Cardinals disagree on remarried Catholics

Sharp differences emerge among prelates

When Pope Francis called cardinals from all over the world together in February, the Synod of Bishops – due in October – and what it might say about the Church’s teaching on the family was centre-stage.

The Pontiff had invited German Cardinal Walter Kasper to address the meeting. While the cardinal’s text wasn’t released, some media outlets obtained a copy.

The Church needs to find a way to offer healing, strength and salvation to Catholics whose marriages have failed, who are committed to making a new union work and who long to do so within the Church and with the grace of Communion, Dr Kasper told the world’s cardinals.

Cardinal Kasper said it would be up to members of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family in October and the world Synod of Bishops in 2015 to discuss concrete proposals for helping divorced and civilly remarried Catholics participate more fully in the life of the Church.

However, a possible avenue for finding those proposals, he said, would be to develop “pastoral and spiritual procedures” for helping couples convinced in conscience that their first union was never a valid marriage. The decision cannot be left only to the couple, he said, because marriage has a public character, but that does not mean that a juridical solution – an annulment granted by a marriage tribunal – is the only way to handle the case.


As a diocesan bishop in Germany in 1993, Cardinal Kasper and two other bishops issued pastoral instructions to help priests minister to such couples. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, made the bishops drop the plan. A similar proposal made last year by the Archdiocese of Freiburg, Germany, was criticised by Cardinal Gerhard Muller, current prefect of the doctrinal congregation.

According to an authoritative account published in the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa, the issue dominated the February meeting. Marco Tosatti, the paper’s respected Vatican-writer explains, that Cardinal Kasper’s thesis received little consensus and a lot of criticism. La Stampa also published some of the most significant and important statements.

According to the account, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna as well as German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller (Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith) spoke clearly. Cardinal Walter Brandmuller was reportedly equally explicit: “Neither human nature nor the Commandments nor the Gospel have an expiry date… Courage is needed to enunciate the truth even against current customs. Whoever speaks on behalf of the Church must possess courage if he does not want his vocation to be a failure…The desire to obtain approval and applause is a temptation which is always present in the transmission of religious teaching.”


The President of the Italian Bishops, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco reportedly expressed himself in a critical manner with regard to Cardinal Kasper’s approach; the same went for the African Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican’s charity office ‘Cor Unum’ who at the end of his comments, recalled that in the course of the centuries even on dramatic questions controversies and divergences had existed inside the Church, but that the role of the papacy had always been the one of defending doctrine.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, said to be one of the cardinals who rallied votes for Cardinal Bergoglio during the conclave, gave a very short statement, which the paper summarised as: “I will speak for just a moment, because there are future new cardinals here and perhaps some of them do not have the courage to say it, so I will: I am completely against this report.”

Also the Prefect of the Penitentiary, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza said he was against it and more or less said: “We are here now and we will be here again in October for a synod on the family, and so since we want to have a positive synod, I don’t see why we have to touch only on the matter of communion for divorcees.”

He added: “Since we want to have a debate on pastoral care, it seems to me that we should have to take note of a widespread pan-sexualism and the attack of the ‘ideology of gender’ which tend to demolish the family as we have always known it. It would be providential if we were lumen gentium (light to the nations) so as to clarify the situation we find ourselves in, as well as the things that can destroy the family.”

He concluded by exhorting a re-reading of the catecheses by Blessed John Paul II on corporeity, since they contain many positive elements about sex, on being a man and a woman, procreation and love.

French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran returned again to what he described as the attack on the family, also in light of relations with Islam. Likewise Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan raised theological and doctrinal difficulties that he saw with what Cardinal Kasper was proposing.

The influential Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini was reportedly also very critical. He added: “I don’t know if I understood well, but at this moment, about 85% of the cardinals have expressed opinions apparently contrary to the layout of the report.” He added that among those who did not say anything – and therefore could not be classified – he took from their silence that “I believe they are embarrassed”.

Cardinal Ruini then cited the soon-to-be-canonised Blessed John XXIII. In essence saying: “When John XXIII gave his opening speech at the Second Vatican Council, he said a pastoral council could be held as fortunately doctrine was accepted peacefully by everyone and there were no controversies; so a pastoral approach could be presented without fear of misunderstandings because doctrine remained very clear.”

Doctrine contested

If John XXIII had been right then, the cardinal commented, God alone knew, but apparently it was true to a large extent. This could absolutely not be said anymore today, because doctrine is not only not shared, but it is contested. “It would be a fatal mistake” to follow the pastoral approach without referring to doctrine.

La Stampa quotes German cardinals who know Dr Kasper well who say he has felt passionate about the subject of Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics since the 1970s. “The problem,” however, the paper adds, “raised by many critics is that on this point the Gospel is very clear. And by not taking this into account – which is the fear – any other point of doctrine based on the Gospel would be rendered very instable, and modifiable at will.”

All of it makes for a lively debate and positions are becoming clearer. Cardinal Muller, head of the CDF who strongly disagrees with Cardinal Kasper pointedly reminded commentators last week that “I am not involved [in the debate] as a private theologian, but in the function of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is indeed the only one of the Roman Congregations which has the duty to inform, without mediation, the Magisterium of the Pope, while others who take part, even if they have the rank of cardinal, speak personally, only for themselves, and do not make official statements”.

When the world’s bishops gather in Rome in October there’ll be plenty of food for thought.