Why is Cardinal Kasper doing a victory lap ahead of the apostolic exhortation?

Cardinal Kasper famously insisted that the family synod's final text 'opened a door' for his proposal (AP)

On Monday of this week, Cardinal Walter Kasper said that Pope Francis would be ready to sign off on the final version of his post-synodal apostolic exhortation this weekend. While it remains unclear precisely when the text will be published, the irrepressible cardinal clearly feels it is not too soon to begin a victory lap.

While giving a speech in Lucca, he apparently said that Pope Francis will “definitively express himself on family issues addressed during the last synod, and in particular on the participation of the divorced and remarried faithful in the active life of the Catholic community”.

Many are inferring from this that the cardinal’s highly controversial, and roundly criticised, proposal to allow Catholics who had divorced and entered a second, merely civil, marriage to receive Communion after a so-called penitential period will be adopted by the Pope, despite the immense opposition it received in both sessions of the synod.

While there is no question that there needs to be an urgent rethink about how parishes pastorally respond to, and better include, families in this situation, and while we all hope that Pope Francis will produce something profound and original to this end, the zombie-like return of Cardinal Kasper and his eponymous proposal would be an ecclesiastical nightmare, and his comments have caused more than a little concern.

The theological contradictions of such a move have already been expounded at great length, and, if they need to be again, I shall leave them to those theologically better qualified than myself to do so.

But before too much is assumed from Cardinal Kasper’s comments, we should remember that that he has already demonstrated a willingness to claim that documents say something which they clearly do not – he famously insisted that the final relatio of the family synod “opened a door” for his plan. The majority of synod fathers, however, protested that, not only was the door not open, there wasn’t even a door.

It is perfectly possible that the good cardinal is, in a rather political way, spinning a document which has not yet been released, with a view to influencing how it will be received. It should be noted that, while he was very forthcoming about what he thought the exhortation would say, he did not actually say he had read it.

But even leaving aside the theological reasons why the Kasper proposal should be a non-starter, and even putting to one side the interpretation game which will undoubtedly be played with whatever the Holy Father puts his name to, it seems very unlikely to me that Francis will explicitly permit the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Communion because it would undercut so much of what he has been trying to achieve in his pontificate.

Francis has been at pains to stress that the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage is a central and immutable part of the Church’s teaching on the family, so much so that he expressly addressed it in the forward to the canonical reforms of the process from handling marriage nullity cases in the motto proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus. These very reforms were introduced, and at great speed, specifically to help those couples in irregular situations who were languishing as their cases went through the (sometimes) long tribunal process.

Permitting the divorced and remarried to receive Communion would have the obvious and direct effect of discouraging many, I would say most, couples from seeking an annulment and getting their situation regularised. I say this because, in the vast majority of cases I see, it is the desire to receive Communion which stirs the conscience of couples and moves them towards the tribunal in the first place. Why would the Pope expend so much effort reforming a process he effectively intended to make redundant?

Similarly, Pope Francis has been eager to make the mercy of God the central theme of his pontificate so far. The Year of Mercy has come with a clear emphasis by the Pope on the rediscovery of the sacrament of confession as an encounter with the divine mercy. But the reason that the divorced and civilly remarried cannot (here another kind commentator would add the qualifier “yet”) receive Communion is because they cannot receive absolution in the sacrament of Confession. This is because the key theological and canonical criteria for absolution are true contrition and an intention not to repeat or persist in the sin. If, by implementing the Kasper proposal, Francis intends to effectively say to the Church “you don’t need to go to confession to be OK”, why dedicate an entire year to encouraging the exact opposite?

The final reason I think the apostolic exhortation will not institute a practice of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried is that it contradicts Francis’s whole concept of what the Church, universal and parochial, should be. He often speaks of the Church as a field hospital treating the casualties of the modern world. Parishes are meant, according to the Pope, to be centres of evangelisation, encouragement, and accompaniment.

Undoubtably the best place for anyone, including the divorced and remarried, struggling to make sense of their situation in the light the Church’s teaching is in the parish. The Francis model of a parish presupposes it as a place where people come to be healed, even very slowly, and where formation and personal change are ongoing. No two people’s circumstances are the same in the pews, and the only thing that we truly have in common is a desire to seek God, whose mercy we all need. In this model, suggesting that everyone be, or appear to be, in the same place on the journey of faith is as incongruous as saying all the patients on the hospital ward should get the same medicine and respond the same way, whatever is ailing them.

Pope Francis’s ecclesiology of a dynamic, diverse, personal Church, is radically at odds with Kasper’s flat, essentially German, understanding of a parish. According to the cardinal’s vision, the function of the parish is not missionary but distributive, people come to get Communion (and pay their Church tax, of course). To receive Communion is to be in the parish, and vice-versa.

In the Kasper model, the parish is reduced to a sort of sacramental McDonald’s, where everyone drives through, gets the same order, and leaves again; there is no distinction between people’s situations, no expectation of a change in their lives, no real concern for them beyond “are the getting what everyone else is getting?” rather than are they getting what they need?

This is the reason I don’t think the apostolic exhortation will incorporate the Kasper proposal. Francis wants a dynamic, messy Church of individuals helping each other on the way to faith, where our problems are the unique way God speaks to each of us and brings us to know Him better. Cardinal Kasper wants a whitewashed Church where everyone sits in neat rows.