In an interview with an Italian newspaper, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a close theological confidant of Pope Francis, said same-gender partnerships are now a “central” issue for the 2015 synod, contrasting other top bishops calling for dialogue or intent on stopping any change.
Kasper, a retired bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and a former head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told Corriere della Sera that the issue of same-gender relationships “remained a marginal issue [at the 2014 synod], but now it is central” following Ireland’s marriage equality passage via popular vote because “the church has been silent too long” on the issue.
On Ireland’s vote specifically, Kasper said the people’s will was clear and it must be respected:
“If the majority of the people want this civil partnerships, then it is the duty of the state to recognize such rights.”
One aspect of the cardinal’s proposal for the church is to find “new language” when speaking about issues of marriage and sexuality because “traditional formulas” are deficient in conveying the church’s teachings to people, according to Der Tagesspiegel which reported in German on the Italian interview. This includes shifting beyond harmful terms like “objectively disordered.” The French news outlet La Croix quoted Kasper:
“We must overcome the discrimination that has a long tradition in our culture.”
Kasper added that “elements of good” in same-gender partnerships must be recognized by the church, reported the German language wing of Vatican Radio, though he was careful not equate them with heterosexual marriage. Catholic News Service cited his comment:
” ‘We cannot accept putting (such unions) on the same level with marriage’ . . .It’s necessary to be careful about not using expressions that can sound offensive without, however, hiding the truth.’ “
Beyond issues of family life, Kasper made noteworthy remarks at a Georgetown University conference on Vatican II recently, saying that Pope Francis wants a greater respect for the sensus fidei — the People of God’s ability to discern God’s revelation — and a “listening magisterium” in which lay people participate more actively. At that Washington, DC, conference, he added that in interpreting Vatican II and the church’s tradition, the “hermeneutic of continuity,” a concept favored by conservatives, necessarily must be understood as a hermeneutic of reform, not a return to the past, reported Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter.
Other prelates have responded to the Irish vote with calls for dialogue in the line of Archbishop Martin of Dublin’s suggestion that the referendum was a “reality check” for the church. The Irish Times quoted Italian Bishops Conference President, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco agreeing with Martin, though, in the same breath, he promoted a traditional stance on marriage:
” As such [a social revolution], the Church cannot not ask itself how it can improve its dialogue with Western culture…in this context, we believe in the family that is born out of the stable union between a man and a woman, a union potentially open to life [children] and one which constitutes an essential good for society and as such is not comparable to other forms of co-habitation…”
Yet the Italian Conference’s Secretary General, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, took a more dialogic approach:
” ‘The margin of the Yes victory in Ireland obliges us all to take on board that Europe, and not just Europe, is undergoing an accelerated process of secularisation which touches on everything, including relationships. . . Faced with this reality, our response can be neither a stubborn refusal based on fear and arrogance nor an uncritical acceptance based on fatalism and retreat.’ “
A different tone was evident in remarks made by Cardinals Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, who called the Irish vote a “defeat for humanity,” and American-born Cardinal Raymond Burke, who said Ireland’s citizens were worse than pagans for approving same-gender marriages, according to The Tablet. One extremely positive note came from Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe, Ireland, who said last week criticizied Parolin’s comment, and he added that the referendum’s passage increased “the sum of human happiness” in Ireland.
Kasper’s remarks differ from these and other bishops in two significant ways, and, hopefully, his approach will be the one adopted by more of their peers.
First, Kasper respects Ireland voters’ decision to legalize same-gender marriages and affirms the State’s duty to implement their clear will. He does not challenge the outcome or call for Catholics to resist, acknowledging implicitly the differences between civil law and church teaching. In historically Catholic Ireland, this political shift is telling and profound. The lesson that the church must accept and then respectfully engage with nations whose citizens mandate LGBT rights is universally applicable on other political issues, as well. Throughout his comments, Kasper respected Catholics of all beliefs as being well-intentioned. America’s bishops should follow this attitude as the Supreme Court marriage equality decision looms by the end of this month. Cardinals Parolin and Burke should also take a cue from Kasper.
Second, by framing his remarks around October’s synod, Kasper’s concerns for the church’s treatment of same-gender relationships is foremost pastoral. Recent calls for dialogue can seem, at times, more like tactical moves by bishops to re-pitch their rejected ideas, drawing from bizarre notions of what is happening culturally. Kasper seems less interested in fighting civil laws than renewing the church’s programs. While he clearly privileges heterosexual marriage, his hope for new language about sexuality and for discussion is not merely to find new ways of recasting old discriminatory teachings. Kasper admits to a history of discrimination by the church and the damage done by phrases like “intrinsically disordered.” He glimpses at the goodness found in same-gender partners, even if the fullness of this is obscured for him still.
Cardinal Kasper’s approach is not perfect, but it is infused with the mercy for which he and Pope Francis so often yearn. By calling for the 2015 synod of bishops to fully take up same-gender relationships, he is already making real the “listening magisterium” about which he speaks. What would be especially helpful is if the cardinal invites LGBT Catholic couples to speak before the bishops next October, sharing with those gathered the goodness, holiness, and love which exists in such families. That would be real dialogue — and real pastoral progress.
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–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry