Cardinal Walter Kasper has become the man of the hour within the Roman Catholic Church. With the English-language release of his new book Mercy, and the clear favor he is enjoying under Pope Francis, the retired German bishop and former curial official is suddenly attaining celebrity status while being heralded as “The Pope’s Theologian.”
However, after a recent string of media appearances in which Kasper made shockingly indiscrete comments about the Holy Father’s own opinions on Catholic marriage, while ignoring the teaching of St. John Paul II, it may be time for the Holy See to ask the Cardinal to restrain his public commentary. Cardinal Kasper should belong in the same category as his former professor, the famous Hans Kung: a respected theologian, but someone whose opinions cannot be taken as indicative of serious, orthodox Catholicism. The Holy Father should corral this Cardinal, whose teachings on divorce and remarriage are the very antithesis to St. John Paul II’s call for Catholics to witness to their belief with heroism and authenticity. Given his recent comments following his trip to the Holy Land, the Holy Father might be doing just that.
What Kasper Is Proposing
Kasper’s most significant proposal is that Catholics who have gotten divorced, who have civilly remarried, and who wish to come back to the regular reception of the Sacrament of Holy Communion (which Catholics believe to be Jesus Christ himself), should be allowed to do so upon some evidence of their leading a more evidently “Christian” life. The Church teaches that individuals who commit serious sin should not present themselves for communion until they repent, and those in manifestly grave sin should actually be denied Holy Communion until they reform. As a Catholic, being publicly “remarried” in a civil ceremony while your first, Christian spouse is alive qualifies as the manifestly grave sin of public adultery. For the Catholic Church, a marriage lasts for the life of the two partners, no exceptions.
Thus, Kasper’s idea of what constitutes “living a Christian life” for a remarried divorcee is unclear. It does not include a refusal to continue committing what is objectively adultery. The Cardinal has promoted these novel views in a recent American media and lecture blitz: a sold-out talk at Fordham University, a radio interview on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on New York Public Radio, and a long interview with Commonweal magazine.
Essentially, while the Cardinal deeply admires the “heroic” action of remarried Catholic divorcees who cease having sexual relationships with their second “spouse” in order to return to the Church’s Sacraments, the Cardinal believes that the Church cannot require this kind of “heroism” from everyone in similar circumstances. In his Commonweal interview, Kasper said, “To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian.” He believes a “way out” must be offered to people that allows them to receive communion while continuing to live in their objectively adulterous second marriages, and that this is an expression of mercy.
What a contrast to the teachings of the recently-canonized Saint John Paul II, who constantly encouraged Christians to strive for personal holiness without fear. Kasper is also in blatant opposition to the traditional teaching of the Church as expressed in Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II’s 1981 document regarding the Christian family, in which he expressly insisted that divorced and remarried Catholics are called to the very kind of heroic virtue that Kasper pooh-poos.
Why Kasper Should Be Silenced
Kasper’s views are not scholarly proposals offered to the Holy Father and to the bishops for their private review. He is clearly engaged in a kind of political campaign to change the millennia-long practice and teaching of the Church in a way that would radically alter and, I argue, weaken the Church’s public stance for Christian marriage and sexual morality.
This weakening can immediately be seen in Kasper’s interview, when (around the 23:00 mark) Brian Lehrer asks Cardinal Kasper why, if the Church could accept divorce and remarriage, she could not also accept homosexuality, contraception, or other changes to her teaching. If we can tolerate one fundamental change — like tolerating divorce and remarriage — then why not others? Kasper is clearly a bit flustered, and winds up saying that the Church is not even opposed to birth control, something which would be news to John Paul II.
It is the contrast between Kasper’s views and the teaching of St. John Paul that is most troubling in this whole debate. Kasper’s astonishing assertion that we cannot require heroism of ordinary Christians is diametrically opposed to St. John Paul’s entire papacy, in which he eloquently and insistently taught that Catholics are called to holiness, not to mediocrity. John Paul clearly taught that this call to heroic holiness applied also to divorced and remarried Catholics; as he wrote in Familiaris Consortio: “With firm confidence [the Church] believes that those who have rejected the Lord’s command and are still living in this state [of divorce and civil remarriage] will be able to obtain from God the grace of conversion and salvation, provided that they have persevered in prayer, penance and charity.”
Unless he wants October’s Synod on the Family (a meeting where the world’s bishops will meet in Rome discuss important questions affecting the Christian family worldwide) to become an all-out media circus myopically focused on divorce and remarriage, Pope Francis should silence this chatty Cardinal. He has already attempted to reduce expectations about the Synod through a wide-ranging interview following his recent trip to the Holy Land, where he pointed to Benedict XVI’s teachings on these topics. The Catholic Church’s doctrinal teaching and practice is based in God’s own revelation through sacred scripture and tradition; it is not something to be cooked up in media-based political campaigns. Hopefully, the Pope and the bishops will see that Kasper is acting much more like a politician than a Catholic theologian.