The leading proponent of relaxing the ban on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics tells Christopher Lamb that the Church too often appears rule-bound
Given pride of place on a mantelpiece in his apartment, a stone’s throw from the colonnades of St Peter’s Square, is a photo of Cardinal Walter Kasper as a day-old baby lying next to his mother. “We all start from the same place,” joked the cardinal pointing to the picture. The question of family is the hot topic in Rome with next month’s extraordinary synod on the matter fast approaching.
An eminent theologian with a down-to-earth pastoral style, the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has won many admirers over the years, not least Pope Francis. At the start of his pontificate, the Pope praised Cardinal Kasper’s book on mercy, which, he said, had “done him so much good”.
The Pope and Kasper are agreed on the importance of the mercy of God, and for the Church to demonstrate this to the world. In February Francis asked the 81-year-old theologian to address a gathering of cardinals ahead of the Synod on the Family.
Cardinal Kasper gave an eloquent speech looking at how marriage was understood in the early Church, and the pressures facing married couples today. He then offered suggestions on how the Church could find an opening to its blanket ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion.
Relaxing the ban – a suggestion the cardinal first aired in 1993 when he was Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart – has unleashed fierce opposition from some inside the Vatican, including his fellow German, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So what did he make of the reaction?
“I was a little surprised,” he told me in the living room of his flat, its walls covered with shelves of books on theology. “But I did not say you can admit all [divorced and remarried] to Communion. There are different situations: there are those who abandon a marriage and those who are the innocent party. I am not abandoning the indissolubility of marriage – we cannot do that! But a Christian can fail.”
Referring to his time in Stuttgart, he added: “I remember a situation when I was a bishop, a pastor came to me; there was a mother who was divorced and remarried and he said she prepared her daughter in a wonderful way for First Holy Communion – much better than the others. And then he said, ‘Now I must say to the daughter that you can receive Holy Communion but not your mother.’ If a second civil marriage is solid and there is real metanoia [change of heart] then I think sins can be forgiven.”
Kasper’s latest book says that the concept of mercy has been badly ignored by theologians and needs to be rediscovered both by the Church and by society at large.
“It has been neglected because the main concept was justice,” he said, adding that mercy is not just about forgiveness but a sign of God’s sovereignty. Some, I ask, might see an appeal to mercy as a way of condoning bad behaviour?
“No, no” he replied. “Justice is the minimum and mercy is the maximum. Mercy presupposes justice and does not abolish it.”
In his book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, he is critical of the Church for failing to express mercy. Too often, he explained, it can appear as rigid and rule-bound: “It is scandalous that the Church is often seen as not merciful. It is a vocation of the Church to be merciful to sinful people. Mercy does not justify the sin but the sinner. The Church should try to share in people’s situations, and find out why people might behave in a certain way. It cannot simply condemn: it must understand first and then accompany and help people.”
All of this sounds remarkably similar to Pope Francis: the only difference between Cardinal Kasper and other bishops who might say similar things is that he was talking about mercy before Francis was elected. And given that this Pope is not a professor like his predecessor, it could be argued Kasper is the closest we have to Francis’s theologian.
The cardinal refuses to give himself such a title – “that would be too arrogant” – but admits that Francis has told him: “You are a man who discerns the spirit.”
And where is the spirit leading the Church in relation to the family? The synod next month is the start of a process of discernment that will culminate in another synodal gathering in 2015 where proposals will be made.
Cardinal Kasper, who will attend the synod as a nominee of Francis, says his first hope is that the Church can bear witness to the beauty of marriage and family life that is in a crisis in the Western world. He says economic and labour systems are “anti-family” and too focused on the individual. Fathers have to be away from their families for long periods of time due to work and there is a lack of adequate housing in cities.
“The Church needs to have a prophetic voice in this area,” he said. “Society needs to support family and not be anti-family. Many people simply cannot afford more than two children.”
Then there are the “hot-button” issues. Does he think there will be an opening on Communion for divorced and remarried?
“I do not know. I am not a prophet! I hope that bishops will listen to the voice of people who live as divorced and remarried – the sensus fidei. They should listen and then next year they should decide what is possible and what is not possible,” he said, adding that his “impression” is that the Pope also wants an “opening”.
In his address to the cardinals in February, he cited Cardinal Newman’s essay “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Faith”, which argued it was the faithful, not bishops, who preserved the faith during the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. This emphasised a teaching that each Catholic has a sense of faith by virtue of their Baptism. This sense of faith, the cardinal argues, must be taken seriously.
One area of teaching where many Catholic consciences are at odds with official teaching is on the Church’s ban on artificial contraception articulated in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Cardinal Kasper said he had no solution and he hoped the question would be discussed at the synod. “To promote a sense that to have children is a good thing, that is the primary thing. Then how to do it and how not to do it, that is a secondary question. Of course the parents have to decide how many children are possible. This cannot be decided by the Church or a bishop, this is the responsibility of the parents,” said the cardinal, pointing out that natural family planning methods can also have an “artificial” element.
It is clear that Cardinal Kasper is a man whose teaching is informed by practice. It is a similar approach to that of the Bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, who has called on the synod to listen to the experiences of laity and be mindful of the gap between Church teaching and practice.
Cardinal Kasper would also like to see a rediscovery of the family as the domestic Church and for networks of Christian families to support one another in an increasingly secularised Western world.
“The family is the place where children learn their faith: I did not learn my faith by reading encyclicals! We prayed together and it was normal,” said the cardinal who, as one of three siblings, grew up just outside Stuttgart and has vivid memories of the Second World War. “We spent many nights in the basement during air raids. It wasn’t easy.”
As the start of the synod comes closer, it is far from clear whether Cardinal Kasper’s proposals on Communion for the divorced and remarried will be accepted. But whatever the outcome, the cardinal is offering a simple and obvious approach to the vast array of family situations we see today: stop condemning and start understanding.
It is an approach that Pope Francis clearly endorses and also, one cannot help thinking, in tune with Christ’s words in Matthew 9:13: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”