Think twice before calling someone a “heretic.”
That is the seemingly simple advice from Cardinal Walter Kasper, the prominent German theologian whose ideas have influenced Pope Francis, especially his view that mercy should be the guiding principle in pastoral practice.
Speaking in an interview with Alessandro Gisotti at Vatican News, the 85-year-old prelate addressed controversy about “Amoris Laetitia,” the pope’s 2016 letter on families, which includes a provision that allows some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
“First of all I would like to say that debate in the church is necessary. There is no need to fear debate!” the cardinal said.
But he said the debate on “Amoris Laetitia” has become too heated—even though the “people of God” have accepted the teaching.
“Debate in the church is necessary. There is no need to fear debate!” Cardinal Kasper said.
“There is a very bitter debate, way too strong, with accusations of heresy. A heresy is a tenacious disagreement with formal dogma.”
Cardinal Kasper rejected claims from some Catholics who accuse Pope Francis of undermining church teaching on marriage.
“The doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage has not been called into question on Pope Francis’ part!” he said. “Before saying that something is heresy, the question should be what the other person means by what has been said. And, above all, that the other person is Catholic should be presupposed; the opposite should not be supposed!”
Cardinal Kasper praised “Amoris Laetitia” for its accessibility, saying it is “not high theology incomprehensible to people” and that the “people of God understand.”
“The pope has an optimal connection with the People of God,” he said.
A quick glance at social media finds charges of heresy aimed at Catholics are not uncommon, and last month Catholic News Service reported that in a January address to Chilean Jesuits, Pope Francis said he prays for those who call him a heretic.
“When I perceive resistance, I seek dialogue whenever it is possible; but some resistance comes from people who believe they possess the true doctrine and accuse you of being a heretic," the pope told a group of Jesuits during a meeting on Jan. 16 in Santiago.
“When I cannot see spiritual goodness in what these people say or write, I simply pray for them,” Pope Francis said in response to a question about the “resistance” he has encountered as pope.
The reception of “Amoris Laetitia” has differed around the world.
But just this weekend, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., unveiled a pastoral plan for parishes in and around the nation’s capital that seeks to implement a new model of family ministry. That follows a number of workshops and seminars for bishops and lay theologians, co-hosted by Cardinal Blase Cupich and Cardinal Joseph Tobin, aimed at promoting “Amoris Laetitia.”
The idea of a pathway to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics that includes a penentential aspect but stops short of requiring an annulment is often attributed to the cardinal and is sometimes referred to as “the Kasper proposal.” While the full proposal did not make it into the final document following synods in 2014 and 2015, a footnote included in “Amoris Laetitia” and subsequent interpretations by various bishops, sometimes with the approval of the pope himself, seem to have validated the notion.
The cardinal defended the idea in the interview, saying that individual believers must be able to discern their situation in life, perhaps with a priest as part of the “internal forum.”
“Sin is a complex term,” he said. “It not only includes an objective principle, but there is also the intention, the person’s conscience. And this needs to be examined in the internal forum—in the Sacrament of Reconciliation—if there is truly a grave sin, or perhaps a venial sin, or perhaps nothing.”
“If it is only a venial sin, the person can be absolved and admitted to the Sacrament of the Eucharist,” he continued, saying the teaching “is in complete continuity with the direction opened by preceding popes. I do not see any reason, then, to say that this is a heresy.”
No “right” to the Eucharist exists, but there is a right to be welcomed and to be heard.
The interviewer noted that Francis cited the cardinal’s book, Mercy, during his first Sunday address as pope. A couple of years later, Pope Francis declared 2016 the Year of Mercy. The cardinal was discussing ideas in a forthcoming book, “Amoris Laetitia’s Message: A Brotherly Discussion.” The interviewer asked Cardinal Kasper why mercy is so essential today.
“Many people are wounded,” the cardinal said. “Even in marriages there are many who are wounded. People need mercy, empathy, the sympathy of the church in these difficult times in which we are living today. I think that mercy is the response to the signs of our times.”
The interview was published just a few days after Italian Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano issued detailed guidelines for accompanying couples, including those who are divorced and civilly remarried. Bishop Semeraro, secretary of Pope Francis' international Council of Cardinals, wrote that discussions during diocesan presbyteral council meetings made it clear that welcoming and integrating into parish life "those who approach us with the desire to be readmitted to participation in ecclesial life requires an appropriate amount of time for accompaniment and discernment that will vary from situation to situation.
"Therefore, expecting a new general, canonical-type norm, the same for everyone, is absolutely inappropriate,” he said.
No “right” to the Eucharist exists, the bishop said, but there is a right to be welcomed and to be heard. Couples who have remarried civilly without an annulment of their sacramental marriage and who have started a new family will be asked “to make a journey of faith starting from becoming conscious of their situation before God” and looking at the obstacles that would prevent their full participation in the life of the church.
Material from Catholic News Service was used in this report.