On synod eve, Kasper proposal gets a boost. (UPDATED WITH VIDEO)

See video update after the jump.

The public dispute over Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics is heating up. In the United States, Ignatius Press is preparing to release a few books featuring several cardinals arguing against Cardinal Walter Kasper's proposal to allow certain -- not all -- divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. On Tuesday, one of them, Cardinal Raymond Burke, joined a press call sponsored by Ignatius Press to unburden himself of some thoughts about Kasper. He doesn't like that Kasper has claimed Pope Francis agrees with his proposal. It is "outrageous" that Kasper "claims to speak for the pope," Burke said on the call. "The pope doesn’t have laryngitis." Last week First Things ran an excerpt from a new book-length interview with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in which he too tilts against Kasper's argument (not too successfully--which I'll say more about later). And today in Rome Vaticanista and papal critic Sandro Magister (who recently defended the deposed bishop of Ciudad del Este, republishing the entirety of the bishop's long-on-chutzpah-but-short-on-facts self-exoneration) introduced Cardinal George Pell, who has written the forward to one of the Ignatius Press books opposing Kasper.

When asked what he made of this coordinated effort to rebut his proposal, Kasper called it a "problem." He continued: "I do not remember such a situation where in such an organized way five cardinals write such a book. It’s the way that it’s done in politics but it should not be done in the church." Kasper's opponents claim that relaxing the discipline barring divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving the Eucharist would be to effectively change church teaching on the indissolubility of sacramental marriage, a teaching based on the words of Jesus. But their arguments, Kasper has noted, tend toward theological fundmentalism: "We cannot simply take one phrase of the Gospel of Jesus and from that deduce everything.... Discipline can change."

It's not as though the church has never made pastoral adjustments on this question.

On the eve of the synod, Civilta Cattolica will publish a piece retrieving a little-known episode from the Council of Trent. As Andrea Tornielli reports, the article shows that "despite their proclamations in defense of the indissolubility of marriage, the Tridentine Fathers decided not to exclude the possibility of second unions in old 'Greek rites' practiced in the Greek islands that were under the dominion of Venice." Kasper recounted this story during his interview with Matthew Boudway and me.

In 1563, the council fathers discussed the canon that excommunicated those who claimed second marriaged were possible after adultery was committed. The original canon read:

If anyone saith, that marriage may be dissolved on the grounds of adultery committed by the other spouse, that it is licit for both spouses, or at least for the innocent party who has not committed adultery, to contract another marriage and that a man who remarries after he has repudiated an adulterous woman or vice versa, a woman who remarries after repudiating an adulterous man, is not committing an act of adultery; let him be anathema.

Venetian ambassadors, however, were concerned about the wording. In Greece and on the islands of Crete, Cyprus, Corfu, Zakynthos, and Cephalonia, many Venetian Catholics practiced the Eastern Rites but were led by Latin Rite bishops. In the Eastern churches, when a wife committed adultery the marriage could be dissolved, and a second marriage would be allowed. There was a rite celebrating the new marriage. “This custom was never opposed by any ecumenical council, nor were there any excommunications, despite the fact that the Roman Catholic Church was well aware of this rite,” according to Civilta.

Venetian ambassadors didn't want to lose those Catholics who followed the Eastern Rites, so they asked the canon to be edited to exclude the part about excommunication for those who had second marriages. They argued that "excommunication in such cases goes against the ideas of the 'venerable doctors,'" according to Tornielli. Cyrial of Alexandria taught that “it is not the letters of divorce that dissolve the marriage in relation God but the errant behavior." John Chrysostom "claimed that adultery was responsible for the real death of marriage,' writes Tornielli. And Basil "believed that when a husband is abandoned by his wife, he can continue to be in communion with the Church (the text presupposes that the husband has remarried)."

So the Venetians requested that the canon be "modified so that followers of the Eastern rite are not excommunicated, only those reject the doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage. This would ensure that such a punishment would only apply to those who reject the Pope’s authority or the teaching of the Church, and not to Greek Catholics who do recognize these," according to the Civilta article.

In the end, the council fathers approved a canon that "on the one hand condemns the doctrine of Luther and the reformers who disregarded the Church’s practice in relation to marriage, and, on the other, left Greek traditions unscathed, even though they tolerated second marriages."

Back to Tornielli:

According to La Civilta Cattolica’s article, what the early Church meant by “indissolubility” was the evangelical requirement that a marriage must not be broken and that a couple must follow the Lord’s teaching that “what God has joined together, man must not separate.” This was in contrast to the principles of civil law, which considered repudiation and divorce to be legitimate.

“And yet,” the Civilta piece continues, “it is possible even for a Christian to fail in his or her own marriage and for them to form another union; this sin, the same as any other sin, was not excluded from God’s mercy and the Church had and claimed the power to absolve a person from this sin." The Eastern tradition now calls this oikonomia. While the church upholds the indissolubility of marriage, it must deal with the reality marital breakdown. "After the bishop has carefully considered a specific situation and after a period of penance, faithful may be reconciled, a second marriage may be declared valid and the individuals concerned may be readmitted to communion."

“It seems strange today," the piece concludes, "that the Council of Trent does not condemn second marriages between Catholics that follow the Eastern Rite, while at the same time proclaiming the indissolubility of marriage. But this is history: a page of evangelical mercy for those Christians who are suffering as a result of an irretrievably failed marriage.”

That is precisely the kind of mercy Cardinal Kasper is proposing. And it seems as though he has is own allies in the debate. Because nothing gets published in Civilta Cattolica without the approval of the Holy See.


Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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