Methinks the Cardinal doth protest too much

After a long hiatus, the blog is back. If you thought I was dead, I hope you have been praying for my soul.

Cardinal Kasper turns his attention to a second situation, namely those who really had valid, sacramental marriages and yet by some tragic circumstance their life partnership is broken and one or both have contracted a second, civil marriage. He begins by warning:

It would be mistaken to seek the resolution of the problem in a generous expansion of the annulment process. The disastrous impression would thereby be created that the Church is proceeding in a dishonest way by granting what, in reality, are divorces.

This is surely right, although I would be hard pressed to find another description of Kasper’s approach to this point as something other than a “generous expansion of the annulment process.” He has suggested that we strip away the judicial process and entrust the whole thing to an individual who knows the people well and will be sympathetic; he offers no account of how this will result in anything but more annulments.

It reminds me of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who had a habit of penning the most outrageous theological statements and then appending, “but not in a heretical sense, of course”—leaving his unhappy reader to figure it out. And I know a fellow whose trademark conversational tick is to preface all his potentially upsetting remarks by denying he means to do what he is doing: “I don’t mean this at all to criticize anyone,” but you’re all doing a lousy job; “I don’t mean this at all to disparage what was done before me,” but it nearly wrecked the place.

Already I find it hard to believe Kasper’s protestations of caution. But as we get further into his text, it will get even harder to believe in his sincerity.

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Kasper on the annulment process

As Cardinal Kasper pursues the situation of re-married Catholics whose first marriages might be invalid, he asks whether we could change the way we decide questions of validity.  Noting that the decision can’t just rest on the subjective judgment of the parties concerned, he urges:

However, one can ask whether the judicial path, which is in fact not iure divino [by divine law], but has developed in the course of history, can be the only path to the resolution of the problem, or whether other, more pastoral and spiritual procedures are conceivable.

Kasper does not elaborate on what these procedures might be, but a bit further on he recalls Pope Francis’ remarks that behind every judicial proceeding there stand persons who expect justice.  He asks, rhetorically:

Therefore, can it really be that decisions are made about the weal and woe of people at a second and a third hearing only on the basis of records, that is, on the basis of paper, but without knowledge of the persons and their situation?

Kasper is surely within the bounds of propriety to ask whether we could improve our canonical proceedings.  They are not infallible or impeccable.  However, I am unclear as to what Kasper wants known about the “persons and their situation”.  A one-sentence suggestion may shed some light on what Kasper is thinking here:

Alternatively, one might imagine that the bishop could entrust this task to a priest with spiritual and pastoral experience as a penitentiary or episcopal vicar.

The direction Kasper would like to take seems to be toward a more intimate knowledge of the people and the little details of their life so that a decision could be made in light of a fuller understanding of the couple.  I see two of problems with this, one theoretical and one practical.

At the theoretical level, Kasper’s proposed direction seems to change the nature of the decision sought.  The canonical proceeding is about discerning whether a marriage is valid or not valid, that is, it’s about discovering a truth.  To discover what’s true, you want to have both sides argued carefully, which usually means in writing, and you want to limit your consideration somewhat to avoid being chasing irrelevancies.

Kasper’s proposed direction recasts the decision sought as a practical deliberation about what should be done:  the couple’s present situation does not change the truth of whether they are married, but it does change what they should do in light of that truth.  If the Church’s effort is not to discover the truth about a sacrament but to decide what to do with people then Kasper’s proposal makes sense:  if a judge is not only trying to decide guilt or innocence but also trying to decide on a sentence for the condemned, then knowing their present situation and the details of their life may be relevant.  However, this recasting of the nature of the process seems off to me:  the Church is not in fact trying to decide what to do with people, or “sentence” them to this or that.  She’s just trying to find out what is the truth about a sacrament.

At the practical level, I think Kasper’s proposed direction shows a one-sided train of thought.  If we only think about a spouse who fell into a pseudo-marriage that turned abusive, but who later found happiness in a second relationship and just needs release from the fictitious first marriage—in these situations, a series of intimate conversations leading to mercy sounds great.  But when we consider perhaps a spouse who found meaning in life through her marriage, through her beloved, and now is unwilling to say to the world that what they had together was only a pretense—in this case, reducing the case to her husband’s present misery seems unjust.  It needs a proceeding, a real investigation.  Kasper presents his suggestions all from the side of those who want an annulment and never from the side of those who don’t want their marriage annulled.

And his one specific suggestion sounds like a disaster to me.  When stakes and emotions are high, what you want to do is to have transparency and objective policies, not to put some individual judge on the spot for making people miserable or happy.  The pressures on the judge become unbearable, and it becomes too likely that the party with the most winning personality will prevail.  I’ve been in those situations.  To riff on Kasper’s complaint, can it really be that decisions will be made about the weal and woe of people only on the basis of one priest’s unmonitored judgment?

Stepping back from the details, I am troubled to see how Kasper wants to tip the annulment process toward a deliberation about what to do instead of a deliberation about what is true.  It plants a seed of doubt in my mind about whether Kasper truly believes that marriage is indissoluble.

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Kasper on the presumptio iuris

Cardinal Kasper takes up the question of divorced and remarried Catholics under two headings:  (1) those whose first marriages are actually invalid and (2) those whose first marriages are actually valid.  For both headings he notes that “solutions are already mentioned in the official documents” of the Church, but he wants to inquire about new directions.  Over the next few posts, I’ll crawl through his text more or less paragraph by paragraph.

First he considers those who are subjectively convinced that their first marriage was invalid.  Noting that people have to understand certain things in order to give a valid consent to marriage, he asks:

But can we, in the present situation, presuppose without further ado that the engaged couple shares the belief in the mystery that is signified by the sacrament and that they really understand and affirm the canonical conditions for the validity of their marriage?  Is not the praesumptio iuris [presumption of validity], from which canon law proceeds, often a fictio iuris [legal fiction]?

He may be right about the situation we face.  Our culture militates strongly against understanding marriage as a lifelong commitment for the sake of children, and it would not surprise me a bit to find that most Catholics entering marriage are basically on track with the surrounding culture.

But what argument does he make from that premise?  It’s hard to tell what he means to assert, because the whole thing is structured as a vague rhetorical question.  It looks as though he is arguing that we should change the presumption on which canon law proceeds.  In an annulment case, the marriage is presumed valid until proven otherwise; Kasper seems to be saying marriage is in such a bad state these days that it’s just unrealistic to start by presuming that a marriage is valid, as though that were the typical situation we will see.

Maybe that’s not what he’s saying.  But if that is what he’s saying, then I think he’s misunderstanding or misrepresenting what a “presumption” means in law.  A “presumption” in law is not based on the statistical likelihood of something being true but on a decision we make about what kind of mistakes our legal system should favor.  That is to say, every legal system run by human beings is going to make mistakes, so we have to decide which direction we want the mistakes to go.

For example, in the American legal system the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.  We don’t make this presumption because we think or know that a majority of defendants are innocent.  We know that our legal system will tilt either toward letting guilty people go free or toward punishing innocent people, both of which are bad, and on the whole we would rather let guilty people go free than punish innocent people.  We would rather fail to impose justice on some people than impose injustice on others.  So we put the burden of proof on the accuser rather than on the defendant.

Similarly, when a canon law process begins by presuming that a marriage is valid until proven otherwise, this is not based on the statistical likelihood that a given marriage is valid.  We make a decision:  granted that our canon law courts will make mistakes, would we rather the mistakes go toward insisting a marriage is valid when it isn’t or toward declaring that marriage doesn’t exist when it actually does?  Would we rather (a) risk making someone in a miserable situation bear the miserable situation unnecessarily, or would we rather (b) risk telling someone it’s OK to have sexual relations with a person who is not really that person’s spouse?  Neither option is good, but we can’t pretend that we won’t make mistakes, so we have to think this through.  The presumption in favor of validity is one way of tilting toward (a).

My point in this post is not to settle which option we should favor, but just to point out what’s really going on beneath Kasper’s argument.  It doesn’t make sense to change the presumption of validity as an concession to reality, as though the presumption were a statement about probability.  The real issue is this:  should we sometimes mistakenly make people suffer, or should we sometimes mistakenly encourage people toward objectively wrong actions?

Stepping back from details, I am puzzled by the fact that Kasper never offers an extended reflection on how to prepare people for marriage.  If the big crisis is that most Catholics entering marriage don’t have sufficient comprehension of what they are doing to contract a valid marriage, shouldn’t we brainstorm how to change that?  Or does saying with Pope Francis that the Church is “a field hospital after battle” mean we have to wait for people to get hurt before we go to work?  Surely not, but I don’t think I’m tracking how Kasper decided what to write about.

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Kasper chapter 5: Setting the stage

As Cardinal Kasper begins his chapter on the problem of the divorced and remarried, he expresses an intention of playing by the rules:

What can the Church do in such situations?  It cannot propose a solution apart from or contrary to Jesus’ words.  The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage and the impossibility of contracting a second sacramental marriage during the lifetime of the other partner is a binding part of the Church’s faith, which one cannot repeal or water down by appealing to a superficially understood and cheapened sense of mercy.

Pointing to the Church’s development of doctrine regarding religious freedom as an example of how she can move forward without contradicting what came before, he asks:

Is not a further development possible with regard to our issue too—a development that does not repeal the binding faith tradition, but carries forward and deepens more recent traditions?

For these statements, I am grateful.  Many people in our day enter the arena with an explicit hermeneutic of rupture that makes conversation nearly impossible.  Kasper may in fact embrace what amounts to a rupture with the past, but at least one can point to these words of his and make a case.

Since his book was meant to prepare the way for the bishops’ synod on marriage, one other “rule” seems to me implicit in his task:  he should be speaking to bishops.  That is to say, this should not be a book directed at the masses, at the laity and at various constituencies, but at his fellow bishops and cardinals.  His fellow bishops are intelligent and well-read men, theologically trained, but Kasper has written lots of academic pieces in the past and certainly has the chops to do something at a high level.

From that point of view, I would have to criticize the book as it has gone to this point.  Its complexity is at about the level of the Catechism, often following the Catechism in its points and how it develops them.  I would have expected a somewhat higher level of discourse.  Not a disaster, but it causes me to wonder what audience is foremost in his mind.

Lastly, just before we get into the nitty-gritty, I would have to add that chapter 5 sticks out a bit from the rest of the book.  He began the book by saying he did not want to deal with the various well-known problems that make the news but rather to present the “gospel of the family,” the “good news,” and he pursued this intention by commenting on Scripture.  Along the way he mentioned a few aspects of the current crisis, especially the disintegration of the family and the general loss of faith among Catholics, but he did not give extended attention to any one issue.

Until now.  In a book that doesn’t set out to treat deeply of any one problem, here we have a chapter that’s all about one problem and how Kasper proposes to fix it.  It just stands out from the design of the whole book in an awkward way, and it raises questions for me:

Why not talk about all those Catholics who are practicing contraception and receiving the Eucharist in sin?  According to current discipline, they shouldn’t receive communion any more than the divorced and remarried.  Is it because preachers aren’t preaching about it and the faithful aren’t worked up about it, so it somehow isn’t a problem?

Why not focus on that amazing loss of faith he describes and talk and length about how to remedy that?  Isn’t that the root issue?

I don’t mean to imply that these are whopper-stopper, unanswerable questions.  I just mean to highlight that the design of the book comes across in some ways as a long and quickly-written introduction to chapter 5 on the divorced and remarried.  This chapter is where he’s really talking to his fellow bishops.

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A first look at Cardinal Kasper


Spring has arrived in Wyoming.  Birds chirp and gather nesting materials, grass pokes green shoots up through the snow (!), and WCC juniors ask teachers to direct their theses.  This past week I agreed to guide a project that attempts to connect liturgy and family, with a possible look at the debate over Cardinal Kasper’s proposal to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to communion.

Despite all the hullaballoo over last year’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, I have never actually read the text of Cardinal Kasper’s proposal.  In fact, I’ve never read anything at all by Kasper.  To get myself into the thesis project, I thought I would read Kasper’s Gospel of the Family and blog about it.  After all, directing a thesis on faith last year led to my most popular blog series ever.

So far I have only read the introduction.  It does not scream “Heresy!” or “Dissent!”  Kasper chooses not to lead in with a hot-button topic like gay marriage or heterosexual divorce because he wants to start with the gospel itself.  That said, he does say clearly that we are in a crisis because, although marriage is a sacrament of faith, most Christian married couples today–despite their religious affiliation–do not believe the gospel and have in fact concluded that the Church’s teaching on marriage is out of touch and irrelevant.  Kasper observes:

The current situation of the church is not unique.  Even the church of the first centuries was confronted with concepts and models of marriage and family that were different from that which Jesus preached, which was quite new, both for Jews as well as for the Greeks and Romans.  Therefore, our position cannot be that of a liberal accommodation to the status quo, but rather a radical position that goes back to the roots (radices), that is, a position that goes back to the gospel and that looks forward from that perspective.

So far, so good, right?  He doesn’t sound like he is leading up to a proposal for capitulating to the culture.

One little puzzle hides in a footnote.  Noting that “out topic is not ‘The Church’s Teaching concerning the Family,'” he nonetheless adds a footnote in which he lists “the most important documents” regarding that teaching:

  1. Council of Trent: DH 1797-1816
  2. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes 47-52
  3. Apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601-66
  5. Apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis 27-29
  6. Encyclical Lumen Fidei 52f.

It’s a puzzling list, probably representing not careful work but whatever came to Kasper’s mind as he quickly threw this address together.  There is no sign that he is suppressing texts unfavorable to himself–Sacramentum Caritatis 29 alone would dispel that idea.  But he doesn’t mention some obvious, big-time magisterial texts like Humanae Vitae and Casti Connubii (heavily footnoted by Gaudium et Spes) while he includes the brief and relatively uninteresting passage from Lumen Fidei, probably because it was recent and therefore fresh in Kasper’s memory.

To be honest, I don’t know why this footnote even exists.  It attempts to offer guidance into the key documents of magisterial teaching on marriage, but it is attached to a sentence that says magisterial teaching on marriage is not the topic up for discussion.  Again, this is probably not a carefully thought-out effort but hasty writing ahead of a deadline.

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Marriage talks too much

I am translating a snippet from a medieval commentary on 1Corinthians.  At the part where St. Paul advises the Corinthians not to marry because of the many difficulties involved, my commentator notes that Paul says

that marriage should be avoided because there are many pressing difficulties.  Hence they are said to be in a millstone, Mt. 24:41.  Hence in common speech it is said that marriage has a big mouth.

Excuse me?  Odd proverbs making the rounds in the late middle ages.  But I love the creative interpretation of Mt. 24:41!

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