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An interview with Cardinal Kasper.

Cardinal Kasper (CNS/Paul Haring)Last week Matthew Boudway and I spoke with Cardinal Walter Kasper here in New York. We covered a lot of ground over the course of an hour. Naturally, some territory was left unexplored, but here's a sample of our conversation, which we just posted to the homepage.

Commonweal: In your book Mercy, you argue that mercy is basic to God’s nature. How is mercy key to understanding God?

Cardinal Walter Kasper: The doctrine on God was arrived at by ontological understanding—God is absolute being and so on, which is not wrong. But the biblical understanding is much deeper and more personal. God’s relation to Moses in the Burning Bush is not “I am,” but “I am with you. I am for you. I am going with you.” In this context, mercy is already very fundamental in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is not an angry God but a merciful God, if you read the Psalms. This ontological understanding of God was so strong that justice became the main attribute of God, not mercy. Thomas Aquinas clearly said that mercy is much more fundamental because God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love. Because God is love. And mercy is the love revealed to us in concrete deeds and words. So mercy becomes not only the central attribute of God, but also the key of Christian existence. Be merciful as God is merciful. We have to imitate God’s mercy.


CWL: You also note that mercy and justice cannot be finally established here on earth, and that whoever has tried to create heaven on earth has instead created hell on earth. You say that this is true of ecclesiastical perfectionists too—those who conceive of the church as a club for the pure. How dominant is that view among church leadership today?

Kasper: There are those who believe the church is for the pure. They forget that the church is also a church of sinners. We all are sinners. And I am happy that’s true because if it were not then I would not belong to the church. It’s a matter of humility. John Paul II offered his mea culpas—for the teaching office of the church, and also for other behaviors. I have the impression that this is very important for Pope Francis. He does not like the people in the church who are only condemning others.

When it comes to the CDF’s criticisms of some theologians, there was not always due process. That’s evident, and here we must change our measures. This is also a problem when it comes to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried people, which is now under consideration in preparation for the Synod of Bishops this autumn. On the other hand, we have positive signs of mercy within the church. We have the saints, Mother Teresa—there are many Mother Teresas. This is also a reality of the church.

CWL: In your speech to open the consistory in March, you noted that, for the sake of their children, many deserted partners are dependent on a new partnership, a civil marriage, which they cannot quit without new guilt. Later in your speech, you talk about the possibility that a divorced and remarried Catholic might, after a period of penance, receive Communion again. You say this would be a small number of people, the ones who really want the sacrament and who understand the reality of their situation and are responsive to the concerns that their pastor would have. Are you envisioning a situation in which a divorced and remarried Catholic—a Catholic with a new partnership and a civil marriage—could not live with his or her new partner “as brother and sister” without destroying that partnership, since the other partner might not allow the relationship to continue on those terms. Is that the kind of scenario you had in mind?

Kasper: The failure of a first marriage is not only related to bad sexual behavior. It can come from a failure to realize what was promised before God and before the other partner and the church. Therefore, it failed; there were shortcomings. This has to be confessed. But I cannot think of a situation in which  a human being has fallen into a gap and there is no way out. Often he cannot return to the first marriage. If this is possible, there should be a reconciliation, but often that’s not possible.

In the Creed we say we believe in the forgiveness of sin. If there was this shortcoming, and it has been repented for—is absolution not possible? My question goes through the sacrament of penance, through which we have access to Holy Communion. But penance is the most important thing—repentance of what went wrong, and a new orientation. The new quasi-family or the new partnership must be solid, lived in a Christian way. A time of new orientation—metanoia—would be necessary. Not punishing people but a new orientation because divorce is always a tragedy. It takes time to work it out and to find a new perspective. My question—not a solution, but a question—is this: Is absolution not possible in this case? And if absolution, then also Holy Communion? There are many themes, many arguments in our Catholic tradition that could allow this way forward.

To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian. That could also create new tensions. Adultery is not only wrong sexual behavior. It’s to leave a familiaris consortio, a communion, and to establish a new one. But normally it’s also the sexual relations in such a communion, so I can’t say whether it’s ongoing adultery. Therefore I would say, yes, absolution is possible. Mercy means God gives to everybody who converts and repents a new chance.


Kasper: I’m not in favor of women’s ordination. But there are offices in the Vatican that do not require ordination. In economic affairs, for example, there are professional women who could carry out such duties. Ordination is not required to lead the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Half of the laity are women. There is an office for laity and there are no women in leadership there. That’s a problem. What about the Council for the Family? There’s no family without women.

I have experience as a bishop. I appointed one woman to the bishop’s advisory council. From that day on the whole atmosphere changed in our dialogue. She was a very courageous woman. Women bring a richness of vision and experience that men lack. At the Vatican, that could be helpful.

At the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for example, ordination is required to lead. But the CDF has a group of consulting theologians. They do not decide; they consult. Today we have many women who are professors of theology. Why not include their voices? Something must be done about this. It would change a certain clericalistic atmosphere.

Read the rest right here.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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He comes off as a liberal now ... in an audio interview ( he said that the church wasn't against birth control and it was up to people's conscience whether they used it or not (memo to US bishops, please ;)  

But he was pretty conservative when B16 was pope and spoke against secularism, women's ordination, equality for gays, etc ...

Regarding his remarks on divorce and remarriage: if I were to play devil's advocate, I would note that the annulment process provides the possibility of the good things he highlights: forgiveness of sin, and the possibility of a 'fresh start' with another spouse.  In the portion of the interview quoted in this post, he doesn't really say anything about annulments: he doesn't defend them; he doesn't dismiss them; he doesn't call for their reform.  He just sort of ignores them.  

As appealing as his vision is, if it is to be realized as an actual policy of the church, it will have to do it in a way that acknowledges both the legal reality and the theological underpinnings of the legal reality,  that a previous marriage must be declared null before a new one can exist.  

I'm sure he doesn't need me to tell him that.


Rather than say "I believe in the indissolubility of marriage", we should say we believe in marriages that are indissoluble. This would be consistent with the teachings of Jesus who said that "whom" God joins together may not be divided. He was proposing a new vision of marriage for those who seek to live in the kingdom of God. He wasn't establishing a canon law. Just as Moses permitted divorce because of the people's hardness of hearts, the church must acknowledge that many marriages of the baptized failed because they were not joined by God. Rather, they willfully entered a union for any number of reasons but among which was not to be a sign of Christ's love for his people, the church. A lot of people, apparently, have to be married or in serious relationship more than once before they can acknowledge there's an element for success which falls outside their own will and rests in God's will. Now the church (leaders) already acknowledge that some marriages were not entered into validly and set them aside through a decree of nullity. The laws governing the granting of such decrees can be changed and modified. We could even change the discipline by which we declare that any marriage entered into by non-Catholics is presumed to be valid. On what basis? A couple comes in both of whom were in a previous marriage. The woman was baptized Catholic and failed to observe the law regulating marriage. She gets a decree of nullity only after proving that she had in fact been baptized a Catholic and had in fact entered an invalid marriage which was ended by civil divorce. No indissolubility there. The man who had been baptized as a child as a Protestant and who subsequently was married in a wedding chapel in Las Vegas which was later dissolved by civil divorce is presumed to be in a valid marriage and must submit to a long drawn out "formal case" before a decree of nullity might be issued. What sense does this make?

The real problem in my view is that all of these laws and disiciplines were invented by presumably chaste churchmen who believed that they had to issue clear disciplines for those who chose the inferior path of involving themselves in unions involving sex--for their own good of course. Once they started making such rules, theologians were expected to justify them and bishops expected to enforce them. Parish priests, on the other hand, at least those not aspiring to higher office, have long since realized that we must adjust disciplines to fit the needs of real people who are seeking God, rather than the other way around.


I am pretty sure I remember reading that the cardinal has said that German Catholics generally do not believe that their first marriages were invalid.  They have no desire to have those first unions declared null---they strongly believe those unions were indeed real marriages and largely won't go for any solution requiring them to pretend other than what they believe in their hearts. 


That was a great read -- thanks.

A question which popped into my head while reading it: Will or should the same kind of mercy be shown to those other "sinners" in the church then, say, like those bishops whose heads some people seem to want to chop off?



JP - annulments just don't work; they are a legal solution applied to real life.  Yes, sometimes they work well and some dioceses have well run and comprehensive annulment processes - not just the legal process with interviews by mail - rather, counseling, group interaction, on-going support, education to begin a new life, etc.

Keep in mind - think I saw a statistic a few years ago that 70% of all annulments are in the US - not exactly a solution for the rest of the world or the southern hemisphere where 2/3rds of catholics live.

In the CARA survey we also asked Catholics who had experienced divorce if they had ever sought an annulment. Only 15% indicated that they had ... requests for annulments have declined in the United States along with marriages in the Church. In the most recent year with available data there were 6.5 marriages celebrated in the Church for every single case for declaration of nullity of marriage introduced by Americans. It is important to note that 49% of Church annulment cases introduced globally in 2011 were from the United States followed by Poland (6.4%), Brazil (5.6%), and Italy (5.1%).

- From Georgetown University ...

You folks better start realizing that there is a war going on, and the church is losing. And this prissy magazine is part of the great mass of ignorance which is hurrying the process. Mr. Kasper, and these commenters, have the relevance and effectiveness of a eunuch at an orgy. Grow up and get a clue.

@Lawrence McDonald, I honestly have never perceived Commonweal as prissy.  In this article and comment thread I see people (including Cardinal Kasper) trying to engage serious issues in a thoughtful manner.  My mother used to tell me not to sit in the scorner's seat.  That remains good advice.

"But normally it’s also the sexual relations in such a communion, so I can’t say whether it’s ongoing adultery"


What  on earth is that supposed to mean? How do you reconcile that with Jesus's explicit commandment to the contrary? This sounds like wishful (or very confused) thinking.


Yes, intellectual rigor is not everything. But mercy without the truth is not real mercy. If I enter into a sacramental marriage, then divorce and live more uxorio with another woman, it is adultery. That's not a condemnation, just a fact.

"Therefore I would say, yes, absolution is possible. Mercy means God gives to everybody who converts and repents a new chance."


Yeah, sure. And what about the first marriage? Is it automatically annulled by the sacrament of reconciliation? It never existed? The logical conclusion is that marriage is not indissoluble, since I can always "repent" and start a new life with another woman, and the previous marriage, puff .. it's gone!!!

German Catholics generally do not believe that their first marriages were invalid.

Ironically, that is the church's default assumption, too.

But none of us, including the church, can agree or disagree with that general belief unless we know the facts and circumstances of each previous marriage.  That discovery and assessment is precisely what the annulment process entails.  The process itself may be reformable, and a reform that places less of a burden on petitioners and former spouses could itself be an act of mercy.




It is important to note that 49% of Church annulment cases introduced globally in 2011 were from the United States followed by Poland (6.4%), Brazil (5.6%), and Italy (5.1%).

I've suggested previously that one possible outcome (if there is any outcome) of the synod on the family is that the standards and practices that have been implemented in the US now for many years are extended as "best practices" to the rest of the Catholic world.


Actually, there is a second possibility. After I "confess and repent" my marriage is not annulled. Then that night I go home and have sex with the new woman (who is not my wife). So, marriage is stillindissoluble, but having sex outside of marriage is OK. What a great new chance! What a wonderful mercy!


This is profoundly unserious.

Therefore I would say, yes, absolution is possible. Mercy means God gives to everybody who converts and repents a new chance.

It may be worth noting that there may be no sin on the part of the petitioner that would need to be absolved.  Many marriages end because the petitioner's spouse is the one who wanted out of the marriage.


Look, even Homer nodded. When Jesus said his bit about divorce, maybe he was sugar-crashing? Perhaps he was distracted by a bug bite? A bit peckish?

It's always seemed to me that even Hillel's dumbest student--the mouthbreather in the back of the class eating paste--could have dismantled Jesus' claims about Moses and divorce. Maybe a mulligan is called for?


"It may be worth noting that there may be no sin on the part of the petitioner that would need to be absolved."


Certainly. Getting a civil divorce is no sin. The question is:  can I go and live (and have sex) with somebody else? Is that conductive to my eternal salvation? Is that God's plan for my life? If no, I shouln't do it. If yes, the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage as taught by Jesus and by the Church for a couple of thousand years just went out of the window.

 I imagine most people ,when they marry,think they will be married for the rest of their lives. And probably nobody feels sadder about a failed marriage than the people in them.  It's not really helpful, and maybe kind of cruel, for the Church to pile on with recriminations and sanctions, just adding to peoples' pain. That's not what we're supposed to be about.

"But none of us, including the church, can agree or disagree with that general belief unless we know the facts and circumstances of each previous marriage. That discovery and assessment is precisely what the annulment process entails."

Yes, but my point was that from what I have read, most German couples are not willing to seek out an annulment as they do not want their first marriage to be declared null.  So making the annulment process easier for divorced and remarried couples in Germany will not solve the problem that Kasper wants solved.

I understand where they are coming from.  I know in my heart that what I have with my husband is real.  If our marriage failed, I would have no desire to have it declared null.  Just because it failed doesn't mean it didn't exist.  And for my children's sake, even if it didn't exist, I wouldn't want such a thing publicly declared.

None of us really knows if we are married, I suppose, especially according to the high bar it seems some annulment reformers want to set for a valid sacramental marriage.  I mean, who really knows what they are getting into on the day of their wedding?  But if we adopt this understanding of sacramental marriage, it becomes something essentially unreachable for your average joe on the street, so why even bother trying?  And why bother with the hassle and embarrassment of going before a marriage tribunal to tell us that?

Pope Francis in his homily this morning:

"Grace is more important than all the bureaucracy. ‘What prevents this?’ Remember this. So many times we people of the Church are a factory to create obstacles so people can’t arrive at grace. May the Lord help us to understand this.”

JP - M. Boudway has just posted another context to Kaspar's remarks about annulments.

But here are some other remarks:


Along with Mr. Gibson's point; here are some highlights:

"One of the least remarked aspects of the whole discussion about divorce and remarriage is that before the 1917 Code of Canon Law was adopted for the universal Church, in this country and most others, the parish priest dealt with the issue. To be sure, there were far fewer cases of divorce back then, although spousal abandonment in immigrant communities was not unknown. It was a canonical procedure, to be sure, but undoubtedly a pastor dealing with people he knew brought that pastoral element to the situation in a way that a canonist on a tribunal dealing with a stack of papers cannot. And, to be sure, very few of those pastors had extensive training in canon law. But, for all that surety, I suspect the system was better at avoiding what Kasper here calls "jurisscience" and exercising, instead, jurisprudence."

(rather than suggesting that the current US methods can be a model for the world?)

"....but Trent. We who still live in what can appropriately be called the "post-conciliar period" need to ever be reminded that there were councils before Vatican II and, in many ways, the reticence of earlier councils on certain issues, their "very cautious" approach to certain theological issues, is a thing to be admired. I was discussing this whole divorced and remarriage issue and the different way the Orthodox handle it with a very conservative priest friend. And he told me something interesting. "If I ask an Orthodox theologian," he said, "if I am a validly ordained priest, the theologian will reply only that I am not a priest of the Orthodox Church. When pressed, the Orthodox theologian will refuse to answer my question about the validity of my orders. They do not believe it is right to put excessive limits and proscriptions on the action of God's grace." This was a key insight. There is much, very much, to admire about our Western penchant for legal thinking, but it can sometimes lead us to ask questions that it is not the Church's business to ask, still less to answer."

Love his reference to the sacrament of matrimony and how Trent was influenced and impacted by a local, significant political reality - the islands of Venice.  Does put this whole discussion about indsolubility into a new context and light?

This discussion on divorce and remarriage will continue, and it is just so damned healthy to see the discussion being held in the open, with cardinals unafraid to contradict each other. It thrills me to see two nonordained journalists having a deep and penetrating conversation with a Vatican cardinal. And, the fact that, under Francis' leadership, this issue will be less about internal Vatican workings and more about following synodal processes, this is something that opens up a truly new chapter in the life of the postconciliar period. These are exciting times and the deepest level of excitement comes from the sense that the Spirit is moving. 



Cardinal Kasper's views, it seems to me, are really a lot more rational than the current practice.  Even among those who apply and receive annullments, the whole thing is something of a through the looking glass experience, which seems to have been created as a backdoor way to end marriages.  When someone says that no marriage existed between two people who have been married for any period of time, may have had children together, have shared the highs and lows that go with being in a committed relationship, its hard to take it with a straight face.  It is just so disingenous.  It seems to me that the Cardinal is offering a rational case for a process that is a farce as currently constructed. 

Jim D - I don't want to be pedantic or argumentative, but "no marriage existed" is not quite what the church says in these situations.  Essentially, the church agrees with you that it would be silly to claim that X was Not X all along.

Folks who would like to understand more about what the church means by a declaration of nullity can do worse than start with this FAQ from the US bishops.



Carlo Lancellotti

You have grounded your objections to modification of the Church's pastoral practice regarding divorce and remarriage on Jesus' absolute prohibiiton against divorce.  You neglect, however, the wider evidence in the New Testament which did not treat of his teaching as absolute, as it allowed for exceptions, as in the case of the Pauline provilege and the exceptive clauses in the synoptics.  I recommend that you read Firzmyer, S.J., Joseph A. "The Matthean Dovorce Texts and ssome New Palestinian Evidence." Theological Studies (37) 1976, 197-226.  

Salient for the discussion here:

"If Matthew under inspiration could have been moved to add an exceptive phrase to the saying of Jesus on divorce that he found in an absolute form either in his Marcan source or in "Q," or if Paul likewise under inspiration could introduce into his writing an exception on his own authority, then why cannot the Spirit-guided institutional Church of a later generation make a similar exception in view of problems confronting Christian married life in its day or so-called broken marriages (not really envisaged in the NT) -- as it has done in some situations.  The question here is whether one looks solely at the absoilute prohibition, traceable to Jesus, or at the "process of understanding and adaptation" which is in the NT itself and "with which the modern Church can identify only by entering into the process and furthering it" (224-25).

Mr. Lancelotti is correct.  Despite what he says, Cardinal Kasper clearly does not believe that marriage is indissoluble.  Indeed, he told a recent interviwer that divorce can be "necessary."  He believes that people should be able to get divorced and then remarried, and he is bothered that the Church puts any impediment at all in the way of divorce and remarriage. 

If Cardinal Kasper's views are adopted, the divorce rate among Catholics--which is lower than the general divorce rate--will increase and remain high.  If his views--which are contrary to the plain words of Jesus Christ and many centuries of constant Church teaching--are adopted, many will wonder why anyone should listen to the Church, particularly when what the Church is proposing is far less grounded in Scripture and Tradition than is the Church's teaching on the indissolublity of marriage.  It is no wonder that many cardinals have spoken out against Kasper's proposal.

Thorin writes: "He believes that people should be able to get divorced and then remarried, and he is bothered that the Church puts any impediment at all in the way of divorce and remarriage."

False. If you can't manage to tell falsehoods here, bye.

Mr. Gallicho:

Cardinal Kasper just told Brian Lehrer that divorce can be "necessary" and that those who divorce deserve a "new chance, a new beginning."  Sure sounds to me like Kasper believes that people should be able to divorce and remarry. 

However, I should have written that Cardinal Kasper is bothered that the Church puts any serious impediment in the way of divorce and remarriage, rather than any impediment at all.  The Church's centuries old practice is a serious impediment to divorce and remarriage, and Kasper certainly wants to end that practice.

Thorin - think you took his comments out of context.  His focus was on the issue of remarriage and participating in the eucharist.  (not a focus on divorce)

In terms of divorce, Kaspar acknowledges and starts with the reality that divorce happens - how should the church respond?  His reply is that the church needs to have a developed, merciful, and responsible way to support these people (rather than ignore, banish, or put impediments in their way).  He is looking at serious, committed, and responsible catholics who find themselves in remarriages (and these remarriages were good decisions).

You twist and make his comment look like he is in favor of divorce - really?

We've made making the wrong choice of a spouse the only unforgiveable sin. I don't think Jesus intended that people who make that mistake should never be able to marry again. 

Anything bad a person can do can be forgiven, if they repent and are truly sorry.  Then they can try again to do it right, except marriage.

That's wrong.

Yes, Mr. de Haas, he is in favor of divorce.  The traditional Catholic view is that divorce is impossible, and that laws allowing divorce should not exist.  Indeed, for centuries, there was no divorce.  Now, I'll grant that there were people who wanted to legalize divorce, but those people weren't Catholics.  Quite the contrary. 


Thorin: Stop lying or I will delete your account. 

"Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery."  Luke 16:18

"However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage."  St. John Paul II.

Thorin: that sentence from Luke's gospel has to be read within the context of society in those times, to understand what the writer had in mind and what its correct scope ought to be. Similarly, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate life itself cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26), "Sell everything you have and give it to the poor" (Luke 18:22), etc. There is a great reflexion in Augustine's confessions (book 12) about what it means for a bible verse to be true, how to interpret the bible, and how it is possible for multiple interpretations to be true.

As to John Paul 2, since he lets pastoral considerations be a factor, it would be logical to infer from his statement that it is also acceptable to take other pastoral reasons into account as well when weighing the pros and cons, so I see this as actually leaving the door open to other conclusions, depending on pastoral considerations.

Thorin --

As I understand Jewish law (which certainly isn't expert) a Jewish man has a right to divorce his wife, but a Jewish woman has no right to divorce at all.  In this context it seems to me that Luke's prohibition of "divorce" could easily have been aimed at the system of Jewish divorce as being highly inequitable.  In other words, the Hebrew word for "divorce" didn't mean the same thing to the Jews as the English word "divorce" means to us. so Luke's prohibition is not what we're talking about, though it is somewhat similar in that the husband could "put away" his wife.

Context, context, conext.

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