Featured Image
Cardinal Walter Kasper at the Ordinary Synod of the Family in October 2014.John-Henry Westen / LifeSiteNews

April 18, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation on the family marks a significant shift for the Catholic Church said Cardinal Walter Kasper last week.

Speaking to Christopher Lamb of The Tablet, Kasper stated that while the document “doesn’t change anything of church doctrine or of canon law,” it nevertheless “changes everything.”

“It seems clear to me as to many other observers, that there can be situations of divorced and remarried where on the way of inclusion, absolution and communion becomes possible.”

Cardinal Walter Kasper is the cardinal who famously ignited the debate on allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to be admitted to the sacraments in a keynote address delivered to the consistory of cardinals at the Vatican in February of 2014. In that address – delivered at Pope Francis’ personal invitation – the cardinal had proposed allowing remarried divorcees to receive Communion after a “penitential” period. 

The issue subsequently dominated the coverage of both of the synods on the family, held at the Vatican in October of 2014 and 2015. Since the release of the pope’s post-synodal exhortation – Amoris Laetitia – the question of whether the pope opened the door to Communion for the divorced and remarried in the exhortation has divided Catholic theologians and journalists.

Kasper himself, however, told Lamb that it “seems clear” to him that the exhortation does indeed allow the possibility of the divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion in some cases.

“It seems clear to me as to many other observers, that there can be situations of divorced and remarried where on the way of inclusion, absolution and communion becomes possible,” he stated.

The cardinal said that the change comes in the strong emphasis that the document gives to personal conscience. The exhortation “overcomes a rigid casuistic approach and gives room for Christian freedom of conscience.”  

Thus, cases of remarried divorcees being readmitted to the sacraments would happen “not as a general law or as a general permission but according a spiritual and pastoral discernment judging case by case,” he said. 

“I don’t like to say, ‘this is revolutionary’, because revolutionary sounds like giving up or destroying something by violence, whereas the document is a renewal and an updating of the original holistic Catholic vision.”  

Cardinal Kasper’s interpretation of the exhortation is likely to hold considerable weight. Pope Francis has repeatedly praised Kasper – including on the day after his election to the papacy – as one of his favorite theologians. The cardinal is known to have a close relationship with the pontiff.

The idea of conscience-based exceptions to the Church’s traditional approach to those living in sinful “irregular” unions marks a stark shift from the teachings of Pope St. John Paul and other previous popes.

John Paul II had strongly reaffirmed the impossibility of readmitting such to the sacraments in his own exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, writing:

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.

As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger had also strongly reiterated the Church’s traditional ban.

Those who say that Amoris Laetitia allows Communion for the divorced and remarried have based their argument largely on footnote 351, which states that the Church’s help for Catholics in “irregular unions” can “in some cases” include the sacraments – with reference to the Eucharist and confession.

In an in-flight press conference on the way back from the Greek island of Lesbos this past weekend, Pope Francis said he himself did not remember the footnote in question. He said that for him the “big problems” in the family don't revolve around the question of Communion for divorced and remarried, but rather the general breakdown of the family.

“Don’t you realize that instead the family throughout the world is in crisis?” he said. “Don’t we realize that the falling birth rate in Europe is enough to make one cry? And the family is the basis of society. Do you not realize that the youth don’t want to marry? Don’t you realize that the fall of the birth rate in Europe is to cry about? Don’t you realize that the lack of work or the little work (available) means that a mother has to get two jobs and the children grow up alone? These are the big problems.”