VATICAN CITY — From his stylish living room overlooking St. Peter's Square, Cardinal Walter Kasper doesn't come off as a figure at the center of one of the greatest storms swirling in Catholicism in decades.
Relaxed on a black leather sofa, the German theologian says he fully expected the knives would come out when, at Pope Francis' request, he made a suggestion that challenged a deep church taboo and has dominated debate ahead of a landmark meeting on Catholic family life that opens this weekend. The issue is not abortion, contraception or gay marriage. It is the fate of Catholics who divorce — and the outcome will be a key test of how far Francis' reform agenda will go.
Delivering a speech to a closed meeting of cardinals last February, Kasper suggested that Catholics who remarry without an annulment, a church declaration that the first marriage was invalid and thus never existed, might receive Communion after a period of penance. Church teaching holds that without an annulment, these Catholics are living in sin and thus ineligible to receive the sacraments.
Based on the mudslinging the remarks caused between church liberals and conservatives, outside observers might have thought that Kasper had proposed that women be ordained priests.
Five prominent cardinals — including the Vatican's doctrine czar and its supreme court chief justice — published an entire book to refute him. Francis' top economic adviser did the same in a preface to another book. Conservative commentators, canon lawyers and theologians have been furiously blogging to argue that Kasper's suggestion is impossible for the simple reason that it runs contrary to Jesus' teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
"The church is not going to change its teaching on the indissolubility of marriage because she cannot," American Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of Kasper's fiercest critics, told reporters this week.
But as he faces the firestorm, Kasper has a powerful ally: the pope himself.
During his first Sunday blessing as pontiff, Francis praised Kasper by name as a "great theologian" and gave an unprecedented papal thumbs up to his book, "Mercy," which provides the theological basis for mercy being at the heart of the Christian message.
Showing the church's merciful face, rather than its morality-driven side, has come to define Francis' pontificate, and informs the way he has long treated complicated pastoral issues like divorce.
"I believe that this is the season of mercy," Francis told reporters last year when asked about a possible opening for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Kasper, an 81-year-old veteran Vatican official, is calm amid the tempest, and certain that a solution can be found while staying true to doctrine.
"I think we can have common criteria, a common doctrine on marriage and family," Kasper said. "And then I think the bishops' conferences should decide concrete ways to do it."
On divorce, Kasper argues that if the church can forgive a murderer, surely it can forgive someone whose first marriage failed and wants to try again, while still participating in the sacramental life of the church. He is not looking for an across-the-board decision, but rather an opening for pastoral discernment on a case-by-case basis.
"Mercy is that God gives us a new chance, in every situation, if we want it," Kasper says. "That is a very important message: We can always start anew."
While the divorce issue has dominated the pre-meeting debate, the two-week synod of bishops will cover a host of hot-button issues related to Catholic family life, including pre-marital sex, contraception and gay unions. Vatican officials say no issue is off-limits, and that Francis wants a frank and open discussion that will continue into next year when final proposals are made.
That desire for frank and spontaneous discussion appears to have informed the Vatican's decision to limit detailed information about the closed-door proceedings: The Vatican said Friday it would provide generalized summaries of the topics discussed each day, but without identifying who said what. In the past, the Vatican published written summaries of each bishop's prepared intervention, fully attributed.
In some ways, Francis took some of the steam out of divorce issue by creating a special commission of canon lawyers to study technical ways to streamline the annulment process.
Catholics have long complained that it can take years to get an annulment, if they can get one at all. Many dioceses in the developing world don't even have annulment tribunals. The United States has so many that it accounts for nearly half of all the annulments granted worldwide: 18,895 in 2012 compared to the 42,686 globally.
Critics of the annulment process say the wealthy and well-connected get preferential treatment. Supporters say it is a way to provide justice and arrive at the truth of why a marriage failed.
Some canon lawyers and theologians speculate that one change the Vatican might approve is to remove the automatic appeal for all annulments, which would certainly streamline the process.
For Irene Calvo Crespo, a 46-year-old communications consultant from Spain, no amount of streamlining would remove the trauma she says she endured going through the annulment that her ex-husband sought so he could re-marry in the church. They had been married for 10 years and had two children when they separated in 2007.
In an interview over coffee in Rome, she said she testified for more than two hours before five strangers — the ecclesial tribunal — about the most intimate details of her sex life. She said she endured "groundless" accusations by her ex-husband's family and friends, made solely to conform to the church's requirements that there was some inherent defect in the marriage to render it null.
According to court documentation she provided to The Associated Press, the church granted the annulment on the grounds that her ex-husband lacked "internal freedom" on his wedding day that caused a "defect in discretion of judgment."
He claimed he never really wanted to marry her but was compelled to go through with it by his strict, conservative upbringing, she said.
"You can take all the testimony of the world, you can do all the psychological exams, but the truth is that we were in love and were well aware when we married, and no tribunal in the world can change this truth," she wrote in a letter to the tribunal. "If this tribunal wants to join a farce for reasons unknown to me, go ahead, but you should know, this is all theater."
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