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

Jimmy Akin

The German-speaking members of the Synod of Bishops have made a report that 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 broke 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 Schönborn and Archbishop Heiner Koch.

Members of the group include Cardinal 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 Müller, 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 striking, since the group includes Cardinal Müller, and each of the German group’s reports has been unanimously approved.

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

Did Cardinal Müller 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, 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.

The report 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 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  that followed this, which 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 Cor. 11, 28-31).

The German-speaking bishops conclude:

As with the procedures for the first two parts of the Instrumentum laboris [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. 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 (Kasper and Marx) and some of its strongest opponents (Müller). If he got the idea that their group had a big, uncivil blowup, that could sour Pope Francis on whichever group he blamed for the bad behavior.

To preserve their positions’ credibility with the pope, 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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