Cardinal Kasper resorts to the “F” word in addressing critics

The German prelate needs to stop acting as if nuanced, critical theological reflection happens only on his side of the debate and that his opponents are unthinking Bible-thumping "fundamentalists"

Cardinal Walter Kasper in undated photo. (CNS)

Cardinal Kasper has taken to using the “F” word in criticizing some of his opponents on the question of divorce and civil remarriage. It seems that they are “fundamentalists”, not appreciating the context of the biblical text they employ and not understanding how the teaching of Jesus was adapted in the early Church to fit new situations.

The fact is, though, that not everyone who disagrees with Cardinal Kasper is a fundamentalist.

Benedict XVI is hardly a fundamentalist. The mainstream of theological opposition to Kasper’s proposal is hardly fundamentalist. True, Kasper’s critics take seriously the New Testament teaching, including the teaching of Jesus himself, about the nature of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. But surely Cardinal Kasper does not expect us to equate taking Jesus and the New Testament seriously with fundamentalism.

Perhaps Cardinal Kasper worries that some of his critics quote chapter and verse against him as if texts can, without context, settle the debate. One might ask, though, whether he regards all of his critics as simple Bible thumpers. If not, why does he choose to focus on the fundamentalists, rather on the more substantial critics who know their way around the biblical texts as well as the contexts in which they appear? It makes it seem as if he doesn’t want to face objections in their strongest form.

What’s more, while it’s true that Jesus’ teaching regarding the adulterous nature of remarriage of divorcees was qualified by the early Church, as she, guided by the Spirit, made important distinctions, that doesn’t amount to a blank check for revision. Most Catholic revisionists acknowledge this point in theory, but they don’t always attend to it in practice, when it comes to making the case for change.

Yes, it seems the early Church clarified that certain things that may have looked like “marriages” (e.g., unions within the bounds of consanguinity), upon reflection, weren’t true marriages and therefore Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage didn’t apply in those cases because, well, those cases didn’t involve marriages. That seems to be the consensus of modern biblical scholarship on the point. In other words, this seems to be the import of the “except for porneia” parenthetic comment included in Jesus’ teaching as recounted in Matthew 19:9. (The Revised New American Bible renders this “unless the marriage is unlawful, while the Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition renders it “except for unchastity”.)

The words of Jesus, if taken at face value and not properly contextualized, and not understood in light of deeper reflection, might seem to some people to have been rejected by the qualification “unless the marriage is unlawful” or “except for unchastity” in Matthew’s gospel, or by the later practice of the Church. And yet this is not the case. The Church, led by the Holy Spirit, has clarified and deepened her awareness of the teaching of Jesus and applied that clearer understanding to her practice.

But from this fact it simply doesn’t follow that any and every proposed “deeper understanding” amounts to a deeper understanding rather than a betrayal of the Lord’ teaching. Cardinal Kasper would acknowledge as much. If Cardinal Kasper’s point is merely that we shouldn’t be hasty in dismissing proposals as contrary to Jesus’ teaching, I think many of his critics would agree. They haven’t been hasty, they would say. The last two thousand years of reflection doesn’t amount to a hasty dismissal. What’s more, more recent theological reflection, and not simply rote repetition of received theological maxims, is involved here.

Cardinal Kasper, they contend, does more than caution against being hasty. He makes a proposal that his thoughtful critics have found, upon careful reflection, to be something other than a deeper insight into the teaching of the Lord. They have criticized aspects of his proposal as contrary to a thoughtful, critical engagement of the Lord’s words. Such critics include none other than Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, who once entertained an openness to many of the ideas in Cardinal Kasper’s proposal, but changed his mind, after more careful reflection.

Now of course Kasper thinks the critics are nevertheless mistaken. That conclusion does not justify, however, his use of the F-word to characterize his opponents. It doesn’t warrant his acting as if nuanced, critical theological reflection happens only on his side of the debate and that his opponents are unthinking Bible thumpers or rigid, thoughtless advocates of the status quo.

Such a tactic seems more appropriate to a partisan and a polemicist than to a thoughtful, faithful contemporary theologian who is a Cardinal of the Catholic Church.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Mark Brumley 64 Articles
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.