VATICAN CITY, March 4, 2014 ( – The Catholic Church should create a kind of second-tier of marriage that would allow for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments, including Holy Communion, “after a period of penance” but without repenting or changing their situation, a leading theologian has suggested. The Church, he said, could “tolerate that which is impossible to accept,” namely second marriages while the person’s first spouse is still living.

“A pastoral approach of tolerance, clemency and indulgence” would affirm that “the sacraments are not a prize for those who behave well or for an elite, excluding those who are most in need,” said Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Speaking at the extraordinary consistory of cardinals, held at the Vatican February 20th, Kasper told the prelates that a way had to be found to change the pastoral practice of the Catholic Church, a movement that he denied would undermine the Church’s doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage.


“The indissolubility of sacramental marriage and the impossibility of a new marriage during the lifetime of the other partner is part of the tradition of the Church’s binding faith that cannot be abandoned or undone by appealing to a superficial understanding of cheapened mercy,” the cardinal said.

“The question is therefore how the Church can reflect this indivisible pairing of the fidelity and mercy of God in its pastoral action.” It is this “mercy,” Cardinal Kasper said, that compels the creation of a new “paradigm” for “pastoral practice.”

“After the shipwreck of sin, the shipwrecked person should not have a second boat at his or her disposal, but rather a life raft,” the cardinal said.  

The issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics has been pushed hard by some ultra-liberal European bishops and priests, particularly in Germany. Many are expressing concerns that it is part of a larger campaign by the far-left “progressive” wing of the Catholic Church to undercut the teaching on marriage, and by extension on a range of issues touching on sexual morality. Kasper has long been known as a leader in this wing of the Church hierarchy, and has recently been among those predicting a change.

Among those concerned at the new direction is Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro, head of the Rome office of Human Life International. Kasper’s proposal, he told LifeSiteNews, is not only an “offence” against the doctrine of the Church, but has at its heart a logical contradiction.

“How can it be that a person who claims to be repentant would continue and persevere in the conduct that he purports to repent and for which he expresses regret?”

What Kasper is proposing, Barreiro said, “is something unheard of in the history of the Church, that we should offer Holy Communion to persons who are objectively in a state of grave sin.”

“Absolution granted to a person who is not ready to change his life is an invalid absolution,” he added.

Kasper’s suggestion, Barreiro added, would mean that there will be in effect a two-tier recognition of the family, one based on the teaching of Christ and practice of the Church, and the second, a de facto recognition of invalid second marriages. He likened it to creating a Catholic version of “civil unions,” which the secular world has adopted for homosexuals, granting them the same rights and privileges of marriage but not the name.

“Inasmuch as they would be admitted to the sacramental life of the Church,” he said, “we will have two tiers of marriage in the Church, the valid, sacramental marriages and these ‘civil unions’.”

Cardinal Kasper’s suggestion also flies in the face of several recent reiterations of the traditional Catholic teaching and practice by the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Gerhard Müller has repeatedly stated that reception of Holy Communion, which Catholics hold to be the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, is impossible for those in an objective state of mortal sin. Since the Church does not recognize divorce, a person who remarries after a civil divorce is considered to be an adulterer.

Kasper, however, said that “for one who converts, forgiveness is possible. If that’s true for a murderer, it is also true for an adulterer.” He said that a set of “pastoral and spiritual procedures” could be developed to help people in second marriages. Citing the newly “opened doors” of the Second Vatican Council, Kasper said, “Without violating the binding dogmatic tradition, [w]e can ask ourselves: is it not perhaps possible that there could be further developments on the present question as well?”

He offered two possible “solutions”: first that the Church could make it possible for local bishops to authorize parish priests to judge cases of annulment for those who “in conscience are subjectively convinced that their irreparably broken previous marriage was never valid.” 

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But more controversially, Kasper then suggests, citing the “early Church,” and a 1972 document by then-Father Joseph Ratzinger, that in situations where there are no grounds for the annulment of the previous marriage, the persons could participate “in the table of salvation” “after a time of penance.” The cardinal said:

“A divorced and remarried person: 1. if he repents of his failure in the first marriage, 2. if he has clarified the obligations of the first marriage, if it is definitively ruled out that he could turn back, 3. if he cannot abandon without further harm the responsibilities taken on with the new civil marriage, 4. if however he is doing the best he can to live out the possibilities of the second marriage on the basis of the faith and to raise his children in the faith, 5. if he has a desire for the sacraments as a source of strength in his situation, should we or can we deny him, after a period of time in a new direction, of 'metanoia,’ the sacrament of penance and then of communion?”

“The question is: This way that stands beyond rigorism and laxity, the way of conversion, which issues forth in the sacrament of mercy, the sacrament of penance, is it also the path that we could follow in the present question?” he added.

Kasper likened refusing Communion for people in such situations to letting the person “die of hunger sacramentally in order that others may live.”

The two-hour lecture, with the discussion following, took most of the morning of the first day of the consistory, but the Vatican had announced that it would not be published. A transcript was leaked, however, by the Italian newspaper Il Foglio and portions were translated into English and published by the Vatican journalist Sandro Magister. Although Il Foglio did not reveal their source, a prominent member of the pope’s council of eight cardinals, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, reportedly commented that with over 200 copies having been distributed to the members of the College of Cardinals it was only a matter of time before it made its way to the public.

The consistory was characterized by Pope Francis as an “overture” to the upcoming Synod on the family, set for October. Kasper was chosen by the pope to fill the most prominent spot at the meeting and Pope Francis recently praised the “serene” theology in the German cardinal’s recently published book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. At the end of the first day of the consistory, Pope Francis thanked Kasper for his work, saying, “I would like to thank him because I found profound theology, and even serene thinking in theology. It is pleasant to read serene theology.” 

Monsignor Barreiro explained that in the Catholic teaching and practice for the sacrament of Confession, the precondition for the reception of Communion, requires that the penitent is not only sorry for the sin, but has “a firm purpose of amendment,” that is, the intention of ceasing to commit the sin in question. Without this condition, Barreiro said, any absolution offered by the priest would automatically be invalidated.

“We have a pastoral code,” he said, “and we understand and sympathise with the problem, especially with persons who have the cross to bear of being abandoned by their unfaithful spouse. But this is not the solution. We cannot have a solution that is against the will of Christ.”

Barreiro was referring to the passages of the Gospels in which Christ said that marriage is an unbreakable bond. In Matthew 19:3-12, Christ specifically ruled out divorce, saying, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.  I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” 

Barreiro said that the implications of the Church adopting Kasper’s suggestion would be far-reaching. In reality it constitutes an attack on the core principles by which the Church is made coherent and consistent.

“As we have mentioned, there is a logical impossibility in granting forgiveness to a person who is not committed to changing his life. That is not a juridical question, about the validity of that absolution, but something that touches the essence of absolution itself.”

“This really is not about marriage, but in practice a change of principles. It has to do with the guiding principles of the Church. It is being presented as a form of compassion, yes, but it’s a wrong compassion that will lead to great harm.

“If I have compassion, it means I suffer with the person. I can put myself in the situation a person is in, but I do not have true compassion if I offer the wrong remedy.”

The real solution, he said, “is trusting the compassion of God; the person goes to Mass and refrains from receiving Communion.” He added that throughout the history of the Church it is “a modern phenomenon” that it is considered a requirement to receive Communion at every Mass. “For centuries of the Church people received rarely. People understood that they benefitted from the spiritual goods of the Church without receiving Communion.”

Finally, he added that he was in agreement with previous comments from Cardinal Raymond Burke, who said that a serious consideration is the desecration of the Eucharist, the Catholic Church’s central sacrament. Burke has tirelessly insisted that the Church’s teaching and law on giving Communion to “manifest grave sinners,” including politicians who support abortion, is perfectly clear.

“I agree wholeheartedly with Cardinal Burke’s assessment of the danger of desecration of the Eucharist. If absolution is not valid, the consequence is that they are desecrating the most noble thing we have in the Church. It is a fundamental issue,” he said.

Find a PDF file of Cardinal Kasper's address in Italian here, and portions of it in English here.