In a two-hour address to a consistory on the family last month, Cardinal Walter Kasper discussed marriage and family life, devoting the last section to “the problem of the divorced and remarried.” The final of the five sections has garnered much attention in the press. In that portion he asked, “is it not perhaps an exploitation of the person” when a person who has been divorced and remarried is excluded from receiving Communion, and suggests that for “the smaller segment of the divorced and remarried,” perhaps they could be admitted to “the sacrament of penance, and then of Communion.” The president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity spoke at the extraordinary consistory on the family Feb. 20, addressing some 150 cardinals, and Pope Francis. The Holy See press officer, Fr. Federico Lombardi, had said the address would not be released, as it was a “starting point” of discussion on marriage and the family, and not a final word.

But the full text of Cardinal Kasper’s talk was published by Italian daily Il Foglio March 1, under the title of “The Bible, eros, and family. Creation excludes absolutely the theories of gender. Man and woman are joined together and are invited to become a family unit, to social virtue, to the search for felicity.”

The address discussed the theology of marriage, and was intended to serve as the basis of a discussion on marriage and family life. The speech was divided into sections on the family in the order of creation; the structures of sin in the life of the family; the family in the Christian order of redemption; the family as a domestic Church; and the problem of the divorced and remarried. Cardinal Kasper began by stressing that “individualism and consumerism” put the “traditional culture of the family” in jeopardy, and therefore the number of those who “fail in realizing their project of life has dramatically increased.” Despite this, he said, “our position today cannot be that of a liberal adaptation to the status quo, but a radical position that traces back to our origins, that is, to the Gospel.” In the order of creation, he noted that marriage and the family have “been widely appreciated by all cultures in the history of humanity. It is defended as a community of life between a man and a woman, together with their children.” Cardinal Kasper denied, without referring directly to them, secular ideologies on gender and sexuality, explaining that “becoming a man or a woman is not a matter of one’s personal choice, as recent opinions maintain.” As an image of God, human love is beautiful, yet is not divine, he said. Thus there is a problem when a person “deifies” their spouse, setting expectations so high that they cannot be met; this, he said, is a reason why “many marriages fail.” Touching on the ordering of marriage to children, Cardinal Kasper said the family has “a social and political task,” and is in fact the “fundamental model” for the state, since the family precedes it, both in time and in precedence. Speaking on structural sin and family life, he said we cannot have “an unrealistic and romantic idea,” but we rather have to “see the tough realities and take part in the sadness, worries and tears of many families.” At the same time, we should be “bearers of hope” more than “prophets of misfortune,” offering consolation and encouraging families to persevere through their struggles. Cardinal Kasper then turned to the family in the Christian order of redemption, drawing upon Christ’s words calling the scribes and Pharisees to consider not the Mosaic law, which made concessions to “the hardness of your hearts,” but to God’s original plan for creation. Marriage is an image of, and is “embraced and sustained by” the bond between God and his people, in which “the fidelity to God remains even when the fragile human bond of love is weakened, or even dies.” “The definitive promise of a bond of fidelity of God deprives the human bond of arbitrariness, and it gives him solidity and stability.” This is the basis for the indissolubility of marriage, he said. As a sacrament, Cardinal Kasper said, marriage “is both a healer for the consequences of sin, and a tool for sanctifying grace.” In the face of hardness of hearts, families must continue on the path of “conversion, renewal, and maturation.” He then turned to the family as domestic Church, saying, “families need the Church, and the Church needs families to be present at the center of life … without the domestic Churches, the Church is a stranger to the concrete realm of life.” It was only after having discussed all this that Cardinal Kasper turned to the section of his address that has generated controversy: “the problem of the divorced and remarried.” Noting the large number of persons suffering from the effects of divorce, he said, “It is not enough to consider the problem only from the point of view and from the perspective of the Church as a sacramental institution. We need a paradigm change and we must - as the good Samaritan did - consider the situation also from the perspective of those who are suffering and asking for help.” The issue, Cardinal Kasper said, “cannot be reduced to the question of admission to Communion,” but regards “the overall pastoral interest in marriages and families.” Pastors’ care and concern cannot “stop after the failure of a marriage,” and they “must remain close to the divorced, and invite them to take part to the life of the Church.” Facing those who have divorced and entered a second, civil marriage while their spouse is still alive, Cardinal Kasper said that the Church “cannot propose a solution that is different from or contrary to the words of Jesus. The indissolubility of sacramental marriage and the impossibility of a new marriage during the lifetime of the other partner is part of the tradition of the Church's binding faith that cannot be abandoned or undone by appealing to a superficial understanding of cheapened mercy.” He suggested that the current situation is analogous to that of the Second Vatican Council on issues of ecumenism and religious freedom: Without violating the binding dogmatic tradition, the Council opened doors. We can ask ourselves: is it not perhaps possible that there could be further developments on the present question as well? The answer, he said, can only be tailored to the multiplicity of situations, which “should be distinguished with care. A general solution for all cases cannot therefore exist.” Cardinal Kasper suggested that “we cannot presuppose that that spouses” understand the conditions which make for a valid marriage, and asked if the presumption of validity “is not often a legal fiction.” In light of this, he suggested that instead of questions of nullity being decided by a tribunal, “we sometimes ask ourselves … if other more pastoral and spiritual procedures could also be possible.” “As an alternative, one might think that the bishop could entrust this task to a priest.” He added, however, that it would be wrong to try and solve the problem with “a generous enlargement of the procedure of nullity,” since it would create the “dangerous impression that the Church would dishonestly concede what in fact is a divorce.” Noting that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1994 wrote that those who are divorced and remarried can make an act of spiritual communion, he asked, “why, then, can (such a person) not also receive sacramental Communion?” He claimed that in the early Church, when someone entered a new relationship even though their spouse was still alive, “after a period of penance had available … a life raft through admission to Communion.” Suggesting a “way of conversion” involving the sacrament of confession, he asked, “is it also the path that we could follow in the present question?” When someone who is divorced and remarried “repents of his failure in the first marriage”; if he cannot return to the first marriage; if he “cannot abandon without further harm” the responsibilities of his second marriage; if “he is doing the best he can to live out the possibilities of the second marriage on the basis of the faith and to raise his children in the faith”; and if “he has a desire for the sacraments as a source of strength in his situation,” Cardinal Kasper said, then “should we or can we deny him, after a period of time of a new orientation (metanoia), the sacrament of penance, and then of Communion?” He clarified that this is not “a general solution,” but is “the narrow path of what is probably the smaller segment of the divorced and remarried, those sincerely interested in the sacraments.” “Life is not just black or white; there are, in fact, many nuances.” Cardinal Kasper emphasized the need for “discretion, spiritual discernment, sagacity, and pastoral wisdom” in these cases. “This discretion is not an easy compromise between the extremes of rigorism and laxity, but, as is every virtue, a perfection between these extremes.” Concluding his address, he said, “We must take a positive starting point and rediscover and announce the Gospel of the family in all its beauty. Truth convinces through its beauty.” “We need to help, with words and deeds, to ensure that persons find felicity in the family and thus can give to other families a testimony of their joy.”