While Cardinal Kasper has been busy lobbying for his long-sought proposal to change Church disciplines concerning the indissolubility of marriage, Benedict XVI has been, as he promised, cloistered in prayer and study.

Though there can be no other way for a pope to “retire,” it must be more than a little frustrating to see Kasper, in his 2014 book The Gospel of the Family, using Ratzinger’s own 1972 essay to support a proposal that Benedict XVI has long since rejected.

Forty years ago Ratzinger had argued that Communion for the divorced and remarried was permissible, based on patristic precedent, especially St. Basil, who “indulged” a return to Communion after a penitential period. It was an obvious nod to the Eastern Church which had developed this lenient practice in consultation with Byzantine authorities. But a question arises: Why would Kasper utilize Ratzinger’s authority to support a proposal that Ratzinger later rejected? Was Kasper unaware?

In 1991 a canon lawyer advanced a Kasper-like proposal, citing Ratzinger in his favor. Ratzinger immediately retracted his old suggestion saying that the Magisterium had already spoken “decisively on this question in the person of John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio.” Kasper must have known at least this much because the next year he countered Ratzinger saying that while Familiaris Consortio had provided a “general norm” it couldn’t be seen to regulate “all the very complex individual cases.” In 1994, as head of the CDF, Ratzinger replied in a letter to all bishops (including Kasper!), reminding them that divorced people who have been civilly remarried may not receive Holy Communion because they persist in a grave sin (adultery). Finally, immediately after his election in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Sacramentum Caritatis that the “nullity of the marriage bond” must be declared in order for the faithful “to return to the table of the Eucharist.” It seems extremely difficult to believe that Kasper was unaware that Ratzinger, now Benedict, had not changed his mind to affirm the constant and universal practice of the Church.

Meanwhile, Benedict XVI has been overseeing the publication of his nine-volume Opera Omnia. For a man whose life is hidden, it is a fitting thing to do. Just last week a volume was published that included the 1972 essay. And—surprise, surprise—Benedict has rewritten the conclusion!

Officially retracting his 1972 suggestion, Benedict now states that the Church has reviewed the whole tradition carefully, and has already considered all sides of the issue. The Church’s teaching cannot be “stretched” on this question; it must remain “faithful to the mandate of the Lord.”

Yet Benedict does acknowledge that pastoral care has been given an important task. He cites Familiaris Consortio (which he undoubtedly helped to draft) where St. John Paul II counseled that the Church show herself to be “a merciful mother,” to help the divorced, “to make sure that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church,” to ensure that all baptized persons “participate in the Church’s life,” and “truly feel the love of the Church.” All good intentions that Kasper shares. But Benedict’s concluding paragraphs are worth quoting in full because he directly rejects any emotivist account of what it would mean to “feel the love.” Benedict writes:

There is another point of view that imposes itself on me. The impossibility of receiving the holy Eucharist is perceived as so painful not last of all because, currently, almost all who participate in the Mass also approach the table of the Lord. In this way the persons affected also appear publicly disqualified as Christians.

I maintain that Saint Paul’s warning about examining oneself and reflecting on the fact that what is at issue is the Body of the Lord should be taken seriously once again: “A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:28 f.). A serious self-examination, which might even lead to forgoing communion, would also help us to feel in a new way the greatness of the gift of the Eucharist and would furthermore represent a form of solidarity with divorced and remarried persons.

I would like to add another practical suggestion. In many countries it has become customary for persons who are not able to receive communion (for example, the members of other confessions) to approach the altar with their hands folded over their chests, making it clear that they are not receiving the sacrament but are asking for a blessing, which is given to them as a sign of the love of Christ and of the Church. This form could certainly be chosen also by persons who are living in a second marriage and therefore are not admitted to the Lord’s table. The fact that this would make possible an intense spiritual communion with the Lord, with his whole Body, with the Church, could be a spiritual experience that would strengthen and help them.

Baptism is what makes us participants of the Church. The Most Holy Eucharist nourishes us for the journey. But if we think the Eucharist is an instrument for “inclusivity,” something to make us feel welcome, or something we are “entitled” to as Christians, then something has gone badly wrong. And this holds for all of us. Though Benedict XVI cannot directly respond to Kasper, he can, in his own quiet, contemplative way, participate in the Synod.       

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