Kasper honoured by WCR as Church 'mustard seed'

Cardinal Walter Kasper arrives for a session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican in October.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

Cardinal Walter Kasper arrives for a session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican in October.

December 29, 2014
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

For more than 30 years, Cardinal Walter Kasper has been an outspoken proponent of a more welcoming attitude to those divorced and remarried Catholics not permitted to receive the Eucharist.

More recently, his theology of mercy, outlined in his popular book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, has had a major influence on Pope Francis and is provoking new directions in the Catholic Church.

One of the world's leading theologians, Kasper served from 1999 to 2011 as secretary and then president of the Vatican's Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

For all that and more, the WCR is pleased to name Cardinal Kasper the winner of its 2014 Mustard Seed award. The award goes to a Christian leader or thinker whose actions or writing have inspired positive development in the Catholic Church.

Franciscan Father Donald MacDonald, professor of systematic theology at Newman Theological College, called Kasper "one of the best Catholic theologians in the world today and one of the most respected theologians."

Kasper has rarely been categorized in terms of labels such as left and right, MacDonald said in an interview. "He's just a sound and thorough systematic theologian."

Kasper spoke to the College of Cardinals in February at Pope Francis' invitation with the pope asking him to address the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriage has not been annulled. The cardinal first addressed the topic in his 1980 book Theology of Marriage, but his views were largely ignored for decades.

In speaking to the cardinals in February, he said the Church needs to find a way to offer healing, strength and salvation to Catholics whose marriages have failed, who are committed to making a new union work and who long to do so within the Church and with the grace of Communion.

It would seem to be a simple request, made to a Church founded by Jesus who regularly ate with sinners and the marginalized.

However, it ignited a storm of controversy that reached full pitch at the extraordinary synod of bishops on the family in October. His critics maintain that Kasper's proposal cannot be implemented without violating the sacrosanct teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

"That guy is off his rocker," one unidentified cardinal said of Kasper to Boston Globe journalist John Allen.

Marriage was indeed one of the few moral issues on which Jesus is recorded as pronouncing. Responding to the Pharisees in Matthew 19.9, Jesus said, "I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery."

For 12 years, Cardinal Walter Kasper (right) was a Vatican kingpin in ecumenical discussions, frequently meeting with other Church leaders such as the Head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury (left) in 2009.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

For 12 years, Cardinal Walter Kasper (right) was a Vatican kingpin in ecumenical discussions, frequently meeting with other Church leaders such as the Head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury (left) in 2009.

In an Oct. 1 interview with Catholic News Service, Kasper said condemning second marriages on the basis of that line in Scripture would involve a "fundamentalistic" reading of the Bible.

"We have to integrate such a word, one word of Jesus Christ, in the whole context of his message. We cannot take only one phrase and suddenly make all the consequences.

"We have to integrate it with the whole message of love, and of mercy, of forgiveness, of a new chance."

Kasper has repeatedly said that he does not want to undermine, but to strengthen, the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

That may mean, he told the cardinals, that the Church should "tolerate what is impossible to accept" – a second union.

FAITH UNCOMPROMISED

In a talk in Rome on Dec. 11, Kasper said he does not know what the result of current discussions will be. "I am not afraid. We will find a way without giving up anything of our faith."

MacDonald said if "some people in high places in the Church" don't like Kasper's recent higher stature, "it's simply because they've been the only ones sitting at the table for too long. They're slightly upset because they want to be the only ones sitting there."

Born March 5, 1933 in Heidenheim, Germany, Walter Kasper was ordained a priest April 6, 1957. He served a year in a parish before being sent for further studies in dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen where he earned his doctorate. He taught at various German universities as well as one year at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

MacDonald said Kasper "broke the ice" in the mid-1970s with his book Jesus the Christ in making Christology – the study of the nature and person of Jesus – a central concern for Catholic theology.

In the 10 years after the Second Vatican Council, theologians had been mainly concerned with the nature of the Church even though Vatican II saw the Church as centred on Christ, MacDonald said.

Kasper's Jesus the Christ is still a central book in Christology, he said. "For it to last that long is really a tribute to him."

LARGE DIOCESE

In June 1989, Kasper was ordained bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, the fourth largest diocese in Germany. When he and other German bishops signed a pastoral letter in 1993 which called for allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to return to the sacraments, it met with the disapproval of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Kasper and Ratzinger also locked horns in a theological dispute over the role of national and regional bishops' conferences. And when the CDF issued its controversial statement Dominus Jesus in 2000, Kasper was critical of some aspects.

Nevertheless, Pope John Paul appointed Kasper to head the Christian Unity Secretariat and Ratzinger renewed the appointment when he became Pope Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Kasper was frequently seen at the sides of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

CNS PHOTO | L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO VIA REUTERS

Cardinal Kasper was frequently seen at the sides of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Although he was respected and well loved by the Protestants he dealt with in that position, Kasper gave no endorsements of liberal Protestantism. "Look at the Protestant churches," he once said. "They have married priests and women priests, too. Are they doing better? The Church of England has also taken on terrible problems with these developments. I wouldn't wish those problems on my Church."

His most substantial theological work, The God of Jesus Christ, published in 1982, was an attempt to re-address the nature of God in the light of modern atheism.

THREAT OF ATHEISM

Due to atheism, Kasper wrote, "theology has been stripped of its power to speak to people and to communicate with them. There are now no generally accepted images, symbols, concepts and categories with which it can make itself understood."

Over the course of more than 300 pages, Kasper emphasizes the importance of Christian preaching founded on the Trinity "and the God of Jesus Christ who in the Spirit gives us life and freedom, reconciliation and peace."

Atheism denies the relevance of theology, but for Kasper, reviving an awareness of theology is "the one supremely important thing for man." The proclamation of the death of God also means the death of the human person. The defence of humanity means the defence of belief in the freedom in love and for love that is rooted in the trinitarian God.

In his book Mercy (2013), Kasper returns to the Trinity which he sees as the fountain of mercy. The persons of the Trinity are self-emptying and self-communicating, something seen most clearly in Christ's death on the cross. That inner reality of God is bestowed on us through the Holy Spirit.

"In his mercy, God lets us not only see into his heart; he creates space for us beside his heart and in his heart through the Holy Spirit."

In such words, one can see signs of the traditional devotion to the Sacred Heart. But Kasper goes further.

GOD'S ESSENCE

In his view, mercy is not just one attribute of God, but the most important one. "Mercy expresses God's essence, which graciously attends to and devotes itself to the world and to humanity in ever new ways in history."

Such theology might have remained in universities and theological schools if not for the endorsement of Pope Francis who said the book "has done me so much good," particularly its insistence that the Church needs to reflect more deeply on God's patience and mercy.

Kasper, conversely, lauds the pope as "a deeply spiritual man" who is not an academic theologian, but "a man of encounter and praxis."


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