In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis offered the pastors of the Catholic Church guidance on how to interpret traditional teaching concerning marriage and family life. One principle was that “the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives”.
The Catholic News Service on Feb. 27 quoted retired Cardinal Walter Kasper addressing the world's cardinals “ The Catholic Church needs to find a way to offer healing, strength and salvation to Catholics whose marriages have failed, who are committed to making a new union work and who long to do so within the church and with the grace of Communion.” He went on to say “Jesus' teaching on the indissolubility of sacramental marriage is clear, the retired German cardinal said, and it would harm individuals and the church to pretend otherwise, and one cannot propose a solution different from or contrary to the words of Jesus".
Now perhaps we can understand why the Catholic News mentioned that the Vatican did not want to publish the Cardinal’s text but they somehow mysteriously obtained a copy.
Kasper’s biblical interpretation on the question of ‘divorce’ had already been challenged previously by many others. For example Catholic theologian Hans Kűng last year (November 2013) challenged the biblical quote used by Kasper by reflecting on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium as follows:
The Christians of the New Testament did not understand Jesus’ words on divorce as a law but as an ethical directive. The failure of a marriage obviously did not correspond to what men and women were created for. Only dogmatic rigidity, however, cannot take seriously that already in the days of the Apostles, Jesus’ words on divorce were applied with a certain flexibility, namely in cases of “porneia/unchastity” (cf. Matthew 5:32; 19:9) and when a Christian and a nonbeliever separated (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:12-15). Already in the Early Church, one was obviously aware that there were situations when a further life together was unacceptable. However, to assume that remarried divorcees in general just casually and light-heartedly gave up their first marriages for trivial reasons is malicious. There is no more bitter experience than the failure of a love relationship on which one has set the hopes of a lifetime. In view of the millions of Catholics the world over nowadays who, although they are members of the Church, cannot take part in its sacramental life, it is of little help to keep quoting one Vatican document after the other without convincingly answering the decisive question as to why there should be no forgiveness just for this particular failure. Hasn’t the Magisterium already failed miserably as far as contraception is concerned and thus been unable to assert itself in the Church? A similar failure in the question of divorce should be avoided at all costs.
While the contradiction is strikingly obvious but the reasons behind it are not. An editorial from the ‘The Tablet’ a U.K. Catholic weekly suggest that the conservative views held be Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller the Prefect to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) may still carry considerable influence among his supporters within the Vatican. The Tablet goes on to say “worried observers are already asking whether Pope Emeritus Ratzinger is in fact operating as a kind of “shadow Pope” behind the scenes through Archbishop Müller and perhaps Francis confirmed him in office quite to soon.”
And Pope Francis? Hans Kűng thinks the troubling issue rests with the Pope as he wrestles with a church that for too long has resisted change because:
- For many the situation is self-contradictory – on the one side, church reform and on the other, remarried divorcees.
- The Pope wants to move forward – the CDF prefect puts on the brakes.
- The Pope has actual people in mind – the prefect above all has traditional Catholic doctrine in mind.
- The Pope wants to practise mercy – the prefect appeals to God’s holiness and justice.
While the issue of divorce is stoking a spirited debate between Catholic cardinals and revealing the challenges and expectations for Pope Francis after his promises to put the Church more in touch with modern life. The expectations for many Catholic divorced and remarried couples may have to put on hold for just a little bit longer.