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Cardinal Walter KasperCatholic Church of England and Wales / Flickr

As the October 5 opening day of the Vatican’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family nears, the clash between cardinals over Christian teaching on marriage is heating up.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has been advocating for the Church to allow Catholics who are remarried civilly to receive Communion without repenting, has accused his critics of attacking the pope and espousing a “theological fundamentalism which is not Catholic,” but U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke calls the claims “outrageous.”

In an interview co-published Monday by the Jesuit magazine America and the Argentine daily La Nacion, Kasper, the former head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said the critics were motivated by “fear” of a “domino effect,” whereby “if you change one point all would collapse.”

“This is all linked to ideology, an ideological understanding of the Gospel that the Gospel is like a penal code,” he said. In Kasper’s view, there are universal principles that are permanent, such as the value of heterosexual marriage, and “discipline,” such as the ban on Communion for divorcees, which are subject to change.

Kasper was responding to two critical books, Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church, written by five cardinals including Burke and German prelate Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and The Gospel of the Family, which has a foreword by Australian Cardinal George Pell.

He accused his opponents of faulty interpretation of Scripture, saying, “We cannot simply take one phrase of the Gospel of Jesus and from that deduce everything.” That would be Luke 16:18, which quotes Jesus saying, “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”

Cardinal Kasper also invokes on his side Pope Francis himself (who is the real target of the attacks, he claims) and the “sensum fidei,” the idea that laity is as much responsible for preserving the true faith as are cardinals or the Vatican. Kasper admitted there were those who “don’t trust people and therefore don’t respect the conscience of people,” but he dismissed their attitude as “clericism.” Instead, he urges, “We should trust that the Holy Spirit is working in the hearts and in the conscience of our people.”

Finally, Cardinal Kasper deplores the display of such overt division within the College of Cardinals. “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. It’s how politicians act, but I think we should not behave in this way in the church,” he told his interviewers.

Kasper himself, however, has carried out his own open campaign for his views through interviews all year in sympathetically liberal Catholic papers as the American Commonweal and the British Tablet. There he laid out his idea that justice and mercy are in constant tension within the Church, that justice, which he equated with judgmentalism and clericalism, had had the upper hand for too long and it was time give Mercy, or Love, or Charity, supremacy, starting with Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried.

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One of his critics, Cardinal Raymond Burke, responded forcefully Tuesday in a conference call with several news outlets. Burke took exception to Kasper’s “outrageous” claim that any criticism of him was a criticism of Pope Francis. “I find it amazing that the cardinal claims to speak for the Pope,” he said from Rome. “The Pope doesn’t have laryngitis. The Pope is not mute. He can speak for himself. If this is what he wants, he will say so.”

Burke added that whatever were Pope Francis’s personal views about admitting divorced Catholics to Communion, it could not be permitted because he along with all bishops and cardinals “are held to obedience to the truth.”

While Kasper implies that the other domino-like issues confronting the Church around marriage, divorce, and sexuality would be unaffected by any decision on Communion for the civilly remarried, American Catholic pundit Nicholas Frankovich, writing in First Things this Spring, argues that it is the Eucharist itself that Cardinal Kasper’s views threaten.

“Kasper and his critics have an honest disagreement over what constitutes unworthiness in the case of divorced and remarried Catholics,” allows Frankovich. But “whether he intends to or not, he implies that the real presence can be reduced to a purely spiritual reality and that its value is not unique.”

Cardinal Pell, in his foreword, clearly lays out the threat Kasper’s proposal poses to the Church. “Doctrine and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory. One cannot maintain the indissolubility of marriage by allowing the 'remarried' to receive Communion,” he explains.

The issue, while trivial in itself given the small number of divorced Catholics who he believes actually want to receive Communion, has become a weapon enemies of the Church seek to wield against it. “Every opponent of Christianity wants the church to capitulate on this issue,” he said.