Last week Matthew Boudway and I spoke with Cardinal Walter Kasper here in New York. We covered a lot of ground over the course of an hour. Naturally, some territory was left unexplored, but here's a sample of our conversation, which we just posted to the homepage.
Commonweal: In your book Mercy, you argue that mercy is basic to God’s nature. How is mercy key to understanding God?
Cardinal Walter Kasper: The doctrine on God was arrived at by ontological understanding—God is absolute being and so on, which is not wrong. But the biblical understanding is much deeper and more personal. God’s relation to Moses in the Burning Bush is not “I am,” but “I am with you. I am for you. I am going with you.” In this context, mercy is already very fundamental in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is not an angry God but a merciful God, if you read the Psalms. This ontological understanding of God was so strong that justice became the main attribute of God, not mercy. Thomas Aquinas clearly said that mercy is much more fundamental because God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love. Because God is love. And mercy is the love revealed to us in concrete deeds and words. So mercy becomes not only the central attribute of God, but also the key of Christian existence. Be merciful as God is merciful. We have to imitate God’s mercy.
CWL: You also note that mercy and justice cannot be finally established here on earth, and that whoever has tried to create heaven on earth has instead created hell on earth. You say that this is true of ecclesiastical perfectionists too—those who conceive of the church as a club for the pure. How dominant is that view among church leadership today?
Kasper: There are those who believe the church is for the pure. They forget that the church is also a church of sinners. We all are sinners. And I am happy that’s true because if it were not then I would not belong to the church. It’s a matter of humility. John Paul II offered his mea culpas—for the teaching office of the church, and also for other behaviors. I have the impression that this is very important for Pope Francis. He does not like the people in the church who are only condemning others.
When it comes to the CDF’s criticisms of some theologians, there was not always due process. That’s evident, and here we must change our measures. This is also a problem when it comes to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried people, which is now under consideration in preparation for the Synod of Bishops this autumn. On the other hand, we have positive signs of mercy within the church. We have the saints, Mother Teresa—there are many Mother Teresas. This is also a reality of the church.
CWL: In your speech to open the consistory in March, you noted that, for the sake of their children, many deserted partners are dependent on a new partnership, a civil marriage, which they cannot quit without new guilt. Later in your speech, you talk about the possibility that a divorced and remarried Catholic might, after a period of penance, receive Communion again. You say this would be a small number of people, the ones who really want the sacrament and who understand the reality of their situation and are responsive to the concerns that their pastor would have. Are you envisioning a situation in which a divorced and remarried Catholic—a Catholic with a new partnership and a civil marriage—could not live with his or her new partner “as brother and sister” without destroying that partnership, since the other partner might not allow the relationship to continue on those terms. Is that the kind of scenario you had in mind?
Kasper: The failure of a first marriage is not only related to bad sexual behavior. It can come from a failure to realize what was promised before God and before the other partner and the church. Therefore, it failed; there were shortcomings. This has to be confessed. But I cannot think of a situation in which a human being has fallen into a gap and there is no way out. Often he cannot return to the first marriage. If this is possible, there should be a reconciliation, but often that’s not possible.
In the Creed we say we believe in the forgiveness of sin. If there was this shortcoming, and it has been repented for—is absolution not possible? My question goes through the sacrament of penance, through which we have access to Holy Communion. But penance is the most important thing—repentance of what went wrong, and a new orientation. The new quasi-family or the new partnership must be solid, lived in a Christian way. A time of new orientation—metanoia—would be necessary. Not punishing people but a new orientation because divorce is always a tragedy. It takes time to work it out and to find a new perspective. My question—not a solution, but a question—is this: Is absolution not possible in this case? And if absolution, then also Holy Communion? There are many themes, many arguments in our Catholic tradition that could allow this way forward.
To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian. That could also create new tensions. Adultery 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. Therefore I would say, yes, absolution is possible. Mercy means God gives to everybody who converts and repents a new chance.
Kasper: I’m not in favor of women’s ordination. But there are offices in the Vatican that do not require ordination. In economic affairs, for example, there are professional women who could carry out such duties. Ordination is not required to lead the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Half of the laity are women. There is an office for laity and there are no women in leadership there. That’s a problem. What about the Council for the Family? There’s no family without women.
I have experience as a bishop. I appointed one woman to the bishop’s advisory council. From that day on the whole atmosphere changed in our dialogue. She was a very courageous woman. Women bring a richness of vision and experience that men lack. At the Vatican, that could be helpful.
At the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for example, ordination is required to lead. But the CDF has a group of consulting theologians. They do not decide; they consult. Today we have many women who are professors of theology. Why not include their voices? Something must be done about this. It would change a certain clericalistic atmosphere.
Read the rest right here.