Kasper presses for full return of those in second marriages

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Robert McClory

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In a long and complex article in the Sept. 15 issue of America magazine, Cardinal Walter Kasper discusses how mercy is understood in the Gospel and in the teaching of Pope Francis. He applies this to the possibility of permitting those in second marriages to be absolved and returned to the church in good standing. This issue is now under discussion in preparation for the upcoming synod, Kasper says, and it is clear he will be one of those pushing enthusiastically for change in the near future.

Here are a few telling paragraphs from Kasper's powerful article.

The Gospel is against a legalistic understanding of canon law. Canon law should be interpreted and applied in the light of mercy because mercy opens our eyes to the concrete situation of the other. Mercy shows that the individual is not only a case that can subsumed under a general rule. On the contrary, it is essential for Christian anthropology that before God we are not a "plural"; every person and every situation is singular. So we have to find solutions that are just and equitable at the same time. If we do not, then -- as the Romans put it -- summa ius (highest justice) can become summa iniuria (highest injustice).

What such reflections mean for the question of divorced and remarried Catholics is now under discussion in advance of the forthcoming Synod of Bishops. I do not have a final answer on this question. It is the responsibility of the synod together with the pope to make these decisions. In my last consistory with the pope, however, I did with his agreement propose some modest reflections on this urgent issue.

No theologian, not even the pope, can change the doctrine of the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage. On the contrary, we all have reason to help and support people to be faithful to marriage for their own good and for the good of their children. So doctrine cannot be changed and will not be changed. But doctrine must be applied with prudence in a just and equitable way to concrete and often complex situations. For these situations are very different. There is no one typical case of divorce and remarriage; therefore there cannot be one standard solution for every situation. Discernment is needed, and discernment, prudence and wisdom are the main virtues for a bishop as a pastor. The best cannot always be done, but we should always do the best possible.

So the question is: If a person after divorce enters into a civil second marriage but then 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? In the Creed we profess: "I believe in the forgiveness of sin." When God gives a new chance, a new future to everybody who repents and does what is possible in their situation, why not the church, which is the sacrament of God's mercy? ...

The customary perspective in theology starts from above. We know a doctrine or a rule, and we start from there in order to apply it to concrete reality, which is usually complex and manifold. Mercy leads us to a different perspective, to start not from above but from below, to undertake a consideration of a concrete situation to which we are applying the law or rule. This is not situation ethics, because the rule is valuable in itself and is not constituted by the situation. This is the method taught by St. Ignatius Loyola in his spiritual exercises; this is how Pope Francis, as a good Jesuit, practices it. He starts from the situation and then undertakes a discernment of the spirits.

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