Friday, May 09, 2014

Kasper, heroism, and obligations

Bl Franz Jägerstätter, executed by the Nazis for
refusing to fight an unjust war.
A follow-up post to my treatment of Cardinal Kasper's remarks in an interview about marriage, divorce, and communion. A key passage is this. What should a couple in a second marriage, with children, do?

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. That could also create new tensions. Adultery is not only wrong sexual behavior. It’s to leave a familiaris consortio, a communion, and to establish a new one. But normally it’s also the sexual relations in such a communion, so I can’t say whether it’s ongoing adultery. Therefore I would say, yes, absolution is possible. Mercy means God gives to everybody who converts and repents a new chance.

As I remarked in that post, there are two things going on here.

In the second half, there is a finessing of the idea of adultery: it stops being adultery when there is no longer an original marriage to which to be unfaithful. This seems to be the basis of the idea that the adulterous person can repent, as of a sin firmly in the past, connected with the first marriage which cannot now be revived. But obviously it is still sex outside marriage to I'm not sure what difference that makes.

Can we just agree on this? That the law of God, expressed in the Sixth Commandment, forbids sex outside marriage. This moral norm has no exceptions. Sex (genital sexual acts) outside marriage is intrinsically evil: per se malum. Or, as the Catechism expresses it (2391)

Carnal union is morally legitimate only when a definitive community of life between a man and woman has been established.

The first half of the Kasper quotation is equally strange. The suggestion appears to be that moral obligations which are difficult - it is tempting to assume he means 'impossible', but no, he is clear he just means 'difficult', 'heroic'; some people actually fulfill them - don't bind in conscience. Ordinary Christians don't have to worry about them.

A related, but in a sense opposite, view, is that there are moral obligations which are impossibly difficult and that we stand condemned for failing to accomplish them. This is the view of Classical Protestantism, you find it in Luther and Calvin and modern followers such as Karl Barth. But perhaps it is not such a different view, because what they say next is that God lets us into heaven despite these failings, to which every human being, apart from Christ, is subject all the time. So it rather comes to the same thing: demanding moral precepts cease to be action-guiding, they remain as vague ideals, we break them and we're somehow ok all the same.

One interesting thing about the Protestant view is that it has been condemned by the Council of Trent, infallibly. Here are the anathemas (infallibly condemned propositions):

Canon 17. If anyone says that the grace of justification is shared by those only who are predestined to life, but that all others who are called are called indeed but receive not grace, as if they are by divine power predestined to evil, let him be anathema.

Canon 18. If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.

The main text of the decree:

But no one, however much justified, should consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments; no one should use that rash statement, once forbidden by the Fathers under anathema, that the observance of the commandments of God is impossible for one that is justified. For God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes thee to do what thou canst and to pray for what thou canst not, and aids thee that thou mayest be able. His commandments are not heavy, and his yoke is sweet and burden light. For they who are the sons of God love Christ, but they who love Him, keep His commandments, as He Himself testifies; which, indeed, with the divine help they can do.

Apart from Protestantism, I hear another echo in Kasper's argumentation. It is with the idea popular in Germany after the War that when ordinary Germans collaborated with the terrible crimes of the Nazis they should not really be blamed. It would be too much to ask that they oppose those crimes. Heroes opposed them, yes, and were mercilessly killed. You can't expect that of ordinary people.

Well, we don't expect it - as a matter of prediction. But God demands it. Just as He demands that we refuse to apostasise under persecution, or refuse to sacrifice our platoon by running away from the advancing enemy in battle. Yes, there is such a thing as the destruction of a person's will and personality by torture, or terror making it impossible to move, but we are not talking about that sort of case. We may be called on to risk our lives, we may be called on to risk our livelihoods, we may be called on to risk the relationships which, we think, give meaning to our lives. It doesn't happen frequently but it happens often enough. If we fail we may be lucky and get the chance to repent afterwards. But then again we may not.

But when God demands these things of us, He also supplies the grace to enable us to do them. And that is why you find the most unlikely people, in the Catholic tradition, doing the most remarkable things. You don't have to be strong, you don't have to be full of worldly wisdom, you just have to be open to grace.  God chooses the weak.


  1. Those who like to pronounce self-styled "infallible" anathemas might be reminded of the words of Jesus: 'Woe to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them."

    1. Our Lord was referring to moral substitutes when referring to "burdens." The modern equivalents are "tolerance", "equality" etc.: the Church's laws don't even approach what Our Lord had in mind when he condemned the scribes.

  2. "You don't have to be strong, you don't have to be full of worldly wisdom, you just have to be open to grace." That's the most spiritually encouraging thing I've read for years.

  3. Whenever I hear dissidents question the viability of adherence to the moral life, the overwhelming impression I receive is that they are, in fact, denying the economy of grace: in fact, the Gospel itself.

  4. "Those who like to pronounce self-styled "infallible" anathemas might be reminded of the words of Jesus: 'Woe to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.""

    Not seeing any lawyers giving any burdens here. Perhaps you should read your Bible more:

    "you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth." (1 Tim 3:15)

    "And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:18-19)

  5. All good reasoning but the only section of your post that slightly jarred is the bit about not running away from battle ('refusing to sacrifice our platoon'). Is killing people in any battle, or ordering others to attack and kill people, even, say, in defence of our 'homeland' really something that a Christian should do?

    Can you imagine Christ telling his Apostles to fight and kill an enemy and not break ranks?

    When the roman soldiers came with Judas to arrest Jesus it was Peter who tried to act like a soldier in a platoon but Jesus immediately contradicted him, stopped him, healed the wound Peter had caused and certainly did not order the Apostles to 'hold the line' - he didn't order them to stay put at all. They didn't know what else to do so they fled.

    I'm just having trouble justifying being part of a 'platoon' in the first place. Platoons seem to me fundamentally wrong: if it is impossible to imagine Christ or His Apostles being part of any physical battle then surely we too must not ever become embroiled in any military conflict no matter how just?

    1. It is what one of the heroes of the Old Testament did - read 1Mach 6:46.

      You'll find no support for pacifism in the Bible. Jesus did not condemn soldiers - he just told them to be content with their pay: Luke 3:14.

    2. Absolutely!

      And what is more, the man whom Jesus marvelled at and declared to have the greatest Faith of anyone in Israel He had come across, was a foreigner, a professional soldier, a man of arms.

  6. The way of salvation is hard and narrow and there are few that find it. Kasper seems to want to make it broad and easy by redefining sin out of existence.

  7. Anonymous12:20 am

    The Cardinal is encouraging mortal sin on a mass scale, amongst other things. He is committing an objectively evil act.