When Mercy Hurts: Cdl. Kasper and the Soft Clericalism of Low Expectations.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the need for the Church to be merciful in the application of its teachings. didnt

That’s hard to argue with.  In fact, I heartily agree that finding ways to be both positive and pastoral when articulating the teachings of the Church–especially as it relates to the difficult topics of sex, marriage and family life– is of paramount importance.  As someone who is responsible for conducting/supervising over 10,000 hours/year of pastoral counseling services for Catholic clients, who teaches graduate courses in pastoral theology,  and who has written almost 20 different books examining healthy ways to live out the Church’s teaching on sex, love and marriage, you might say I’ve made doing just that my life’s mission.

Which is why I’ve been watching the Synod discussion on divorce, remarriage and communion with real interest.  And further, why I have some real concerns about what some of the synod fathers consider to be merciful.

The More Merciful Option?

Let’s take one example that has gotten a lot of press; Cardinal Kasper;s proposal for dealing with the painful situation of couples who are not able to receive communion because they are divorced and remarried without the benefit of an annulment. Cardinal Kasper suggested, essentially, that the ban on communion for these individuals could  simply be lifted if the remarried Catholic would just confess the sin of contracting a second, illicit marriage.  This is a variation on the old “internal forum option” (internal forum refers to what happens in the confessional) which was floated and shot down in the 90’s.   I’ve already discussed the multiple problems with that idea (which was actually condemned by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict) here.  The short version is that you aren’t supposed to give absolution to someone who plans on leaving the confessional to go out and do more of the thing they confessed (i.e., continuing to have adulterous relations with the illicit second spouse).

Lay Catholics: Not Called to Be Heroes?

Many people who are in favor of this idea assert it is the more “merciful” option but I have serious issues with this view of mercy because I think it takes a rather dim view of the laity.  Several months ago, Cardinal Kasper gave an interview where he said that living the Church’s teaching as it stands calls for a heroic effort on the part of the laity, and while he respects those lay people who are trying to do what the Church teaches despite the difficulty, heroism is not for the average Christian.”

Years ago,  WaPo columnist Michael Gerson, coined the phrase, “soft bigotry of low expectations.”  An article in the Daily Kos explained the phrase well, noting that it referred to, “the preconception that disadvantaged folks won’t ever succeed, and the resulting development of policies predicated upon their inevitable failure .”


In reading Cardinal Kasper’s comments, I can’t help but wonder if what we’re seeing here isn’t the soft clericalism of low expectations.  My parents always taught me that Christianity called all of us, ordained and lay person alike, to be heroes, indeed, to be saints.  One of the major assertions of Vatican II was the “universal call to holiness” the idea that everyone was called to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” not just the ordained class, but the laity as well.    In short, Vatican II asserted that Jesus’ call to heroic virtue applied to all Christians even–contrary to Cardinal Kasper’s assertions–the “average” ones.    Cardinal Kasper has suggested that those who disagree with his (what I’m sure are well-intentioned) proposals are clericalists who are interested in controlling the lives of others.

I would respectfully suggest that the Cardinal needs to look up the word, “clericalism”  because, in my dictionary, it refers to having a double standard for the ordained versus the laity and it appears to me that this is exactly what he is proposing.

Mercy isn’t mercy if it literally damns people with low expectations.  As St. John Paul the Great asserted, there is a difference between the law of gradualism (which is good) and the gradualism of the law (not so good).  The “law of gradualism” refers to the fact that we need to be merciful and provide support for people who are earnestly trying to live out the call to heroic virtue.  By contrast, “gradualism of the law” refers to simply letting people off the hook for responding to the call to heroic virtue and instead simply affirming them in their okayness because, after all, we can’t expect those average Christians to be heroes, not like the ordained class, anyway.

Where Can We Turn for Answers?

Pope St John Paul the Great, as the first Pope to reign entirely in the post Vatican II Church, dedicated his life to exploring what living out the universal call to holiness meant for the average lay Catholic. That’s why he wrote almost 2/3’s of everything the Church ever produced on marriage and family life.  I would respectfully suggest that rather than re-inventing the wheel, the synod fathers might do well to dive more deeply into his profound work and mine it for ideas on how to promote the Church’s vision of sex and love in more positive and pastoral ways.  Too long, progressives have dismissed Pope St John Paul the Great’s work as being unnecessarily obsessed with sex (when, in fact, a holy sexuality is at the heart of the spiritual life of the lay person) and conservatives have been confused by it (and similarly ignore it) because it isn’t legalistic enough.  It is time for our leaders to get past their political preferences and truly understand the significance of Pope St John Paul II’s work in this regard.

I fully agree that the Church needs to find more positive and pastoral ways to explain her teachings and to help the faithful live those teachings out. But whatever solutions the Synod eventually proposes, the one thing I am confident about is that the answer can’t possibly involve telling some Christians that they are  not expected to be as holy as the other, more special Christians with the Roman collars and pointy hats are called to be.

If you’d like to learn more about positive ways to explain the Church’s teachings on love, sex, marriage, and family life, I hope you will find some of the following resources helpful.

Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind Blowing, Infallible Loving      ~ For Better…FOREVER!  The Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage.

Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.     ~  Just Married:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Five Years of Marriage


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