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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 08, 2014
WEDDING INVITATION. Pope Francis presides at the wedding of 20 couples on Sept. 14.

Not since the Second Vatican Council has a gathering of representatives of the world’s Catholic bishops sparked such interest and controversy as the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which opened in the Vatican on Oct. 5. While the agenda is very wide, public interest has mainly focused on how this synod and the follow-up synod in October 2015 will address the situation of Catholics who are divorced and remarried, and whether they can be readmitted to Communion.

As is well known, Pope Francis asked the German cardinal-theologian Walter Kasper, emeritus president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, a former university professor and diocesan bishop and the author of a book on mercy, to give the keynote address on the family to the College of Cardinals when they met last February to discuss this subject. In one part of that long presentation, Cardinal Kasper envisaged a possible way forward on the question of the divorced and remarried. The subsequent debate revealed two very different theological approaches to the question.

Several cardinals—including the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Müller, and the prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, Raymond Burke—have opposed Cardinal Kasper’s opening of the question of those who are divorced and remarried, but Pope Francis publicly praised his contribution.

The temperature rose significantly, however, on the eve of the synod, when five cardinals—including Cardinal Müller and Cardinal Burke—published a book rejecting Cardinal Kasper’s line (Remaining in the Truth of Christ), while another Vatican cardinal, George Pell, wrote a preface to a different book in the same vein. Many in Rome perceived these initiatives as a clear attempt to close the discussion on this delicate topic even before the synod opened; some interpreted it as resistance to the pope.

In this context, America and La Nación—Argentina’s leading daily newspaper—interviewed Cardinal Walter Kasper in his apartment in Rome on Sept. 26 and asked how he read the contrasting theological visions at work here and what he expected to happen at the synod.

There is much interest in this synod, especially regarding how it will deal with the question of whether there will be some opening toward Catholics who are divorced and remarried.

Yes, this interest in church questions is a positive thing, and we should be grateful for it. But the problem is that some media reduce everything at the synod to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried people. The agenda of the synod is much, much broader and concerns the pastoral challenges of family life today. The problem of the divorced and remarried is one problem, but not the only one. Some media give the impression that there will be a breakthrough and started a campaign for it. I too hope there will be a responsible opening, but it’s an open question, to be decided by the synod. We should be prudent with such fixations. Otherwise, if this doesn’t happen, the reaction will be great disillusion.

Some cardinals and bishops seem to be afraid of this possibility and reject it even before the synod meets. Why do you think there is so much fear of a development in the church’s discipline?

I think they fear a domino effect; if you change one point all would collapse. That’s their fear. This is all linked to ideology, an ideological understanding of the Gospel, that the Gospel is like a penal code. 

But as the pope said in “The Joy of the Gospel,” quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, the Gospel is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is in the soul of the faithful and becomes operative in love. That’s a different understanding. It is not a museum. It is a living reality in the church, and we have to walk with the whole people of God and see what the needs of the people are. Then we have to make a discernment in the light of the Gospel, which is not a code of doctrines and commandments.

Then, of course, there is also a lack of theological hermeneutics, because we cannot simply take one phrase of the Gospel of Jesus and from that deduce everything. You need a hermeneutic to see the whole of the Gospel and of Jesus’ message and then differentiate between what is doctrine and what is discipline. Discipline can change. So I think we have here a theological fundamentalism which is not Catholic. 

So you mean you cannot change the doctrine but you can change the discipline?

Doctrine, insofar as it is official binding doctrine, cannot change. So nobody denies the indissolubility of marriage. I do not, nor do I know any bishop who denies it. But discipline can be changed. Discipline wants to apply a doctrine to concrete situations, which are contingent and can change. So also discipline can change and has already changed often, as we see in church history.

How did you feel when you learned that this book by five cardinals was being published that attacks what you said?

Well, first of all, everybody is free to express his opinion. That is not a problem for me. The pope wanted an open debate, and I think that is something new, because up to now often there was not such an open debate. Now Pope Francis is open for it, and I think that’s healthy and it helps the church very much.

There seems to be fear among some of the cardinals and bishops because, as the pope said, we have this moral construction that can collapse like a pack of cards.

Yes, it’s an ideology; it’s not the Gospel.

There is also fear of open discussion at the synod.

Yes, because they fear all will collapse. But, first of all, we live in an open pluralistic society, and it’s good for the church to have an open discussion as we had at the Second Vatican Council. It’s good for the image of the church too, because a closed church is not a healthy church and not inviting for people today. On the other hand, when we discuss marriage and family, we have to listen to people who are living this reality. There’s a sensus fidelium. It cannot be decided only from above, from the church hierarchy, and especially you cannot just quote old texts of the last century. You have to look at the situation today, and then you make a discernment of the spirits and come to concrete results. I think this is the approach of Pope Francis, whereas many others start from doctrine and then use a merely deductive method.

In a sense, the synod is like a replay of the Second Vatican Council.

Yes, I think it is a very similar situation. Immediately before the Second Vatican Council there were Roman theologians who had prepared all the texts and expected the bishops would come and applaud and in two or three weeks it would all be over. But it didn’t happen in this way, and I think it will also not happen this time.

In an Italian daily, Il Mattino, you are reported as saying that you think the real target of these attacks is the pope, not yourself.

Maybe it was a bit imprudent of me to say that. But many people are saying this; you can hear it on the street every day. I myself do not want to judge the motives of other people. It is obvious that there are people who are not in full agreement with the present pope, but this kind of thing is not totally new. It happened also at the Second Vatican Council. Then there were people against the aggiornamento of John XXIII and Paul VI, though perhaps not in this organized way. Even Cardinal Ottaviani, the prefect of the Holy Office at that time, was against the intentions of the majority of the council.

Many analysts think it is no coincidence that this book is coming out now, precisely on Oct. 1. There has been resistance to Francis from the beginning, but this seems a more organized kind of resistance.

Yes, it is a problem. I do not remember such a situation, where in such an organized way five cardinals write such a book. It’s the way it’s done in politics, but it should not be done in the church. It’s how politicians act, but I think we should not behave this way in the church.

In recent weeks the pope said we must read the signs of the times. He wants the synod to do this.

Yes, to read the signs of the times was fundamental for the Second Vatican Council. I cannot imagine that the majority of the synod will be opposed to the pope on this point.

In recent weeks, too, Pope Francis, in his homilies, has spoken again and again about mercy and insisted that pastors must be close to their people and avoid having a closed mind.... It seemed as if he was referring to people like the five cardinals and supporting you on the question of mercy.

I think there is often a misunderstanding on what mercy is all about. Some are thinking that mercy is cheap grace, and “light” Christianity. But it is not that. I think mercy is a very demanding virtue; it is not a cheap thing. It does not take away the commandments of the Lord; that would be absurd. But as it is the fundamental virtue, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, mercy is a hermeneutical key for interpreting the commandments.

Some were surprised that the pope appointed a number of very “conservative” participants to the synod.

I think he did this because he didn’t want to be criticized by selecting only those who are in favor of one position. He wants an open discussion; he wants the other group too to have their voice. He wants to be fair. He does not want to exclude anybody, but to include everybody and have all participate in the discussion. He wants to hear everyone, and everyone should have a voice. And I think this is very positive.

His understanding is that God speaks through the people and their real situations.

Of course. That’s the theological conception in the last book of the New Testament: Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches! In the synod there should be a listening and prayerful atmosphere.

Coming back to the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried: Is Communion the prize for the perfect one or is it something to help the sinner?

We are all sinners. Nobody is really worthy to receive holy Communion. Communion has a healing effect. Especially people living in difficult situations need the help of grace and need the sacraments. 

So in terms of the sacraments, do you think that at the end of the day the decision should be up to the individual or the couple?

No. The sacraments are not just private events; they are public celebrations of the whole church. Admission to the Eucharist goes through baptism and, after sin, through the sacrament of penance—that is, confession and absolution. Absolution is an official act of the church, a juridical act. Therefore divorced and remarried people should find a good priest confessor who accompanies them for some time; and if this second, civil marriage, is solid, then the path of new orientation can end with confession and absolution. Absolution means admission to holy Communion. I do not start immediately with the question of admission to Communion but with a penitential path. This does not mean to impose special acts of penance, because normally these persons are suffering a lot. A divorce is not such an easy thing; it is suffering. In this situation they need the help of grace through the sacraments; and if they have an earnest desire and do what they can do in their difficult situation, the church should find ways to help them in a sacramental way.

This, then, is a development of pastoral practice.

Yes, it is pastoral practice ending in a sacramental practice. The church by its nature is a sacramental reality. It’s not just pastoral counseling. It’s a sacrament, and the sacrament has its own value. To say, “I absolve you” is different from giving good human advice. It is saying: God says yes to you and accepts you anew; you have a new chance.

Some have proposed that there should be an easier and quicker process for the annulment of a marriage. The pope has now set up a commission to look at the annulment process.

Well, there are situations in which such annulments are helpful and can be made. But take the case of a couple who are 10 years married and have children. In the first years they had a happy marriage, but for different reasons the marriage fell apart. This marriage was a reality, and to say it was canonically null and void does not make sense to me. This is an abstract canonical construction. It’s divorce in a Catholic way, in a dishonest way.

You said there is fear that if you open a door, then the whole moral structure collapses. In the 1980 synod, for example, they didn’t want real free discussion and those who spoke openly got sidelined. Now there’s fear that if you talk openly, you may come up with other conclusions not only here, but in other areas too.

Yes, there is not only the question of the divorced and remarried but also of same-sex unions, rainbow families, stepfamilies, the whole gender problematic and many other problems. But I think all these are very different situations and problems. You cannot argue from one situation to the other. In each of these questions a different kind of argumentation is needed. But if fear is at work, fear is always a bad counselor. The church should not act out of fear. The church should be the people of hope.

Often pastors want to control human life. It’s clericalism. They don’t trust people and therefore don’t respect the conscience of people. Of course, we have to give guidelines from the Gospel and remind people of the commandments of the Lord, but then we should trust that the Holy Spirit is working in the hearts and in the conscience of our people.

This synod process began with last year’s worldwide consultation. It was followed by the Consistory of Cardinals last February and preparation of the working document. What do you expect to come out of this synod?

We have two phases of the synod. It’s not just one synod; it’s a synodal process. I think the general idea of the pope is to have this first synodal step in order to clarify the status quaestionis (the real situation of the family today). I think that’s very important because there are questions in Asia and in Africa that are different from ours in the Western world. After a clarification of the status quaestionis, we will have a whole year to discuss the problems on the local church level, in the dioceses, in the parishes and the bishops conferences. Then, after a year, the bishops come back to the synod in October 2015 to make, in communion with the pope, the necessary and adequate pastoral decisions.

So that year between the two synods is crucial.

I think it is very crucial. In this period the bishops will have time to speak to their people. Bishops will not be sitting in their palaces or residences. They will meet their people, listen to them and to the sensus fidelium, and then they may decide.

In this sense the questionnaire was also important.

To have such a questionnaire was a new way to listen. And the working document (instrumentum laboris) that was prepared for the synod is very different from the previous ones, which were a doctrinal exposition of the whole question. But this one is a résumé, a summary of the answers to the questionnaire. It’s a new kind of synod. It’s a synodal process which involves the whole of the church.

This decision by Pope Francis to invite open debate throughout the church on the subjects that are touching the lives of the faithful is really a very courageous act.

It is courageous. It’s new, and I think it’s very helpful because it’s a question of the health of the church. A church that cannot discuss what is going on or cannot speak out in an open discussion face to face will be a sick church. In this context the mass media also can and should play their part.

It seems that this whole debate on the divorced and remarried has become an issue that is in fact changing a lot in the church.

Yes, it is changing the whole atmosphere, the style in the church, and gives the image of the church as a dialogical church. This goes back to what John XXIII wanted and also what Paul VI wanted in his first encyclical on the dialogue within the church.

In these last weeks I read again what Benedict XVI said in his famous talk to the Roman Curia about the hermeneutics of continuity regarding the Second Vatican Council. He was very clear: [there is] continuity in the principles, but there is a discontinuity in the application of the doctrine to concrete situations. He said there is continuity with newness and a discontinuity, because the principles have to be applied to a changing reality, as was done [at that council] in the question of religious freedom.

What do you expect will happen in the synod?

I think it depends a lot on how the pope himself will open the synod, what he says. He cannot give us a solution at the beginning, indeed he should not do it, but he can give us a perspective, a direction. I hope there will be a serene, friendly discussion about all these problems, and I think we will achieve a broad consensus, as we did at Vatican II.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mike Evans
9 years 6 months ago
The quality of mercy should not be strained to catch every gnat while letting monsters go free. The code of canon law was NOT written by Jesus or the Apostles. St. Paul was distinctly anti-law and pro-spirit in his teachings (see today's reading). The bishops are not John Foster Dulles defending the "domino theory" of dogma and doctrine. We have developed new approaches to slavery, usury, imperialism, freedom of conscience, and unhinged the church from control by kings and nobles. Be not afraid should be our song.
R.C. Christopher
9 years 6 months ago
No comment on the disgustingly racist comments Kasper made toward African Catholics and their bishops! The cardinal seems to believe that it's okay to disregard 135 million Catholics on one continent because they may not agree with his agenda. Where's the mercy, Cardinal? Where's the repudiation of this, Holy Father?
Carlos Orozco
9 years 6 months ago
Can you elaborate on your comment? What comments are you writing about?
Gabriel McAuliffe
9 years 6 months ago
Unless there is something wrong with the translation, it is quite disheartening. We have a lot to learn from our sisters and brothers in Africa and our brothers and sisters in majority Muslim countries: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/10/dont-listen-to-the-africans-says-catholic-cardinal
R.C. Christopher
9 years 6 months ago

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