Cardinal Walter Kasper has called for a «Council-like solution» to the issue in his presentation during the consistory on the family. This «Council-like solution» is a reference to the approach taken by the Second Vatican Council to issues like religious freedom and ecumenism. i.e., not to change the tradition, but to create new openings. The issue now is that of a change of paradigm regarding the doctrine for the divorced and remarried. This was in the end the real target of the presentation, which will be as popular as any best seller in Germany and, for this reason, had been kept secret. It has not remained so only because someone leaked the text to the Italian newspaper “Il Foglio”, which published it in its entirety.
It seems that the Second Vatican Council tactics are back. During the Council, drafts of the documents still under discussion were leaked to friendly journalists, in order to influence the outcome and favor the more progressive positions. It is not accidental that Benedict XVI has spoken about a «Council of the media» and a «real Council». Nowadays, everything has changed. The instigators of the «Council of the media» are now commanding the levers of the information flow. Therefore, it is imperative that the “real” document be circulated, or at the very least an update on the state of the discussion thus far.
It is a very sensitive discussion. In his most recent interview, granted to the Italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera”, Pope Francis stated that to talk about the family is the first step toward a discussion about a general crisis of society. His aim – he indicated – is to make praxis a pastoral approach, leaving case analysis aside. Pope Francis underlined this in reference to several different issues, from euthanasia to birth control, and to the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried. Speaking about birth control, he quoted Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, and referred to him as a genius who pulled the brake on a misguided cultural trend, reiterating the tradition of the Church «despite it running countercurrent.» Pope Francis then added that the very Paul VI used to recommend confessors to be merciful.
Recalling Paul VI words helps us to see that exercising pastoral care in a way that looks at the issue on a case-by-case basis is not new. Pope Francis, in fact, wants to specifically underscore a pastoral approach, in the midst on an ongoing crisis of the Church which is yet to relent. But above all he is riding the waves stirred up by the deliberations of the general congregations, i.e. the pre-conclave meetings. «[When I was elected] I did not have a program for the renewal of the Church– Pope Francis said to “Il Corriere della Sera – I am acting on the basis of the outcome of the general congregations.»
The general congregations have been dominated by the old establishment cardinals, by the gang of old diplomats that was certainly shrewder in the wheeling and dealing of a secret vote with plenty of unknowns. The possibility of electing Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been raised all-too casually from the beginning, and increasingly gained momentum during the votes until his election as the person to carry forward a precise program of government. The Curia of the old days is back, and with it discussions that, up until now, seemed to had been set aside some 30 years ago.
That of communion for the divorced and remarried is a particularly difficult issue. The expectation of a “shift” of position about it has been constantly increasing since Pope Francis was elected, as if it were a fundamental issue. The press underscored Francis’ “progressive outlook,” his open mind, almost taking for granted that a shift of paradigm was simply a must. The discourse in the media portrayed a Pope Francis as someone different from who he really is. Some themes from the period following the Second Vatican Council – which were thought had been dealt with and brought to a closure – are current again. Pope Francis will have to watch out for an agenda set by the media. A media that will turn against him when they realize he is not about to meet their expectation of fulfilling that agenda.
As soon as an extraordinary synod for the family was announced, the pressure for a change in the Church’s doctrine became really strong. The pressures mostly came from the German language Churches. Not by coincidence, during his 2011 trip to Germany, Benedict XVI warned about a Church rich in works and poor in principles, a clear and painful reference to the German Church, rich because of the kirchensteuer, the tax on religion, and at the same time ever more drifting away from Christian principles. The German-speaking world gave birth – in Austria – to “We are Church”, a far-leaning progressive Catholic association. And, again, it was the German-speaking world that gave birth to the Pfarrer Initiative, a proposal from priests and theologians that called for a change in the Church’s doctrine with regards to the divorced and remarried, civil unions, and women in the priesthood.
Benedict XVI was keenly aware of these issues. In a meeting with the Swiss bishops in 2006, he recalled that – when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and occasionally traveled back to Germany – he was always asked about these very same topics (communion to the divorced and remarried, civil unions, and allowing women to join the priesthood), and he warned not to be concerned constantly and exclusively with moral precepts, since the Christian faith is not just a compilation of precepts.
Pope Francis has also mentioned on several occasions and in different settings that he does not want a moralistic Church, either. He does want a Church that addresses and sheds light on the challenges at hand. Perhaps this is why he called Cardinal Walter Kasper to address the consistory. Cardinal Kasper himself had been, in the early 90s, among the signatories of a document by the bishops in the Rhine region. The document contemplated the possibility for people married and divorced living in a second union to receive the Communion. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by Cardinal Ratzinger, called them back to obedience.
The main topics of that 1993 document found echo in the sophisticated presentation by Cardinal Kasper. Ultimately, Kasper recognized that the problem of divorced and remarried who want to receive communion relates to a small portion of believers. And the theme of the divorced and remarried is addressed only in the fifth section of the speech. But it is nevertheless the real focus. And the text reaches this focal point through a series of opaque, almost misleading, statements.
Cardinal Kasper led off from the premise that so many people nowadays have abandoned their faith; they are «baptized, not evangelized,» baptized catecumeni, if not baptized pagan even. Therefore – Kasper maintained – «we cannot start with a list of teachings and commandments, and become fixated with the so-called ‘hot issues’.»
After affirming that «with respect to some situations, the Church cannot propose a solution that is different or in contrast to the words of Jesus,» Cardinal Kasper presented two arguments, yet left it to the synod of bishops the task to come up with more definite solutions.
One approach, Cardinal Kasper proposes, is to develop a more spiritual and pastoral procedure for the causes of marriage annulments. He contemplates entrusting a priest with pastoral experience the decision to annul, instead of submitting the cause to the ecclesiastical courts (as foreseen by Canon Law). But this approach, some note, would lead to the dismantling of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and finally to a come up with your own faith process, i.e. a faith left to the diverse sensitivities of priests from all over the world. The Church, pragmatically, has always maintained these two stages in decision-making to declare the nullity of a marriage in order to preserve the sacrality of the marriage and to have homogeneous decisions.
In fact, the very structure of the Church is questioned. What one can read between the lines of Kasper’s presentation is that, on the one hand, there is Jesus, prompt to listening, and then there is the Church, all-too rigorous and not sufficiently merciful.
In his second argument, Cardinal Kasper recalls what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated in 1994 (and was later reaffirmed by Benedict XVI in 2012). In some cases – it was stated – the divorced and remarried who cannot receive the sacramental communion can receive the spiritual communion. But – the cardinal argues – if «he who receives the spiritual communion is one with Jesus, how can he be in contradiction with the commandments of Christ? Why, thus, could he not also receive the sacramental communion?»
Cardinal Kasper’s reasoning could give rise to other questions: why is this logic not applied to confession? If the faithful has really repented of his sins, and he spiritually asks for forgiveness to God without the mediation of a priest, why could he not receive absolution? It is evident that following the criteria of the spiritual feeling, we devoid the sacrament of its very essence, and would find ourselves in the very same path of Protestantism.
Kasper also spoke about the early Church, and underscored that there had been some cases of second quasi-matrimonial bonds following situations of adultery in the first union. «It is certain – Cardinal Kasper said - that in some local Churches there was a common law right that allowed for some Christians to experience a new relationship, with a second partner, even when the first partner was still alive. This happened after a period of penance, and did not give them a second avenue, not a second marriage, but rather, through participation in the communion, a board for salvation.»
Cardinal Kasper also quoted some of the fathers of the Church, saying they favored this idea. However, such an assertion is contrary to the views set forth by the Jesuit Henry Crouzel in an article published in the Jesuit-run magazine “La Civiltà Cattolica” in 1970. In the article, Crouzel underscored that «it is unacceptable hearing so many remarkable canon law experts asserting as a fact proved by evidence that the current ‘eastern’ discipline concerning the divorce and new marriage is substantially that of the Greek fathers of the 4th and 5th century, which is simply false.»
Father Crouzel’s position, backed with extensive documentation, is that «we ought to demand from theologians and canon law experts that, rather than basing their information about complex issues on books written in a hurry and meant to impact the public at large — following a tactic that reminds us of pressure groups’ efforts to influence the public — they dedicate the attention and time that is required to study more difficult books which are the result of real scientific research. Rather, they find these books too long, too complicated, and they do not have the courage to read them.»
Crouzel evidently puts the finger on a still-open wound. The main reactions to Cardinal Kasper’s words (who then re-launched his agenda in following interviews, also calling for more space for women in the Church) came from the top levels of the German Church, like Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Berlin, and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gehrard Ludwig Mueller.
At the offset of the debate, Mueller wrote an article for the Vatican daily newspaper “L’Osservatore Romano” to reiterate the doctrine of the Church. The clarification was needed because of a leak from the dioceses of Freiburg, that is administrated by Archbishop Robert Zoelltisch, President of the German Bishops’ Conference. It was an unfinished working paper, according Zoellitsch, which gave divorced and remarried people access to Communion without a penance which would have included a change in lifestyle.
During recent days, Cardinal Mueller has come back to the issue. His most important intervention was in Milan last February 13, in his lectio magistralis for the inauguration of the academic year of the School of Theology of Northern Italy.
There, Mueller underscored that «the critical rigor of theology should first of all make it steer clear from the superficiality of those who indulge in the mundane contexts created by the pressures of the media and of mentalities which are incompatible with the authentic content of the faith: just think about how inappropriately casual is the theologizing over themes like women in the priesthood, the Church’s authority, the access to sacraments for those who are not in full communion with the Church.»