Did the German-Speaking Bishops Just Endorse the Kasper Proposal?

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, Canon Law, Sacraments, The Church, The Pope, Theology

synod-of-bishopsThe German-speaking members of the Synod of Bishops have made a report which some are touting as a breakthrough for the proposal to give Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

What did they really say, and what significance does it have?

Here’s what we know at present . . .


1) What was the report that the German-speaking bishops made?

After the synod opened, the bishops divided up into small groups (known as circuli minores or “smaller circles” in Latin). These were divided based on the language the bishops speak (Italian, English, French, Spanish, or German).

The small groups have produced a number of reports as they worked their way through the synod’s preparatory document.

This week they each turned in their final report, which covered the part of the preparatory document that dealt with the divorced and civilly remarried.

The German-speaking group’s report thus was just one of several reports on this section, which was turned in as a matter of course.

You can read the full text of the report in German here.

And you can read part of it translated into English here.


2) Who is part of the German-speaking group?

The group is headed by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn and Archbishop Heiner Koch.

Members of the group include Cardinals Walter Kasper—who made the proposal to give Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried—and Cardinal Reinhard Marx—who favors the proposal.

The group also includes Cardinal Ludwig Muller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has opposed the plan.


3) How is the German report being portrayed?

It is being portrayed—both by advocates and critics—as suggesting a way in which the Kasper proposal could be implemented using what is known as an “internal forum” solution.

This is particularly striking since the group includes Cardinal Muller and each of the German group’s reports has been unanimously approved.

Since Cardinal Muller has previously and strongly opposed the Kasper proposal, it’s natural to ask what happened here.

Did Cardinal Muller change his view? Did he not change his view? Is someone misrepresenting something?


4) What is an “internal forum” solution?

Canon law draws a distinction between what are known as the external and internal fora.

The external forum deals with actions that can be publicly verified—e.g., this person attempted marriage with such-and-such a person on such-and-such a date, they were later civilly divorced, they later civilly remarried.

The internal forum deals with matters that cannot be publicly verified—e.g., a real but never-expressed intention to refuse to have children, hidden sins, legally unverifiable private convictions.

The discussions held in the sacrament of confession represent one expression of the internal forum.

More on the distinction between the internal and external fora here.

In recent years there have been proposals to allow Catholics who otherwise would not be qualified to receive Communion to do so based on “internal forum solutions.”

The idea is that if a person is convinced in the internal forum that he is qualified to receive Communion, even though this cannot be verified in the external forum, that he should be able to do so.

The so-called internal forum solution is fraught with difficulties and has been the subject of much abuse. See here and here for comments on it by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.


5) Did the German-speaking bishops propose an “internal forum solution” in this case?

This is ambiguous. They certainly didn’t come out and say, “We propose that Communion be given to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics based on an internal forum solution.”

Instead, the text reads like a compromise. It is ambiguous—apparently deliberately so—about whether an internal forum solution is being proposed.


6) So what did the German-speaking bishops say?

The relevant section of their report begins by noting:

We have at length discussed the integration of the civilly divorced and remarried into the church community.

This can be important because it frames what follows as a summary of what they discussed. A person can agree, “Yes, that is what we discussed,” without always agreeing with every proposal that came up in the discussion.

They continued:

It is a well-known fact that at both sessions of the Episcopal Synod there was an intensive struggle over the question of whether and in how far divorced and remarried people who want to take part in the life of the Church, may receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist under certain conditions.

The debates have shown that there are no simple or general solutions here. We bishops experienced the tensions connected with this question just as much as many of our faithful whose worries and hopes, warnings and expectations accompanied us throughout our consultations.

The discussions clearly showed that certain clarifications and in-depth study were necessary in order to further deepen the complexity of these issues in the light of the Gospel, of the Church’s teaching and with the gift of discernment.

So they’re saying this is a difficult and complex subject.

They then go on to point to something John Paul II said:

We can, of course, name certain criteria that help to differentiate. Pope St. John Paul II states the first criterion in [his 1981 encyclical] Familiaris Consortio, paragraph 84:

Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.

It has been pointed out that they don’t quote the part of Familiaris Consortio, which followed this, that explicitly rejected the Kasper proposal.

Of course they don’t. You’d hardly expect a group including Cardinal Kasper to quote that part (not and arrive at a unanimous vote—which was apparently important to them—see below). But everyone knows that passage followed this one. It’s the elephant in the room.

They then get to the role of individual pastors:

A pastor’s task is therefore to accompany the person concerned on the path towards this differentiation. In so doing, it will be helpful to proceed together in an honest examination of conscience and undertake steps of reflection and repentance.

Thus the divorced and remarried people should ask themselves how they treated their children during their marriage crisis. Were there attempts at reconciliation? What is the situation of the abandoned partner? What consequences has the new partnership had as far as the extended family and the community of the faithful are concerned? What example is it for the younger members considering marriage?

An honest reflection can strengthen the trust in God’s mercy, which no one who brings his or her failure and need before God is refused.

All of this is non-controversial. People who are divorced and civilly remarried should undertake such examinations of conscience.

Now we get to the important part:

In view of the objective situation in the talks with the confessor, such a path of reflection and repentance can, in the internal forum, contribute towards the formation of conscience and the clarification of whether admission to the Sacraments is possible.

According to the words of St Paul, which apply to all those who approach the Lord’s table, everyone must examine themselves:

“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.” (I Corinthians 11, 28-31)

The German-speaking bishops then conclude:

As with the procedures for the first two parts of the Instrumentum laboris [i.e., the synod’s working document], the procedures of [this] third part were handled in a good synodal spirit and unanimously approved.

This is a message that, despite their known differences, they played nice with each other (“good synodal spirit”) and that they agreed on the final report (“unanimously approved”).


7) What should one make of the part of their text about the internal forum?

As noted above, they don’t come out and say, “We propose giving Communion in these cases based on an internal forum solution.” That would state the matter much more strongly than what we’ve got.

In actuality, the text is ambiguous.

For a start, it’s true that talks with one’s confessor in the internal forum can “contribute to the formation of conscience.” In fact, that’s a key things that a confessor should try to accomplish during internal forum discussions with penitents—help them understand the requirements of God’s moral law better.

It’s also true that such discussions can help with “the clarification of whether admission to the Sacraments is possible.”

And therein lies the ambiguity.

For an advocate of the Kasper proposal, this could mean a dialogue like this:

Confessor: Do you feel in conscience that it’s okay for you to receive the sacraments?

Penitent: Yes.

Confessor: Then it’s okay for you to do so.

But the same text can be read another way, envisioning a dialogue more like this:

Confessor: Since you are divorced and civilly remarried, I need to ask if you are living chastely with your present, civil spouse.

Penitent: No, I’m not.

Confessor: I’m sorry to hear that. You need to understand that God loves you but, until such time as you are living chastely, you are not eligible to receive the sacraments.

The text of what the German-speaking bishops wrote can be read either way, but only the first of these scenarios is what would be called an “internal forum solution.” Therefore, it’s ambiguous whether the text calls for such a solution.

Advocates of the Kasper proposal can read it as calling for one; opponents of the Kasper proposal can read it as not calling for one.

Opponents can even point to the warning that follows, quoting St. Paul about eating and drinking judgment on oneself, as evidence that the text is not calling for an internal forum solution.


8) Why would the German-speaking bishops write this kind of text?

Based on the clues in the text itself, my sense is that they very much wanted to present a report that was as unified as possible.

One reason for this is that, if they presented a fractious one, it could undermine their respective positions when it comes time for Pope Francis to decide.

He knows that the German-speaking group includes both some of the strongest advocates of the Kasper proposal (e.g., Kasper and Marx) and some of its strongest opponents (e.g., Muller).

If he got the idea that their group had a big, fractious, uncivil blowup then that could sour Pope Francis on whichever group he blamed for the bad behavior.

To preserve their positions’ credibility with Pope Francis, both groups needed to appear as cordial, flexible, and unified as possible. If anyone was perceived as being hostile or rigid, it would undermine him and his position.

The result was an ambiguous, compromise text that concludes with a formula noting the positive spirit of the German-language discussion and the unanimity it achieved.

With this in view, you can see which elements of the text were likely proposed by which parties.

For example, the Kasper advocates would have wanted the reference to the internal forum and the fact that discussions in it can clarify the extent to which one can receive the sacraments. This could be read as calling for an “internal forum solution.”

Muller would not have been able to oppose this without appearing fractious—because it’s true that internal forum discussions can shed light on this matter.

By contrast, Muller or his associates would have wanted the warning from St. Paul about eating and drinking judgment on oneself if one receives Communion unworthily.

The Kasper advocates would have, in turn, found that difficult to oppose because it is in Scripture and thus is also true.


9) So what is the takeaway from this?

It’s important to recognize the German-speaking bishops’ text for the compromise document that it is.

Somewhat like Schrodinger’s cat (Schrodinger himself being a German-speaker), the document both does and doesn’t call for an internal forum solution.

What role it will have going forward remains to be seen. An early sign of this will be what note is taken of it in the upcoming document that the synod fathers will be voting on and that may or may not be released by Pope Francis.

Stay tuned. And keep praying!

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Mark October 23, 2015 at 4:06 am

Your “conversation with a confessor” is what really confuses me about the whole discussion. Because: that’s not how it works. Already.

No one goes to a priest to see if they’re “eligible” for communion. And no one is “admitted” to communion either. It’s not like priests check an ID in the communion line or check to see if you have a prescription signed by a spiritual director.

The way it works is we tell people that if they’re not in a state of grace, they are committing an additional mortal sin of sacrilege if they receive. But everyone pretty much decided for themselves whether they are in such a state (and it’s always an internal forum question, by nature).

Sure, occasionally canon 915 will be invoked, or excommunication. But that’s rare and inconsistently applied (and inconsistent application of laws always raises questions.)

And sure, non-Catholics are asked not to receive because they are not in communion with the Church, even if their heresy is only material not formal and we might imagine that they are privately in a state of grace. But still, again, priests aren’t checking IDs.

And, again, the remarried aren’t being told they’re not Catholic. I could see the analogy if the issue were framed more “yes, you might privately have discerned you’re still in a state of grace, but only because of a divergence in belief between you and the Church which puts you out of communion.”

But we’re not telling them that because it’s not necessarily true; the private discernment of their state may or may not have to do with heterodox beliefs at all. Again, time after time they’re assured they are still Catholics “and can participate in other ways!”

Well if you’re Catholic, believe yourself to be in a state of grace, and the priest doesn’t make some move to actively withhold it due to ideas of public scandal (some priests try that in high profile cases, but it’s rare and there are real questions about when that really applies)…it’s unclear what anyone thinks is stopping such a person from receiving communion already.

John Schuh October 23, 2015 at 2:57 pm

Nothing. What the German bishops seem to wait is to give blanket permission to divorced Catholics not to worry about the official prohibition to take communion, or for priests and others who are aware of the status of such people just to go along with their decision. What seems to be happening is a movement toward open communion, ala the Methodists, and, I fear, a reduced lack of belief in the Real Presence of the Lord. It make me wonder: How many priests are secret Zwinglians, who think of the Presence as only symbolic.even as they undergo the rite of ordination?

Mark October 23, 2015 at 3:44 pm

I don’t really understand why there is an “official prohibition” singling out this issue though. The real teaching isn’t specific to divorce and remarriage…it’s just that you need to be in a state of grace to receive and adultery is considered grave matter and we don’t believe in any way to end a valid marriage while both spouses still live.

But what I don’t understand is why with other sins (like say being on the Pill, which is likewise a sort of “perpetual” series of decisions) people are left to construct the syllogism for themselves, whereas with this its treated as/spoken of almost like some super-added principle and not merely the potential sum of smaller principles.

Jack Gordon October 23, 2015 at 4:26 am

Since at least the Second Vatican Council, deliberate ambiguity has been the tool most favored by liberal prelates (liberal being a prelate who has in mind to actually change either Catholic practice or teaching and/or both). The fact that the impossibility of opening licit reception of the Eucharist to those who persist in serious sin was even aired at this Synod is bad for the Church. The fact that the pope can be seen as having condoned such talk at a Synod is even worse for the Church. Many of us see this entire episode as one of the most lamentable in recent history.

John Schuh October 23, 2015 at 3:02 pm

The much celebrated Vatican II Council seems to have created a schism in the Church, one whose dimensions are only now becoming clear.

Felix Servidad October 23, 2015 at 4:52 am

I believed God will not allow to change the teachings of the church, but if Satan prevailed watch out the church will fall apart.
Anyway they’re just a small number and I’m not worried about them, God will not allow the teachings of the church to be changed.

John Schuh October 23, 2015 at 8:30 am

Having lived for many years in Germany, I know that many German Catholics, especial;y those who are cultural Catholics, resent the Kirchensteuer, where the government taxes them for the support of the Church–the clergy–who are thereby spared the inconvenience of asking for donations. They can, of course, oft out by declaring that they are no longer Catholic or Reformed or whatever. Divorced Catholic more and more doing this. The Kirchsteuer has made the German Church one of the richest in the world, but the number of serious Catholics in Germany keep shrinking. It seems to that Marx and his bofrther bishops and others are worried about the bottom line.

Bill912 October 23, 2015 at 5:07 am

“if Satan prevailed…the church will fall apart”: Neither is possible.

LISA OWLINE October 23, 2015 at 8:12 am

It seems that the Church is not denying Holy Communion to those who have remarried without annulment; rather, those in that situation are in the position of choosing sex or sacrament (as those ‘living as brother and sister’ may receive). The choice isn’t easy, but it’s simple.

Nancy D. October 23, 2015 at 9:21 am

P cannot in essence be not P:)

Steve H October 23, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Seems like, for divorced and remarried Catholics, what certain German bishops are doing is turning what is a meaningful but subjective examination of status between parishioner and priest, into the objective determination of the validity of the original marriage, taking the place of canon law.

“…who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.”

From the translation of the German bishops’ report:
“In view of the objective situation in the talks with the confessor, such a path of reflection and repentance can, in the internal forum, contribute towards the formation of conscience and the clarification of whether admission to the Sacraments is possible.”


Patricia October 23, 2015 at 8:36 pm

I personally cannot believe this is actually being discussed. The Church already has annulment process which should be used for those divorced.(which should not take as long as it does) Everyone is called to be pure before receiving our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist . To allow people divorced and remarried to receive is wrong, what difference then would it be to allow active same sex couples to receive?

Marianne Shibilski October 26, 2015 at 7:46 am

We need to keep on praying; Pope Francis has frequently asked the faithful to pray for him. May the Holy Spirit guide the Vicar of Christ and us to courageously follow the Way, the Truth and the Life, even though it may result in a sharing in the suffering of Christ crucified.

The Masked Chicken October 26, 2015 at 11:38 am

Quantum Catholicism…excellent!

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