In a recent article for a German journal, Cardinal Walter Kasper – a protagonist for the admission of the divorced-and-remarried to Holy Communion – has written that Amoris laetitia marks a "paradigm shift" that allows for a "changed pastoral practice."

"There is leeway in the concrete elaboration of the dogmatic principles' practical pastoral consequences," the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity wrote in his article for the November 2016 edition of Stimmen der Zeit, a monthly journal on Christian culture.

Cardinal Kasper began by examining the range of interpretations of the apostolic exhortation issued by Pope Francis in March. He dismissed Cardinal Raymond Burke's denial that it is magisterially binding, saying this "formally contradicts the character of an apostolic exhortation as well as its content."

The cardinal complained that most commentaries focus on the document's controversial eighth chapter, saying this "does not do justice in any way to the rich biblical and pastoral content of the exhortation."

On the conservative side, he cited Robert Spaemann's view that Amoris laetitia is a breach with the Church's teaching tradition; Cardinal Gerhard Müller's that it has not changed the Church's "teaching position"; and Rocco Buttiglione's that it is a "progression" which "lies on the line sketched out" by St. John Paul II.

Turning to the progressive side, Cardinal Kasper pointed to those who see "a cautious progression" and those who, like Norbert Lüdecke, "see the door open for a new pastoral praxis, which allows civilly remarried divorces to decide themselves in their own conscience, whether they can partake in Communion."

For his own part, Cardinal Kasper said he "fundamentally associates" with the "centrist conservatives (or also centrist progressives)", such as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and Fr. Antonio Spadaro, whose interpretation he said "essentially concurs" with Buttiglione's position.

He charged that "alleged anxiety" about the document comes from a group "which has alienated itself from a sense of faith and the life of the people of God."

Amoris laetitia has "a new, fresh and honestly liberating tone," Cardinal Kasper maintained. "It speaks not from an abstract image of the family thought out at a desk, but a realistic one of the joys as well as the difficulties in family life today. It does not want to criticize or moralize or indoctrinate, but it addresses sexuality and eroticism openly and in a relaxed manner expressing understanding and appreciation for the good that can also be found in situations that are not or not fully conforming to church teaching and ordinance."

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He emphasized the encouragement and joy of the exhortation, pointing out that the fourth chapter, an exegesis on St. Paul's hymn to charity, is what Pope Francis has called its "heart". From this exegesis comes a pastoral conception "not characterized by the raised finger but the outstretched helping hand. Listening, appreciating, accompanying and integrating are decisive for this pastoral care."

According to Cardinal Kasper, behind this pastoral tone is a "thoroughly thought-out theological position," demonstrated by the "many references" to St. Thomas Aquinas on the passions: "One could say cum grano salis that Amoris laetitia refrains from a predominantly negative, Augustinian view of sexuality and turns toward the creation-affirming Thomistic view."

He also emphasizes the central place of the concept of the journey of life in Francis' thought, in which he said "the law always applies" as the final cause which "orients every single step towards the goal" and "is not a distant ideal."

"Usually people – and we are all such people - cannot do the optimum, but only the best possible in one's situation; often we must choose the lesser evil. In a lived life, there are not only black and white, but also very different nuances and shades," Cardinal Kasper wrote.

He added that Amoris laetitia can be understood only "if the paradigm shift that this exhortation undertakes is comprehended."

"A paradigm shift does not change the previous teaching; it moves the teaching nonetheless into a larger context. So Amoris laetitia does not change an iota in the Church's teaching, and yet it still changes everything. The paradigm shift entails Amoris laetitia taking the step from a legal morality towards the virtue ethics of Thomas Aquinas. Hence the exhortation stands in the best tradition. The new is, in reality, the proven old."

The cardinal cited Aquinas as a support for his understanding of the exhortation, and hearkened back to his February 2014 address to the consistory of cardinals in which he suggested that a "smaller segment" of the divorced-and-remarried might be admitted to Communion. He emphasized the virtue of prudence and concluded that "the norm is not applied in the same mechanical manner to every situation. For its appropriate application, it needs the visual judgement of prudence and the eye of love and mercy."

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Prudence, Cardinal Kasper wrote, "does not rescind the words of the Gospel on adultery but applies them. So the statement of John Paul II is also irrevocably valid, according to which a civil marriage during the continuity of the first valid sacramental marriage stands in objective contradiction to the indissoluble sacramental bond of the first marriage. That is immovable Catholic tradition, which is not contradicted in Amoris laetitia, but affirmed."

As a consequence, he acknowledged that "a civil marriage during the continuity of the first sacramental marriage cannot be a sacramental marriage."

He also traced different ways that the tradition has regarded the divorced-and-remarried, saying that Benedict XVI "adhered to the decision of John Paul II to not allow divorced-and-remarried persons to Communion; he did this while he spoke of an encouragement of civilly divorced-and-remarried persons to an abstinent life. With this, he focused on a process of maturity and spiritual growth."

"In this dynamic way of thinking, Pope Francis now goes a step further, in which he places the problem in the process of a comprehensive pastoral care of gradual integration."

According to Cardinal Kasper, St. John Paul II "had already opened the door a little bit" by allowing the divorced-and-remarried to receive absolution if they take on the duty to live in complete continence.

"This clause is basically an admission," the cardinal wrote. "For the abstinence belongs to the realm of intimacy and it does not rescind the objective contradiction between the continuous marital bond of the first sacramental marriage and the legal public marriage … It shows that there is leeway in the concrete elaboration of the dogmatic principles' practical pastoral consequences."

For Cardinal Kasper, Amoris laetitia gets to the root of this leeway by its use of Aquinas' "distinction between the objective deadly sins and their subjective culpable apportionment," with Pope Francis choosing to emphasize the subjective aspect of sin and the role of conscience.

He noted that the exhortation does not draw "any clear practical consequences," but it does adopt premises by which "a changed pastoral practice is allowed in justified individual cases."

"It leaves open the concrete question of admittance to absolution and Communion," Cardinal Kasper wrote.

"On this question, the Pope has followed the way of the preserved tradition of the teaching to not force contentious questions but to leave it open for the unity of the Church. That does not mean, as some think, that the teaching office is abolished; leaving a question open is itself a momentous decision of the teaching office."

He said that "The direction in which Pope Francis wants to go seems clear," while adding that it is much more important that step-by-step integration of the divorced-and-remarried be "oriented according to its essence towards admittance to the Eucharist as a full form of participation in the life of the Church."

This interpretation "agrees with valid canon law without any difficulties," according to Cardinal Kasper.

"With what right may the Church deny Christians the help of a means of grace that they, moved by grace, strive with their best powers towards a Christian life through prayer, the Christian raising of children, service to the parish, and charitable and social dedication?" he asked.

"Can it be that the Spirit of God proves to be presently effective, but the Church – like Pilate – washes her hands in innocence and is sorry to not be able to do anything? Does it not also pertain to the Church in certain situations to be merciful like our Father?"

Concluding, Cardinal Kasper maintained that Amoris laetitia "does not give up one iota of the traditional teaching of the Church. Indeed, this exhortation changes everything insofar as it places the traditional teaching in a new perspective. This apostolic exhortation is no breach of tradition, rather the renewal of a great tradition. It is about continuity in the reform as Benedict XVI – following John Henry Newman – described."

He said local Churches now "face the question of how they can concretely pursue the pastoral way that Amoris laetitia basically established," and that this should be not focused solely on the divorced-and-remarried, but includes marriage prep and accompaniment.

Regarding the divorced-and-remarried, he said the exhortation "does not lead us on the comfortable way of patent formulas, which cannot exist in reality … that presents bishops, priests, and pastoral ministers, but most especially confessors, with great challenges."

"Spiritual discernment demands spiritual competence," he maintained. "It is a gift of the Holy Spirit as well as a fruit of spiritual experience and of learning from the great masters of the spiritual life. This matter must be strongly accounted for in the formation and continuing education of clerics and pastoral ministers going forward."

Cardinal Kasper finished, saying, "Everything will need time: time to rethink and time to implement. We can absolutely not forget the synod. There remains much to be done. The synod has passed. The fierce debates will also hopefully pass soon. The concrete work begins now. We must make Amoris laetitia an awakening of family pastoral ministry. Marriage and family must be the central theme in pastoral care because the family is the way of the Church."