Renowned Theology Scholar Issues Strong Critique of Cardinal Kasper's Speech on Marriage

“It is simply wrong to present this question as a matter of pastoral tolerance which does not extend beyond a casuistic debate between rigorism and laxity.”

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Professor Juan José Perez Soba, a renowned scholar of the theology of John Paul II, is the latest to take up Pope Francis’ wish to debate issues related to the upcoming Synod on the family. Here, Father Perez dissects Cardinal Walter Kasper’s keynote address on marriage, given to the recent extraordinary consistory on the subject.


Sometimes withholding mercy is the only way to prevent it being watered down. Cardinal Kasper affirms this himself with great clarity in his book Mercy: “A further grave misunderstanding of mercy is one which would end up disregarding, in the name of mercy, the divine command of justice (…) We cannot, through false mercy, counsel someone to have an abortion”(p.221)[1].

An unjust mercy is not truly mercy. One cannot undermine human dignity in the name of mercy. Consequently, to speak of mercy in the context of marriage one must first understand precisely the reality, born out of  human dignity, which is involved in this institution. There could be no true mercy, if one were to attack that reality. This reality, this good, is what the Christian tradition calls the bond of marriage, and it is precisely this bond that imparts the property of indissolubility  to marriage.

For this reason Vatican II defines marriage as a transcendent reality: “For the good of the spouses and their off-springs as well as of society, the existence of the sacred bond no longer depends on human decisions alone” (GS 48), and this is why the Council holds that marriage is indissoluble (n. 50). This word, indissoluble, intrinsically linked to the Church’s teaching on marriage, is used by the Council of Trent in Canons 5 and 7 that treat of the sacrament of marriage. This should not be understood as a concept that is antagonistic towards love. In truth it is love itself which unites the spouses in the stable bond.

Writing as a theologian, Kasper, in his book, The Theology of Marriage states: “In the bond of fidelity man and woman find their definitive state. They become “one body” (Gn 2,24;Mc 10,8;Ef 5, 319), that is a We-person” (1978, 26). In other words, when one speaks of justice with reference to the sacramental relationship between a man and a woman, one necessarily touches upon the inviolable dignity of the “sacred bond.” Unless one bears this clarification in mind when adopting an attitude of mercy, one runs the risk of slipping into injustice. Cardinal Kasper himself seems to acknowledge the importance of this point when he affirms, “The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage and the impossibility of contracting another marriage whilst the first partner is still living ‘ ‘form part of the binding tradition of the Church’s faith and cannot be abandoned or dissolved  by appealing to a superficial understanding of cheap mercy”.

Precisely for this reason, one is surprised that the same German cardinal , in his long address made at the last consistory, at no point attempts to deal with this theme. Rather, he speaks of upholding justice without adverting to the sacramental bond as that good in Christian marriage, which, in justice, must be defended against any offense that might harm it. This dimension of matrimony has been underlined by Familiaris Consortio, which, when dealing with the question of divorced faithful who seek to remarry, refers explicitly to the sacramental bond (nn. 83-84). Moreover, Familiaris Consortio forms the basis of a successive document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (14-IX-1994) with the specific finality of maintaining the teaching of the Church against the inadmissible proposals regarding the divorced and remarried made by the bishops of the Rhineland, among whom Kasper was to be found.

 It is even more surprising to observe that the Cardinal, referring to this indissoluble bond which he attributes to St. Augustine, makes no mention whatsoever of the link between  marriage’s indissolubility and its foundation which is of divine origin. On the contrary, in this case rather he gives voice to a doubt: “Many nowadays find it difficult to understand. This doctrine cannot be understood as a sort of metaphysical hypothesis alongside or above the personal love of the spouses; on the other hand it does not exhaust itself in the couple’s mutual love and affectivity and nor does it come to an end if this should (GS 48; EG 66)”.

It is strange that this negative way of speaking about the marriage bond and the emphasis that is laid upon contemporary difficulties in understanding this bond is not balanced by a corresponding simple explanation of the marriage bond which would help to illumine its sacramental value. One might speak of baptism, the essential sacrament of faith whose sacramental character is not lost even by someone who apostasizes from the faith. It remains exactly in so far as it is the principle of God’s mercy and fidelity to His promises, as St. Paul affirms: “Even if we are unfaithful, He remains faithful, because he cannot disown himself” (2 Tim 2,13). The indissoluble gift of baptism is, therefore, the expression of God’s mercy in the indissoluble gift of sonship, which Christ himself reveals as the fundamental principle of the parable of the Prodigal Son.

The protection of this bond, even to the point of indissolubility is, therefore, the way in which God offers his mercy in marriage. “Their bond of love becomes the image and the symbol of the covenant which unites God and His people” (FC 12) This unites, in a very direct way, the indissoluble bond of matrimony with the love of the spouses in an environment of evident “primaryness” of grace (to use the neologism coined by Pope Francis) and as a way of guiding their freedom.

It is clear, however, that, for a Christian who wishes to live his or her faith, establishing a new relationship over and against the “sacred bond” of marriage is an act of grave injustice against the divine bond which is already in existence.

This consideration is so important that Blessed John Paul II himself mentioned it in his catechesis on human love, referring to “the redemption of the heart” to indicate the presence of grace in marriage which makes it possible to live out the demands of this vocation.  Analogously, Benedict XVI confirmed that “Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love” (DCE 11).

The definitive nature of the marriage covenant, in spite of human weakness, is not an intolerable burden; rather it is the “sweet yoke” that unites us to Christ because he carries it with us. It is the true and proper manifestation of the New Covenant  which, as Christ teaches, overcomes, through the action of grace, that “hardness of heart” which had permitted divorce. The real logic of love, unfortunately absent from the German cardinal’s address, arrives a conclusions diametrically opposed to those which he proposes.

The line of reasons explained above is not unfamiliar because it originates in the last two pontificates. Both of which gave ample consideration to the role that mercy plays in the New Evangelization. The singular absence of any trace or allusion to this teaching is, for this reason, all the more puzzling. Further more in his address to the Concistory one in fact finds phrase lifted word for word from the book that Kasper wrote about the family more than thirty years ago (in 1978) and whose argument he follows, and from which he takes the proposal which he is now presenting (cfr. P. 68). Kasper’s recent address is, therefore, and old formulation, which predates Familiaris Consortio and which ignores almost all of the intervening magisterial teaching and theological scholarship. In this regard it is mystifying that he cites Cereti’s book that was largely dismissed
by patrologists at the time of its publication on account of its contrived argumentation.  In fact the renowned Jesuit patrologist Henri Crousel dismissed Ceriti’s book as “a grand bluff”. A bluff that unfortunately has now been resuscitated and threatens to wreak havoc in the Church. The few bibliographic references given are all of a similarly dated provenance. In one case the author  had, in fact, following the publication of Familiaris Consortio, withdrawn the very affirmation that Kasper cites to bolster his argument.

In other words the Cardinal should not have brought to the fore a proposal based upon mercy because it is diametrically opposed to the case he is trying to advance. Invoking mercy allows one to see that the indissolubility of the marriage bond is the great gift of divine love given to spouses. The defense of this bond is the true witness to the presence of Love among men (in a broken world?).

The consequence of all this is obvious: one cannot even begin to conceptualize Cardinal Kasper’s so called “pastoral solution”  without first having clarified the existence of the marriage bond. Considering his way of reasoning, one might suppose that the Cardinal raises doubt about the permanence of the marriage bond in the absence of human reasons for its maintenance, but if this is true, then one should have the intellectual integrity to propose explicitly this as the real problem to be faced. It is simply wrong to present this question as a matter of pastoral tolerance which does not extend beyond a casuistic debate between rigorism and laxity.  In reality, this question puts under discussion the already settled doctrinal patrimony of the Church that is unanimously witnessed to by more than a thousand years of the Church’s Tradition.

By way of a conclusion one can observe that is seems evident that Kasper’s address puts in question the existence or otherwise of the indissoluble bond of matrimony; this, however, is no longer just a pastoral argument. The discussion of this question is , therefore, contrary to the stated wishes of Pope Francis who has made known his desire to avoid touching matters of doctrine. It is also necessary to note that a Synod, naturally, is not the proper context in which to discuss a doctrinal theme of such importance. If this is how things stand then either one must withdraw this proposal because its formulation is defective, given that in its present form it overlooks the most elementary contrary arguments, or one must propose that the central question raised be discussed by a panel of expert theologians outside of the Synodal context. In short,, theologically speaking Cardinal Kasper’s proposal is a misstep because he has hidden the underlying question. In reality he has opened a profound doctrinal question and it is necessary that every bishop who will participate at the Synod understands the key elements, and their implications, of this revolutionary proposal.

The mere observation that there may have been a certain tolerance shown towards the divorced in the first centuries of the Church’s history is startlingly weak – even if one were to limit the enquiry to only those sources that affirm this tolerance – given the ambiguity of the evidence in its favor. It is a mistake to confuse mercy and tolerance. In the Western Church the doctrine of the indissolubility of the marriage bond came to be seen as an expression of the sacramentality of marriage,  the impossibility of tolerating a grave injustice became clear.

Mercy, therefore, directs even the way in which the Church is the sacrament of God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness, in fact, is how God heals the wounds of our infidelity. Curing these wounds, as Pope Francis has wisely observed is the supreme aim of all of the Church’s pastoral activity. The profound link between mercy and fidelity that Kasper maintains is the sign of divine revelation  expresses the nature of the conversion born out of mercy. This conversion is directed towards the reestablishment of the original Covenant. And it is this truth that must be lived by a spouse in their marriage covenant.. the spouse who remains faithful in marriage, even if they have been definitively abandoned, offers by their fidelity the most powerful witness to the possibility of forgiveness that grace can bring about. This spouse then becomes the privileged witness to mercy.

In a similar way God wishes to cure his people of the illness of idolatry so He will not tolerate the worship of any idol before Himself. In this way the analogy between monotheism and monogamy as taught by Benedict XVI comes to light. The conversion of the wounds of infidelity comes only from true mercy, that is  they are only truly “healed” when one rejects whatever other bond that night be contrary to the sacramental covenant in it spousal sense.

This is the forgiveness that comes from authentic mercy. It is very different from mere tolerance and very far from the question of rigorism or laxity. It is the true medicine that heals the wounds of infidelity. It is the only efficacious medicine that this “field hospital”, which the Church ought to be, can offer without betraying the wounded and deceiving the healthy. In this way the sin of adultery ceases to be the only sin that might be absolved without repentance and conversion.

Fr. Juan José Perez Soba is Ordinary Professor of the Pastoral Theology of Matrimony and the Family at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for the study of Marriage and the family  at the Lateran University, Rome. This article first appeared on March 7, 2014, in Il Foglio and is reprinted with permission.


[1] Mercy is awaiting publication in English. Translations and page references  are from the Italian edition.

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