When Ratzinger Said No: A History of the Kasper Proposal
By Thomas D. Williams
Like the good German that he is, Cardinal Walter Kasper has a wonderful capacity of persistence. Like a dog with a bone, he is able to keep fighting against incredible odds long after a lesser man would have packed up his things and gone home.
The case in point is, of course, the question of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. Though the topic has come to a head in the two-part Synod on Marriage and the Family, it is no recent development in the mind of Kasper and his cohort, but has been brewing literally for decades.
In a recent interview with the French daily, Le Figaro, Cardinal George Pell said that the present synod on the family was witnessing the most recent stage of a running “theological battle” between Walter Kasper and Joseph Ratzinger, a statement that seems self-evidently true.
Back in 1993, three German bishops—Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann, and Oskar Saier—issued a pastoral letter in which they stated that a dialogue was needed to determine whether the general rule prohibiting the remarried from receiving the Eucharist “applies also in a given situation,” arguing that there ought to be “room for pastoral flexibility in complex, individual cases.” The bishops had the letter read aloud in all the churches of the three dioceses of the Upper Rhine that September.
In the text, the bishops propose that the ultimate decision to receive Communion devolve upon the individuals in question, who are to discuss their personal situation with a Catholic priest. “The priest will respect the judgment of the individual’s conscience, which that person has reached after examining his own conscience and becoming convinced his approaching the Holy Eucharist can be justified before God.”
The bishops’ letter drew an immediate response from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the guidance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The Cardinal called the three German bishops to the Vatican for a series of meetings, and on October 14, 1994, the CDF sent its own letter to all the bishops of the Catholic Church titled “Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced-and-Remarried Members of the Faithful.”
The letter reaffirmed the traditional ban on reception of the Eucharist by those living in irregular unions. “In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, the Church affirms that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the preceding marriage was valid,” it read.
“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 text concludes.
Despite the clarity and seeming definitiveness of this response, Cardinal Kasper remained undaunted in his quest.
Seven years later, in 2001, Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper again faced off, this time on the pages of the Jesuit magazine America.