What Cardinal Kasper Really Said About Divorce

A high profile debate is underway in the Catholic Church regarding communion for the divorced and remarried. As in most family quarrels, however, the real point of contention remains unacknowledged. Before pointing out the elephant in the living room, however, a little background is called for.

Some Recent Developments
Speculation has been growing for nearly a year now concerning possible changes to the practice of withholding communion from divorced Catholics who have been remarried civilly. On his trip to Brazil only a few months after his election, Pope Francis raised the problem of pastoral care for this large portion of the faithful. Subsequently, he announced that the Synod of Bishops would examine the question in the fall of 2014 along with other challenges faced by the family in our day. Moreover, in February, Pope Francis made use of his first Consistory of Cardinals to initiate an examination of the issue. To address the College, he chose Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian whose position that communion should be given to at least some divorced and remarried Catholics was well known. Cardinal Kasper’s talk, which soon became public, did indeed call for a liberalization of the current practice.

Surely there is no thoughtful person in the Church today who does not share the concern of Pope Francis and Cardinal Kasper for the plight of the many persons who find themselves, following divorce and remarriage, unable to participate in the sacraments of salvation. Nonetheless, the prospect of admitting those living in irregular situations to the Eucharistic banquet has caused not a little consternation to many in the Church. Even the most rudimentarily catechized know that (1) Christ called marrying after divorce “adultery,” (2) adultery is a mortal sin prohibited by the sixth commandment, and (3) those who have committed mortal sin are not to receive communion without repentance and amendment of life. How these truths can be combined in such a way as to permit the admission of the persons in question to communion is far from clear. Nonetheless, only a few authoritative voices have publicly expressed any perplexity. The first to do so was Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, Archbishop of Bologna. As the man picked by Pope John Paul II to found and direct the Pontifical Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family which bears the holy pontiff’s name, Cardinal Caffarra, who is also a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family, is perhaps the most authoritative voice on such issues in the Church today.

In an interview given to an Italian newspaper two weeks after Cardinal Kasper’s address, the Archbishop of Bologna took issue with the position of his fellow cardinal. He considers the suggestion that the divorced and remarried could receive communion as a threat to Christ’s teaching on marriage. Consequently, in answers that are well worth reading, he makes several excellent points about the true nature and dignity of marriage. Nonetheless, despite his disagreement with Cardinal Kasper on the wisdom of changing the current pastoral discipline, Cardinal Caffarra’s argumentation conceals a major surprise. On a close reading, he and his opponent are really saying much the same thing.


This odd state of affairs is due to the fact that the real issue at stake between them is ignored. Cardinal Caffarra’s profound and beautiful defense of marriage essentially misses the point of the controversy, as Cardinal Kasper would surely agree with every word of it. Significantly, Kasper would also agree with another statement made by Caffarra, in which he appears to grant his opponent’s key argument. Before examining this passage, let us first take a look at Cardinal Kasper’s address to his brother cardinals.

Cardinal Kasper’s Argument
As might be expected, Cardinal Kasper emphatically denies wishing to change Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. He explicitly rules out a more liberal approach to the granting of annulments, which could appear as a tempting solution to many irregular situations, noting that this would indeed jeopardize the Church’s claim to hold marriage indissoluble. Consequently, the cardinal does not call into doubt the objectively sinful state of those who have remarried outside the Church. Rather, and this is the key, he questions the personal responsibility of these persons for the situation in which they find themselves. From this position, the question naturally arises: if some such people are subjectively innocent, why are they being excluded from full participation in the Church’s life?

The obvious answer is that one cannot know for sure whether or not a person is subjectively innocent for his bad behavior. Is a given person truly responsible, having acted with sufficient knowledge and freedom? Or was the sin merely “material,” as the technical terminology has it? Certainly, whether some people do indeed find themselves in an adulterous relationship through no serious fault of their own, and which people these might be, are not questions that a minister of communion can answer. Therefore, admission to communion must be based on objective criteria. For his part, Cardinal Kasper simply raises the issue of individuals who are “subjectively convinced” of their innocence, but he does not pursue it. Not wishing to anticipate the work of the upcoming Synod of Bishops, he does not propose what pastoral approach should be taken in their regard. Nonetheless, it is clear that this is the fulcrum on which centuries of pastoral practice could be overturned.

The cardinal gives two indications that this question of imputability or responsibility for an objectively sinful situation lies at the heart of his argument. The first indication is his appeal to his audience to have an open mind such as that which allowed great ecumenical progress at the time of the Second Vatican Council. The analogy is extremely suggestive. At the Council, a sea change occurred in regard to non-Catholic Christians, but it was primarily pastoral, not doctrinal. For nearly 500 years, Protestants had been viewed by Catholics as schismatics and treated with a mixture of pity and disdain. While it was acknowledged that many fine Protestants could be found—mystics and martyrs among them—the ordinary case was presumed to be someone who was closed to the truth through his own fault. With the Second Vatican Council this presumption shifted: maybe the ordinary case was not someone obstinately closed to the truth. The Decree on Ecumenism specifically teaches that “the children who are born into these [non-Catholic] Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation” (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 3). Significantly for our theme, this shift of presumption led not only to much warmer interdenominational relationships but even to the admission of Protestants, under certain conditions, to Holy Eucharist in the Catholic Church (cfr. CIC 1983 can. 844 §4; CIC 1917 can. 731 §2). Essentially, Cardinal Kasper is suggesting that a similar presumption of good faith and a corresponding shift in Eucharistic discipline be applied to the divorced and remarried.

There is a second indication in the address of Cardinal Kasper that points to the same conclusion. He notes that while Pope Benedict XVI did not see how communion could be offered to those in irregular marriages, he did recommend that they make spiritual communions. Kasper seizes upon this suggestion as an inconsistency in the thought of Benedict. If such persons were truly in a state of mortal sin, why should we suggest to them to make a spiritual communion? To ask the Lord to come into one’s heart in the manner that He does in the Eucharistic mystery makes sense only when one cannot receive Him sacramentally for some practical reason—for instance, when making a visit to a church where no Mass is being celebrated. Yet, does it make sense to beg the Lord to visit one’s heart when one has chosen, by the commission of grave sin, to cast Him out? Should not such persons be told instead to reform their lives at once, make a good confession, and then receive the Lord spiritually or sacramentally as the case may be? Again, without saying so explicitly, Cardinal Kasper implies that the divorced and remarried, despite their objectively immoral life situation, might qualify for sacramental as well as spiritual communion.

Now, to these arguments of Cardinal Kasper, Cardinal Caffarra unwittingly adds his own. In the abovementioned interview, he says:

The reason why the Church does not admit the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist is not because the Church presumes that all those who live in these conditions are in mortal sin. The subjective state of these persons is known to the Lord, who looks into the depths of the heart. St Paul also says it: ‘Do not judge before the time.’ But [the reason is] because—and it is written also in Familiaris Consortio—‘their state and their condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church signified and actualized by the Eucharist’ (FC 84).

Before highlighting how Cardinal Caffarra here inadvertently lends support to his German colleague’s position, a short excursus is required.

Knowing How We Stand Before God
It is beyond doubt, as Cardinal Caffarra indicates, that it cannot be known with certainty, barring a special revelation, whether someone is “in mortal sin,” that is, deprived of sanctifying grace. To claim to be able to “look into the depths of the heart” would indeed be to usurp the Lord’s role as judge. The most relevant magisterial locus on this matter is the Council of Trent’s pronouncement that it would be heretical to assert, without special revelation, that one had “absolute and infallible certainty” that one would persevere in grace at the moment of death (cf. Session VI, can. 16). Nonetheless, it is clear that this formulation does not indicate a total agnosticism on the point, but only an inability to know with absolute and infallible certainty. Trent’s teaching is a faithful echo of St. Thomas Aquinas’s affirmation that “no one can know whether he has sanctifying grace” (I-II, q. 112, a. 5). In the body of the article, Aquinas specifies that one cannot know this “of himself … and with certainty,” but one can know it by revelation or “conjecturally by signs.”

The fact that one can have conjectural or “imperfect” knowledge of the state of one’s soul is of vast pastoral importance. Many of the “signs” apply to knowing either one’s own spiritual status or that of another person, which enables confessors both to rouse the lukewarm and comfort the scrupulous. If one were to adopt instead an absolute agnosticism on the question, there would be no rational basis for praising Mother Teresa as a “living saint” or for warning an impenitent Mafioso that he is in danger of forfeiting eternal life. In fact, however, there is a correlation between the actions that people perform and the state of their souls, because people are ordinarily responsible for their actions. Despite the exaggerated reluctance today to speculate about whether someone is responsible for his actions, it is both possible and on occasion advisable to do just that. In former times, this was done quite naturally, as indicated by one of Christianity’s earliest documents: “And if any righteous man among [the Christians] passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another near … [but] if they see that any one of them dies in his ungodliness or in his sins, for him they grieve bitterly, and sorrow as for one who goes to meet his doom” (Apology of Aristides, addressed to Emperor Hadrian, c. 125 A.D.).

Cardinal Caffarra’s Position
With this in mind, we return to Cardinal Caffarra’s claim about the civilly remarried, that, namely, the Church does not withhold communion from them because she “presume[s] that all [such persons] are in mortal sin.” How are we to interpret the word “presume” in this phrase? One meaning of the word in Italian is better expressed in English by the word “assume”: to take (-sumere) as true without (a-) evidence. In this sense, it is safe to say that the Church does not presume, or think, or take for granted, that all such persons are in mortal sin.

However, in both languages “presume” is more properly used and understood to mean take (-sumere) as true conditionally, based on available evidence, before (pre-) proof is obtained. In real life it is often necessary and reasonable to act upon presumptions, instead of certainty. Who would not presume that a man in a Roman collar sitting in an airport lounge is a validly ordained Catholic priest? Certainly, one can take something as true on too meager evidence, for which reason “presumptuous” has a negative connotation. Yet, the contrary vice of “incredulity” is an inordinate reluctance to believe something given adequate evidence, such as trustworthy witnesses. Now, in this sense of presume, we should say the Catholic Church presumes that most, but not all, of the divorced and remarried are in mortal sin, because there is ordinarily a correlation between behavior and character; most adults are responsible agents, especially in a question that is perforce deliberate such as contracting marriage again, this time outside the Church.

Sometimes the word “presume” is used with a slight nuance. It can describe the taking of something to be true not because there is adequate evidence for a probable judgment, but for another serious motive. Americans use “presume” in this sense when they say that all those suspected of crimes are to be “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” This presumption has nothing to do with the likelihood that suspects are in fact innocent, but it is posited for another reason: to insure a careful and honest process for all suspects. Now in this sense of presume it actually is correct to say that the Church “presumes all [such persons] are in mortal sin.” In other words, she acts as if this were true, just as the authors of the U.S. justice system know that many suspects are actually guilty.

Why then does Familiaris Consortio give as the reason for withholding communion that “their state and their condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church signified and actualized by the Eucharist” (n. 84)? Simply because this objective contradiction is the indispensable basis for making two prudential judgments, which correspond to the two senses of presumption just outlined. Firstly, the judgment is made that most of the divorced and remarried are not disposed to receive the Eucharist, and secondly, the pastoral decision is made that, in view of the impossibility of discovering, even by the parties themselves, which remarried persons may be subjectively innocent, communion should be withheld from all.

Now it might well be objected that the Church withholds communion from this group not because of the presumed spiritual condition of the persons in question, but for some other motive. For instance, perhaps the Church wishes to avoid scandal; if the divorced and remarried were admitted to communion, many others could be tempted to follow their example. Or, perhaps the Church maintains this discipline simply as an encouragement to the divorced and remarried to amend their objectively sinful situation. Such motives are at most secondary considerations. A Catholic who is disposed to receive the sacraments has a right to receive them, and the Church would not deny access unless she had reason to believe that the person was not ready to receive them, being, presumably, in a state of mortal sin. It is a service of charity to ill disposed persons to prevent them from committing the sin of sacrilege: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (I Cor 11:27).

Despite Cardinal Caffarra’s eagerness to keep the Church from appearing “judgmental,” he clearly does presume that the divorced and remarried are in mortal sin. In other parts of the interview he refers to their need for “repentance” and for genuine “mercy” not “tolerance.” He truly does disagree with Cardinal Kasper, but the reason for their opposing positions remains implicit. In essence, Kasper denies the legitimacy of making inferences based upon external, sinful behavior. Since we cannot see into persons’ souls, and any given person might be subjectively innocent, we should tend to presume innocence, lest we do an injustice to some. Caffarra, on the other hand, despite his ambiguous remark, clearly thinks that responsibility for the objectively sinful situations in which the remarried find themselves must be presumed. Therefore, the current discipline is just, even if some subjectively innocent people, known only to God, will also be excluded.

The Real Issue
Hopefully, it has been established that the main disagreement between the two cardinals, and, more generally, the debate about communion for the divorced and remarried, is not really about the indissolubility of marriage or the sanctity of the Holy Eucharist at all. The real issue is imputability, or the ascription of personal responsibility for behavior.

It is of critical importance to note that “presuming” imputability is not the same as “judging” a person. In fact, it is precisely because we are incapable of judging—that is, identifying who has acted with sufficient knowledge and freedom to lose the state of grace and who has not—that we must make presumptions. It is simply inescapable. When we have no objective reason to suspect that we have gravely offended the Lord, we presume that we are in a state of grace, and we go to communion. Moreover, we do this with justifiable confidence. If, on the other hand, we are conscious of having committed a seriously sinful act, we do not presume to receive the Lord. When someone has committed objectively sinful behavior that is of its nature public, such as a civil marriage, the Church’s presumption—Cardinal Caffarra’s assertion notwithstanding—is that the person is no longer in a state of grace. Certainly there is a kind of judgment being made here, but it is not the sort proscribed by Our Lord. It is precisely because we cannot claim to know the state of a person’s soul that we must presume. Refraining from “passing judgment,” we restrict ourselves instead to the realm of presumption, hoping all the while for the best.

We can so hope because, as Pope Francis reminded us citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735 , cf. Evangelii Gaudium 44). Indeed, the drastic failure to communicate the faith to the last generation lends some plausibility to the idea that some divorced and remarried persons have no inkling of the gravity of their situation. Still, the same Catechism soon adds: “This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility” (CCC 1791). This is, after all, a question of natural law. Could various “psychological and social factors” still take away responsibility for staying in an adulterous situation even when awareness dawns? In a recent interview given to Commonweal magazine, Cardinal Kasper seems to say “yes,” claiming that “heroism is not for the average Christian.” Judgment on the compatibility of this view with the Gospel is left to the reader.

In any case, imputability is clearly the elephant in the living room: a widespread reluctance to presume responsibility, and therefore guilt. Is this a merciful attitude or rather a symptom of the “loss of the sense of sin,” which Pius XII called the “sin of the century”? Pope John Paul II took up this theme thirty years ago, decrying “an ethical turning upside down” characterized by “such an attenuation of the notion of sin as almost to reach the point of saying that sin does exist, but no one knows who commits it” (Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 18). And this is still the topic of the hour. So when the bishops gather at the Synod to debate the question of communion for the divorced and remarried, it would be well if they did not talk at cross purposes, as have Cardinals Kasper and Caffarra. The real issue to discuss is why the pastoral approach to adulterers of Jesus Christ—“Go, and sin no more”—sounds judgmental to the pastors of our day.

(Photo credit: CNS / Maria Grazia Picciarella)

Msgr. Andrew Cummings


Msgr. Andrew McLean Cummings of the Archdiocese of Baltimore has served as Associate Pastor and seminary formator in both Baltimore and the Archdiocese of Mary Mother of God in Moscow. Currently, he is working at the Vatican. His doctoral dissertation was published in 2014 as The Servant and the Ladder: Cooperation with Evil in the 21st Century (Gracewing, Ltd.).