Cardinal Kasper’s Merciful Incoherencies

Cardinal Kasper’s Merciful Incoherencies

AN IMPOVERISHED SPIRITUALITY OF SUFFERING: Kasper proposes an existential approach to God that focuses on the way, as the Bible reveals, that the Almighty relates mercifully to humanity.

By Fr. Christopher Roberts: the pastor of two parishes in the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana and an adjunct theology instructor at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer

New Oxford Review
June 2016

During Pope Francis’s first Angelus address after ascending to the chair of Peter, he approvingly cited Walter Cardinal Kasper’s book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (2012), saying that he had read it recently and it had done him “much good.” Since that papal audience, Francis has spoken frequently about God’s mercy, even calling an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy and issuing a book-length interview, The Name of God is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli (2016). Cardinal Kasper has also played a prominent role in discussions about how to extend mercy in the Church, specifically to the divorced and civilly remarried. While it might not be the case that his vision of a more merciful Church is identical to the Pope’s, the German cardinal’s views are certainly a significant factor.

The context of Cardinal Kasper’s spirituality of mercy is a modern world that has, practically and theoretically, abandoned the concepts of both human and divine mercy. On the human level, the twentieth century witnessed industrialized wars and wide-scale civilian bloodshed, despite enjoying relatively great material prosperity. Two world wars and the Holocaust provide the most prominent examples of the lack of mercy present throughout this bloody century. As regards divine mercy, faith in God has declined precipitously in the developed world, and there are no signs of a great spiritual awakening on the horizon. Nor are there signs that the twenty-first century will be any more mercy-filled than the twentieth on the human level.

This practical absence of mercy arose largely from systems of thought that reject, in principle, the idea of being merciful. Karl Marx, for example, had little use for mercy. He believed in eradicating the root causes of suffering rather than seeking to ameliorate them through works of mercy. Friedrich Nietzsche critiqued mercy as fostering a weak, slavish morality that blocks the flourishing of supermen who are strong and creative. These two thinkers played a critical role in shaping two of the most historically significant social movements of the twentieth century. Marx’s philosophy gave birth to communism, while Nietzsche’s exaltation of the will to power provided much of the intellectual raw material for Nazism. Neither Marx nor Nietzsche made any space for faith in God in their systems of thought.

Cardinal Kasper argues that the Church has not paid sufficient attention to the centrality of mercy in her theology in order to counter this void. Instead, Catholic theologians have tended to explain the divine attributes in terms of immutable ontological abstractions. They have thus had difficulty situating God’s mercy in their theological reflections because mercy has to do with a relationship to living, dynamic realities. For example, many theologians’ interpretations of the words of the theophany on Sinai, “I am who am,” have tended toward an ontological rather than an existential reading. According to the ontological reading, the revelation of the divine name teaches God’s place in the hierarchy of being as esse subsistens (existence itself) more than promising His abiding faithfulness to His chosen people. While Kasper recognizes the legitimacy and usefulness of this approach to God’s attributes, he observes that it has led to a near eclipse of systematic reflection on God’s mercy in theological manuals. In its stead, Kasper proposes an existential approach to God that focuses not on ontology but on the way in which the Bible reveals that the Almighty relates mercifully to humanity. God looks lovingly on human wretchedness, even sinfulness, and does not render according to strict justice but instead tempers justice with mercy.

Such an approach yields an image of God in which mercy is absolutely central to His identity. Kasper starts by sketching this picture in the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the New Testament epistles. Both the Cross and Jesus’ teaching about a merciful Father hold a central place in painting a picture of a God whose defining trait is mercy. Turning from biblical to systematic considerations, Kasper asserts that “we must describe mercy as the fundamental attribute of God.” He also posits that mercy is “a mirror of the Trinity,” meaning that it underlies the immanent relations inherent in the divine communion. He also claims that mercy characterizes the economy of salvation in which God acts.


Cardinal Kasper has a reputation for being a brilliant systematic theologian, particularly on account of two of his books, Jesus the Christ (1974) and The God of Jesus Christ (1982). Yet neither his acclaim as a theologian nor his reputation as a favorite of the current Pope has insulated him from criticism. In a review of Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life published in First Things (Mar. 2015), Fr. Daniel Patrick Moloney finds fault with what he sees as Kasper’s claim that mercy is a pure perfection of God. According to Fr. Moloney, mercy cannot be a pure perfection in the Trinity because that would mean that, from all eternity, the Father would have been merciful to both the Son and the Holy Spirit, which is clearly absurd. Kasper responded to this criticism in a letter to the editor of First Things (May 2015), which prompted Moloney to question the wisdom of a systematic treatment of mercy as God’s primary attribute that would explicitly ground an apologetic concern about the neglect of mercy in the daily life of the Church. He contends that a major insight of Vatican II was that when theology becomes too tied to apologetic concerns, it runs the risk of becoming distorted.

Fr. Moloney’s argument that mercy cannot be a pure perfection in God finds support in Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical on God’s mercy, Dives in Misericordia (1980). In articulating the nature of God’s mercy, the Polish pontiff is careful to explain that mercy is not a primary attribute of God but is instead a “second name” of God (no. 26). Rather than being a pure perfection in the Trinity, mercy describes the economic relationship between God and His creation when divine love encounters human suffering and the consequences of divine justice. John Paul understands mercy as an aspect of divine love that expresses itself in relation to contingent realities, particularly the contingent reality that is the human person and his need for mercy engendered by his own sinfulness — a clear contrast to Kasper’s assertion that mercy is “the fundamental attribute of God.”


Whatever the merits of Cardinal Kasper’s systematic reflections, he uses them to justify concrete proposals to reshape the vision of the sequela Christi (follower of Christ) in the Church. In fact, Kasper spends close to half of his book detailing how he thinks his insights should change both the Church as an institution and her members. He interprets Christ’s exhortation to take up one’s cross in Scripture as an admonition to participate in His existence for others, which reaches its climax on the Cross. In order to accomplish His mission of salvation, our Lord’s earthly sojourn had to reach a dramatic crescendo in which He laid down His life. This is true not only because the inner dynamic of His mission demanded it but because God, in the order He freely chose to create, could accomplish His will to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself through no other way than the Cross. Kasper explains that “only if in [Jesus] God himself, who is immortal and is Lord over life and death, suffered and died, could he conquer death in and through death.”

On a theoretical level, Kasper is likewise clear that being a sequela Christi necessarily involves embracing the Cross. He explains that “the believer is prepared to give up everything for the sake of Christ (Phil. 3:8), to be resigned to every situation, and to endure deprivation.” He approvingly cites St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Rhineland mystics’ articulation of the importance of total surrender to God’s will. Kasper holds that it is not possible to receive God’s mercy without seeking to communicate that mercy to others through participation in Jesus’ mission. Kasper maintains that his vision of mercy is not cheap grace, which is forgiveness without repentance.

At the same time, Kasper is highly critical of certain spiritualities that understand following Christ in terms of imitating Him. He believes that movements in the early modern period, like the Devotio Moderna that thrived in Germany and the Netherlands prior to the Protestant Reformation (and influenced Thomas à Kempis), engaged in a highly imitative “Jesusology” in which one modeled one’s personal life after the life of Christ. Kasper sees numerous imbalances in such an approach. First, he says, this type of piety can focus excessively on seeking individual moral perfection rather than concentrating on how one belongs to the wider Church. Second, such an individualistic spirituality easily loses grounding in communal, liturgical worship, especially in the sacraments.


How would one put Cardinal Kasper’s spirituality of mercy into concrete practice? It is obvious that service to those who suffer is an indispensable element. Thus, he lists love of one’s enemies, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and serving the poor as ways of living a spirituality of mercy. The unique element of his practical vision, however, involves reforming the Church so that her institutional face is more merciful. In justifying this proposal, he briefly traces the history of mercy in the Church from the New Testament to Vatican II. He continues by commending a renewal of sacramental confession and observing that, rather than existing as a club for the wealthy and socially respectable, the Church ought to welcome the socially marginalized and the poor by stripping herself of all semblance of worldliness.

The real novelty in Kasper’s spirituality of mercy lies in his vision of bringing mercy to bear on canon law. While defending the conceptual foundation for external Church discipline, he advocates a more flexible enforcement of ecclesiastical law according to its spirit rather than its letter. In doing so, he appeals to Jesus’ polemic with the Pharisees about the Old Law, pointing out that canon law exists to serve the good of the individual rather than the reverse. Kasper hypothesizes that it would be possible to make Church discipline truly merciful by applying to canon law the Eastern Orthodox principle of economia, which allows for relaxation of universal norms in particular cases when it is beneficial to the individual’s salvation. From the point of view of legal hermeneutics, Kasper believes that an Aristotelian approach that allows for legitimate diversity in ecclesiastical practice according to prudence is more suitable than a Platonic one wherein general norms are applied to all cases using logic.

Since the election of Pope Francis, Cardinal Kasper has been vocal in advocating a particular way of realizing God’s mercy in the Church’s canonical discipline — namely, by re-admitting divorced and civilly remarried persons to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. Although Kasper has long advocated this position, he unveiled his specific proposal in earnest at a consistory of the College of Cardinals in February 2014. After giving a sweeping survey of marriage in salvation history and some diverse approaches to divorce and remarriage in the first five hundred years of Church history, he put forward the possibility that the Church, in principle, could admit to Holy Communion those who have been divorced and civilly remarried without asking them to receive a declaration of nullity for previous marriages. This proposal provides an example of how he believes the Church can make canon law merciful. What Kasper describes would not be a blanket permission for the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Communion but rather a path of repentance for those who desire to return to the sacraments. It would be open only to those who feel sorry for the failure of their first marriage, who have done everything possible to reconcile with their spouse, and who would find leaving their second union very difficult.


Despite his claim that his proposal represents a change in discipline and not doctrine, what Kasper proposes would reshape the main lines of Catholic spirituality, which has given tremendous presumption in favor of the permanence of vocational choices. In doing so, Kasper weakens his position that Christian mercy means participating in Jesus’ existence for others even to the point of embracing the Cross. One voice of this spiritual tradition is St. Ignatius of Loyola. In his Spiritual Exercises, the founder of the Society of Jesus considers what should happen to a retreatant who comes to the conclusion that the vocation in which he is living is not a divine vocation but rather the product of self-will.

In such a case, Ignatius recommends that the retreatant should seek to live the vocation in which he finds himself as best as possible rather than seek to consider what might have been and change course. While the culture in which St. Ignatius lived had less social mobility than do the economically prosperous parts of the modern world today, it would be a mistake to attribute his counsel to remain in a poorly chosen vocation primarily to the sociocultural conditions that surrounded him. Ignatius did not fear overturning many social and ecclesiastical conventions when he founded the Jesuit order, which was an innovative force in the Church during the Tridentine period.

It seems far more likely that Ignatius advised steadfastness even in a very difficult and doubtful vocation because he believed that suffering constitutes a significant part of Christian discipleship. During the meditations on the Passion in his Exercises, he encourages the retreatant to do more than contemplate the great love of Christ on the Cross; he invites him to consider what sufferings he should be willing to embrace in imitation of Christ’s sufferings. Likewise, Ignatius teaches that as one grows in humility, one will desire fewer and fewer external consolations but desire instead to suffer with Christ whenever possible.

One does not have to be deeply immersed in the study of Ignatian spirituality or the Spiritual Exercises to see that, for Ignatius, imitating Jesus’ suffering held a prominent place on the path of spiritual development. In light of the spiritual value that he saw in suffering, it is hardly surprising that Ignatius advised retreatants in poorly chosen vocations to persevere even when it is difficult to do so.


Perhaps Cardinal Kasper would respond that St. Ignatius’s approach to suffering is a good example of the problematic “Jesusology” prominent in some exponents of the Devotio Moderna. Holding such a position poses great difficulty. Ignatius’s theology of suffering is not a relic of a bygone epoch but a perennial part of Christian spirituality. Suffering also plays a central role in the very recent spiritual theology of John Paul II. In Salvifici Doloris (1984), John Paul gives an extended reflection on the role that suffering plays in the Christian life. The theology and spirituality of suffering one finds in this apostolic letter do not rest on a macabre, late-medieval penitential extravagance but on the teaching of Jesus Himself. John Paul explains that suffering is not the preserve of a spiritual elite but that, in fact, Christ “does not conceal the prospect of suffering from his disciples and followers. On the contrary, he reveals it with all frankness, indicating at the same time the supernatural assistance that will accompany them in the midst of persecutions and tribulations” (no. 25). That a Christian must face suffering is simply not a question. It must be a part of every disciple’s life.

According to Salvifici Doloris, suffering provides he who suffers the ability to participate in his own redemption from sin. An obvious example of how this process works is the life of St. Paul. As an enemy of the Church, he did many things that damaged his relationship with God. When Paul came to believe in Christ, he went through a process of spiritual growth. First, he recognized the Cross rather than the Old Law as the source of his salvation. Next, he willingly suffered for the sake of preaching the Gospel. Finally, he came to the point where he could rejoice in his sufferings because they allowed him to identify more deeply with his Savior. Instead of being a rare exception, the general arc of Paul’s experience of suffering ought to find expression in every Christian life. In fact, according to John Paul, everyone “is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished” (no. 19).

The common thread between St. Ignatius and St. John Paul II is a vision of suffering that has redemptive value and lies along the path of every Christian’s spiritual growth. By contrast, Kasper’s vision exhibits an impoverished spirituality of suffering and a difficulty articulating how everyday Christians experience significant spiritual growth. A good illustration of this deficit comes in Kasper’s response to a question regarding his proposed penitential path for the divorced and remarried. When asked in an interview with Commonweal magazine why a couple living in an irregular union could not abstain from sexual relations if returning to the first spouse were impossible, he responded that “of course I have high respect for those who are [living as brother and sister]. But it’s a heroic act and heroism is not for the average Christian” (May 7, 2014).

While one cannot blithely deny the real subjective difficulties inherent in a brother/sister resolution to an irregular marriage bond, Kasper’s casual dismissal of what John Paul put forward as the normative resolution for irregular second marriages in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981) raises questions as to the extent to which Kasper’s spirituality of mercy is congruent with maturation in responding to the Lord’s call to take up one’s cross and follow Him. Is it merciful to tell baptized Christians that they are incapable of following Christ heroically? How does this approach square with Vatican II’s universal call to holiness? To what extent does a spirituality based primarily on mercy tend to lose contact with truth and the concrete structure of love inscribed on the Cross? Finally, and most importantly, since Kasper grounds his spirituality of mercy in his systematic reflections on mercy as “the fundamental attribute of God,” would his practical conclusions have a firm foundation in the Christian spiritual tradition if mercy is really “the second name of God” and not the first, as John Paul II said?


While Walter Cardinal Kasper convincingly diagnoses many of the ills that have plagued the contemporary Church in Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, important questions remain about both his methodology and conclusions — questions that need resolution, especially in light of the prominence that Pope Francis has given the book. The Holy Father recently echoed Kasper when he asserted that “mercy is real; it is the first attribute of God.” Yet Kasper’s postulate of mercy’s primacy among the divine attributes is far from unassailable. And his practical proposals for applying mercy to Church discipline are not in easy harmony with the Church’s universal call to embrace the redemptive nature of suffering. As the Church moves deeper into the Year of Mercy, these foundational points of Kasper’s work deserve further attention in order for the Church to continue walking down the path of mercy faithfully and coherently.

“Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty.” — Thomas Aquinas

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