Marriage Counseling

U.S. Catholic, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Marriage Counseling


Will the Synod on the Family bring change for divorced and remarried Catholics? One influential reform-minded cardinal hopes so.

With the first of two meetings of the world's bishops on family life set for this October, the issue that has raised the most expectations for change has been the church's rule barring divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving communion. Those hopes for change intensified when Pope Francis earlier this year asked German Cardinal Walter Kasper to deliver a lengthy address on "the gospel of the family" to a gathering of the world's cardinals. With the encouragement of the pope, Kasper, long an advocate for finding new pastoral approaches for remarried divorced Catholics, used the opportunity to outline his proposals for reform.

Steering clear of a general solution that would apply to all remarried divorced people, Kasper is arguing for a "reasonable middle way between an unyielding rigidity on the one hand and an indulgent laxity on the other." Above all, he wants to reestablish mercy, which is at the heart of the gospel, as a fundamental principle in the life of the church. The sometimes rigid treatment of remarried divorced Catholics, Kasper says, has "alienated too many Christians from the church."

Still, critics contend that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Kasper's proposals would seriously undermine the church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and would lead the church into "error" or even "schism." The issue now stands as a test case for whether Pope Francis' renewed emphasis on mercy will lead to tangible change. Stay tuned.

The editors interview Cardinal Walter Kasper

In your talk to the cardinals in February you said the church must pay attention to the "hard realities" of family life. What are some of these realities?

The main point of my talk was to emphasize the importance and the beauty of the family and to clarify what we mean when we talk about the "gospel of the family."

But we can't simply paint a beautiful picture in the sky, we also have to look around us down on the ground and see the realities as they are. The church, like a good shepherd, must go searching for the lost sheep and take the realities of the world seriously. That's why, only in the final chapter of my talk, I tried to address the problem of remarried divorced Catholics. It's an urgent problem in Europe as much as it is here in the United States and in other parts of the world.

It's a problem that, in our modern world, only continues to grow, and the church has to ask itself what it can do. Our sacraments can't become "rewards" for the good behavior of an elite club, but rather should speak to the hard realities people find themselves in.

For example, when I was still a bishop in Germany, one day a pastor came to me with a dilemma he was facing. In his parish they were preparing for first communion, and there was a mother--one of the most active and committed parishioners in the parish--who had beautifully prepared her daughter for first communion, much better than any other parent. She was one of the pillars of the parish and everyone knew her as a good woman, but she was divorced and remarried. The pastor says to me, "How could I possibly, on the day of her first communion, tell the child, 'You may receive the Eucharist, but your mom may not; things aren't right between your mom and your dad'?"

I told that story to Pope Francis, and his response was, "No, no, that's impossible. You can't say that to the girl; the pastor has to make a pastoral decision here." That's what the pope said. And I told him, "Yes, he made that decision."

Of course, from my own pastoral experience, I have to say that we can't really come up with a general solution for all remarried divorced people. They are in very, very different situations.

You specifically address two different situations. …

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