VATICAN CITY – Cardinals from around the world delved head-on Thursday into one of the most vexing issues facing the church, how to find ways to provide better pastoral care for divorced and remarried Catholics who are forbidden from receiving Communion and other church sacraments.
German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a pre-eminent theologian who has called for “openings and changes” in dealing with these Catholics, delivered a two-hour keynote speech to the two-day meeting, which is serving as preparation for an October summit of bishops on family issues.
Church teaching holds that unless the first marriage is annulled, or declared null and void by a church tribunal, Catholics who remarry cannot receive Communion or other sacraments because they are essentially living in sin and committing adultery. Such annulments are often impossible to get or can take years to process, a problem that has left generations of Catholics feeling shunned from their church.
Pope Francis has called for a more merciful approach to the problem while remaining loyal to church doctrine. He called Thursday for pastoral care for families that is “intelligent, courageous and full of love” but also doesn’t delve into case-by-case options to get around doctrine.
Kasper frequently cited the Bible as a source of inspiration in a signal, almost Protestant in nature, that the answer to the problem lay in scripture. He told reporters that Francis had asked him to pose questions to the 150 cardinals to begin a debate on the issue.
“We cannot change the doctrine,” Kasper said. “It’s a question of applying the doctrine to concrete situations.” He cited a case he was involved with regarding a remarried Catholic mother whose daughter was preparing for her First Communion, but she herself couldn’t receive Communion because her first marriage was never annulled.
“The mother wants to live the faith. She educated her daughter in the faith. She went to confession because her marriage had failed. But is not a remission of sin possible in this case?” he asked.
There is an active debate over whether the ancient Christian church allowed divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion after a period of penitence, which Kasper cited.