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Apologists for Cardinal Walter Kasper’s “suggestion” at February’s consistory of cardinals and at October’s Extraordinary Synod of bishops to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion have repeatedly tried to bolster their arguments by citing a comment in a 1972 essay by then-Father Joseph Ratzinger apparently justifying the practice. But in a surprising move, the essay’s author, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, has corrected his former opinion.

In the 1972 essay, Ratzinger, who was a professor of theology at Regensburg at the time and had served as a theological advisor at the Second Vatican Council, wrote that although sacramental marriage was indissoluble, “the possibility should be granted,” of admission to Communion for those in second marriages.  

In one paragraph in the conclusion, Fr. Ratzinger makes a suggestion remarkably similar to that of Cardinal Kasper at the most recent consistory and at October’s Synod. He wrote:

Where a first marriage broke up a long time ago and in a mutually irreparable way, and where, conversely, a marriage consequently entered into has proven itself over a longer period as a moral reality and has been filled with the spirit of the faith, especially in the education of the children (so that the destruction of this second marriage would destroy a moral greatness and cause moral harm), the possibility should be granted, in a non-judicial way, based on the testimony of the pastor and church members, for the admission to Communion of those [who] live in such a second marriage.

Under certain circumstances, the future Pope Benedict wrote, “Such an arrangement seems to me to be … in accord with the tradition.”

“If in the second marriage moral obligations to the children, to the family, and so also to the woman have arisen, and no similar commitments from the first marriage exist, and if thus for moral reasons the abandonment of the second marriage is inadmissible, and on the other hand practically speaking abstinence presents no real possibility … the opening up of community in Communion after a period of probation appears to be no less than just and to be fully in line with the Church’s tradition.”

But now, a new edition of Ratzinger’s essay has reportedly omitted the section. La Stampa’s Vatican Insider magazine reports that the German language publisher of Ratzinger’s collected theological writing, Herder, has republished the essay, edited by the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, with the sections condoning Communion for divorced and remarried omitted. The journal Herder Korrespondenz has published extracts that show the new version, soon to be available in book stores in Germany, no longer contains the 1972 proposal in the same section.

La Stampa’s resident Vaticanist, the well-connected Andrea Tornielli, writes, “The author no longer considers it a viable [proposal], partly because of the ‘relativism’ that is widespread in secularized societies. The only appropriate [option] – in line with statements made ​​during his pontificate – is to proceed with the findings of invalidity,” that is, with the normal canonical procedure for declarations of nullity of the previous marriage. 

The Irish Times has reported on the change, quoting the theologian Fr. Vincent Twomey who was one of Professor Ratzinger’s graduate students at Regensburg. Fr. Twomey told the Times that the change is “significant,” adding, “Theologians must be free to push the boundaries, as Ratzinger was doing 42 years ago.”

“His position [now] is quite different, but his statement from then is now being given added authority through his later position as pope,” Fr. Twomey said.

The idea that Ratzinger changed his mind is in accord with a letter on the subject signed by him in 1994 when he served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In that document, which was intended at the time as a corrective to the suggestions of the German episcopate, he said, “In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, the Church affirms that a new union cannot be recognised as valid if the preceding marriage was valid. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists.”

The letter adds, “This norm is not at all a punishment or a discrimination against the divorced and remarried, but rather expresses an objective situation that of itself renders impossible the reception of Holy Communion.”

Cardinal Kasper has traveled and spoken extensively defending his consistory speech, repeatedly claiming not only the full approval and knowledge of Pope Francis but of the younger self of Pope Benedict. The proposal had reportedly roused shocked and angry responses from some of the prelates at the consistory, and later became a focal point for much of the contention at the Synod. The controversy has been eagerly taken up by the world’s press as a sign that the pope supports the program of the cadre of “progressives” trying to implement their interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.