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Cardinal Kasper is far from controversies for a change, and happily so

German Cardinal Walter Kasper walks in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 4, 2013. Photo by Tony Gentile/Reuters

ROME (RNS) — Cardinal Walter Kasper practically bounds down Borgo Pio as he heads to lunch at a favorite trattoria a few blocks from the Vatican, a broad smile on his face. The 85-year-old German churchman appears to be irrepressibly happy, even when he is dodging clueless tourists and annoying motorbikes. (At one point he does have a few words of reproval for the guy on a motorino who suddenly pulls in front of him, parks and walks away — this is, after all, Rome.)

Such cheeriness is not necessarily what one expects from Kasper, who for the past few years has been blasted by church conservatives for his close association with Pope Francis and the pontiff’s more inclusive, pastoral and compassionate approach to Catholics and, indeed, to the world.

Kasper is certainly used to the jostle of Vatican debates. He is one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the past generation — a rival for the title might be his more famous countryman, erstwhile sparring partner and colleague in the Roman Curia, Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

But Kasper has endured a different kind of criticism since becoming so closely identified with Francis, Benedict’s successor.

At one of Francis’ first public appearances after being elected pope in March 2013, he cited Kasper as a “very sharp theologian” and effectively blurbed Kasper’s recent book on the topic of mercy – “That book has done me so much good,” Francis told a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Kasper’s theme would become central to Francis’ own papacy.

“I was shocked when I saw it, I saw it on television,” Kasper said as he tucked into a plate of seafood. “Later, the pope came to me, he saw me and said, ‘I have made publicity for you!’”

Though Kasper officially retired in 2010 after a decade as the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, Francis deployed him in February of 2014 to address a meeting of the College of Cardinals about the need to recover a sense of pastoral flexibility on topics that for years were considered off-limits, such as finding ways to allow Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive Communion.

Cardinal Walter Kasper in his home at the Vatican on Sept. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

Kasper’s address, and the meeting itself, was effectively the opening salvo in Francis’ effort to open the church hierarchy to long-suppressed debates over doctrine, pastoral practice and personal conscience. Francis challenged the cardinals to reorient the church’s entire approach to evangelization toward reaching out, rather than preaching and waiting for converts to show up.

Kasper was a central figure in the process of dialogue and discernment over the next two years, attending two monthlong synods in the fall of 2014 and 2015 that were marked by increasingly fierce disputations over the role of doctrine. As they ended, he helped formulate the final documents that opened to door to the kind of pastoral creativity that Francis intended.

The documents, and those synods, also opened the floodgates to a deluge of efforts, unprecedented in modern history, aimed at countering the pontiff’s teaching and his authority, and even seeking to depose Francis as pope. Kasper has been vilified almost as much as his boss by old-guard traditionalists and self-appointed heresy hunters on social media.

Over lunch, Kasper expressed his relief at being uninvolved in the just-ended Synod on Youth, where few doctrinal issues were at stake and conservative carping never caught fire. “When you become older you do not like to have all these controversies. And I had strong controversies! Many people were against me. But I asked the pope, ‘Holy Father, what I should do? Should I answer them?’

“He said, ‘You are a man of discernment, you are free. You can decide what you want to do.’ He did not give me any direction. Just ‘You are free.’ I was very impressed by this.”

In the end, Kasper decided he could no longer answer all the attacks. “Because whether you answer or not, you cannot convince some people,” he said. “It’s impossible.”

Pope Francis speaks during a Mass for the closing of the synod of bishops in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, on Oct. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Some controversies, too, a theologian like Kasper simply can’t help with, such as the resurgent clergy sex abuse crisis, religious freedom with communist China, rising nationalist populism in Italy and elsewhere – or coping with conservative Catholics who often exploit those issues to weaken Francis.

“I think that underneath (the conservative opposition) is fear. They see so many uncertainties. It is identitarian,” Kasper said. “It’s no longer Catholic. It’s sectarian.”

Part of Kasper’s equanimity stems from a sense that the pope’s larger message has carried the day. The pontifical exhortation that followed those disputatious synods, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), urges the hierarchy to open the door to a more pastorally focused church that engages people on their spiritual journey, rather than just reciting rules from a playbook of piety. That message is beginning to take hold, however fitfully.

“So far, I think it’s a breakthrough, this exhortation,” Kasper said. He conceded that “some points are not as clarified as they could be” but says that’s part of the process of moving the Catholic Church – and Catholics – forward.

For Kasper, a lifelong student of Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval saint and theologian was key to unblocking the logjam.

“Thomas talked about the virtue of prudence to apply the principle to the concrete situation,” he said. “That’s Thomas. … That’s traditional thinking since Aristotle and Thomas. You have to see how the principle is applied to an often complex, concrete situation.”

As he switches easily from Latin to English, though slipping occasionally into Italian, it’s easy to see the old professor emerging as Kasper explains his thinking for the lay person. He appears more interested these days in reaching a wider audience than in breaking new theological ground or mixing it up with other theologians, as he once did with Benedict. Not that the retired pope couldn’t hold his own.

“His mind is very sharp but he is very weak physically,” Kasper says of Benedict, who is 91 and lives in a monastery inside the Vatican walls, a stone’s throw from Kasper’s Vatican-owned apartment just outside the main gate to the city state.

Cardinal Walter Kasper arrives Oct. 6, 2014, at the Vatican at the morning session of a two-week synod on family issues, including contraception, premarital sex and divorce. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

At a time of such intense polarization in the church, Kasper now tries to find commonalities to counter those who prefer to play up differences. Speaking with the Catholic news site Crux a few days before his interview with Religion News Service, Kasper insisted that “there is no real substantial difference between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.”

“They are different personalities of course, different backgrounds,” Kasper told Crux after a ceremony in Rome at which he was honored by Villanova University. “One is European, the other comes from Latin America. (But) if you read exactly what they write, it’s the same line and substance.”

Kasper’s next work, which will be published in German in early 2019, also reflects his desire to teach rather than argue: It’s a short book on the Lord’s Prayer. “The goal is to explain it in a language which for some educated laity is understandable. It is not theological. There are no footnotes because in Germany there are many people, if they see footnotes, they think it’s academic and it’s not for them!”

“I think my writings can be useful for nonprofessionals, for nontheologians,” he continued. “I can do something here, I think. I do not like any longer to enter into these ideological debates. When you become older you do not want to.”

The conversation shifts to the topic of the next synod that Francis will preside over, a meeting next October in Rome focused on ministry in the Amazon region. A central topic there will be the issue of how to reach Catholics scattered across such a vast territory. The question of married priests and empowering women for greater ministerial roles is expected to be part of that discussion. Maybe Kasper will be part of it, as well, if only indirectly.

“I am reflecting a little bit if I should do something about ministry. But the whole thing about celibacy and the role of women limits me, makes me think I am not so sure.” Still, he adds, “we can’t avoid the issues — celibacy, ordination, how to have more priests.”

As lunch ends, it sure sounds as though Kasper is starting a new book. He won’t be pinned down, however, and with a big grin he heads happily back up Borgo Pio toward the Vatican.

About the author

David Gibson

39 Comments

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  • “as Kasper explains his thinking for the lay person. He appears more interested these days in reaching a wider audience than in breaking new theological ground or mixing it up with other theologians, as he once did with Benedict.”

    Hooray.

  • there use to be wide ranging theological debates among the professionals that were not open to the person in the pew . now catholics and protestants and orthodox have the most educated laity in history and the professionals are no longer able to monopolize the discussion or contain it among themselves .

    the result will be a theology that is less ethereal, less removed from everyday life, and no longer driven by top down conclusions mandated from above . theology will be the sensus fidelium : the faith of the people . not the religion by a small clerical group .

    hooray indeed .

  • The gods have died (actually they never existed). Summarizing with The Great Kibosh of All Religions:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • Vitality? It should be banned as a waste of time, no longer relevant to rational thinking. Think hard about the following:

    AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC/SATANIC CONS CONTINUE TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD

    Joe Smith had his Moroni and Satan/Perdition/Lucifer. (As does M. Romney)

    “Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God and of course Satan and his demons.

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tinkerbell” got around) and of course the jinn.

    Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As do BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan)( As does Trump if you can believe anything he says)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty wingie/ugly/horn-blowing thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

  • It was YOU who claimed, “Theology is dead!!”

    It was I who claimed in reply, “Theology is not dead, as your comments demonstrate its vitality.”

    It was YOU who then went off discussion, i.e., asserting, “It should be banned as a waste of time, no longer relevant to rational thinking.”

    The words “is” and “should” do not mean the same thing.

    It was YOU, in other words, who made a claim (“Theology is dead”) and, when challenged by ME (“Theology is not dead”), tried to support your claim by resorting to a “should”.

    YOU failed at simple/basic argumentation.

    YOU lose here.

  • YOU made a claim in the singular, “Theology is dead!!!” I replied that your basic claim demonstrates that theology is not dead because your assertion (and, one might add, your other statements, as well) demonstrate theology’s vitality. In other words, it is precisely YOUR behavior that demonstrates theology is not dead. This is not a matter of my belief versus your unbelief. The issue — raised by YOU — is whether theology is dead or not. YOU are not being rational here. Our disagreement on God’s existence is not at play here.

  • “No gods, no theology!!!”

    WRONG.

    Whenever there is discussion about the divinity (God, the gods, etc.), there is theology (at work).

  • “Not for the last 50 years?”

    For whenever people have been discussing the divinity (God, the gods, etc.). Theology does not depend for its existence on people’s belief or non-belief in God, the gods, etc. Whenever folks talk about divinity, there is theology (at work).

    You’ve been engaged in theology for as long as you’ve been engaged in blogging at this website. Whether you believe or not is immaterial to theology’s existence. Your assertion, for example, that “God is dead” has nothing to do with theology’s existence.

  • The Great Kibosh rules today and the future. Enjoy your gift without the guilt trips of the Jewish and NT scribes.

  • Theology has died and its books moved to the Myth, Fiction and Semi-fiction stacks as The Great Kibosh of All Religions takes the Reality Rules section.

  • my gift of the jewish and christian scribes are enjoyed for what they are . no guilt involved .

    is the kibosh you are in caused by your fleeing from a hounding guilt ? if so i hope you grow through it .

  • are you so ignorant of myth and legend that you have try to show others what they have known for years ?

  • Indeed but now they have a summary without the theology verbiage allowing them to pursue useful pursuits.

  • Actually, I routinely go to my very local library, Amazon Prime reading and then occasionally visit our new local geographic library. Amazon Prime lending library sections:

    Children’s Books
    Comics & Graphic Novels
    Literature & Fiction
    Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
    Nonfiction
    Romance
    Science Fiction & Fantasy
    Teen & Young Adult

    And of course, theology books if not already there, will soon be under Science Fiction, Literature and Fiction and also Fantasy.

  • “…theology books if not already there, will soon be….”

    which is why i began above with applauding your vibrant fantasy life . no myth believer has anything on you . your fantasies rule .

  • My ideology? Au Contraire!! Said Great Kibosh is the summary of the 20 and 20th centuries’ conclusions of many NT exegetes.

  • yeah . your ideology .

    your summary of what you picked and chose from many formed your ideology .

  • Obviously, you have not perused any of the following references:

    o 1. Historical Jesus Theories, earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the titles of their over 100 books on the subject.
    2. Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com/
    – a list of early Christian documents to include the year of publication–
    30-60 CE Passion Narrative
    40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q
    50-60 1 Thessalonians
    50-60 Philippians
    50-60 Galatians
    50-60 1 Corinthians
    50-60 2 Corinthians
    50-60 Romans
    50-60 Philemon
    50-80 Colossians
    50-90 Signs Gospel
    50-95 Book of Hebrews
    50-120 Didache
    50-140 Gospel of Thomas
    50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
    50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ
    65-80 Gospel of Mark
    70-100 Epistle of James
    70-120 Egerton Gospel
    70-160 Gospel of Peter
    70-160 Secret Mark
    70-200 Fayyum Fragment
    70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
    73-200 Mara Bar Serapion
    80-100 2 Thessalonians
    80-100 Ephesians
    80-100 Gospel of Matthew
    80-110 1 Peter
    80-120 Epistle of Barnabas
    80-130 Gospel of Luke
    80-130 Acts of the Apostles
    80-140 1 Clement
    80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians
    80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews
    80-250 Christian Sibyllines
    90-95 Apocalypse of John
    90-120 Gospel of John
    90-120 1 John
    90-120 2 John
    90-120 3 John
    90-120 Epistle of Jude
    93 Flavius Josephus
    100-150 1 Timothy
    100-150 2 Timothy
    100-150 T-itus
    100-150 Apocalypse of Peter
    100-150 Secret Book of James
    100-150 Preaching of Peter
    100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites
    100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans
    100-160 Shepherd of Hermas
    100-160 2 Peter
     4. Jesus Database, http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html –”The JESUS DATABASE is an online a-nnotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to the traditions found within the Christian New Testament.”
    5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bissar24.htm
    6. The Jesus Seminar, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Seminar
    7. http://www.biblicalartifacts.com/items/785509/item785509biblicalartifacts.html – books on the health and illness during the time of the NT
    8. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.
    9.The Gnostic Jesus
    (Part One in a Two-Part Series on A-ncient and Modern G-nosticism)
    by Douglas Groothuis: http://www.equip.o-rg/articles/gnosticism-and-the-gnostic-jesus/10. The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical Commission
    Presented on March 18, 1994
    ewtn.com/library/CURIA/PBCINTER.HTM#2
    11. The Jesus Database- newer site:
    wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?title=Jesus_Database
    12. Jesus Database with the example of Supper and Eucharist:
    faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb016.html
    13. Josephus on Jesus by Paul Maier:
    mtio.com/articles/bissar24.htm
    13. http://www.textweek.com/mtlk/jesus.htmm- Historical Jesus Studies
    14. The Greek New Testament: laparola.net/greco/
    15. Diseases in the Bible:
    http://books.google.com/books/about/The_diseases_of_the_Bible.html?id=C1YZAAAAYAAJ

  • Continued from above:

    16. Religion on- Line (6000 articles on the h-story of religion, churches, theologies,
    theologians, ethics, etc. religion-online.org/
    17. The New Testament Gateway – Internet NT ntgate-way.com/
    18 Writing the New Testament- existing copies, oral tradition etc.
    ntgat-eway.com/
    19. JD Crossan’s conclusions about the authencity of most of the NT based on the above plus the conclusions of other NT exegetes in the last 200 years:
    http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.p-hp?title=Crossan_Inventory
    20. Early Jewish Writings- Josephus and his books by title with the complete translated work in English :earlyjewishwritings.com/josephus.html
    21. Luke and Josephus- was there a connection?
    in-fidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/lukeandjosephus.html
    22. NT and beyond time line:
    pbs.org/empires/peterandpaul/history/timeline/
    23. St. Paul’s Time line with discussion of important events:
    harvardhouse.com/prophetictech/new/pauls_life.htm
    24. See http://www.amazon.com for a list of JD Crossan’s books and those of the other Jesus Seminarians: Reviews of said books are included and selected pages can now be viewed on Amazon. Some books can be found on-line at Google Books.
    25. Father Edward Schillebeeckx’s words of wisdom as found in his books.
    27. The books of the following : Professors Gerd Ludemann, Marcus Borg, Paula Fredriksen, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong and Bishop NT Wright.
    28. Father Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, NY, 1977, 878 pages, with Nihil obstat and Imprimatur.
    29. Luke Timothy Johnson’s book The Real Jesus

    “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth [Hardcover]
    Bart D. Ehrman (Author)

    Large numbers of atheists, humanists, and conspiracy theorists are raising one of the most pressing questions in the history of religion: “Did Jesus exist at all?” Was he invented out of whole cloth for nefarious purposes by those seeking to control the masses? Or was Jesus such a shadowy figure—far removed from any credible historical evidence—that he bears no meaningful resemblance to the person described in the Bible?”

  • all that “research” . so little knowledge . or understanding .

    i studied all that decades ago and still do .

    when you catch up, write .

  • If you care to look closer, there is wide selection of viewpoints in the references given. For example the studies of conservative exegetes such as Father Raymond Brown and Bishop Wright.

  • Au Contraire. The likes of Crossan and Ludemann provided more comprehensive studies not limiting themselves to P, M, M , L and J.

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