Remarriage, Divorce and Communion: Patristic Light on a Recent Problem


(photo: The Catholic University of America)

On Feb. 20, Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany gave an address, “The Gospel of the Family,” to the Extraordinary Consistory on the Family called by the Holy Father, much of it concerned with outlining current difficulties — massive mobility, immigration, costs of childrearing, aging populations, individualism, alienation of urban life, civil divorce, etc . — faced by Catholics entering the married state.

A married Catholic such as me might suppose that these prevailing circumstances suggest, rather than a relaxation of the rules debarring from Communion the divorced and “re-married,” that promulgating from Rome requirements for far more serious marriage instruction to be given to couples by priests (or others) cognizant of these difficulties of marriage in contemporary society would be a first, obvious step towards solving or at least diminishing the problem and easing the strain on marriage-tribunals.

Yet the cardinal proposes that the rule about Communion be liberalized for two groups of divorced-and-remarried Catholics: those who genuinely believe (or may even know) that they originally entered on a Church wedding with no firm intention, or inadequate understanding, as to the rules about validity; secondly, those who have contracted a civil second marriage because their Catholic marriage has failed “irretrievably” — with emphasis on a “probably very small group” of these last as especially worthy of relaxation of the rules.

However, it is not my intent to trespass upon the cardinal’s preserve in matter of teaching about marriage, but, rather, to handle that within my competency: the teaching of the Fathers of the Church. For while Cardinal Kasper admits that we cannot simply go back to ancient teachings, he does claim — at the same time suggesting an imprecise parallel with developing doctrines of penance for apostasy — that evidence from antiquity is sufficiently uncertain for a more relaxed approach to find patristic support. To show how weak is this claim, let me address the few texts the cardinal offers in support of his position — limiting myself to the period before the sixth century, since with Justinian an encroaching Caesaro-papism engenders in the East a contorting of earlier evidence in favor of a more relaxed approach.

Though others have put forward “early” — though non-existent — evidence for his position, the cardinal wisely offers nothing from the first 150-odd years of Christianity, presumably accepting that marriage rules were then still strict and apostolically based. The first text he cites, from the mid-third century, is Origen (Commentary on Matthew 14:23-24), reporting that bishops of certain local churches “not without reason” allow Communion to those divorced and remarried. Yet Origen also says — not once, but three times — that this practice is contrary to the Scriptures: hardly endorsement, nor even toleration from so biblical a theologian! Councils apart (I shall come to them), Cardinal Kasper offers further evidence only from the fourth century, observing that Basil (letters 188 and 199), Gregory of Nazienzen (Oratio 37) and Augustine are aware of the same practice occurring; what he omits to notice is that there is no indication of any of them concurring in what plainly contravenes their ordinary teaching.

Moving beyond “private” theologians, Cardinal Kasper claims that a more pastoral attitude is evidenced by the Council of Nicaea (325) – presumably by Canon 8, which (so he and others tell us) “confirmed” the more relaxed approach. Though this has occasionally been read into the text, its virtually certain intent is to permit Communion not to the divorced and remarried but to the widowed and remarried; for we need to bear in mind that a Christian’s marrying twice in any circumstances — including widowhood — was much debated, giving reason for the Council to address this uncertainty. Nor is Cardinal Kasper’s case strengthened by misapplying the Pauline notion of metanoia and going on to presume that the Fathers would consider “repentance” of the failure of a first marriage to justify entering into a second.

To conclude, upon examination, the cardinal’s case depends on misinterpreting a tiny number of texts while neglecting numerous others which contradict them. How can this have happened?

To my mind, we have here an example of a procedure all too frequent in academia, more especially when work may be motivated by convenience or ideology: There is an overwhelming amount of evidence in one direction and one or two texts which might conceivably be read otherwise; from which is derived the desired conclusion, or at least that the matter is open.

Perhaps Cardinal Kasper has more texts to cite; certainly, he will be able to name some few scholars whose lead he has followed. But multiple exemplars of misleading academic practice ought logically to be no more convincing than one!

John Rist, Ph.D., is the Father Kurt Pritzl OP Chair of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He was professor of classics at the University of Toronto for 30 years and currently teaches at the Augustinianum, the Patristic Institute in Rome. Rist is widely published in the field of ancient philosophy, patristics and moral philosophy. He is married and both a father and a grandfather.