, he said in a landmark address.
Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of sacramental marriage was clear, the retired German cardinal said at a meeting in Rome late last month. He said pretending otherwise would only harm individuals and the Church, and promote “a superficial understanding of mercy at a discount price".
But he allowed for the possibility that in specific cases the Church could tolerate, though not accept, a second union.
He continued: "After the shipwreck of sin, the shipwrecked person should not have a second boat at his or her disposal, but rather a life raft" in the form of the sacrament of Communion, he said.
The cardinal was speaking at the invitation of Pope Francis. Although the Vatican has refused to publish his address, a copy of it was seen by the US-based Catholic News Service.
The Church needs to find a way to help divorced and remarried Catholics who long to participate fully in the life of the church, he said.
While from creation God intended man and woman to be together, to form one flesh, to have children and to serve him together, sin entered the world almost immediately, he said, which is why the Bible is filled with stories of husbands and wives hurting and betraying one another.
Christ, who came to set people free from the bonds of sin, established marriage as a sacrament, "an instrument of healing for the consequences of sin and an instrument of sanctifying grace”.
Husbands and wives continually asking forgiveness of each other and renew their commitment to one another, but the Church also acknowledge "the complex and thorny problem" posed by Catholics whose marriages have failed, but who find support, family stability and happiness in a new relationship, he said.
There is no human situation without hope or solution, and Catholics profess their belief in the forgiveness of sins in the Creed, he explained.
"For one who converts, forgiveness is possible. If that's true for a murderer, it is also true for an adulterer."
Kasper said it would be up to members of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family who are meeting in October, and the world Synod of Bishops in 2015, to discuss concrete proposals for helping divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to participate more fully in the life of the Church.
He suggested developing "pastoral and spiritual procedures" for couples who believed in all conscience that their first marriage was never valid. Such procedures could not only be left to the couple, he said, because marriage has a public character. But that did not mean that a juridical solution – ie an annulment granted by a marriage tribunal – was the only way to handle the case, he said.
Kasper quoted a 1972 article by then-Fr Joseph Ratzinger, in which the future Pope said the Church also might consider a form of "canonical penitential practice" that would adapt a practice used by the early Church by which sinners could be gradually reintegrated into full communion with the Church.
He said that to offer help to the divorced and remarried would be a greater evil and could result in cutting them and probably their children off from the sacraments. Thus the Church could "tolerate that which is impossible to accept" – a second union.
Echoing Pope Francis’ views in Evangelii Gaudium, Kasper continued: "A pastoral approach of tolerance, clemency and indulgence," he said, would affirm that "the sacraments are not a prize for those who behave well or for an elite, excluding those who are most in need."