Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: Amoris Laetitia and Cardinal Kasper’s Ordinary Christian Model

By Veronica A. Arntz

With the culminating document of the two recent Synods on marriage and family, Amoris Laetitia, we are perhaps facing an even greater battle than we anticipated. Much has already been written and said about this document, but in this essay, I would like to return to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s basic premises and show how these have filtered into the post-synodal apostolic exhortation. 

In an interview with Commonweal, which I discussed in an article published by the Truth and Charity Forum, Kasper talks about the average, or ordinary, Christian and his or her ability to live chastely after remarrying when a valid marriage still exists. He discusses what I shall call the Ordinary Christian Model: “To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian.” 

He continues: “I would say that people must do what is possible in their situation. We cannot as human beings always do the ideal, the best. We must do the best possible in a given situation.” Thus, in the words of Kasper, the “ordinary” Christian is not capable of sacrificing sexual satisfaction for the sake of the higher calling of the Church, which calls married couples to be a mirror of Christ’s love for his Church. Because the ordinary Christian is incapable of living in such a way, Kasper believes that it is morally and doctrinally acceptable to change Church teaching in order to accommodate these individuals.

This thought process is not new for Kasper. We see it also in his address, The Gospel of the Family, which was the address given to the extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals on February 20 and 21, 2014 in preparation for the 2014 extraordinary Synod on the Family. Here, Kasper notes the heroism of those who live alone after separation or divorce. But he then continues: “However, many deserted partners, for the sake of the children, are dependent upon a new partnership and a civil marriage, which they cannot again quit without new guilt.”[1] 

Certainly, this is true: many individuals have remarried after divorce so that the children can be raised with both a mother and a father. But Kasper’s proposal to this situation, as has been greatly discussed, is contrary to Church teaching. 

Kasper paradoxically writes that the Church cannot contradict her teaching on indissolubility, but at the same time, she can make room for development within her teachings that would allow for the divorced and remarried to stay together and receive Communion. He says that the allowance of divorced and remarried couples to receive Communion spiritually, an allowance made by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is a “new tone.” 

If that is the case, then, “Is not a further development possible with regard to our issue too—a development that does not repeal the binding faith tradition, but carries forward and deepens more recent traditions?”[2] The development that Kasper proposes is the Ordinary Christian Model:

If a divorced and remarried person is truly sorry that he or she failed in the first marriage, if the commitments from the first marriage are clarified and a return is definitively out of the question, if he or she cannot undo the commitments that were assumed in the second civil marriage without new guilt, if he or she strives to the best of his or her abilities to live out the second civil marriage on the basis of faith and to raise their children in the faith, if he or she longs for the sacraments as a source of strength in his or her situation, do we then have to refuse or can we refuse him or her the sacrament of penance and communion, after a period of reorientation?[3]

First of all, that’s a lot of “if’s.” Second, this proposal assumes that the “ordinary” Christian cannot live up to the “idealization” proposed by the teachings of the Catholic Church. This Ordinary Christian Model asserts that we cannot expect fulfillment of the highest calling—that of living in conformity with the Gospel—of ordinary Christians, who just do not understand doctrine or do not have the self-control to live as brother and sister. 

The development proposed by Kasper contradicts the teaching of the Church, particularly seen in Familiaris Consortio 84 and Sacramentum Caritatis 29, for both of these documents admonish couples to live as brother and sister when a remarriage has occurred.

Most of us hoped that we would be rid of Kasper’s ideas, first proposed at the beginning of the Synod process. If we read Amoris Laetitia carefully, however, we find several references to Kasper’s Ordinary Christian Model. 

While there are many instances throughout the text, I shall focus on three. The first is in the second chapter, which is entitled, “The Experiences and Challenges of Families.” Francis spends most of this chapter discussing the difficulties that families face, and in the paragraph discussing dire poverty, he proposes a situation of a single, working mother needing to leave her child alone in order to work. He writes,

In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others” (AL 49).

While Francis is not specifically referring to the divorced and remarried here, he is applying the Ordinary Christian Model. It is difficult to know what “set of rules” the Church would impose on a single, working mother. 

Rules against cohabitation? Rules against contraception? Rules against remarrying while a valid marriage still exists? At any rate, Francis implies that any “rules” enforced by the Church on this single mother would be too difficult and too demanding for her; they would not be merciful toward her situation. 

Whether she is Christian or not is unclear, but what is apparent is that any of the Church’s rules (presumably rules regarding morality) would not be merciful or accepting of her situation. She is just an “ordinary” Christian—she cannot fulfill the life of heroism demanded by the Church (even if this life is always chosen by the individual, and he or she is incapable of fulfilling that life without the grace of God).

The second example we shall look at is in the fourth chapter, entitled “Love in Marriage.” While this section begins with a beautiful exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13 and a calling of couples to live sacramentally (cf. AL 121), Francis seems to disregard all of that when he writes,

We should not however confuse different levels: there is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church, for marriage as a sign entails “a dynamic process…, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God” (AL 122).

The Church has always recognized that living the love of Christ and His Church is difficult and requires a great amount of grace from God. In this paragraph, Francis quotes Familiaris Consortio. In the sentence prior to the one quoted by Francis, John Paul II defines what he means by “dynamic process.” “What is needed is a continuous, permanent conversion which, while requiring an interior detachment from every evil and an adherence to good in its fullness, is brought about concretely in steps which lead us ever forward” (FC 9). 

As such, John Paul II does not deny this difficulty of mirroring the love of Christ and His Church in marital life. Rather, he points out that conversion is necessary for everyone, even those who are not married, in order to fulfill the message of the Gospel. 

Yet, when we read Amoris Laetitia 122, we have the sense that the burden of the Gospel, and in particular, the message of Ephesians 5:21-33, is too difficult for individuals to fulfill. Rather than reminding couples of the necessity for conversion and the difficulty that it entails (albeit a difficulty accompanied by grace), Francis merely says that fulfilling Christ’s call is too difficult and would be a burden for the ordinary Catholic, following in the footsteps of Kasper’s thought.

The third and final example comes from the eighth and most controversial chapter, entitled, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.” While there are many things to be addressed from this chapter, I will focus on just one. 

Francis is writing here about the difficult situation of those who have entered a second union. He writes that these situations “should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment” (AL 298). In other words, every situation is different, and no general principle laid down by the Church can apply to every situation (i.e., Christ’s command against adultery may or may not apply to everyone). Francis continues:

One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins (AL 298).

Francis then proceeds to misquote Gaudium et spes 51 in footnote 329, but this is beyond our discussion here. It is sufficient to say that, in an attempt to bring doctrine to the level of the ordinary Christian, rather than raising the ordinary Christian to the demands of the doctrine, Francis has made room for the divorced and remarried to remain together, and he has not given recognition to the mortal sin of their life. If, however, a couple is living in an irregular situation contrary to Church teaching, then their “proven fidelity, generous self-giving,” and “Christian commitment” could not be the fullness to which the Church calls them.

Even though Amoris Laetitia affirms much of Church teaching on marriage and family, the fact that the Ordinary Christian Model pervades the exhortation contradicts the very teachings that Francis claims to uphold. Francis’ document is oriented toward the supposed “ordinary” Christian, who is unable to live out the demands of the Gospel. How different this message is from what John Paul II upholds in Familiaris Consortio:

Willed by God in the very act of creation, marriage and the family are interiorly ordained to fulfillment in Christ and have need of His graces in order to be healed from the wounds of sin and restored to their ‘beginning,’ that is, to full understanding and the full realization of God’s plan (3).

Rather than acknowledging the role of God’s grace in fulfilling the difficulties of married life, Francis assumes that the ordinary Christian, who is indeed still called to the heroism of the saints, is unable to fulfill Christian doctrine, and thus, adopts Cardinal Kasper’s Ordinary Christian Model as the model for all Christian living.

[1] Cardinal Walter Kasper, Gospel of the Family, (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2014), p. 26.
[2] Ibid., p. 27.
[3] Ibid., p. 32.