German Cardinal Walter Kasper, right, speaks with cardinals as they arrive for the afternoon session of a meeting with Pope Francis in the synod hall at the Vatican Feb. 21, 2014. Also pictured are Cardinals Roger M. Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles, left, Carlos Amigo Vallejo, retired archbishop of Seville, Spain, and Giuseppe Betori of Florence. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Cardinal Walter Kasper, noted German prelate and theologian, has been
on a book tour in the States in support of his most recent work, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life
(Paulist Press). I'm not sure how much interest he has generated
regarding his book, but In the course of just a few days, he has managed
the rather remarkable (which is not to say admirable) combined
feat of slighting the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the
Faith (a fellow Cardinal, Gerhard Müller), essentially dismissing the
pastoral authority of the USCCB, praising an openly dissenting
theologian while positively comparing her to St. Thomas Aquinasand
doing so while talking of "humility" as if only he and a few others have
even heard of it before.
Frankly, I'm aghast. I've never seen
anything quite like it. Certainly not from someone of Cardinal Kasper's
stature. And I've talked to several others in the past two daysall of
them lifelong Catholics and all working in some capacity for the
Churchand they say the same thing.
Cardinal Kasper's resume is
undoubtedly impressive: he was president of the Pontifical Council for
Promoting Christian Unity for almost a decade (2001-2010) after ten
years as bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart (1989-1999). He has taught at
several schools, including the University of Tubingen and the Catholic
University of America. He has long had a reputation of being a
"liberal"although that is certainly relativeand he has had some
interesting and high profile, um, discussions about various theological
points over the years, as when he and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
went round and round in 2001 about the nature and relationship of
particular churches and the universal Church (see this ZENIT piece by Cardinal Avery Dulles for details and analysis).
got back into the bigger spotlight in February, when he gave a
two-hour-long address to an extraordinary consistory on the family at
the Vatican, and was then praised for it by Pope Francis. But not
everyone was so impressed. In fact, it soon became clear that many of
those present were deeply critical of Kasper's ideas on addressing the situation of Catholics who have been divorced and
remarried. In late March, Edward Pentin reported:
now cardinals and theologians have been stepping forward to
publicly express their differences - sometimes in very strong terms -
with Cardinal Kasper's approach, signifying serious concerns about his
proposals and the dangers they present. One of the most strident
criticisms came from Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, the Archbishop of Bologna,
in an interview that appeared in Il Foglio 14 March. ZENIT has the full text which
is worth reading in full. Two other prominent experts in the theology
of John Paul II have also weighed in with strong criticisms; these can
be read here and here. Cardinal Raymond Burke was also critical in a recent interview on EWTN.
is of greatest concern is that while the Church's fundamental teaching
on divorce and remarriage cannot be changed, pastoral practice might be
used as a means to get around it. This, critics fear, could lead to a
weakening in the Church's teaching and authority and possibly eventual
change in doctrine on this key issue, or at least a change in the
perception of doctrine with equally as harmful consequences.
pieces linked by Pentin are excellent; here is a short excerpt
from remarks made by Dr. Robert Fastiggi, professor of systematic
theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit:
these divorced and remarried Catholics can make a spiritual communion
with Christ in spite of their situation, why can they not receive the
sacramental communion of the same Christ? The simple response to the
Cardinal’s question is that those who persist in grave sin are not to
receive Holy Communion (CIC, canons 915916). Having conjugal relations
with someone other than one’s spouse is a grave or mortal sin because it
is adultery. Proper care for the human person can never give way to a
permission to sin. If the Church allows divorced and remarried Catholics
to receive Holy Communion, this would mean either that marriage is not
indissoluble or that adultery is not a mortal sin. As John Paul II
writes in Familaris consortio, 84: “If these people [divorced
and remarried Catholics] were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful
would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching
about the indissolubility of marriage.” The rules of the Church are
grounded in the teachings of Christ, which are directed to the true good
of every individual. There is no contradiction between applying the
teachings of Christ and care for the true good of each person.
That sets some of the stage for Card. Kasper's recent remarks; I will highlight five of them here, drawn from a May 6th report by David Gibson on Card. Kasper's recent talk at Fordham and from his May 7th interview with Commonweal.
1). In speaking with Commonweal
about the situation of those Catholics who have left a sacramental
marriage and have been "remarried", Card. Kasper mentions penance,
repentance, and a "new orientation", and states, "The new quasi-family
or the new partnership must be solid, lived in a Christian way." Of
course, that raises the central question: if the first marriage was a
true marriage, how can a "new partnership" be "lived in a Christian
way"? Objectively speakingthat is, setting aside all of the deeply
emotional issues involvedthe "new partnership" is an act of adultery.
Card. Kasper then speaks of a "new perspective" (whatever that means)
and then states:
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.
is a sadly low view of the Christian calling and vocation which, at the
very heart, is a call to sacrifice. Compare the above quote to what
Saint John Paul II wrote in Evangelium vitae:
faced with the many difficulties which fidelity to the moral order can
demand, even in the most ordinary circumstances, the Christian is
called, with the grace of God invoked in prayer, to a sometimes heroic
commitment. In this he or she is sustained by the virtue of fortitude,
whereby as Gregory the Great teaches one can actually "love the
difficulties of this world for the sake of eternal rewards.
I'm going to stick with John Paul II on this one. Card. Kasper seeks to
find a solution to a serious difficulty, but that solution, as best I
can tell, relies mostly on a combination of utilitarianism and
pragmatism, not on grace and self-sacrifice. I have to wonder: in Card.
Kasper's view, what is the Sermon on the Mount? Is it only for certain,
heroic Christians, but not for “average Christians”? When Jesus says, "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48), is he merely waxing poetic, or is he quite serious?
2). Card. Kasper states (in Commonweal):
first marriage is indissoluble because marriage is not only a promise
between the two partners; it’s God’s promise too, and what God does is
done for all time. Therefore the bond of marriage remains. Of course,
Christians who leave their first marriage have failed. That’s clear. The
problem is when there is no way out of such a situation. If we look to
God’s activity in salvation history, we see that God gives his people a
new chance. That’s mercy. God’s love does not end because a human being
has failedif he repents. God provides a new chancenot by cancelling
the demands of justice: God does not justify the sin. But he justifies
the sinner. Many of my critics do not understand that distinction. They
think, well, we want to justify their sin. No, nobody wants that. But
God justifies the sinner who converts. This distinction appears already
This is, I think, a very faulty reading of Scripture and a poor commentary on the nature of covenants. God does not give people a new chance by having them walk away from the covenant, but by returning
to it! That is the constant, consistent message of the prophets and the
historical books. And the new covenant, established by Christ, is not a
rejection of the previous covenants (with Abraham, Moses, David), but a
fulfillment and completion. Of course God does not justify the sinwho
would ever say such a thing? Actually, it seems that Card. Kasper does,
because he apparently thinks that having a broken covenant is all right as
long as those who broke the covenant feel badly about doing so. But in
Scripture, as well as in the Tradition, remorse over sin is always to be
accompanied by the appropriate action, which involves a return to right
relationship, certainly with God and then, as best as possible, with
Regarding the Commonweal interview, Dr. Edward Peters makes an important point:
Cardinal Kasper, in a lengthy interview that shows no let-up in his push to change Church discipline on marriage, said, among other things, “I’ve spoken to the pope himself about this, and he said he believes that 50 percent of marriages are not valid.”
I am stunned at the pastoral recklessness of such an assertion. Simply stunned.
the cardinal had claimed that “50 percent of ordinations are not
valid”. Would not such a claim, coming from an internationally-renowned
prelate and attributed to a pope, have a shattering effect on the morale
of deacons, priests, and bishops around the world? Would not especially
those clergy laboring under vocational difficulties immediately
conclude that their difficulties were the consequence of having
been invalidly ordained, whereupon most of them would just give up? And
would not those preparing for holy orders be paralyzed with fear over
proceeding to ordination until whatever is behind such a massive
invalidity rate were discovered and remedied? Of course they would.
Read Dr. Peters' entire post on his blog. Finally, on the Commonweal interview, see this CNA/EWTN report.
3). In remarking on the CDF's ongoing situation with the LCWR,
Card. Kasper made reference (as reported by Gibson) to a "narrower"
view of matters taken by CDF Prefect Müller, and then said:
you have a problem with the leadership of the women’s orders, then you
have to have a discussion with them, you have to dialogue with them, an
exchange of ideas,” he said. “Perhaps they have to change something.
Perhaps also the Congregation (for the Doctrine of the Faith) has a
little bit to change its mind. That’s the normal way of doing things in
the church. I am for dialogue. Dialogue presupposes different positions.
The church is not a monolithic unity.”
“We should be in
communion,” he continued, “which also means in dialogue with each other.
I hope all this controversy will end in a good, peaceful and meaningful
With all due respect, it appears that Card. Kasper
hasn't been following the LCWR for the past, oh, forty years or so.
There has been nothing but dialogue and discussion and conversation
during that timeand yet the leadership of LCWR has continually promoted
and advocated teachings and practices in open contradiction to Church
teaching. Talk of "changing something" is, frankly, rather humorous;
being "for dialogue" only means something if there is an actual goal and
purpose to dialogue. Having dialogue for the purpose of establishing
further dialogue is ultimately pointless and eventually distracts from
what should happen. Besides, Card. Müller and Abp. Sartain,
who have been dealing with the LCWR leadership directly for years now,
certainly know the situation far, far better than Card. Kasper does.
Card. Müller's recent remarks demonstrate a clear-eyed perspective,
whereas Card. Kasper's remarks are just more of the same, tired
bureaucratic talk that has caused or encouraged so many problems in
(And, on cue, the LCWR has responded
to Card. Müller's address. Note the following: 1) several references to
"dialogue" and "discussion" and "discernment"; 2) the lack of any clear
reference to the goals of such dialogues and discussions; 3) the
assumption that the CDF and the LCWR possess equal measures of authority
and leadership within the Church, and 4) the statement, "In some ways, for LCWR, nothing has changed", which is the most accurate and revealing sentence in the entire statement.)
another way: Card. Kasper apparently thinks that doing what has not
worked, and doing it with a lack of purpose (other than more
"dialogue"), is somehow preferable to recognizing that true communion is
established through having actual, lived communionnot just evasive
posturing and convenient stalling.
4). Gibson reports that "Kasper
also praised an American feminist theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson,
who is scheduled to be honored by the U.S. sisters and whom Mueller
singled out for criticism." Of course, Mülller singled out Johnson
because the LCWR leadership had honored her despite the fact that the
USCCB had twice criticized, very strongly and in great detail, Johnson's
2011 book, Quest for a Living God. It's not clear if Card.
Kasper has read those critiques, but surely he is aware of them.
Speaking of both Johnson and fellow feminist theologian, Elisabeth
Schussler Fiorenza, Card. Kasper said, "I esteem them both". Gibson
often a sparring partner with his fellow German theologian, Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Benedict XVI said that critiques
are part of academic discourse but said that the CDF sometimes “sees
some things a little bit narrower.”
He said that the criticism of
Johnson “is not a tragedy and we will overcome,” and he noted that St.
Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian now considered one of the
greatest minds in the church, was condemned by his bishop and lived
under a shadow for years. “So she is in good company!” Kasper said of
This is simply mind-boggling. There is the flippant
dismissal of both Card. Müller and the USCCB, which is, at best, rude
and arrogant. But to compare, positively, the work of Johnson with that
of St. Thomas Aquinas and to imply that Johnson will be vindicated is
really astounding. Does Card. Kasper know the future? And can he defend
every point that Johnson has been criticized on and show how her work
measures up to that of one of the greatest Doctors of the Church? This
is especially humorous, I suppose, since Johnson's work has been
criticized for its ambiguity and lack of clarity, which is a criticism
that would never be leveled against Aquinas.
What, then, is going
on with Card. Kasper? Why does he find it necessary to make remarks that
are, at best, disrespectful and contentious, while speaking of
"humility" and saying, as he did to Commonweal, "[Pope Francis]
does not like the people in the church who are only condemning others."
That remark is simply a straw man, as if the head of the CDF should not
be criticizing and addressing theological error when that is precisely
his job! Does Card. Kasper believe that he has been somehow sent forth
by Pope Francis to make such remarks? To deliver judgments on matters
that he really should be more circumspect about?
The answers are
not clear. And the waters have certainly been muddied. Card. Kasper is,
I think, trying to have it both ways: talking rather flippantly about
mercy and dialogue while criticizing fellow cardinals and bishops who
are doing the hard and thankless work of addressing complex and pressing
points of contention; creating risible straw men ("There are those who
believe the church is for the pure. They forget that the church is also a
church of sinners." Really?!), while claiming to fully understand and
respect the views of those who disagree with him; and publicly praising
the work of those who have a long and clear track record of either
undermining or dismissing Church teaching, often in the face of official
critique. Again, I'm aghastbut I doubt it will be the last time.