My jaw dropped when I read the latest from Benedict XVI . . .
Since Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy and began his retirement in seclusion, he has said nothing publicly.
There’s a very good reason for that, and that’s why the most recent thing he’s written is so amazing.
He’s just publicly weighed in on Cardinal Kasper’s proposal to give Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Here’s the story . . .
1) Why is Benedict XVI so silent these days?
To give his successor a free hand. If a pope emeritus continued to speak out and play a substantial role as a public figure, it could cause all kinds of problems for his successor.
If the two were perceived as being in opposition to each other, it could be extremely traumatic for the Church. Hypothetically, it could even create a schism.
That’s why, when St. Celestine V resigned, his successor kept him imprisoned in a castle until he died.
By choosing to live in a monastery at the Vatican and staying out of the public eye, Benedict is deliberately staying out of Francis’s way.
He’s also setting a precedent for future popes emeritus.
2) What has Benedict said since retirement?
Very little. We know that he has been writing letters. In one letter, he took an atheist mathematician to the woodshed, and the mathematician later published the letter.
He also wrote a speech that was read at a Roman university by his aide, Archbishop Georg Ganswein.
But, in general, he has written very little that has come to public light.
And none of what he has written has dealt with controversial issues in the Church.
3) What does Benedict think of “the Kasper proposal”
Over the last year, the Church has been wracked by a revival of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to give Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in some circumstances.
Cardinals have been publicly debating each other in the press.
We don’t need to rehash the whole, sad history of that here.
As we’ve watched that situation play out, I’ve repeatedly wondered what Benedict must be thinking—and doing.
Since Pope Francis allowed public discussion of this subject to continue, and since it’s a source of controversy in the Church, you wouldn’t expect him to speak out publicly on the subject.
That would be precisely the kind of interference in his successor’s affairs that he set out to avoid by going into seclusion.
But this issue is so important, with such high stakes, that it’s also precisely the kind of situation that would test that resolve.
I thought, perhaps, he would play a background role—giving advice to Pope Francis off the record at an opportune moment. We know that kind of thing happens.
But he’s now done much more than that.
He’s told us what he thinks.
And it happened through an unusual chain of events that seems providentially structured.
4) What happened?
Back in 1972, when he was still a theology professor, Joseph Ratzinger wrote an essay on the indissolubility of marriage in which he tentatively floated a variation of the Kasper proposal.
This was one of several ideas that Prof. Ratzinger tried out in the days of theological experimentation after the Council but later abandoned.
Indeed, he became a leader in the opposition to the idea that Holy Communion could be given to the divorced and civilly remarried.
Thus, when Cardinal Kasper and two other German bishops floated the proposal in 1993, Cardinal Ratzinger—as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—wrote a paper forcefully rejecting the idea.
But that 1972 essay was still out there, and when he revived his proposal last year, Cardinal Kasper started quoting it.
I can only imagine that this deeply displeased Benedict.
Nobody likes having his words thrown back in his face—particularly when they are words that one has disowned.
For Cardinal Kasper to publicly cite the 1972 essay in an effort to associate Benedict’s name with and thus promote a position that Benedict has rejected must really come across as twisting the knife.
And yet it would seem that Benedict’s hands were tied by his seclusion.
Only they weren’t.
5) Why not?
Because, for the last few years, there has been an effort underway to re-publish collected editions of all of Benedict’s theological writings. (His private ones, that is; not his magisterial documents.)
This effort has been led by Cardinal Gerhard Muller.
And now they’ve published—in German—a volume of Benedict’s writings that includes a revised version of the 1972 essay.
The publication of this series of volumes thus allowed Benedict, from one perspective, to yank the rug out from under Cardinal Kasper’s use of the 1972 essay.
From another perspective, it allowed him to weigh in on the present controversy without having to make a new, public statement that could be perceived as deliberately interfering in the affairs of his successor.
The fact that this set of volumes was underway, and that that particular essay had not yet been republished when Cardinal Kasper started using it for his own purposes, is a providential blessing.
And what Benedict said is extremely encouraging.
6) What did he say?
Of course, the initial variation of the Kasper proposal is gone. There is no trace of it.
Benedict says a number of very interesting things, and the section dealing with divorce, remarriage, and Holy Communion reads as follows:
The 1981 apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” of John Paul II . . . states: “Together with the Synod, I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church […] Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.”
This gives pastoral care an important task, which perhaps has not yet been sufficiently incorporated into the Church’s everyday life. Some details are indicated in the exhortation itself. There it is said that these persons, insofar as they are baptized, may participate in the Church’s life, which in fact they must do. The Christian activities that are possible and necessary for them are listed. Perhaps, however, it should be emphasized with greater clarity what the pastors and brethren in the faith can do so that they may truly feel the love of the Church. I think that they should be granted the possibility of participating in ecclesial associations and even of becoming godfathers or godmothers, something that the law does not provide for as of now.
There is another point of view that imposes itself on me. The impossibility of receiving the holy Eucharist is perceived as so painful not last of all because, currently, almost all who participate in the Mass also approach the table of the Lord. In this way the persons affected also appear publicly disqualified as Christians.
I maintain that Saint Paul’s warning about examining oneself and reflecting on the fact that what is at issue is the Body of the Lord should be taken seriously once again: “A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:28 f.). A serious self-examination, which might even lead to forgoing communion, would also help us to feel in a new way the greatness of the gift of the Eucharist and would furthermore represent a form of solidarity with divorced and remarried persons.
I would like to add another practical suggestion. In many countries it has become customary for persons who are not able to receive communion (for example, the members of other confessions) to approach the altar with their hands folded over their chests, making it clear that they are not receiving the sacrament but are asking for a blessing, which is given to them as a sign of the love of Christ and of the Church. This form could certainly be chosen also by persons who are living in a second marriage and therefore are not admitted to the Lord’s table. The fact that this would make possible an intense spiritual communion with the Lord, with his whole Body, with the Church, could be a spiritual experience that would strengthen and help them.
He thus proposes pastoral care for those in this situation and finding ways to further involve them in the life of the Church—including allowing them to serve in church associations and perhaps as godparents.
However, he recommends no change on the question of administering Holy Communion.
Instead, he asks us all to engage in serious self-examination and not to receive Communion unthinkingly.
And he recommends the custom of approaching the minister for a blessing when—as with the divorced and civilly remarried—one is not able to receive Communion.
7) How significant is this?
Benedict’s revision of his 1972 essay is extremely significant.
It makes the general lines of his thought publicly known, and this is bound to be a great encouragement for those who wish to see the Church’s traditional teaching and practice maintained.
It also makes it harder to use Benedict’s name in association with the contrary proposal—as Cardinal Kasper and others have been doing.
It’s a net gain. It’s a gift from God. And, with the former pope weighing in on the issue publicly, it may even be a game-changer.
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