Not all can receive it: Kasper on marriage, continued

[This is the third in a series on Cardinal Walter Kasper’s The Gospel of the Family.  The other posts are:  1. A First Look at Cardinal Kasper; 2. The Ten Signposts.]

Chapter 3 of Kasper’s The Gospel of the Family brings his running biblical commentary into the New Testament. One thing is clear by this point: Cardinal Walter Kasper is no amateur at this. The man is deep into the Church’s theology of marriage.

Good news for Kasper fans: Cardinal Kasper knows what he is doing!

Potential bad news for Kasper fans:  Cardinal Kasper knows what he is doing!

Here in chapter 3, I finally came across something that just leaves me troubled. Kasper brings up that “A fundamental statement by Jesus concerning marriage and family is found in his famous words about divorce (Matt 19:3-9).” He goes on to describe the conversation in which Jesus says that divorce and remarriage is adultery and the disciples respond, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Kasper comments:

Jesus indirectly confirms that, viewed from a human perspective, this is an excessive demand. It must be “given” to human beings; it is a gift of grace.

Kasper doesn’t give a citation for this, but Matthew 19:11 (continuing the conversation Kasper has been tracking) is the only place in Scripture where Jesus makes such a statement: “But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.” That’s the only verse Kasper can have in mind.

Here’s the strange thing. The patristic tradition agrees with the best modern commentary on Matthew in taking Matthew 19:11 as shifting the topic to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, reading as leading smoothly into 19:12, “or there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” Kasper is aware of verse 12 and what it means, because he cites it later in the same chapter as referring to a grace given to a minority of Christians of living in celibacy for Christ.

Other people read verse 11 this way. Kasper can certainly side with the minority and take verse 11 as speaking of marriage, but one would think that he would signal somehow that his reading breaks with the usual Catholic interpretation, especially since his reading could suggest that perpetual marital fidelity is a grace given only to a few.

That is not the direction Kasper takes it in this chapter. He simply concludes that marital fidelity should be understood as rendered possible by the grace of the gospel, which softens the hardened heart (Matthew 19:8) that leads to divorce. His reflection on the demands of marriage is actually quite beautiful.

But I’ll be interested to see where this goes.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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