Cardinal Kaspar on Marriage, Divorce, and Communion

Cardinal Kaspar is a famous churchman who seems to favor some revision of the way the Church handles the question of divorce, remarriage, and admission to holy communion.  He discusses this, and some other things, in this interview with Commonweal.

The cardinal makes some good points about mercy, and about the problems facing the Church in a contemporary culture in which very many people simply do not accept the Church’s teaching on marriage.  He also says some things that seem rather problematic, to me.


First, at one point the interviewer raises the possibility that a divorced and remarried couple might be obliged–on traditional Catholic principles–to live together as “brother and sister.”  In other words, in order to avoid the sin of adultery, they would have to live together without having sexual relations.  Cardinal Kaspar responds that this would be a heroic act, but that heroism is not for the ordinary Christian.

There are a couple of things wrong, here.  First, it strange to suggest that it is heroic to avoid a serious sin; and the Church has always taught that adultery and fornication are serious sins.  But, to give the Cardinal his due, it is true that in some difficult situations it can take an act of heroism to avoid sin.  In such cases, however, we are presumably called to be heroic and avoid sin, to avoid offending God. In general it seems strange to suggest that heroism is not for the ordinary Christian.  One of the important teachings of the Second Vatican Council, I had thought, was to popularize the idea of the universal call to holiness.  I can’t remember how many times I have heard saints and teachers of the faith emphasize that all Christians are called to heroic virtue.  Is Cardinal Kaspar suggesting that the ordinary Christian is called to a life of moral mediocrity?

Second, at one point the interviewer notes that Cardinal Kaspar thinks that in some cases, the divorced person might not be able to get out of a new relationship without doing injustice to his or her new partner, or to other people.  Here, among other things, the cardinal says “if you’re engaged to a new partner, you’ve given your word.”  But surely Cardinal Kaspar knows that you cannot validly give your word to deliver something that is not rightly in your power.  If I give my word to give my neighbor’s car to a friend I have at work, the promise is absolutely null, because I am promising something to which I have no right at all.  Similarly, a person who is married has no rightful power to get engaged to another person.  If the Church’s teaching is true that a valid marriage is indissoluble, then the divorced person cannot really get engaged: he would be making a promise he could not justly keep, and so it would be no promise at all.

Finally, it is worth noting in general that all the moral difficulties that arise from the fact that many people have divorced and remarried do not mean that there must be some way to fix those problems by the Church loosening up its traditional teaching.  Cardinal Kaspar points out that there may be children who have come into being as a result of a union between divorced and remarried persons.  Insisting on the Church’s traditional teaching would suggest that this union cannot continue, but that might break up a new family and harm these children.  This is true, and it is a very sad thing.  But these sorts of consequences would have been true 2000 years ago, too, but that did not stop Jesus from proclaiming that divorce and remarriage is adultery.

Perhaps this is the way to state the core problem in Cardinal Kaspar’s reasoning.  He is correct to say that there is always a route to the forgiveness of sins.  But from that it does not follow that there is always some easy way to clean up the worldly consequences of sin.


Categories:Church News Culture Marriage

  • karel

    It is KASPER not Kaspar :-)

  • CT

    My fiance and I have been together for over a year, his marriage was dissolved in court. The ex-wife is a convert, and committed adultery when she was married to my fiance. Soon the marriage was dissolved, she married her current husband who is a Knight of Columbus. The marriage took place outside of the Catholic Church because she and her current husband (who also is divorced) refused to get an annulment. My fiance and I are waiting because he filed for annulment and his ex-wife refused to cooperate. We do not live together and have been waiting for the annulment while his ex-wife has gotten her happily ever after. Can anyone provide us a good justification why me and my fiance’s future being held up by the hands of someone who had already committed adultery during her first marriage and had no intent of fulfilling her promise in front of God?


      CT ~ Hang in there. I hope and expect Pope Francis will be able to streamline the process.

    • Rich

      It’s okay CT…well, maybe not for you, but the CC is fast approaching a refreshing look at married Catholics: divorced, priests and gays. This, then, will be a true awakening from “celibate”, fashion challenged, older leadership.


    Carson ~ Please note that it is likely that the Church, under the leadership of Pope Francis and guided by the Holy Spirit will make some changes in this area, perhaps making the anullment process less legalistic and more pastoral, less complicated and costly.

    If so, I hope American Catholic intelectuals adjust to it without to much trouble.

  • ML

    The best thing that parents can do for their children is to live morally upright lives themselves. It’s no more heroic for divorced and remarried parents to live chaste lives than it is for the single, widowed, priests and religious or for the married to remain faithful to one person for better or for worse, for life. It’s easier for some than for others, but each person’s situation comes with it’s own set of difficulties, or crosses, to bear. Moral problems are resolved by amending our lives to comply to the moral law, not by amending the moral law to comply with our lives. And of course, God knows that at times we fail, that’s why in His Divine mercy, He gave us the sacrament of Reconciliation.

  • Donald Conroy

    Mr. Holloway takes Cardinal Kasper’s comments out of context. Read his book on “The Church.” Secondly, he uses a broad brush as he introduces all divorced and remarried Carholics as adulterers. As a retired psychologist who had clinical experience with divorced and remarried Catholics, I can attest that circumstances make this issue not so cut and dry. This is a very misleading column.

  • Eric Johnson

    It’s also possible that the “Church’s teaching on marriage” is wrong. It’s possible that the words of Jesus were mis-interpreted from day one. Would Jesus want a physically violent marriage to continue. Would Jesus want the physical abuse of children to continue? When rules are set in stone, leaving no room for flexibility, then blind obedience is all that’s left and growth through learning and experience is suppressed.

    • Joshua Mercer

      You are suggesting that the Church allows no flexibility on its rules regarding marriage, suggesting that the Church demands that people remain in abusive relationships. The Church is very clear. She does not demand that a person remain with an abusive spouse, or children remain with an abusive parent.

      • Sean Argir

        It is not about abusive relationships Joshua Mercer… is in the fact that the bible doesn’t mention or teach anything about abusive relationships in the context of marriage and such. In plain sense, the bible says divorce is wrong but then says nothing about when divorce should be allowed.



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