WASHINGTON — A prominent cardinal’s proposal to allow Communion for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics is a flawed solution to the Church’s need to address the pastoral challenges of married life and family, according to critics.
Much of the coverage of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family that starts Oct. 5 has focused on a proposal from Cardinal Walter Kasper to allow Communion for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics after a period of penance. The idea that the Church could change its doctrine or discipline has generated buzz in the media and has largely overshadowed the synod’s other topics addressing the pastoral challenge of how to help build stronger marriages and families.
However, a panel of Catholic authors — including Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura; Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press; Father Robert Dodaro, president of the Patristic Institute in Rome; James Hitchcock; Helen Hull Hitchcock; and Dr. Stephan Kampowski at the John Paul II Institute in Rome — joined in a teleconference on Sept. 30 to address what they said were the flaws in Cardinal Kasper’s proposal.
“If the family is not strong, if marriage is not stable and strong, then the whole of society itself is in great danger, and so we see that in our own experience,” Cardinal Burke said.
Cardinal Burke was one of the contributors to the essays in the book Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church, which was a public response to Cardinal Kasper’s proposal. Cardinal Burke explained that it was a response to Cardinal Kasper’s request “for a dialogue” about marriage: “We came to the conclusion that the direction proposed by Cardinal Kasper is fundamentally flawed, and so we believe our book is a positive contribution to get this discussion back on the right track.”
He said Cardinal Kasper is “urging a direction which, in the whole history of the Church, it has never taken” and would involve a “disobedience or at least a non-full adherence” to the teaching of Jesus Christ about the indissolubility of marriage in the Gospel.
Cardinal Burke explained that the extraordinary synod will not make any decisions — that is reserved for the ordinary synod that will follow in 2015 — but its preparations “will set the direction for the ordinary session. From that point of view, it has to be taken seriously.”
Pope Francis’ Position
Cardinal Burke also dismissed Cardinal Kasper’s claim that those criticizing him were actually attacking Pope Francis. Cardinal Burke called it “outrageous” for any cardinal to allege on his own authority that he speaks for the Holy Father.
“I find it amazing the cardinal claims to speak for the Pope,” Cardinal Burke said. “The Pope does not have laryngitis. The Pope is able to teach and speak for himself. If this is what he wants, he will say so.”
Pope Francis has been on record as saying the Church cannot give Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried since his time as the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires. His thoughts on the subject were printed in a lengthy biographical interview with two Argentine journalists, first published in a book called El Jesuita and then later in English as Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words. That position appears to have remained consistent with the account of Spanish Bishop Demetrio Fernandez of Cordoba, who said Pope Francis told him during a recent ad limina visit that a person who is divorced and civilly remarried “cannot approach the sacraments,” but that the Church “can always find ways to be more welcoming.”
Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio said Pope Francis’ leadership style is to “listen and allow different sides to express themselves in the hope that truth will come out.”
He also explained that besides the Communion issue there is “not total disagreement” with Cardinal Kasper’s theology.
“There’s a lot of area of agreement here on fundamental questions about the family, the sacrament of marriage and so on,” Father Fessio said.
But Cardinal Burke pointed out that a negative problem has been the media promotion of false expectations from Cardinal Kasper’s intervention, creating the perception the Church can change its teaching or discipline.
“Priests and bishops have told me this has created a difficultly for them, because people are presenting themselves who are in irregular unions and who [think they] understand now they can receive the sacrament. But that can only come from the media,” the cardinal said.
Cardinal Burke warned that the Church cannot have differences between its teachings and its disciplines, such as making annulments easier at the expense of determining the truth of whether there was a valid marriage or not, because “people are not stupid.” He said people will come to the conclusion that the Church teaches one thing but is “hypocritical in its praxis.”
“For the Catholic Church to say doctrine is one thing and discipline another, that simply cannot work,” he said.
Catholic historian James Hitchcock agreed, noting that people “are influenced very much by what they see.”
“If they see people divorced, remarried and being admitted to the sacraments, they’re not going to involve themselves in some doctrinal question. They’re going to say, ‘See, the Church now recognizes this.’”
Father Dodaro, the editor of Remaining in the Truth of Christ, said Cardinal Kasper’s proposal would negatively impact the credibility of the Church’s voice during marriage preparation if it were implemented. He gave the example of a priest who had spoken to a couple in marriage preparation about marriage making them “one flesh in Christ.”
“Then, at the end of that session ... the young man says to the woman, ‘My parents are divorced and remarried and go to Communion. So what is the big deal?’”
The Bigger Picture
Father Fessio said there have been some “positive consequences” as a result of Cardinal Kasper’s intervention, which focused on a “very small issue with respect to the family worldwide.”
“I believe worldwide attention has been drawn to this synod in a way that would not have been drawn otherwise,” he said.
“Now, there is this tremendous opportunity for this synod … to address tremendous, practical pastoral problems the family is facing in our society.”
Cardinal Burke said he hass been approached by people with various pastoral concerns and approaches, which he hopes will be discussed and underlined at the synod.
“I expect it, but I have not yet seen a program for the discussion.”
Father Dodaro said the synod could provide the Church a “good wake-up call” to focus on marriage and the family. He noted that the Church has a wealth of rich material on marriage and the family that the faithful and society need to be reminded of. He pointed out that Benedict XVI called on pastors to seek out the divorced and civilly remarried and “make them feel welcomed in the parishes.” He added that Pope Francis urged African bishops back in April to implement John Paul II’s vision in Familiaris Consortio.
“We have the teaching,” he said. “The question, really, is finding pastoral strategies to implementing it more effectively.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register Washington correspondent.