The Confounding and Curious Pontifications of Cardinal Kasper

Is the German prelate and theologian promoting a book on mercy or pushing a dubious agenda at the expense of fellow bishops?

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 Aquinas—and 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 days—all of them lifelong Catholics and all working in some capacity for the Church—and 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 relative—and 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).

He 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:

But 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.

What 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.

The 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:

If 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 915–916). 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 speaking—that is, setting aside all of the deeply emotional issues involved—the “new partnership” is an act of adultery. Card. Kasper then speaks of a “new perspective” (whatever that means) and then states:

To 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.

This 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:

Indeed, 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.

Personally, 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):

The 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 failed—if he repents. God provides a new chance—not 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 in Augustine.

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 sin—who 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 others.

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.

Suppose 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:

“If 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 dialogue.”

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 time—and 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 recent decades.

(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.)

Put 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 communion—not 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 writes:

Kasper — 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 Johnson.

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 aghast—but I doubt it will be the last time. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.