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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The Ten Signposts

I have read chapters one and two of The Gospel of the Family carefully, and I’m afraid I have little to report: it’s pretty much just boring old Catholic doctrine. Nothing scandalous or juicy.

But I do think I’m seeing what Kasper meant when he said in the preface that “Our topic is not ‘The Church’s Teaching concerning the family.” Chapters one and two take the form of a commentary on the first three chapters of Genesis, and while he footnotes magisterial documents liberally, he does not actually talk about magisterial documents. The Church’s teaching is certainly in the mix, but he’s using it to comment on Scripture.

The one odd moment was in chapter 2, where he writes about the Ten Commandments. After explaining how they express the natural law found in every culture, he says:

They are signposts on the path to a happy fulfilled life. One cannot impose them on anyone, but can offer them to everyone, with good reasons, as a path to happiness.

Surely he knows that one can impose “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not kill” on the general populace, right? Kasper is rumored to be liberal, but I have a hard time thinking he really means to negate the foundations of law and order. So for the moment I’m taking this one as a slip of the pen or tongue or laptop or whatever he used to craft this document.

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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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The Triduum in Pictures

Good Friday 1
Good Friday 1
Good Friday 2
Good Friday 2
Holy Saturday
Holy Saturday
Easter 1
Easter 1
Easter 2
Easter 2

[Many thanks to Regina and Teresa Holmes for supplying the art work.]

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A Song for the Holy Family

A few years back, when Peter Kwasniewski composed the music for David’s Town and asked me to write lyrics, he also wrote music for another Christmas season hymn.  It sounded to me, for what mystical reasons I cannot say, like a song about the Holy Family.  And to my surprise, I could not find a song for the Holy Family anywhere in my music books:  some songs were about Mary, some about Joseph, some about Mary and Jesus, and some about Mary and Joseph, but none were about the Holy Family as such.

So I set out to remedy that lack in the English-speaking world’s repertoire, or at least in my own musical collection.  I wrote one verse of the projected hymn that year.  The following year I added a second verse.  Finally, this year I wrote the third and final verse of our new hymn for today’s feast, “For the Holy Family”.  Click here to see words and music, and below you’ll find a recording by the aspiring-to-be-holy family here in Lander.

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A Jesse Tree Catechism

Not the Jesse Tree we use at home!

Like a lot of families, we put up a “Jesse Tree” every Advent as a way of getting the kids focused on something about Christmas other than the P-word.  Ours is a simple thing, a tree drawn on a cloth with some ornaments hand stitched by my wife’s mother years ago.  When I began teaching Salvation History courses for college students, I brought the Jesse Tree in toward the end of the fall semester to tie a few things together.  If you put up a Jesse Tree in your home, or if you’ve ever wondered what the whole thing is about, you might enjoy seeing how I approach it with my students.  It’s the same thing I do at home with the kids:

Q. Does anybody know what this is?
A. It’s a Jesse Tree. Continue reading “A Jesse Tree Catechism”

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Pope Francis speaks about the family

Yesterday, Pope Francis addressed an international, inter-faith gathering devoted to discussing the family.  The event is hosted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the Pope’s talk opened the event.  Given the confusion following the Synod, I think it is important to see how Francis picks up “human ecology” language used by St. John Paul II (see paragraph 38) and Benedict XVI (see paragraphs 11 and following) when he speaks about the importance of natural mothers and fathers.  Rumor has it that the Pope is planning an entire document around this theme of “human ecology”.  Here is the complete text of the Pope’s address:


“We Must Foster a New Human Ecology”

By Pope Francis

November 17, 2014

Dear sisters and brothers,

I warmly greet you. I thank Cardinal Mueller for his words with which he introduced our meeting. I would like to begin by sharing with you a reflection on the title of your colloquium. You must admit that “complementarity” does not roll lightly off the tongue! Yet it is a word into which many meanings are compressed. It refers to situations where one of two things adds to, completes, or fulfills a lack in the other. But complementarity is much more than that. Yet complementarity is more than this.
Christians find its deepest meaning in the first Letter to the Corinthians where Saint Paul tells us that the Spirit has endowed each of us with different gifts so that-just as the human body’s members work together for the good of the whole-everyone’s gifts can work together for the benefit of each. (cf. 1 Cor. 12).  To reflect upon “complementarity” is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation. This is a big word, harmony. All complementarities were made by our Creator, so the Author of harmony achieves this harmony.

It is fitting that you have gathered here in this international colloquium to explore the complementarity of man and woman. This complementarity is a root of marriage and family. For the family grounded in marriage is the first school where we learn to appreciate our own and others’ gifts, and where we begin to acquire the arts of cooperative living. For most of us, the family provides the principal place where we can aspire to greatness as we strive to realize our full capacity for virtue and charity. At the same time, as we know, families give rise to tensions: between egoism and altruism, reason and passion, immediate desires and long-range goals. But families also provide frameworks for resolving such tensions. This is important.


When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma. Complementarity becomes a great wealth. It is not just a good thing but it is also beautiful.

We know that today marriage and the family are in crisis. We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment. This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

Evidence is mounting that the decline of the marriage culture is associated with increased poverty and a host of other social ills, disproportionately affecting women, children and the elderly. It is always they who suffer the most in this crisis.

The crisis in the family has produced an ecological crisis, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection. And although the human race has come to understand the need to address conditions that menace our natural environments, we have been slower to recognize that our fragile social environments are under threat as well, slower in our culture, and also in our Catholic Church. It is therefore essential that we foster a new human ecology.

It is necessary first to promote the fundamental pillars that govern a nation: its
non-material goods. The family is the foundation of co-existence and a remedy against social fragmentation. Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity. That is why I stressed in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that the contribution of marriage to society is “indispensable”; that it “transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.” (n. 66)  And that is why I am grateful to you for your Colloquium’s emphasis on the benefits that marriage can provide to children, the spouses themselves, and to society.

In these days, as you embark on a reflection on the beauty of complementarity between man and woman in marriage, I urge you to lift up yet another truth about marriage: that permanent commitment to solidarity, fidelity and fruitful love responds to the deepest longings of the human heart.  I urge you to bear in mind especially the young people, who represent our future. Commit yourselves, so that our youth do not give themselves over to the poisonous environment of the temporary, but rather be revolutionaries with the courage to seek true and lasting love, going against the common pattern.
Do not fall into the trap of being swayed by political notion. Family is an anthropological fact – a socially and culturally related fact. We cannot qualify it based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history. We can’t think of conservative or progressive notions. Family is a family. It can’t be qualified by ideological notions. Family is per se. It is a strength per se.

I pray that your colloquium will be an inspiration to all who seek to support and strengthen the union of man and woman in marriage as a unique, natural, fundamental and beautiful good for persons, communities, and whole societies.

I wish to confirm according to the wishes of the Lord, that in September of 2015, I will go to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Thank you for your prayers with which you accompany my service to the Church. Bless you from my heart.

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After the Synod: What’s a Catholic to say?

In the aftermath of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, friends often send me “whatcha think?” links about the direction Pope Francis is likely to take in the coming year.  It’s a hard situation, because a lot of what is out there is negative about the Holy Father:  “He botched the Synod,” “He is out to get conservative Catholics,” “He has a radical agenda of reform,” and so on.  As a Catholic one wonders how to navigate the conversation.

Based on recent exchanges, I have worked up a few rules of thumb for myself that others may find helpful as well.  When I consider how I should react to the situation Pope Francis faces, there are three things to consider:  (1) the situation, (2) Pope Francis, and (3) me.

Rule of Thumb #1:  Focus on the situation

This is conflict resolution 101, really.  It is rarely helpful to talk about motives or speculate about events unfolding far away, but it is always helpful to talk about the reality right around you.  And the reality around us is that people are confused, despite any pretense to the contrary.  So while I will not say, “Pope Francis intends to do this” or “Pope Francis is to blame for that,” I will say, loud and clear, that people are confused and agitated after the Synod.

During the Synod there was a wash of helpful and unhelpful commentary online.  Unhelpful commentary dwelt with anguish on the bold and impious motives of this or that key figure in the drama, while helpful pieces gave factual information about the unfolding events and offered a frank assessment of the resulting situation in the world.  It was not angry or bitter to say that people were afraid of a harmful relaxation in the Church’s practice; it was not harsh or hurtful to say that many Catholics took scandal at the appearance of political maneuvering.  It was just stating the experience of Catholics as a reality.  So long as the focus stayed on the situation and off the dramatis personae, it was a true exercise of the prophetic charism every Catholic possesses in virtue of Baptism.

Focusing on the situation not only keeps us from saying potentially unjust things about Pope Francis but also keeps us focused on what the Holy Spirit is asking us to do.  We know that the Holy Spirit guides the Church and will ultimately preserve her from ruin, but this principle tempts us to look far away at things outside of our responsibility and trust the Holy Spirit wa-a-a-ay over there.  “Gee, it looks like the Pope is doing X or Y, but I know the Holy Spirit is taking care of things.  Wow, it looks like the bishops are saying A or B, but I know the Holy Spirit is taking care of things.”  As long as we focus on the Pope, we forget that the Holy Spirit is also working through us, right here.  Focusing on the situation at hand reminds us that we need to stop wringing our hands about what happens in Rome and start looking for what the Holy Spirit wants to do right under our noses.

Rule of Thumb #2:  Balance realism and reverence

Of course, we can’t just avoid all conversations about the Pope.  People will ask us what we think, and anyway we should pay enough attention to form specific prayer intentions for him.  So what do we say if asked point-blank about the Pope’s intentions or culpability or whatever?

First, we have to be realistic.  There have been truly rotten popes in the past, and there may be truly rotten popes in the future.  The Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church does not give her immunity from all bad leadership.  We need to get familiar with some Church history so we can offer people this context, because if people are not realistic then they will be lazy in prayer and more easily scandalized if things do turn bad.

Second, we have to be reverent.  The fact that the Pope is a public figure does not make him fair game for any unfeeling remark; on the contrary, his office demands respect.  When we see certain facts reported in the News or the blogosphere, inevitably the facts will admit of a range of interpretations from best to worst, any one of which a reasonable person could hold.  To my mind, realism means admitting that this is in fact the range of reasonable interpretations while reverence means that we choose to believe one of the better interpretations until coerced by contrary evidence.

The very nature of the current crisis calls for reverence in speaking about the Pope.  What one side wants and the other side fears is calling into question the Church’s teaching authority, saying that her doctrine is always revisable no matter what a pope or a Church Council may have said.  Even if the man who happens to be pope were himself contributing to an erosion of the world’s opinion about his authority, we the faithful need to make sure that reverence for the office doesn’t go out with respect for the man.  Trash talking the Pope because we thought he was undermining the Church’s teaching would be a classic case of sawing off the branch we sat on.

We might take inspiration from David’s dealings with King Saul.  Saul was in fact a bad man, and David had been chosen by God to replace him, and yet out of reverence for the king’s office David would not take up arms against his enemy:   “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed, to put forth my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s anointed.” (1Sam 24:6)  Given that the Pope is a good man, and I have certainly not been chosen by God to replace him, how could I take up the slings and arrows of outrageous rhetoric against the vicar of Christ?

Rule of Thumb #3: Fix the problem at home first

There are some people whose jobs put them close to the Pope, and those people have a moral obligation to speak to him and warn him if he goes off the rails.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of those people are reading my blog, so I’m going to assume that you all are like me, far from the Pope and without any real ability to influence a Synod.  So what do we do, right here where we are?

If the problem is that people are misguided and confused, then the solution is to fill the atmosphere with good guidance and clear teaching.  Practically, that means that we each need to be well-informed and vocal, and in that order.  How we are vocal depends on our situation:  I don’t see lots of people, but I write; one of my friends doesn’t write much, but he spends all his days in conversation with important Catholics.  The key is to look for your opening and take it.

But how we are well-informed is the same for all of us.  Even if you think of yourself as pretty much conversant with the Church’s teachings on marriage and family, take the current situation as an occasion to re-read some old things and to take on some new things.  As Cardinal Burke suggests, we should all study the Catechism as a starting point.  You could follow the footnotes from there, but if you’re looking for a short and informative read, take up John Paul II’s Letter to Families next, and after that Pius XI’s Casti Connubii.  I would be happy to suggest a reading plan, but you get the idea.

Here is the key:  seize your chance to be vocal, you need to tell people that they should read up on marriage and family.  And to tell them they should read up, you need to convince them by example, by talking about what you read just recently.  It doesn’t matter how much you have read, so long as every time you talk to someone you can say that you read something helpful just the other day….

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FTT #101 – Bonus!

And here a few odds and ends:

Bernadette plays Christmas music on the piano non-stop.  Tina walks around singing, at the top of her lungs, “WE THREE KINGS OF OIL AND TAR!”

A couple of days ago Tina pointed to the non-functioning light in the bathroom ceiling:  “That light bulb needs a new battery!”

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FTT #100

A few days ago, I discovered that the boys were not done with their school because they had played around with learning about computers and programming all day.  Dire threats were assembled and hung above their heads, and they rushed out to the living room to deal with the emergency.

First, they set up a new screensaver on their computer that said, “School time!”  Then they spent an hour figuring out how to make it rotate and blink different colors.

Ya know, we try….

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