Cardinal Kasper talks marriage and divorce

Will the Synod on the Family bring change for divorced and remarried Catholics? One influential reform-minded cardinal hopes so.

With the first of two meetings of the world’s bishops on family life set for this October, the issue that has raised the most expectations for change has been the church’s rule barring divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving communion. Those hopes for change intensified when Pope Francis earlier this year asked German Cardinal Walter Kasper to deliver a lengthy address on “the gospel of the family” to a gathering of the world’s cardinals. With the encouragement of the pope, Kasper, long an advocate for finding new pastoral approaches for remarried divorced Catholics, used the opportunity to outline his proposals for reform.

Steering clear of a general solution that would apply to all remarried divorced people, Kasper is arguing for a “reasonable middle way between an unyielding rigidity on the one hand and an indulgent laxity on the other.” Above all, he wants to reestablish mercy, which is at the heart of the gospel, as a fundamental principle in the life of the church. The sometimes rigid treatment of remarried divorced Catholics, Kasper says, has “alienated too many Christians from the church.”

Still, critics contend that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Kasper’s proposals would seriously undermine the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and would lead the church into “error” or even “schism.” The issue now stands as a test case for whether Pope Francis’ renewed emphasis on mercy will lead to tangible change. Stay tuned.

In your talk to the cardinals in February you said the church must pay attention to the “hard realities” of family life. What are some of these realities?

The main point of my talk was to emphasize the importance and the beauty of the family and to clarify what we mean when we talk about the “gospel of the family.”


But we can’t simply paint a beautiful picture in the sky, we also have to look around us down on the ground and see the realities as they are. The church, like a good shepherd, must go searching for the lost sheep and take the realities of the world seriously. That’s why, only in the final chapter of my talk, I tried to address the problem of remarried divorced Catholics. It’s an urgent problem in Europe as much as it is here in the United States and in other parts of the world.

It’s a problem that, in our modern world, only continues to grow, and the church has to ask itself what it can do. Our sacraments can’t become “rewards” for the good behavior of an elite club, but rather should speak to the hard realities people find themselves in.

For example, when I was still a bishop in Germany, one day a pastor came to me with a dilemma he was facing. In his parish they were preparing for first communion, and there was a mother—one of the most active and committed parishioners in the parish—who had beautifully prepared her daughter for first communion, much better than any other parent. She was one of the pillars of the parish and everyone knew her as a good woman, but she was divorced and remarried. The pastor says to me, “How could I possibly, on the day of her first communion, tell the child, ‘You may receive the Eucharist, but your mom may not; things aren’t right between your mom and your dad’?”

I told that story to Pope Francis, and his response was, “No, no, that’s impossible. You can’t say that to the girl; the pastor has to make a pastoral decision here.” That’s what the pope said. And I told him, “Yes, he made that decision.”


Of course, from my own pastoral experience, I have to say that we can’t really come up with a general solution for all remarried divorced people. They are in very, very different situations.

You specifically address two different situations. In the first one you argue for a more pastoral and spiritual process for annulments. What do you have in mind there?

On this first point, a certain consensus has already emerged that today we can no longer assume that all sacramental marriages were necessarily validly contracted. In many cases, the individuals who entered into the marriage did not fulfill the required conditions, or they lacked the faith necessary for the sacrament.

But the kind of annulment processes that we have had in place until now tend to be very juridical and often bureaucratic, they cost significant money, and they are not equally accessible to all people. Many Catholics are deterred from entering these processes, and there are often questions that can’t really be solved through church law.

We could come up with more pastoral processes that aren’t superficial but could shorten the time. As a bishop I had a case where this process took 15 years. That’s really unacceptable for people.


Could such a process take place in the parish, so that a pastor might be able to make these decisions?

I think the bishop should designate someone, a priest with good pastoral experience in this field who would know the criteria but would also have a psychological sensitivity and have experience in counseling. As a representative of the bishop, he could be some kind of an episcopal or penitential vicar.

I don’t think this should be done at the parish level because it would be handled too differently from parish to parish. It should remain a part of the responsibility of the bishop. But since he can’t
really do this himself, especially in large dioceses, he should delegate and authorize someone like an episcopal vicar for this task.

If this would be handled too differently by pastors, wouldn’t you run into the same problem with some bishops being more pastorally inclined than others?

Well, yes. To some degree that’s unavoidable, but developing clear criteria for these decisions will help with that. And even in secular courts you have differences between different judges.

In the second situation, you propose a new process of penance and pastoral tolerance. What would that look like?

I don’t think that expanding and reforming the annulment process is the solution. That could give the impression of the church dishonestly granting secret divorces. It doesn’t make sense to annul a validly contracted sacramental marriage that lasted for years and resulted in children. That might be a juridical declaration, but it can’t deny the previous reality. And many people also don’t want that.


But after years, for whatever reason and whatever fault, a marriage can grow apart to an extent that a reconciliation is impossible. I simply can’t imagine that God would let someone fall into a hole where there would be no way out. That would be inconceivable with the mercy of God. God gives us new chances. As the church fathers put it, after the shipwreck of sin, one doesn’t get another comfortable ship to transfer to but a “plank of salvation” for survival.

Following this image, we’re not talking about a “cheap grace” that would deny the gravity of what has occurred. That wouldn’t do justice to the experiences people have had. What they have gone through with the failure of their marriage was a terrible ordeal.


So what would the new process be?

The first requirement, insofar as we are talking about the sacrament of reconciliation, would be that the person acknowledges, confesses, and is truly sorry for his or her own failing. We’re not necessarily talking about sexual transgressions—although that often plays a role—but the acknowledgment that, for whatever reason, I was unable to live up to a solemn promise that I made before God, my partner, and the church. And of course the other partner had a role and perhaps even greater guilt in this as well.

The second part would be that getting back together is no longer reasonably possible because the person and/or the former spouse has entered another civil marriage—and perhaps even had to for the sake of the children—and can’t really abandon that new marriage without leading to new pain and guilt.


And third, those in the new civil marriage have resolved to live together in a Christian way and have promised to stay together forever, are raising their children in the Christian faith, and long for the sacraments—for which they have a great need.

When those three things are present, then I believe we do need to be able to find a way to give them absolution. We confess in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” So why would this be impossible in this case? I can absolve someone who has had an abortion. I can absolve a murderer. We can absolve all other sins, even grave social failures, so why shouldn’t we be able to grant someone a new beginning here?

We can call it a path of penance, but I prefer to call it a time of reorientation, of metanoia. There is generally plenty of penance involved already because such divorces tend to deeply affect and leave painful scars for those who have gone through them. A time of reorientation would allow those in the new civil marriage to show that this new marriage is stable and oriented toward living a Christian life. Eventually it would culminate in a sacrament of reconciliation and an absolution that would make it possible to begin anew and then, of course, to also receive communion again.

That’s certainly not a path all remarried divorced Catholics will want to pursue. It probably applies only to a minority: those who have a sincere desire both for the sacraments and for a Christian life. They are the people who are active in our parishes, who are serious about their faith, and who come to us seeking counsel and support. We must respond to them. And there are models for such a process in our tradition.


Hasn’t your appeal to the early Christian tradition on this point been disputed by some?

Yes, it is controversial, but historically, when we are talking about the first few centuries, almost everything is controversial. I would not want to tie this argument to one or another interpretation of certain church historians. But what is beyond dispute—and attested to by both Origen and Basil the Great—is that in the question of someone’s release from marriage on account of the partner’s adultery, there existed a kind of customary law in many local churches that allowed for pastoral forbearance tied to some period of penance. Origen said it was “not unreasonable” for the bishop to allow it in order to “prevent something worse.”

The church has always tried to find a reasonable middle way between an unyielding rigidity on the one hand and an indulgent laxity on the other. That’s a constant tradition. Neither rigidity nor laxity are Christian approaches.

Where do you see examples today for rigidity and laxity?

Well, laxity may be the easiest one. It’s certainly present in some of our parishes, when pastors say: “Don’t worry too much, the rules aren’t that important. Everyone is invited to communion here.” I would never say that. It’s not just remarried divorced people we are talking about but also people who may have committed heinous social injustices. That would be what the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” That certainly is not the way to go.

As for rigidity, you can see it when people insist on such high moral norms that they effectively create a small elite. The church cannot be a church for the elite. It is also made up of normal sinners like us, who have to keep going back to confession. Unfortunately, in our church we have handled way too many situations with unyielding rigidity, which has led to many tears.

Take the woman I told you about earlier, who really does everything, is committed in her parish, and the parish recognizes and knows it. To tell her no, you may not receive communion, to stigmatize her on the day of her daughter’s first communion—I have to say that as pastor I would not be able to do that either.

You may have to explain to the parish that making such an exception under certain conditions does not mean that now everyone can come back to the sacraments. But people understand that.

So in your mind, allowing for such a new process of penance in these situations would not contradict the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage?

It would be stupid for us to give up the indissolubility of marriage. Most young people want their marriage to be a permanent, stable bond for them. It is a deep longing for most of them, and it is usually traumatic, a deep wound, and a great disappointment when they separate. So already from a practical life perspective, it would be stupid to give that up.

But beyond that, we’re talking about a sacrament. The two people are not just making their solemn promise to each other, but it’s also God who promises to be with them. We cannot abandon this marriage bond. It is a binding teaching of the church. What I’m talking about is the recognition that Christians can and do fail, and that as a church we have to find ways to deal with such broken situations.


Some of your critics warn that what you’re proposing would lead to “doctrinal self-contradiction” and “threaten outright schism.” Is that a real danger here?

I don’t see that. There is a much greater danger of an internal schism from insisting on rigid policies. They have already alienated too many Christians from the church. That’s a kind of schism as well.

No, there is no contradiction. If we can forgive sins that people confess and repent, that’s not a contradiction. It would be a contradiction if I gave up the indissolubility of marriage and saw the possibility, without annulment, of a second marriage of equal value. I’m very much against that. I would say, any such second civil marriage cannot be a marriage in the sacramental sense, even though it can have “elements” of a marriage.

I don’t see any danger of a schism over this question. It’s not as if I just pulled my proposal out of a hat. I discussed it with Pope Francis, and he encouraged me and afterwards publicly expressed that he was very happy with the substance of what I had proposed.

The pope has said this should now be discussed, and I don’t in any way want to anticipate what the result of those discussions is going to be. I’ve certainly thought about this question a lot, and I know that the pope wants to tackle it. There are at least as many divorced and remarried people in Latin America, and he knows, from his pastoral experience, how in the slums of Buenos Aires many women can’t survive on their own and often have no choice but to remarry.

Your opponents are saying that tolerating any kind of second marriage for Catholics without annulment would, in effect, mean a direct toleration of grave sin.

Life is not just black and white; there are many gray areas. We have to have enough realism to recognize these gray areas.

It is an important distinction: What is being tolerated or acknowledged is not the sin but the repentant sinner. That’s already a distinction with St. Augustine: There is no justification of the sin, that’s impossible, but there is a justification of the sinner. That’s also a profoundly biblical teaching. The sinner confesses the sin and his or her failing.

However, what I can’t then say about a second civil marriage is that it constitutes continuous adultery. I can’t go along with that. It may not be the best, but under the circumstances, it is the best possible solution. None of us can always achieve the best solution.

Your initiative has been part of the preparations for the Synod on the Family. In addition to the survey that went out last year, will there be other ways for laypeople to participate?

By definition, the synod is a gathering of bishops, but I believe that laypeople will also be asked to participate. When you talk about the family, it is obvious that married people must be listened to. And not just handpicked people, but also normal people, those who work in family ministry and family counseling, and experts who will be able to make significant contributions.


And of course, this is a multiyear process. This October we will have the extraordinary session, which is made up only of the presidents of the bishops’ conferences, who will have the task to define the questions. Then afterwards, there will be a whole year where those questions will be discussed in the various dioceses and parishes. That’s the new process, which is a good change.

That year of discussion will be followed by the plenary session of the synod where, together with the pope, decisions can be made.

Expectations for change are now running very high. Is there a danger that it will all just lead to one great disappointment?

The pope has sent some clear signals. Mercy is at the core of the Good News of Jesus, and it’s already key in the Old Testament, in the Psalms, everywhere. That doesn’t mean that mercy could negates justice or truth, but it fulfills them.

And Pope Francis is not the first to discover the fundamental importance of mercy. Pope John XXIII emphasized the “medicine of mercy,” and John Paul II very often talked about mercy. I think the bishops are realizing that as well, and I can’t imagine that at the end of this process there won’t be any change.

At the end, we need to come up with a new response, not simply beating the same drum and repeating what we have always said. By now it should be clear to everyone that this is pastorally disastrous and only serves to alienate people.

Mercy has emerged as a signature theme for Pope Francis, and he has spoken very highly of your recent book on mercy.

Three days before the conclave I received the copies of the Spanish translation of my book. I took them with me, and when the rooms were assigned by lot, it turned out that [then-Cardinal] Bergoglio had the room across the hall from me. So when we were standing in the hallway, I told him, “I’ve got something for you.” When I gave him the book, he looks at the Spanish title Misericordia and says, “Mercy, that’s the name of our God.” Apparently, he then read the book during the conclave.

But mercy clearly has been a theme for him. It is central for him, as it was central for Jesus, and he very much wants to refocus the church on mercy and the core of the gospel.

His approach has given people new hope, and they are responding to it in a way they didn’t before. Even those who generally don’t want to have anything to do with the church are at least intrigued to pay some attention.


You’ve known Pope Benedict XVI for many decades, and today you seem to be close to Pope Francis. How are they different?

I have known Benedict now for more than 50 years, since we were colleagues teaching at the same theological faculty. We have had some differences of opinion [laughs], but we are both Catholic. We respect each other, and I think Benedict has created a legacy with respect to church teaching that people maybe will only fully recognize in the future.

But he has a very different background from Bergoglio. Benedict’s roots are in the academic world, and Bergoglio is a pastor “from the end of the world.” They have very different personalities and very different ways of being pope.

It is no secret that at the end of Benedict’s papacy quite a few things went wrong in the Curia. The whole Vatileaks scandal showed that things weren’t working right, which of course was one of the reasons why the conclave decided to bring someone in from the outside.

And I have to say I find it quite liberating how Pope Francis is doing things now. The great reception he has had is not just hype, it is about substance. He is able to speak directly to the hearts of people in a language they can understand. And he realizes that in this now global and diverse church you can’t decide everything centrally in Rome; he is trying to shift things more to the local churches. That’s a very important step.

He is intent on listening to the wisdom of the people, which comes from his roots in the Argentinean theology of the people. Like every good pastor he understands that you also learn from the people and their witness. Having worked in the slums of Buenos Aires and taken public transportation, he knows what’s going on and can address the real-life concerns of people.

He also wants to set many things right in the Curia, and he’s already done a lot that is irreversible. Another key point for him is the missionary orientation of the church that goes to the peripheries.

I think all of these things are very hope inspiring, but the key is that it’s really up to the local churches to walk that path. We can’t just sit back in our easy chairs and wait and see what the pope is up to next. We are all called to be a part of realizing that vision. I think that in the current situation he truly is a gift of God for the church.

How do you see your own role these days?

I’m now retired and no longer have a job in the Vatican. I’m past 80 years old, but I still have lots to do. And when the pope calls and says he needs me, of course I’m happy to do it. And in this pontificate now I see things emerging that I have often envisioned in my own theological thinking. I hadn’t really expected things would be moving in that direction. And if I can do my share to help with that, I’m certainly enjoying that.


I’m still curious about what’s developing, and I have the impression that we now have a new generation of young people who are seeing the world in new ways. They don’t seem to have the prejudices of the older generations, and I have faith in many of them because they are seekers and they are on a path, and we must not disappoint them.

What we’re seeing is not a new church but a new face of a church that is changing in many ways, and that gives me hope. It’s something we have really needed.

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 10, pages 28-32).

Image: Flickr photo cc by firemedic58