The tragedy of divorce has in some way touched nearly every family in the contemporary Western world. Large numbers of Catholics have not been spared. In the agonizing aftermath of divorce, many encounter great spiritual and psychological challenges. They often wonder, for example, whether they will ever love again and even whether they are loveable at all. Catholics who have divorced and entered into a second civil marriage without a decree of nullity from the appropriate church authority, moreover, bear an additional burden. According to the current church regulations, they may not receive absolution or holy Communion under most circumstances. Recent reports in the media, however, indicate that the Synod of Bishops on the Family that convenes next month may examine anew the pastoral situation of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
It is in this social and ecclesial context that Cardinal Walter Kasper, the former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has asked that the church critically evaluate the current rules. Cardinal Kasper’s invitation, which he reiterated in these pages last week ("The Message of Mercy,” 9/15), is rooted in the imperative of mercy, which he sees as the central message of the Gospel and the motive force of the church’s pastoral ministry. “What does [mercy] mean for the church itself and its behavior,” the cardinal wrote, “not only toward those who are poor in a material sense but toward people within the church who feel neglected, put aside, marginalized and excommunicated—if not in a strict canonical sense, then in a de facto sense—because they are not allowed to take part in the table of the Lord?”
We should bear in mind what Cardinal Kasper is not saying when he asks this question. First, the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage is settled doctrine; it is not within the power of any human being to change it. Second, we must not frame the question as a choice between law and love. The church’s authority “to bind and to loose,” which she receives from the Lord himself, Cardinal Kasper has said, has a legal as well as a pastoral character and both are essential dimensions of the church’s ministry. Far from seeking to undermine the juridical character of that ministry, Cardinal Kasper seeks rather to preserve it, by rendering the church’s discipline more effective and credible in light of contemporary challenges. Third, Cardinal Kasper’s proposal involves neither the casual re-admittance of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to the sacraments, nor the casual application of mercy, which would make “cheap grace out of God’s precious grace.”
At the same time, “canon law should be interpreted and applied in the light of mercy because mercy opens our eyes to the concrete situation of the other.” The question before the church and the synod, says Cardinal Kasper, is this: If a Catholic who is divorced and civilly remarried, without a decree of nullity, “repents of his failure to fulfill what he promised before God, his partner and the church in the first marriage, and carries out as well as possible his new duties and does what he can for the Christian education of his children and has a serious desire for the sacraments, which he needs for strength in his difficult situation, can we after a time of new orientation and stabilization deny absolution and forgiveness?”
The Gospel, as well as the essential pastoral character of the church, which was more fully illuminated by the Second Vatican Council, suggest that the answer to the cardinal’s question is “no.” Some pastoral accommodation should be made for the kind of person he describes. Identifying and implementing such a change, however, will not be easy and we should bear the following in mind: First, any change to the regulations should also account for the men and women who have derived spiritual benefit from their fidelity to the church’s current discipline. Second, every party to the discussion and deliberations should presume the good intentions of the others. While Catholics may disagree on this matter, it is both reasonable and right to presume that most everyone involved has the good of the other as his or her primary motive. Third, any change should be seen not as a revolutionary gesture on the part of the current pope, but rather as the church’s response to the signs of the times. Cardinal Kasper’s modest proposal is in essential continuity with urgent appeals for mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation that characterized the ministries of Pope Francis’ immediate predecessors. As the pope said in one of his recent daily homilies, the church sometimes calls us to change our structures, to pour “new wine into new wineskins.”
Finally, we must trust that, as ever, it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who guides the church’s discernment. Let us pray that all of our choices will bear the marks of the Holy Spirit, which are, as well, the visible signs of the church’s ministry everywhere: generosity, charity, fidelity and hope.