Synod on the Family, Part III

by Michael Sean Winters

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Continuing my curtain raisers for the Synod on the Family, now we come to what I suspect will be the thorniest issue facing the synod, an assessment of the Church’s pastoral practice regarding those Catholics who have divorced and remarried. Already, the lines have been drawn, with Cardinal Kasper calling for different approaches and others insisting that nothing, absolutely nothing, can change.

Last week, I looked at Kasper’s book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, which set the table for his talk to the consistory in February, which he entitled The Gospel of the Family. As noted Tuesday, Kasper makes clear that his presentation was not entitled “The Church’s Teaching concerning the Family” but “The Gospel of the Family.” The Church must always return to the source of her teaching, to discern things that might have been overlooked before, or been understood differently, due to the cultural needs and perspectives of the time. We also saw that Kasper exposed some of the limitations of natural law thinking in proclaiming the Gospel and in directing pastoral practice. In the concluding chapter of his discourse, he examined the issue before us today.

“One must not reduce the problem to the question of admission to communion,” Kasper writes. “It touches upon pastoral care for marriage and family life in their totality.” He wants to place the personhood and human dignity the Gospel reveals at the heart of the question, and notes that “the situations are very different and must be carefully differentiated. For this reason, there cannot be a general solution for all cases.” He does not deny the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, indeed he affirms it in the clearest terms, and further insists that no attempt be made to “repeal or water down” the Church’s teaching “by appealing to a superficially understood and cheapened sense of mercy.” But, still, the Church’s teaching on mercy must be brought forward in ways it has not been previously. “God’s fidelity is ultimately the fidelity of God to himself and to his love. Because God is faithful, he is also merciful and, in his mercy, he is faithful, even when we are unfaithful (2 Tim 2:13). Mercy and fidelity belong together. Therefore, there can be no human situation that is absolutely desperate and hopeless. However far a human being may fall, he or she never falls deeper than God’s mercy can reach.” Harkening back to Kasper’s book Mercy, we might say that just as God takes on death itself, so as to defeat it, and create space for new life through the grace of His mercy, cannot God take on divorce and brokenness in order to defeat them, and create space for new life through grace? If we deny the possibility of God’s mercy, are we not denying God’s fidelity to Himself and, just so, His mercy to us? This is the key issue and that issue is about God, and only consequently about us. This fact alone should silence those critics who think it ridiculous for celibate males to be discussing family life: The issues before the Synod are theological first and foremost. The Synod fathers are not sociologists or family counselors but bishops charged with the task of teaching the faith.

In an earlier section of his talk to the cardinals, Kasper makes an important point. “It is the dignity of the human person to be able to make permanent decisions. They belong enduringly to the person’s history; they mark him or her in a lasting way; one cannot simply cast them off or undo them.” Those who think we can brush off the theological significance of breaking the marriage vow as a mere “mistake” do no justice to the dignity of the persons involved. Again, we must reject a consumerist view of marriage: If this one broke, we shall buy a newer model. But, Kasper continues: “If those decisions of commitment are broken, then that signifies a deep wound. Wounds can heal. The scar remains and frequently causes pain, but one can and may go on living, even though it may be difficult. It is similar with Jesus’ good news: because God’s mercy, forgiveness, healing, and a new beginning are possible for the one who experiences conversion.”

Kasper looks at two concrete situations. First, he asks if the presumption that a marriage is valid is not sometimes a legal fiction? And, do not such legal fictions take on a life of their own when a strictly juridical process involves documents rather than people? These are important questions. We all know that there are times in a court proceeding when something is known but cannot be proved within the rules of evidence: a pastor may have a better insight into a situation than a canonist, even if the pastor cannot “prove” what he knows. And, there is something more than a little scandalous about the Church’s current requirement of a second examination of an annulment by a court that never engages the people involved. Surely, we can discern here an immediate improvement to the canonical process: The second instance, a sort of automatic review process, should not be required unless one of the parties requests it, or if the judicial vicar in the first instance requests it because of special complications in the case.

Kasper also questions if the current practice of denying communion to the divorced and remarried as a matter of course does not question the “fundamental sacramental structure of the Church.” He looks to the early Church’s experience: “Very early on the Church experienced that even apostasy happens among Christians. During persecutions, there were Christians who became weak and denied their baptism. For such lapsi [lapsed Christians], the Church developed the canonical praxis of penance as a second baptism, not by means of water, but by means of tears of repentance. After the shipwreck of sin, not a second ship, but a lifesaving plank should be made available to the drowning person.” Kasper points to evidence of conversion as key to unlocking mercy. He asks:

Is this path beyond rigorism and laxity, the path of conversion, which issues forth in the sacrament of mercy – the sacrament of penance – also the path that we can follow in this matter? Certainly not in every case. But if a divorced and remarried person is truly sorry that he or she failed in the first marriage, if the commitments from the first marriage are clarified and a return is definitely out of the question, if he or she cannot undo the commitments of a second marriage without new guilt, if he or she strives to the best of his or her ability to live out the second civil marriage on the basis of faith and to raise their children in the faith, if he or she longs for the sacraments as a source of strength in his or her situation, do we then have to refuse or can we refuse him or her the sacrament of penance and communion, after a period of reorientation?

Kasper suggests that a pastoral resolution, not merely a canonical one, might be able to ascertain the truth of the person’s situation and determine whether or not the person has converted to the degree that they have experienced this second baptism of tears. Kasper does not raise the point, but I will. If the Church, in order to avoid scandal and undue suffering, can dispense a cleric from his vow of celibacy, why is it so impossible to dispense a divorced and remarried person from the vow of fidelity contracted in the first marriage? I understand the situations are not exactly the same, but they are analogous.

Critically, Kasper holds firm to the correct framing of the issue: The pastoral approach to the divorced and remarried must not only look at the Church’s teaching on marriage, but on the entire sacramental structure of the Church. The Eucharist is itself healing, restorative, life-giving. It heals sin and restores grace. Each of us, before we approach the altar, speaks the Domine, non sum dignus – “Lord, I am not worthy…but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Yes, St. Paul is clear about the danger of approaching the Eucharist unworthily. It is the greatest treasure of the Church and should be treated as such. But, the word that heals our unworthiness has already been spoken.  This, I think, is what is too often missing from our hyper-individualistic and legalistic conception of what it means to be a sinner. Of course we are unworthy. We are only made worthy by faith in Jesus Christ. That faith is itself a gift. Viewed from a human perspective, the words of Jesus about the indissolubility of marriage seem impossible and excessive. Certainly, the apostles thought so (Matt 19: 3-9). But, our understanding of mercy is also a gift, it could not be attained on our own and stands, forever, in contradistinction to our human affinity for the settling of scores, for assigning where blame properly, or improperly, belongs, and even in our better moments for the pursuit of justice. Mercy transcends these because God is faithful to Himself and is faithful to us even when we are unfaithful.

Ever since Kasper’s talk became known, it has been attacked.  Cardinal Burke, in an interview with EWTN rejected Kasper’s approach in toto. For our purposes, I would like to focus on an unfortunate rebuttal from a group of Dominicans and a canonist, Kurt Martens, here in the United States that was published at Nova et Vetera.

I say unfortunate not because I am unsympathetic to the points that they raise: Those points remind us that this issue is a difficult one and they make some very good points. Some critics of the Church’s current pastoral practice, who are all for the development of doctrine, fail to admit that the Church’s current pastoral practice is itself a development of doctrine, that our understanding of our own teaching has grown and deepened. And, too often, we forget that the Gospel is demanding, that life is filled with choices that are hard but correct, that in the Gospels, one of the ways the Devil tempted Jesus was to suggest an easier path. And, they are right to remind us that truth makes its own claims and that there is nothing charitable or merciful about peddling off a lie as the truth in order to provide comfort, albeit false comfort. And, they are right to point out that the Church believes and practices many things that make no sense in the eyes of the world. Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

But, still, unfortunate and I say this for several reasons, the most serious of which is that in the text’s repeated references to a second civil marriage as “adulterous,” it is hard not to detect a certain comfortability in rendering judgment. It is all well and good to say that, objectively speaking, the teachings of the Church require X, but it is not well and good to forget that, objectively speaking, we are teaching, and pastoring to, human subjects. One sees this same “tough love” sensibility in Cardinal Burke’s interviews. And, this disposition leads one to conclude that if the Synod merely follows the approach found in both the text from the Dominicans and the interviews with Cardinal Burke, they will be able to sum up the Church’s pastoral outreach to the divorced and remarried thusly: “Too bad; Tough it out.” That is not, I would submit, a very sound pastoral approach, not for the people involved nor for the overall context of the Synod’s examination of this topic (and, indeed, her entire mission) namely, evangelization.

This lack of pastoral sensitivity – and, again, I do not mean mushiness, but attention to the person and, critically, attention to what the Church teaches about the human person – leads the Dominican authors to another problematic statement. They write:

Thus, the Church has borne a consistent witness in the contemporary world to the full truth about human sexuality and the complementarity of the sexes. The good of human sexuality is intrinsically related to its potential to generate new life, and its proper place is in a shared life of mutual, loving fidelity between a man and a woman. These are saving truths that the world needs to hear; the Catholic Church is, increasingly, a lone voice proclaiming them.

As Cardinal Kasper points out in his talk, this idea that we must witness to the culture is not wrong, but it cannot be advanced in a way that reduces human beings to a means. We should not “witness to the culture” with other people’s broken lives. There is something ugly, and something utilitarian, in those sentences. Similarly, there is a section that links the continued dismemberment of the Anglican communion, and its diminishing number of congregants, with its more lax teaching on human sexuality in general and divorce in particular. I know that Vatican II invited us to examine the “signs of the times” but this line of reasoning, precisely in its consequentialism, undermines what is the trump card for the position the authors hold: That this teaching comes from the mouth of Christ and, like it or not, we cannot change it. I think the history of the Church’s teaching is more complicated and less linear than the authors allow, but the ability to invoke the exact words of Christ usually wins a theological argument. Pointing out that there are fewer Anglicans at church on Sunday does not bolster that argument.

Jesus is recorded as saying many things in the Gospels and that fact brings me to what is arguably the biggest difficulty with this document from the Dominicans. They isolate his words about indissolubility from everything else he said (and fail to note that he understood hard-heartedness to be the root of the problem when discoursing about divorce, which would not be the root of the problem if someone is genuinely penitent about the failure of their first marriage). Similarly, they isolate the sacraments one from another and almost completely ignore the way that their discourse on the necessity of receiving the Eucharist worthily leads to a neo-pelagian understanding of grace, in which the Eucharist is a reward for good behavior, robbed of its own power to heal sin.

This document, and Cardinal Burke’s interviews – and we could cite others who insist there is no room for development of Church teaching in this regard – all rest on a particular interpretation of the passage in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 19, verses 3-12. But, reading this document and listening to Cardinal Burke’s interview, it is a different passage of Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 22, verses 23-33, that comes to mind:

That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.  “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother.  The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh.  Finally, the woman died.  Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.  At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you,  ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

Tomorrow, I shall give some of my thoughts on this deeply challenging issue.


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