The Catholic Church needs to find a way to offer healing, strength and salvation to Catholics whose marriages have failed, who are committed to making a new union work and who long to do so within the church and with the grace of Communion, Cardinal Walter Kasper told the world’s cardinals. Pope Francis had asked Cardinal Walter Kasper, a well-known theologian and author of a book on mercy as a fundamental trait of God, to introduce a discussion on Feb. 20-21 by the College of Cardinals on family life. While insisting—for the good of individuals and of the church—on the need to affirm Jesus’ teaching that sacramental marriage is indissoluble, Cardinal Kasper allowed for the possibility that in very specific cases the church could tolerate a second union.
Because they are human and prone to sin, husbands and wives continually must follow a path of conversion, renewal and maturation, asking forgiveness and renewing their commitment to one another, Cardinal Kasper said. But the church also must be realistic and acknowledge “the complex and thorny problem” posed by Catholics whose marriages have failed but who find support, family stability and happiness in a new relationship, he continued.
“One cannot propose a solution different from or contrary to the words of Jesus,” the cardinal said. “The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage,” he said, “is part of the binding tradition of the faith of the church and cannot be abandoned or dissolved by appealing to a superficial understanding of mercy at a discount price.” At the same time, Cardinal Kasper added, “There is no human situation absolutely without hope or solution.”
Cardinal Kasper said it would be up to members of the special assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family in October and the world Synod of Bishops in 2015 to discuss concrete proposals for helping divorced and civilly remarried Catholics participate more fully in the life of the church. A possible avenue for finding those proposals, he said, would be to develop “pastoral and spiritual procedures” for helping couples convinced in conscience that their first union was never a valid marriage. The decision cannot be left only to the couple, he said, because marriage has a public character, but that does not mean that a juridical solution—an annulment granted by a marriage tribunal—is the only way to handle the case.
As a diocesan bishop in Germany in 1993, Cardinal Kasper and two other bishops issued pastoral instructions to help priests minister to such couples. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, made the bishops drop the plan. A similar proposal made last year by the Archdiocese of Freiburg, Germany, was criticized by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, current prefect of the doctrinal congregation.
Citing an article by then-Father Joseph Ratzinger in 1972, Cardinal Kasper said the church also might 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 that was used in the first centuries of Christianity.
To avoid the greater evil of offering no help to the divorced and remarried, cutting them and most likely their children off from the sacraments, he said, the church could “tolerate that which is impossible to accept”—a second union. “A pastoral approach of tolerance, clemency and indulgence,” he said, would affirm that “the sacraments are not a prize for those who behave well or for an elite, excluding those who are most in need.”