In a closed-door, two-hour session in February with some 185 of the world's cardinals, Cardinal Walter Kasper strongly suggested the church needs to deepen its theology and alter its pastoral practices regarding families and, especially, divorced and remarried couples. The former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers among those who view church teaching as set in stone.
One of the first to weigh in was Robert Fastiggi, a professor of systematic theology at Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary. Though Pope Francis found Kasper's presentation "beautiful and profound," Fastiggi in an article published by Zenit found serious problems. Here are two of his more sweeping criticisms.
"Cardinal Kasper states that it is not divine law ... that cases of the divorced and remarried must only be handled by juridical means. He wonders whether the bishop might not entrust these cases to a priest with pastoral and spiritual experience as a type of penitentiary or episcopal vicar. This evasion, though, of the Church's juridical process seems to have many potential dangers. If the priest is going to make a declaration of nullity of the prior putative marriage, on what basis can he make this judgment other than through the Church's canon law? How, though, is an individual priest better able to apply canon law than an ecclesiastical tribunal?"
I would respond that a priest who knows the situation may be far better equipped to apply canon law pastorally than a bureaucratic tribunal. He would be looking at the couple whose personal story he has heard in detail rather than at a sheaf of written forms.
"Cardinal Kasper points to the spiritual needs of divorced and remarried Catholics. He wonders whether the encouragement for them to receive 'spiritual communion' instead of sacramental communion makes any sense in light of the fundamental sacramental structure of the Church. If these divorced and remarried Catholics can make a spiritual communion with Christ in spite of their situation, why can they not receive the sacramental communion of the same Christ? The simple response to the Cardinal's question is that those who persist in grave sin are not to receive Holy Communion (CIC, canons 915-916). Having conjugal relations with someone other than one's spouse is a grave or mortal sin because it is adultery. Proper care for the human person can never give way to a permission to sin. If the Church allows divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion, this would mean either that marriage is not indissoluble or that adultery is not a mortal sin."
I think Kasper is urging the church to think beyond the absolutes of existing canon law. To characterize divorced and remarried Catholics as "those who persist in grave sin" and who are guilty of "adultery" is to miss the emphasis Pope Francis is putting on compassion. Surely, Fastiggi is aware of accommodations the church has made in the past centuries to benefit divorced couples of goodwill. Is current canonical legislation forever set and beyond reconsideration? I pray the bishops at the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family will think more widely and creatively than Fastiggi.