[Warning: long read - again.]
While the family is a constant and core feature of human existence that has the potential to strongly shape its members’ lives, the forms it takes today are more diverse than they have probably ever been. At the same time, the Church, at least seemingly, presents a single one of the many alternatives in practice today as the ideal and even penalizes the others. This, undoubtedly results in distance being put between the Church and those whose family lives don’t conform to its ideals, which is a serious problem for the Church, whose mission is to be close to all.
As a result, Pope Francis has put a process in motion to study the current situation of the family and explore ways of the Church being more open and welcoming, while at the same time - and here lies the true challenge - remaining faithful to Jesus’ teachings and the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The form taken by the process are two bishops’ synods - one this year and one next year - where the subject will be discussed and proposals put to the Holy Father for approval. To begin with, a questionnaire has already been circulated to dioceses around the world, in which both priests and lay faithful were asked to provide feedback on a wide variety of questions to do with the family in a broad sense. Many of these surveys have already concluded, with some bishops’ conferences even choosing to publish their result that so far consistently show a gap between Church teaching and practice by the Church’s members. An unsurprising result, but one whose openness and honest is nonetheless a positive sign.
Beyond the questionnaire, the next significant step taken by Pope Francis has been to ask Cardinal Walter Kasper to prepare an address to the extraordinary consistory of cardinals that took place in the Vatican two weeks ago. The resulting two-hour talk was greatly praised afterwards by Pope Francis, by referring to his work the next day as “doing theology on one’s knees.” The first thing to note here is that Cardinal Kasper is not in any formal way related to the family - he is neither in charge of the Pontifical Council for the Family nor the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose heads would have been the obvious choices if the criterion had been about formal scopes or responsibilities. Instead, Francis picks one of his favorite theologians (as he said already during the first Angelus after his election) - a retired Cardinal, who had previously been in charge of working towards Christian unity and who has played important roles in improving relationships with Jews. Second, it is worth being aware of the fact that Kasper’s speech was initially not meant for publication and was instead intended only for the cardinals present at the consistory. Nonetheless, ten days after he delivered it, and following extensive media coverage of its summary and some leaked passages, the full text is now available in Italian.
Instead of attempting a detailed commentary on Kasper’s words, I would like to focus on passages from the opening parts of his speech, where he lays out the basic principles and reflects on what is immutable versus what can (and has been) changed during the Church’s long history as far as the family is concerned. Kasper then proceeds to sketch out two ideas of what could be done differently for civilly remarried divorcees - if that is what you are interested in, there has been plenty of coverage of their details, and an English translation of the relevant passages is available here.
To my mind those two proposals are the least interesting part of Kasper’s thought, since, as he states from the outset, his aim is only to provide a “kind of overture that leads towards the theme, in the hope that in the end we will receive a sym-phony, or a harmonious whole of all the voices in the Church, including those that at the moment are partly dissonant.” Kasper wants to set the scene and provide a framework in which all can come together.
The first, to my mind beautiful and lucid, insight regards an understanding of what the Gospel is and of how it relates to the Church’s teaching:
“The Gospel, believed in and lived by the Church, is the source of all truth, of salvation and of practice. This means that the teaching of the Church is not a stagnant lake, but instead a torrent that springs from the source of the Gospel, in which flows the experience of faith of the people of God of all the ages. It is a tradition that is alive and that today, as on many other occasions during the course of history, has arrived at a critical point and that, in view of the “signs of the times,” requires continuation and deepening.The second cornerstone is about the nature of the sacraments and their interdependence with faith:
What then is this Gospel? It isn’t a legal code. It is the light and strength of life that is Jesus Christ. It gives what it asks for. Only in its light and in its strength is it possible to understand and observe the commandments. [...] Without the Spirit that works in our hearts, the letter of the Gospel is a law that kills (2 Corinthians 3:6).1 Therefore the Gospel of the family does not want to be a burden, but instead, as far as being a gift of faith, an uplifting news, light and strength of the life of the family.”
“The sacraments, including that of marriage, are sacraments of faith. [...] The Second Vatican Council [... says about the sacraments:] “They not only presuppose faith, but [...] they also nourish, strengthen, and express it.” (SC 59) The sacrament of marriage too can become efficacious and be lived only in faith. Therefore, the essential question is: how is the faith of the future spouses? [...] Many persons are baptized but not evangelized. Put in paradoxical terms, they are baptized catechumens, if not baptized pagans.”These may sound like harsh words - and they are! - but I believe they, sadly, express a widespread reality whereby there is broad lack of understanding about faith among Catholics.
The third opening consideration brings together the dynamism of the Gospel and the indispensability of faith, and relates them to how God participates in our lives:
“God is a God of the journey: in the history of salvation he has journeyed with us. Today he has to walk the Earth again with the persons of the present. He doesn’t want to impose faith on no one. He can only present it and propose it as a way of happiness. The Gospel can convince only by means of itself and by its profound beauty.”In summary, I see Kasper as setting a scene in which the Gospel is a source of joy, where it is through faith and with open eyes that it guides and delights the followers of Jesus. It is not to be imposed, nor is it to be read as a rule-book, and taking its consequences out of context is lethal.
Next, Kasper proceeds to lay out the basic principles of the ideal family, all by reference to the first book of Genesis:2
- “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27) Here Kasper focuses on the relationship between man and woman and on it being based on the concepts of love and gift: “Man and woman are given as gifts by God one for the other. They have to complement and sustain each other, delight each other and find joy in each other. Both, man and woman, inasmuch as they are image of God, have the same dignity. There is no room for discrimination against the woman. But man and woman aren’t simply equal. Their equality in dignity is based on creation, just like their diversity. [...] The equal dignity of their diversity explains the attraction between the two [...] Wanting to make them equal on ideological grounds destroys erotic love. The Bible understands this love as union for the sake of becoming one flesh, which means one community of life, which included sex, eros and human friendship. In this complete sense, man and woman are created for love and are an image of God, who is love (1 John 4:8). [...] When a partner deifies the other and expects that they prepare heaven on earth for them, the other necessarily feels that too much is being asked of them; they can do nothing but disappoint. Many marriages fail as a result of such excessive expectations. The community of life of man and woman, together with their children, can be happy only if they see each other as reciprocal gifts that transcend each one of them.”
- “God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) Kasper’s focus here is on God’s trust: “Responsible parenthood has a more profound meaning than that which is usually attributed to it. It means that God entrusts the most precious gift he can give, which means human life, to the responsibility of man and woman. The can decide responsibly the number and timing of the birth of their children. They have to do it responsibly in front of God and by respecting the dignity and the good of their partner, responsibly with regard to the good of their children, responsibly in view of the future of society and while respecting human nature. The result though isn’t a casuistic, but instead a form whose specific putting into practice is entrusted to the responsibility of man and woman. They are given the responsibility over the future. The future of humanity passes through the family.”
- “[F]ill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28) becomes interpreted by Kasper as a call to filling the world with a culture of love: “These words are not meant as submission or violent domination. The second creation account here speaks about cultivating and caring for (2:15). [...] With this cultural mission, the relationship between man and woman transcends them again. It isn’t mere sentimentalism that revolves around oneself; it mustn’t close itself in on itself, but open itself towards a mission for the world. The family is not only a private community of persons. It is the fundamental and vital cell of society. [...] It is fundamental for the birth of a culture of love and for a humanization and personalization of society, without which it would become an anonymous mass. In this sense it is possible to speak about a social and political role of the family.”
As soon as Kasper presents the ideal of the family, he is quick to point out that this ideal is “not the reality of the family [and that ...] the Bible knows it.” The root cause is that “the alienation of man from God has as its consequence alienation in man and among persons,” which also projects onto the family:
“The first alienation happens between man and woman. They experience shame, one in front of the other (3:10). This shame demonstrates that the original harmony between body and spirit has been disturbed and that man and woman are alienated from one another. Affection degenerates into desire and domination of man over woman (3:16). They reproach and accuse each other (3:12). Violence, jealousy and discord creep into marriage and the family.”Kasper also points out that the marital infidelities that the Bible recounts are even part of Jesus’ family tree, which “includes two women (Tamar and Uriah’s wife) who are considered sinners (Matthew 1:3). Jesus too had ancestors who didn’t come from a “good family,” and whom it would have been preferable not to speak about. The Bible here is very realistic, very honest.” He then goes on to warn against a distorted, idealized view:
“When we speak about the family and about the beauty of the family, we mustn’t start from an unrealistic, romantic image. We must also see the hard realities and participate in the sadness, the worries and the tears of many families. Biblical realism can in fact offer us a certain consolation. It shows us that what we lament is not something of today and that it has always been like that. We mustn’t give in to the temptation of idealizing the past and then, as happens in many cases, see the present merely as a history of decadence.”To conclude his reflection on the family, which starts out from the ideals derived from Genesis, chapter 1, and then proceeds through the failures catalogued in both Old and New Testaments, Kasper finishes on a positive note, again derived from Scripture:
“In the end, the third chapter of Genesis kindles a light of hope. Throwing man out of paradise, God gave him hope for accompanying him on his journey. That which tradition defines as the protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15), can also be understood as the protoevangelium of the family. From its descendants a Savior will be born. The genealogies of Matthew and Luke (Matthew 1:1-7; Luke 3:23-28) witness that from the sequence of generations, even with its jolts and jerks, in the end a Savior is born. God can write straight even along crooked lines. Therefore, when we accompany people along their journeys, we mustn’t be prophets of doom, but instead bearers of hope, who offer consolation and who, even in difficult situations, encourage people to go ahead.”The picture here is very much of hope with eyes wide open and of pursuing a great ideal even in the midst of failure and weakness. In the second half of his talk (that’s right - the above are just a couple of pieces from the first half!), Kasper then proceeds to look at how the various painful situations that families find themselves in can be approached, with a focus on how those who got divorced and the subsequently civilly re-married could be accompanied and included. Since this second half of Kasper’s talk is receiving good coverage in the media, I will limit myself to the above framework that I translated from the Italian full text and commented on above. To give you a sense of where Kasper is going in the second half of his talk, let me just quote one line from it: “The Church must be a home for all, in which all must be able to feel at home and like in a family.” Amen!
[UPDATE (4 March 2014): I have changed my mind and have continued with translating passages from and commenting on the second part of Kasper’s talk here. There he takes us through his analysis of the indissolubility of marriage, of the causes of the breakdown of the nuclear family and proposes the domestic Church as the way forward.]
1 “[W]ho has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.”
2 Here he is in good company with John Paul II’s “theology of the body” whose conclusions are also well reflected in Kasper’s thought.