- Trying to square the circle
The opening days of the Synod on the Family have revealed distinct differences of opinion between the participants. How can their commitment to church teaching be matched with compassion for those who struggle with it?
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Cardinal Walter Kasper has called for a deeper reflection on a practice he thinks might allow some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. He believes the ancient pastoral practice of “tolerance, clemency and indulgence” might offer a way through the impasse that bars so many Catholic couples from Communion, allowing them to receive after going through a time of penance.
He told the College of Cardinals on 20 February, in a text that has just become public, that the “complex and thorny issue” of remarried divorcees must be looked at “from the perspective of those who suffer and ask for help”. He delivered his 11,000-word treatise at a two-day meeting preceding Pope Francis’ consistory to create new cardinals. The Vatican initially said the text would not be published, but the conservative Italian daily, Il Foglio, printed a copy it had obtained on Saturday.
“A general solution for all cases cannot exist,” Cardinal Kasper said in his long discourse before the cardinals. However, by raising provocative questions he pointed to possible ways to readmit some divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments. He said it would be “dishonest” to simply make annulments easier for first marriages that were clearly valid. “Many divorcees don’t even want such a decree of nullity,” he said.
The cardinal, who has been one of the leading theologians in the post-Vatican II era, raised questions over advising “spiritual communion” as the only possibility for remarried divorcees. “The person receiving spiritual communion is one with Jesus Christ; how can she or he be in contradiction with the commandment of Christ? Therefore, why can that person not also receive sacramental Communion?” he asked. Cardinal Kasper also asked whether promoting this “extra-sacramental way of salvation” did not throw into serious question the “fundamental sacramental structure of the Church”. As for those who argue that non-participation in the Eucharist is a “sign of the sacrality of the sacrament”, the cardinal said: “Isn’t this an exploitation of a person that suffers and asks for help if we make him or her a sign and warning for others? Do we leave that person to die of hunger sacramentally so others may live?”
The 80-year-old cardinal cited early Church Fathers such as Origen, Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen as favouring a tolerant pastoral approach that allowed, in specific cases, for people in second unions to be readmitted to sacramental life after a period of penance. He said this approach was to “tolerate that which was in itself impossible to accept”, divorce, “in order to avoid the worst”, preventing people from the aid of the sacraments. “The sacraments are not rewards for the well-behaved or an elite, excluding all those that need them,” he said.
Kasper said this pastoral solution would probably be applicable only in a small number of cases of remarried divorcees who are “sincerely interested in [receiving] the sacraments”. But to “avoid the worst”, he seemed to suggest it was a valid way forward. “When children of remarried divorcees do not see their parents approaching the sacraments usually they, too, do not find their way to confession and Communion. Do we not realise that we also lose this generation and perhaps even the one after it?” he asked.
The bottom line was how the Church can remain faithful to Jesus’ teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, while faithfully offering the “mercy of God in its pastoral action”.