Cardinal Kaspar is a famous churchman who seems to favor some revision of the way the Church handles the question of divorce, remarriage, and admission to holy communion. He discusses this, and some other things, in this interview with Commonweal.
The cardinal makes some good points about mercy, and about the problems facing the Church in a contemporary culture in which very many people simply do not accept the Church’s teaching on marriage. He also says some things that seem rather problematic, to me.
First, at one point the interviewer raises the possibility that a divorced and remarried couple might be obliged–on traditional Catholic principles–to live together as “brother and sister.” In other words, in order to avoid the sin of adultery, they would have to live together without having sexual relations. Cardinal Kaspar responds that this would be a heroic act, but that heroism is not for the ordinary Christian.
There are a couple of things wrong, here. First, it strange to suggest that it is heroic to avoid a serious sin; and the Church has always taught that adultery and fornication are serious sins. But, to give the Cardinal his due, it is true that in some difficult situations it can take an act of heroism to avoid sin. In such cases, however, we are presumably called to be heroic and avoid sin, to avoid offending God. In general it seems strange to suggest that heroism is not for the ordinary Christian. One of the important teachings of the Second Vatican Council, I had thought, was to popularize the idea of the universal call to holiness. I can’t remember how many times I have heard saints and teachers of the faith emphasize that all Christians are called to heroic virtue. Is Cardinal Kaspar suggesting that the ordinary Christian is called to a life of moral mediocrity?
Second, at one point the interviewer notes that Cardinal Kaspar thinks that in some cases, the divorced person might not be able to get out of a new relationship without doing injustice to his or her new partner, or to other people. Here, among other things, the cardinal says “if you’re engaged to a new partner, you’ve given your word.” But surely Cardinal Kaspar knows that you cannot validly give your word to deliver something that is not rightly in your power. If I give my word to give my neighbor’s car to a friend I have at work, the promise is absolutely null, because I am promising something to which I have no right at all. Similarly, a person who is married has no rightful power to get engaged to another person. If the Church’s teaching is true that a valid marriage is indissoluble, then the divorced person cannot really get engaged: he would be making a promise he could not justly keep, and so it would be no promise at all.
Finally, it is worth noting in general that all the moral difficulties that arise from the fact that many people have divorced and remarried do not mean that there must be some way to fix those problems by the Church loosening up its traditional teaching. Cardinal Kaspar points out that there may be children who have come into being as a result of a union between divorced and remarried persons. Insisting on the Church’s traditional teaching would suggest that this union cannot continue, but that might break up a new family and harm these children. This is true, and it is a very sad thing. But these sorts of consequences would have been true 2000 years ago, too, but that did not stop Jesus from proclaiming that divorce and remarriage is adultery.
Perhaps this is the way to state the core problem in Cardinal Kaspar’s reasoning. He is correct to say that there is always a route to the forgiveness of sins. But from that it does not follow that there is always some easy way to clean up the worldly consequences of sin.