Kasper versus Kasper

Book-tours can be risky affairs. There’s always the chance you’ll say something during your tenth radio interview of the day which you retrospectively wish you’d phrased differently. Then there’s the possibility you’ll play up to a live audience and make some truly imprudent comments.

In a few short May days in New York, Cardinal Walter Kasper managed to do all that and more. In one radio discussion, for instance, Kasper thoroughly muddled the Church’s teaching about contraception. In another setting, he directly undercut the American Catholic bishops’ authority by comparing a theologian whom they have determined to hold positions incompatible with Catholic doctrine with Saint Thomas Aquinas. Given Pope Francis’s desire for bishops conferences to take on a larger role in dealing with dissent, one wonders if Kasper realizes just how un-collegial his comments were.

Things got worse in a subsequent Commonweal interview. Here Kasper made the remarkable claim that “heroism is not for the average Christian.” Actually, your Eminence, it is. All Christians are called to heroic virtue. Yes, we’re all sinners and obeying the Lord isn’t always easy. Nevertheless, to be a Christian means being willing to witness to the truth, not to mention embracing the Cross as we seek to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Sometimes it even means martyrdom—just as Saints John Fisher and Thomas More were martyred for, among other things, their unwillingness to compromise the Lord’s teaching concerning marriage’s indissolubility.

The Cardinal’s comment about adultery in the same interview left even more to be desired. “Adultery,” he said, “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.”

Adultery, however, isn’t a question of leaving a communion. It is to freely choose to violate an existing indissoluble communion, thereby breaking one of the commandants which Christ was especially insistent that His followers embrace. And while your marital communion exists with one person, it’s impossible to be in a marital communion with anyone else while your spouse is alive. To say this isn’t “rigorism.” It’s simply to apply to the act of adultery the basic logic of the truth that Christ Himself disclosed to us about marriage and its roots in the order of creation.

It was, then, with low expectations that I began reading the book that Cardinal Kasper was promoting during his recent American sojourn. To my surprise, however, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life is neither a collection of flippant remarks nor teeming with obscurities. Instead I found an accessible and at times inspiring theological account of the Christian idea of mercy.

Drawing heavily upon Scripture, the Church Fathers, scholastic theologians, saints such as the Polish mystic Saint Faustina, popes ranging from Pius XII to Saint John Paul the Great, and many thoroughly orthodox theologians, Kasper opens his readers’ eyes to the full potential of a sound Christian re-appreciation of mercy. In the midst of his exposition of salvation history as an outpouring of God’s mercy on us, Kasper illustrates how a renewed attention to mercy could reshape aspects not just of the Church’s internal life, but also its reflections on political and economic problems.

Looking at the Church, for instance, Kasper states that one of the reasons that liberal theology invariably degenerates into mere political activism is that it trivializes Scripture’s statements about mercy (74). Nor does Kasper have much time for those who accuse people such as Mother Teresa who devote their lives to acts of mercy “of masking the injustices of the social system” (182). He also argues that the hyper-bureaucratization that, Kasper freely concedes, plagues the Catholic and Lutheran churches in Germany is contrary to a true culture of mercy and has “made the church hardly distinguishable from temporal organizations” (174).

In an even more surprising move—at least to those who don’t apparently recognize any real limits to the welfare state—Kasper uses the idea of mercy to expand upon Benedict XVI’s warnings in Deus Caritas Est concerning the limits of state action vis-à-vis alleviating human misery. “We cannot,” Kasper writes, “engineer and federally regulate concern and mercy” (197). Kasper also underscores how modern social security systems violate subsidiarity, undermine solidarity, and create dependency (189). In another echo of Benedict XVI, Kasper stresses that using debt as a way to try and circumvent the problem of funding modern welfare states amounts to the present generation living at their children’s expense (188).

Kasper, it turns out, has a good grasp of the German experiment otherwise known as the social market economy. He leans towards the “social” side of that model and, like many Western Europeans, tends to equate social with the state. Hence Kasper says little about how the type of flourishing civil society portrayed in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America might give better effect to the demands of justice and mercy than bureaucrats in Berlin, Brussels, or Washington. That said, Kasper’s thinking about how we realize justice and mercy in the economy is much more attentive to economic truths than, for instance, the dubious assumptions which apparently informed the economic commentary articulated in Evangelii Gaudium.

Of relevance to present debates, however, are Kasper’s comments about canon law and church discipline. Quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s comments about the fallacies of cheap grace (174-175), Kasper laments the widespread breakdown in church discipline since Vatican II. Legalism, he says, was replaced by a vacuum of niceness and false mercy (175). On several occasions, Kasper specifies that the application of mercy can’t be separated from the demands of truth. Being merciful, he says, involves speaking the truth to people about their sins, albeit with love. Without truth, mercy becomes “empty prattle” (162).

In this connection, Kasper reminds his readers that exclusion from the Eucharist was a practice of the Church right from the beginning. Indeed, he directly cites Saint Paul’s unambiguous words about the impermissibility of approaching the Lord’s Table in an unworthy state. No-one, Kasper comments, has a “right” to the Eucharist—not even Catholics (176). Such exclusion was understood then, and should be understood now, as a “bitter but necessary medicine of mercy” (177) which helps people reflect on their errors and repent.

Curiously, however, Kasper says relatively little in this context about two subjects that have preoccupied him and some European Catholics of late: the situation of divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics. Speaking of these cases, Kasper limits himself to insisting that the Church “may not steer clear of those who … are not counted among the pious.” Though, he cautions, “the church cannot justify the sin, it should certainly attend to the sinners with mercy” (169).

All this leads inevitably to the question: how can we reconcile what appears to be two Walter Kaspers? On the one hand, we have a cardinal who speaks in a less-than-prudent manner in the world’s media capital, and who apparently regards mediocrity as the norm for Christians. On the other hand, the same cardinal grasps that mercy-without-truth is mere sentimentalism. He also illustrates how embracing a true culture of mercy would force his own church in Germany to break its comfortable fetters of material-wealth and über-bureaucratization, and refers to exclusion from communion as an act of medicinal mercy.

Through contemplating this contradiction, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that Cardinal Kasper—and many other German-speaking bishops—are willing to do whatever they think it takes to change the Church’s doctrine on marriage in ways that, while nominally retaining the principle of marriage’s indissolubility, effectively nullify the principle’s content à la the church of England. And that suggests that, for all their protestations to the contrary, some of these bishops don’t believe in true marriage’s indissolubility. This in turn puts them at odds with part of the divine law specified by Christ Himself.

The lengths to which some will go to try and realize this goal was recently highlighted by the distinguished patristic scholar John Rist in his analysis of Cardinal Kasper’s use of patristic sources in his February address to the College of Cardinals. In a few short paragraphs, Rist illustrated that Kasper’s claim that many Church Fathers believed that, in certain circumstances, the Church could tolerate a Catholic entering a second “marriage” while his actual spouse still lived “depends on misinterpreting a tiny number of texts while neglecting numerous others which contradict them.”

Even more devastating were Rist’s thoughts about how Kasper could have made such an error. “To my mind,” Rist wrote, “we have here an example of a procedure all too frequent in academia, more especially when work may be motivated by convenience or ideology: there is an overwhelming amount of evidence in one direction and one or two texts which might conceivably be read otherwise; from which is derived the desired conclusion, or at least that the matter is open.”

In coming months, I suspect we will see several efforts to manipulate the Church’s discussion about how to address the genuine pastoral challenge of divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics. This will include selected leaks, impossible-to-verify-claims concerning things supposedly said by the Pope, the peddling of dubious scholarship, and efforts to dismiss ancient pastoral disciplines based on the very words of Christ and Saint Paul as mere “rules.”

We should also expect the vilification of those who critique the arguments of those advocating positions such as Kasper’s “tolerate but not accept” proposal as “rigorists,” “judgmental,” or “abstract thinkers.” That’s exactly what happened to theologians such as the heroic John C. Ford SJ who defended the Church’s teaching on contraception in the years immediately preceding and following Humanae Vitae. Above all, we can safely predict the endless invocation of hard cases in an effort to generate emotion-based expectations that the Church must, in mercy’s name, admit to communion those who, by their own free choice, are living in situations that violate Christ’s teaching about adulterous acts and who, for whatever reason, aren’t willing to make the free choice, as Christ told the woman taken in adultery, to “go and sin no more.”

Hard cases—or so observed the English judge Robert Rolfe in 1842—make bad law. They also facilitate legalisms and rationalizations of the worst sort. Hence neither they nor feelings are a sound basis for thinking through how we live a gospel of mercy rooted in the objective moral order that Christ reveals to us. A better starting place for such reflection would be, paradoxically enough, Cardinal Kasper’s book on mercy.

So, with that in mind, I can’t help but ask: “Will the real Walter Kasper please stand up?”

(Photo credit: AFP / Paolo Cocco)


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including, most recently, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

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