When Ratzinger Said No: A History of the Kasper Proposal

Like the good German that he is, Cardinal Walter Kasper has a wonderful capacity of persistence. Like a dog with a bone, he is able to keep fighting against incredible odds long after a lesser man would have packed up his things and gone home.

The case in point is, of course, the question of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. Though the topic has come to a head in the two-part Synod on Marriage and the Family, it is no recent development in the mind of Kasper and his cohort, but has been brewing literally for decades.

In a recent interview with the French daily, Le Figaro, Cardinal George Pell said that the present synod on the family was witnessing the most recent stage of a running “theological battle” between Walter Kasper and Joseph Ratzinger, a statement that seems self-evidently true.

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Back in 1993, three German bishops—Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann, and Oskar Saier—issued a pastoral letter in which they stated that a dialogue was needed to determine whether the general rule prohibiting the remarried from receiving the Eucharist “applies also in a given situation,” arguing that there ought to be “room for pastoral flexibility in complex, individual cases.” The bishops had the letter read aloud in all the churches of the three dioceses of the Upper Rhine that September.

In the text, the bishops propose that the ultimate decision to receive Communion devolve upon the individuals in question, who are to discuss their personal situation with a Catholic priest. “The priest will respect the judgment of the individual’s conscience, which that person has reached after examining his own conscience and becoming convinced his approaching the Holy Eucharist can be justified before God.”

The bishops’ letter drew an immediate response from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the guidance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The Cardinal called the three German bishops to the Vatican for a series of meetings, and on October 14, 1994, the CDF sent its own letter to all the bishops of the Catholic Church titled “Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced-and-Remarried Members of the Faithful.”

The letter reaffirmed the traditional ban on reception of the Eucharist by those living in irregular unions. “In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, the Church affirms that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the preceding marriage was valid,” it read.

“If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists,” the text concludes.

Despite the clarity and seeming definitiveness of this response, Cardinal Kasper remained undaunted in his quest.

Seven years later, in 2001, Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper again faced off, this time on the pages of the Jesuit magazine America. Though the topic of their debate was whether local churches or the universal Church should take precedence, at the core was again the question of local pastoral practice versus the universal discipline of the Church.

In his essay, “On the Church,” Cardinal Kasper argued for the precedence of the local Church, highlighting diversity over unity and pastoral flexibility over doctrinal universality. “As the bishop of a large diocese,” Kasper wrote, “I had observed how a gap was emerging and steadily increasing between norms promulgated in Rome for the universal church and the needs and practices of our local church.”

Kasper made no effort to conceal his animus toward Ratzinger, or his disdain for what he considered the heavy-handedness of the doctrinal Congregation. For a bishop to “enforce the general norms ruthlessly as his Roman superiors sometimes expect, his effort is likely to be useless, even counterproductive,” Kasper contended. As examples of areas where enforced unity could be counterproductive, Kasper included “ethical issues, sacramental discipline and ecumenical practice.”

Later that year, Cardinal Ratzinger responded in the same journal with his own essay titled “The Local Church and the Universal Church.” In his piece, Ratzinger reasserted the principle “that the universal church (ecclesia universalis) is in its essential mystery a reality that takes precedence, ontologically and temporally, over the individual local churches,” a principle sharply criticized by Kasper.

Ratzinger asserted that the central thread of sacred history is that of “gathering together, of uniting human beings in the one body of Christ, the union of human beings and through human beings of all creation with God.”

“There is,” he wrote, “only one bride, only one body of Christ, not many brides, not many bodies.” Therefore, he asserted, pastorally speaking the people of God throughout the world must experience the unity of the Church in her discipline as well as her doctrine.

“Anyone baptized in the church in Berlin is always at home in the church in Rome or in New York or in Kinshasa or in Bangalore or wherever, as if he or she had been baptized there. He or she does not need to file a change-of-address form; it is one and the same church,” he argued.

Once the College of Cardinals elected Joseph Ratzinger to the chair of Peter, Kasper realized that further open debate was futile, and he produced little on the subject from 2005 to 2013. When, however, Pope Benedict resigned in February of that year and the Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope, Kasper once again reactivated his campaign for Communion for the divorced and remarried. With his nemesis safely out of the way and a potentially more progressive pontiff in his place, Kasper deemed that the time was right for his crusade to finally succeed.

In an interview with Commonweal in May 2014, Kasper took up the topic again, his basic thesis from 1993 still intact and unmodified. Moreover, he added a doctrinal argument to back up his pastoral proposal: namely, that the divorced and remarried may not, in fact, be living an adulterous relationship. In reference to those who are divorced and civilly remarried, Kasper stated: “I can’t say whether it’s ongoing adultery. Therefore I would say, yes, absolution is possible.”

This would seem to square with another interview the cardinal gave recently to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, in which he compared Jesus’ words on marriage to the Genesis account of the creation of the world, accusing those who take Jesus’ words on marriage and adultery at face value of “fundamentalism,” like those who still believe the world was created in six days.

Asked whether there can be a fundamentalistic reading of the New Testament, Kasper responded in the affirmative.

God created the world in six days, but no one takes that literally today. Of course the teaching that marriage cannot be dissolved is clear, but already in the New Testament Jesus’ commandment is adapted to certain situations.

Interestingly, in the CDF document from 1994 cited earlier, which said that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the preceding marriage was valid in “fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ,” the footnote to “the words of Jesus Christ” referenced Mk 10:11-12: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This is the sentence that Kasper insists must not be understood literally, unless one wishes to fall into “fundamentalism.”

Returning to the question of reception of Holy Communion, Kasper emphasized the fact that the Eucharist isn’t for the perfect. “Every time we celebrate Mass we say: for the remission of sins,” he said. “The Eucharist is for sinners, which we all are.”

He chose, however, not to recall the consistent teaching of the Church regarding the essential distinction between mortal and venial sins, especially as regards the reception of Communion.

Catholics believe that not all sins carry the same weight or have the same effect on our souls, and traditionally make a clear distinction between “mortal sins,” which separate a Christian from the life of grace, and “venial sins,” which do not. The way that this is expressed in the Catholic Catechism is that anyone “who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion … without having first received sacramental absolution” (No. 1457). This is obviously not the case for those who are conscious only of venial sins.

Whether Cardinal Kasper will eventually triumph in his lifelong quest to open the door to sacramental Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried is still a matter of debate. What cannot be debated is the persistence of a man who has not allowed himself to be dissuaded from an opinion that he once adopted, and has never since questioned.

(Photo credit: CNA)


  • Thomas D. Williams

    Thomas D. Williams is the Rome Bureau Chief for Breitbart News. He is a Catholic moral theologian, professor of ethics and author of 15 books including his latest from Crisis Publications, The Coming Christian Persecution. Williams holds a doctorate in theology, a license in philosophy, and a BBA in business administration and economics.

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