Back in 2014, Cardinal Walter Kasper gave a lecture across two days, February 20 and 21, for an extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals in Rome on the topic of marriage and the family. He spoke at the invitation of Pope Francis. With Kasper’s presentation, the pope intended to provide a theological basis for the cardinals’ discussion and to set the stage for the upcoming synodal process, which would include an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2014 and an ordinary Synod of Bishops in October 2015.

In the fifth part of his address, which was later published in a book entitled The Gospel of the Family, Kasper proposed several possible avenues that would allow some Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried to return to the sacraments. According to Catholic doctrine, marriage is indissoluble, and therefore an attempted second marriage is not allowed in the Church. Such unions can be considered adulterous. Under the previous policy, established by Saint John Paul II in his 1981 exhortation Familiaris Consortio, persons in such situations could only receive the sacraments if the partners were able to obtain a decree of nullity (an annulment) for any previous unions, or if they committed to living as “brother and sister.”

Before Familiaris Consortio, there had been a number of other solutions proposed and discussed, including a 1973 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith that seemed to allow for certain cases to be resolved in the “internal forum” with a pastor, and a 1972 paper by Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) in which he argued that in certain situations, “the opening up of community in Communion after a period of probation appears to be no less than just and to be fully in line with the Church’s tradition.”

What, precisely did Kasper propose? He offered several possible avenues of reconciling such persons to the sacraments. According to a summary by Catholic News Service, these included:

  • Calling on the Church “to develop ‘pastoral and spiritual procedures’ for helping couples convinced in conscience that their first union was never a valid marriage.” This would be an avenue to discern whether a previous union was invalid when it is impossible to receive a judgment from an official marriage tribunal.
  • Asking the Church “to consider some form of ‘canonical penitential practice’ – a ‘path beyond strictness and leniency’ – that would adapt the gradual process for the reintegration of sinners into full communion with the church.” Here he cites the 1972 Ratzinger proposal.
  • In his address, Kasper also recommends “permitting divorced people, who are civilly remarried, to receive the sacrament of penance and the Eucharist in concrete situations, after a period of reorientation” (loc. 686, Kindle Edition).

Given the existing precedent and the firmness with which John Paul II insisted on strict limits, the pope’s decision to have Kasper speak was extremely controversial and was immediately met with opposition from many of the cardinals. For example, in an interview with the Wanderer, Cardinal Raymond Burke recalled that at the consistory, “Cardinal Meisner and I were walking out after one of the sessions and he said to me: ‘This is not possible. This will lead to schism.’”

Ultimately what Pope Francis chose to adopt in Amoris Laetitia was more conservative in scope than what Cardinal Kasper proposed. Amoris doesn’t deal directly with the question of discerning the nullity of a past union in the internal forum. Nor does it offer any kind of external forum solution, a ‘canonical penitential practice.’ The process Amoris allows falls strictly within the internal (private) forum. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is the fact that Amoris does not suggest a “period of probation” as Ratzinger proposed, or of “reorientation,” as Kasper advised. Instead, Amoris Laetitia insists that the process of reintegration must be geared towards “the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow” (AL 300).

Pope Francis agreed that one cannot simply establish a probationary period (e.g. 3 years), after which the person is fully integrated back into the Church and their situation can be considered resolved. Instead, he said that the process of discernment must be ongoing and dynamic, and that “it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.” In other words, “the help of the sacraments” is to assist the person in their ongoing journey of faith, it is not the end of the process.

One critique of the Ratzinger and Kasper proposals was that they used a more Eastern Orthodox approach to the divorced and remarried, in which a second union is formally “tolerated” by the Church after certain actions were taken. Amoris Laetitia used a more traditionally Western—specifically Thomistic—approach to the issue. Rather than formally tolerating the second union, the criteria for discernment are based on a person’s culpability and mitigating factors. The path proposed by Amoris isn’t easy, because it involves a personal journey toward a life that is in full conformity with the Church’s ideal. The journey doesn’t end with access to the sacraments, the sacraments are medicine and spiritual food to help someone on their journey.

Even though not all of the elements of Cardinal Kasper’s proposal were accepted, his presentation did help set the parameters for the dialogue at the Synod. His contribution was valuable in the sense that even though it was slightly past the “line” of what the pope and synod fathers ultimately deemed doctrinally acceptable, it helped them come to a solution that can assist many people and couples that was entirely orthodox and doctrinally sound.

Why do I bring up the Kasper proposal now, eight years later?

I was reminded of the 2014-2015 drama when reading Pope Francis’s response last week to a question about the new book produced by the Pontifical Academy for Life, Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges. We’re beginning to hear the usual suspects spreading fear that Humanae Vitae will be overturned or that Pope Francis is planning to use this book to undermine traditional doctrine in some other way.

The pope’s comments about the work of the Academy suggest he has something similar in mind to what he did with Cardinal Kasper in 2014. During the flight back to Rome from Canada, Francis said, “The duty of theologians is research, theological reflection, you cannot do theology with a ‘no’ in front of it. Then it is up to the Magisterium to say no, you’ve gone too far, come back, but theological development must be open, that’s what theologians are for. And the Magisterium must help to understand the limits.”

We only need to fear dialogue if we don’t trust the Magisterium to preserve and authentically interpret the Catholic faith that has been handed down to us. If we trust in the Holy Spirit to protect the Church, prayerful dialogue and open inquiry are always beneficial, because they open our hearts to new developments and new possibilities.

Image: Vatican News.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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