Cardinal Walter Kasper is enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity of late. Following his controversial proposals at the 2014 Consistory, the German-born theologian has seen quite unprecedented attention. The mainstream media has dubbed him “the pope’s theologian.” The Catholic University of America recently awarded him their prestigious Quasten theological award for his service to the Church.
And it is not just awards and flattery that he is receiving. His publications are now getting wider distribution than ever, reaching the hands of Catholics, who, had the recent synodal dust-up not occurred, might never have heard of Walter Kasper. Now carrying the endorsement of high ecclesiastics, his books have migrated from the shelves of obscure seminary libraries to regular stock at local bookstores. Bishop Blase Cupich, newly-appointed Archbishop of Chicago, recently revealed that he had all of his priests study the recent controversial address of Kasper at the Consistory and then brought in a theologian to help his priests appreciate the unique theological vision of the cardinal.
This is all deeply unsettling.
Often lost in this sudden surge of popularity is the recollection that Cardinal Kasper’s past is not a portrait of a docile son of the Church. Rather, his academic career is marked by grave departures from Catholic doctrine traditionally understood, and his episcopal career is tarnished by conflicts with Pope and Curia. A brief review of the Cardinal’s past provides vital context to his recent proposals.
Cardinal Kasper On Gospel Miracles: Did Christ really work all those miracles?
The Church has been abundantly clear in its teaching regarding the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture. Pope Leo XIII solemnly taught that “it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred.” This teaching was repeated by the Second Vatican Council, particularly in reference to the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts. In its declaration on the Sources of Revelation, it decreed:
“Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven.” (Dei Verbum, 19)
With the Church’s teaching on Biblical inerrancy in mind, let us turn to Cardinal Kasper.
When Walter Kasper approaches the topic of Jesus Christ, one has the impression that he finds it impossible to know exactly how many of the events related in the Gospels actually transpired. While he defends a “basic stock of historically certain miracles”, he casts considerable doubt on the historical reality of a number of Gospel accounts. In his acclaimed work Jesus the Christ, he wrote regarding some of the Gospel miracle accounts:
“A number of miracle stories turn out in the light of form criticism to be projections of the experiences of Easter back into the earthly life of Jesus, or anticipatory representations of the exalted Christ. Among these epiphany stories we should probably include the stilling of the storm, the transfiguration, Jesus’ walking on the lake, the feeding of the four (or five) thousand and the miraculous draught of fishes. The clear purpose of the stories of the raising from the dead of Jairus’s daughter, the widow’s son at Naim and Lazarus is to present Jesus as Lord over life and death. It is the nature miracles which turn out to be secondary accretions to the original tradition.
“The result of all this is that we must describe many of the gospel miracle stories as legendary. Legends of this sort should be examined less for their historical than for their theological content. They say something, not about individual facts of saving history, but about the single saving event which is Jesus Christ. To show that certain miracles cannot be ascribed to the earthly Jesus does not mean that they have no theological or kerygmatic significance…The probability is that we need not take the so-called ‘nature miracles’ as historical.” (Jesus the Christ, p. 90-91)
One could give many more examples that show a disturbing trend to spiritualize the actions of Our Lord as recounted in the Gospels. Even the Resurrection accounts of Our Lord do not emerge unscathed from Cardinal Kasper’s reductionist hermeneutic, with the story of the empty tomb receiving particular attention from Cardinal Kasper:
“[Mark 16] begins with a definite improbability. The wish to anoint a dead body, which has already been put in its shroud in the tomb, three days later, is not given any explanation, such as being a custom of the time, and is unintelligible in the climatic conditions of Palestine. The fact that the women do not realize until they are already on the way that they would need help to roll back the stone and enter the tomb betrays a degree of thoughtlessness which is not easy to explain. We must assume therefore that we are faced not with historical details but with stylistic devices intended to attract the attention and raise excitement in the minds of those listening….” (Jesus the Christ, p. 127)
Cardinal Kasper On Gospel Prophecies: After-the-Fact Additions or Real Prophecy?
The miracles of Our Lord are not the only Gospel accounts subjected to the theologian’s scalpel. Even prophecies of Our Lord are rendered historically irrelevant. Prophecies and miracles have traditionally been twin pillars in Catholic apologetics: motives of credibility for Christian belief. These motives of credibility are so central to Christian belief that they were mentioned specifically by the First Vatican Council:
“In order that the submission of our faith should be in accordance with reason, it was God’s will that there should be linked to the internal assistance of the Holy Spirit external indications of his revelation, that is to say divine acts, and first and foremost miracles and prophecies… Christ our Lord himself worked many absolutely clear miracles and delivered prophecies; while of the apostles we read: And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.” (Dei Filius, Ch. 3.)
For Cardinal Kasper, however, it appears—especially with the prophecies pertaining to the Passion—an explanation of authenticity might be too simplistic. In Jesus the Christ, Cardinal Kasper discusses the prophecies of Our Lord prior to His return to Jerusalem. One passage that receives particular attention is this prophecy from Mark 10, wherein Our Lord explains to His Apostles that he will be given up to the priests, condemned to death, and rise again. Regarding this prophecy, Cardinal Kasper asserts:
“The almost universal opinion today is that in their present form at least these passages are prophecies after the event. They are post-Easter interpretations of Jesus’ death and not authentic sayings. That applies particularly to the third prophecy, which gives very precise details of the actual course of the Passion. If Jesus had foretold his death and Resurrection as clearly as that, the flight of the disciples, their disappointment and their initial refusal to accept the evidence of the Resurrection would have been completely incomprehensible.” (Jesus the Christ, p. 114-115)
On the Apostolic Succession: Can the Church really trace its bishops back to the Apostles?
The early Church Fathers considered the concept of Apostolic Succession central to the mystery of the Church. The unbroken chain of the episcopate that could be traced directly back to Our Lord served as a sure foundation in the Church’s struggles with heresies and schisms. This notion of Apostolic Succession has been taught constantly throughout the history of the Church, and was repeated clearly in the Second Vatican Council’s document Lumen Gentium:
“Among those various ministries which, according to tradition, were exercised in the Church from the earliest times, the chief place belongs to the office of those who, appointed to the episcopate, by a succession running from the beginning, are passers-on of the apostolic seed. Thus, as St. Irenaeus testifies, through those who were appointed bishops by the apostles, and through their successors down in our own time, the apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved.” (Lumen Gentium, 20)
The unbroken succession from the beginning is central to a reasonable apologetic for the Catholic Faith. It is one of the surest signs of the Church’s historical claims and has served as core motivation for many Protestants who have returned to the unity of the Church.
And yet, Cardinal Kasper completely dismisses the traditional understanding of Apostolic Succession. For him, such a concept is “mechanical and individualistic”. As is the case with the Gospels, he seems uncomfortable with the Church’s traditional historical approach, and eschews the concrete for the intangible. In an address, the Cardinal explained:
“[It] is not a question of apostolic succession in the sense of an historical chain of laying on of hands running back through the centuries to one of the apostles; this would be a very mechanical and individualistic vision, which by the way historically could hardly be proved and ascertained.
“The Catholic view is different from such an individualistic and mechanical approach. Its starting point is the collegium of the apostles as a whole; together they received the promise that Jesus Christ will be with them till the end of the world (Matt 28, 20). So after the death of the historical apostles they had to co–opt others who took over some of their apostolic functions. In this sense the whole of the episcopate stands in succession to the whole of the collegium of the apostles. To stand in the apostolic succession is not a matter of an individual historical chain but of collegial membership in a collegium, which as a whole goes back to the apostles by sharing the same apostolic faith and the same apostolic mission. The laying on of hands is under this aspect a sign of co-optation in a collegium.” (Keynote address to Society for Ecumenical Studies, May 17, 2003)
The Communion for the Divorced and Remarried Controversy—1994 Edition
Given the prominent debate encouraged within the upper echelons of the Church regarding Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, one might be forgiven for assuming the Church has not settled this question. In fact, this topic arose at the 1980 Synod which was, in many respects, like a preview for this recent Synod on the family. In his closing homily at the end of the Synod, Pope John Paul II vigorously condemned the idea that Communion could be admitted to those who divorced and attempted remarriage. Following the Synod, Pope John Paul II magisterially resolved the question in Familiaris Consortio by showing that this practice is not a mere discipline of the Church, but a practice rooted in the teaching of Sacred Scripture.
Familaris Consortio should have definitively closed the question. It was not long, however, before Walter Kasper (then bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart) publicly challenged the papal teaching. In a pastoral letter co-written with two other German bishops, Kasper questioned whether the prohibition in Familiaris Consortio was universally binding and suggested that there ought to be “room for pastoral flexibility in complex, individual cases,” noting that Church laws can only form general norms.
Following this letter, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under Joseph Ratzinger met with the German bishops. These meetings culminated in the release of an official letter from the CDF, issued under the order of Pope John Paul II, which again repeated the binding nature of Familiaris Consortio on this topic. Interestingly, the gravity of the situation warranted the letter from the CDF being sent to every bishop of the world, not merely the German bishops.
In the years that followed, even until now, Cardinal Kasper has clung pertinaciously to his view that Familiaris Consortio is not universally binding, despite multiple corrections on this point. His recent volley at the 2014 Synod was not a fresh proposal, but a continuation of a long-standing clash with the teaching of the Church on this point.
On the Conflicts at the Second Vatican Council
Given the Cardinal’s alarming views on so many core doctrines of the Catholic Faith, it is particularly illuminating to consider his vision of our present moment in the Church’s history. It should not be a surprise that the Cardinal’s understanding of the Second Vatican Council does not align with those who wish to read the Council within a logical continuity of the Church’s magisterial history. In a recent address, he presented his narrative of the Council: an event he saw as ripe with tremendous vital potential but that was rendered largely muted and latent due to certain formulations injected into the Council documents by conservative theologians at the Council. These formulations he credits as the reason for the sluggish progress of the overhaul of the Church that he sees as necessary:
“An influential minority [of Council Fathers]…remained captive to the structure of neoscholasticism and defended the post-Tridentine tradition in a one-sided manner. Pope John XXIII’s successor, Pope Paul VI—unjustly a too much forgotten pope—was in principle inclined toward the concerns of the majority but also sought (in accordance with the ancient conciliar tradition) to achieve, if at all possible, a united consensus on the passing of the council documents. He succeeded: all sixteen documents were passed almost unanimously. But that came at a cost. In many places, as in previous councils, there were found compromise formulations in which the position of the majority often stands directly side by side with the position of the minority with their concern for demarcation.
So the council’s texts contain enormous conflict potential; they open the door for a selective reception in one or the other direction… So the question arises: In which direction does the compass of Vatican II point, and where is the church heading in this still young third millennium? Will it maintain the confident trust of John XXIII and the renewal from the sources or take the path back to defensive antireform and antimodernist attitudes? That is the question facing post-conciliar reception. (Address at the University of Notre Dame, April 24, 2013)”
Perhaps focusing on this selection seems out of place for this article. After all, here we deal with questions of history rather than doctrine. Yet, it seems to me vital in understanding the Cardinal’s modus operandi. When considering the theological views of Cardinal Kasper alongside his narrative of the Council, the reason for his efforts in fomenting a revolution with regards to the Church’s teaching on marriage become very clear. To his view, the resolution of the Second Vatican Council is still open and it is only with vigorous effort that its spirit can be decisively secured.
Given the doctrinal resurgence of recent years, especially among young people and young clergy, the novel path taken by many since the close of the Council seems, by many progressive theologians, to be in jeopardy. The efforts of Pope Benedict XVI to foster movements that embrace the Church’s doctrinal and liturgical heritage has done much to re-orient Catholic thinking throughout the world. This shift has caused considerable alarm and might account for the sudden counter-offensive in progressive circles to reclaim the “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council.
My hope is that this article, firstly, serves as a warning to ordinary Catholics to tread carefully when reading the works of Cardinal Walter Kasper. But secondly, and most importantly, I hope we can all pray that theologians that veer dangerously from the Church’s traditional teaching do not hold sway within the Church. As Catholics we live in hope, for Christ has promised always to guard and uphold his Church. Yet, His assurance demands our courageous cooperation and battle, even if only spiritual, against those unfaithful to the Church’s theological tradition.
Sources used for this article:
Jesus the Christ, by Cardinal Walter Kasper
The Church on the Reception of Communion by Divorced and Remarried Catholics, Fr. Joseph Bolin
May They All Be One? But How? A Vision of Christian Unity for the Next Generation, Cardinal Walter Kasper
The Theology of Cardinal Walter Kasper: Speaking the Truth in Love
Author’s Addendum: It has come to the author’s attention that a new edition of Cardinal Kasper’s Jesus the Christ was recently published. Despite the Cardinal saying (in a footnote after the introduction) that if he had time to rewrite the book, he would be more “positive” in his treatment of nature miracles, every quotation found above is unchanged in the New Edition.
Photo CC (cropped): Catholic Church England and Wales
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