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During his first Angelus address, Pope Francis recommended a work of theology that “has done me so much good” because it “says that mercy changes everything; it changes the world by making it less cold and more fair.” That book is Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Cardinal Walter Kasper, which was recently published in English by Paulist Press. Before serving as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (2001-2010), Kasper was bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart (1989-1999). He has taught theology at the University of Tubingen, the Westphalian University of Munster, and the Catholic University of America. Last week, associate editors Matthew Boudway and Grant Gallicho spoke with the cardinal in New York. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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: Why is it so necessary to retrieve that understanding today?

Kasper: The twentieth century was a very dark century, with two world wars, totalitarian systems, gulags, concentration camps, the Shoah, and so on. And the beginning of the twenty-first century is not much better. People need mercy. They need forgiveness. That’s why Pope John XXIII wrote in his spiritual biography that mercy is the most beautiful attribute of God. In his famous speech at the opening of Vatican II, he said that the church has always resisted the errors of the day, often with great severity—but now we have to use the medicine of mercy. That was a major shift. John Paul II lived through the latter part of the Second World War and then Communism in Poland, and he saw all the suffering of his people and his own suffering. For him mercy was very important. Benedict XVI’s first encyclical was God Is Love. And now Pope Francis, who has the experience of the southern hemisphere, where two-thirds of Catholics are living, many of them poor people—he has made mercy one of the central points of his pontificate. I think it’s an answer to the signs of the times.

CWL: It was reported that Pope Francis asked a young Jesuit what he was working on, and when the man said he was studying fundamental theology, the pope joked, “I can’t imagine anything more boring!” It seems that Francis wants to emphasize the role of pastoral theology. What does that mean for the practice of theology?

Kasper: I don’t see a contradiction between dogmatic theology—which is what I studied—and pastoral theology. Theology without a pastoral dimension becomes an abstract ideology. It was always important during my time as an academic to visit parishes, hospitals, and so on. When I was responsible for Catholic relations with the Third World, I visited many slums in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. For me, those experiences were important because the word of God is not a doctrine. It’s an address to people. Pastoral work without a certain doctrinal basis is not possible. It becomes arbitrary or just good-natured behavior. Therefore dogmatic theology and pastoral theology are interrelated; they need each other.

CWL: There’s obviously a connection between mercy and forgiveness. Do you think that in the Christian understanding there can be forgiveness without reconciliation? Is forgiveness something that necessarily involves two parties—one to offer the gift and another to accept it? Or is it simply a matter of a readiness to forgive that does not depend on another person’s willingness to accept forgiveness or acknowledge the need for it?

Kasper: You can start with the Latin term misericordia, which means mercy. Misericordia means having a heart for the poor—poor in a large sense, not only material poverty, but also relational poverty, spiritual poverty, cultural poverty, and so on. This is not only heart, not only an emotion, but also an active attitude—I have to change the situation of the other as much as I can. But mercy is also not opposed to justice. Justice is a minimum that we are obliged to do to the other to respect him as a human being—to give him what he must have. But mercy is the maximum—it goes beyond justice. Justice alone can be very cold. Mercy sees a concrete person. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the neighbor was the person the Samaritan met in the street. He’s not obliged to help. It’s not a question of justice. But he goes beyond. He was moved in his heart. He bent down in the dirt and helped this man. That’s mercy.

Mercy is the fulfillment of justice because what people need is not only formal recognition but love. You ask about forgiveness: mercy is also forgiveness, but it should not be reduced to forgiveness. It goes beyond forgiveness. Often my willingness to forgive is a condition for the other to open himself, but it is not in my hands. I can offer forgiveness, or I can ask, “Please forgive me,” but I cannot do more. If his heart is closed, I cannot change it. I can pray for him, I can ask, I can show my good will. More I cannot do. Of course, without forgiveness, no reconciliation is possible. It’s a condition of reconciliation. But the other has to accept it. It’s a question of freedom. To forgive is my freedom, and the other is free to accept it or not.

CWL: In your book you refer to John Paul II’s second encyclical, in which he writes that justice alone is not enough, and that sometimes the highest justice can end up becoming the highest injustice. Has that been the case inside the church itself, especially with respect to the way the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has dealt with certain theologians?

Kasper: Mercy concerns not only individuals. It is also an imperative for the church itself. The church defined itself at the Second Vatican Council as a sacrament of God’s grace. How can the church be sacramental, a sign and instrument of mercy, when she herself doesn’t live out mercy? So many people do not perceive the church as merciful. It’s hard. John XXIII said that we must use the medicine of mercy within the church. Mercy is also a critical point for the church. She has to preach it. We have a sacrament of mercy—the sacrament of penance, but we have to reevaluate it, I think. And it has to be done in social behavior and in social works. Pope Francis has said we must become a poor church for the poor—that’s his program. In this respect, he begins a new phase of the reception of the council.

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 [published in English as The Gospel of the Family], 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.

CWL: A defender of the church’s current teaching and pastoral practice would say that absolution requires penance, and that entails a firm purpose of amendment—that is, that you do not intend to go back to the sinful situation as though nothing has changed. You intend not only not to sin anymore but to avoid “the near occasion of sin.” The critics of your proposal would say, yes, we’re all for absolution for people like that, but it may require what you describe as a heroic adjustment of their lives for them to be properly disposed to receive Communion.

Kasper: I have high respect for such people. But whether I can impose it is another question. But I would say that people must do what is possible in their situation. We cannot as human beings always do the ideal, the best. We must do the best possible in a given situation. A position between rigorism and laxism—laxism is not possible, of course, because it would be against the call to holiness of Jesus. But also rigorism is not the tradition of the church.

Alphonsus Liguori was a rigorist at the beginning. Then he worked with simple people near Naples and found out that it’s not possible. And he was a confessor. Then he worked out this system of equiprobabalism—where there are arguments for and against, and in these cases you can choose. I’m very sympathetic to this. And of course Alphonsus Liguori is the patron of moral theology. We aren’t in bad company if we rely on him. And Thomas Aquinas wrote on the virtue of prudence, which does not deny a common rule, but you have to apply it to a concrete and often very complex situation. So I think there are arguments from the tradition.

CWL: So, just to be clear, when you talk about a divorced and remarried Catholic not being able to fulfill the rigorist’s requirements without incurring a new guilt, what would he or she be guilty of?

Kasper: The breakup of the second family. If there are children you cannot do it. If you’re engaged to a new partner, you’ve given your word, and so it’s not possible.

CWL: In your address to the consistory, you ask whether we can, “in the present situation, presuppose without further ado that the engaged couple shares the belief in the mystery that is signified by the sacrament and that they really understand and affirm the canonical conditions for the validity of the marriage.” You ask whether the presumption of validity from which canon law proceeds is often “a legal fiction.” But can the church afford not to make this presumption? How could the church continue to marry couples in good faith if it assumed that many of them were not really capable of entering into sacramental marriage because they were, as you put it somewhere else in your speech, “baptized pagans”?

Kasper: That’s a real problem. I’ve spoken to the pope himself about this, and he said he believes that 50 percent of marriages are not valid. Marriage is a sacrament. A sacrament presupposes faith. And if the couple only want a bourgeois ceremony in a church because it’s more beautiful, more romantic, than a civil ceremony, you have to ask whether there was faith, and whether they really accepted all the conditions of a valid sacramental marriage—that is, unity, exclusivity, and also indissolubility. The couples, when they get married, they want it because it’s stable. But many think, “Well, if we fail, we have the right.” And then already the principle is denied. Many canon lawyers tell me that today in our pluralistic situation we cannot presuppose that couples really assent to what the church requires. Often it is also ignorance. Therefore you have to emphasize and to strengthen prematrimonial catechesis. It’s often done in a very bureaucratic way. No, we have to provide catechesis. I know some parishes in Rome where couples have to attend catechesis, and the pastor himself does it. We must do much more in prematrimonial catechesis and use pastoral work and so on because we cannot presuppose that everybody who is a formal Christian also has the faith. It wouldn’t be realistic.

CWL: But you can imagine the outcry there would be if priests regularly told couples, “I can’t marry you because I don’t really think that you believe in the things people have to believe in order to get married.”

Kasper: That's why there must be dialogue between the couple and the priest, who should teach them what it means to marry in the church. You can’t presume that both partners know what they are doing.

CWL: You also talk about the difference between the Eastern Orthodox principle of oikonomia and the Western principle of epikeia. Could you explain the difference between those things, and how it’s important in questions such as how the church treats divorced and remarried Catholics?

Kasper: The Orthodox have the principle of oikonomia, which allows them in concrete cases to dispense, as Catholics would say, the first marriage and to permit a second in the church. But they do not consider the second marriage a sacrament. That’s important. They make that distinction (whether the people do is another question). I’m not sure whether we can adapt this tradition to our own, but we have similar elements. Epikeia says that a general rule must be applied to a particular situation—very often complex—taking into consideration all circumstances. We talk about jurisprudence, not jurisscience. The jurist must apply the general rule, taking account of all circumstances. For the great canonists of the Middle Ages, epikaia was justice sweetened with mercy. We can start there. We have our own resources for finding a solution.

CWL: Until recently you were president of the Pontifical Council on Promoting Christian Unity. How might this issue fit into ongoing ecumenical relations with the Eastern Orthodox. If there was a change in the way the Roman Catholic Church deals with remarried Catholics, would that make things much easier, or even a little easier, for rapprochement between the East and the West? Or no easier at all?

Kasper: It would be made easier. They have this old tradition, and their tradition was never condemned by an ecumenical council. The Council of Trent condemned the position of Luther, but did not discuss the Orthodox position. The council formulated the problem of the indissolubility in a very cautious way because Venice had some islands that were Orthodox but under the Latin hierarchy. They didn’t want to lose those islands. So we did not talk about this problem. We had more fundamental problems with the Orthodox. But if we could find a new solution on the basis of our own Western tradition, I do think it would be easier to find a concrete solution to our problem with the Orthodox.

CWL: When it comes to the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, you have your critics, some of whom have found outlets in the Italian press. Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, archbishop of Bologna, was given a great deal of space in Il Foglio to criticize your proposal. He has one question for you: “What happens to the first marriage?”

Kasper: The first marriage is indissoluble because marriage is not only a promise between the two partners; it’s God’s promise too, and what God does is done for all time. Therefore the bond of marriage remains. Of course, Christians who leave their first marriage have failed. That’s clear. The problem is when there is no way out of such a situation. If we look to God’s activity in salvation history, we see that God gives his people a new chance. That’s mercy. God’s love does not end because a human being has failed—if he repents. God provides a new chance—not by cancelling the demands of justice: God does not justify the sin. But he justifies the sinner. Many of my critics do not understand that distinction. They think, well, we want to justify their sin. No, nobody wants that. But God justifies the sinner who converts. This distinction appears already in Augustine.

I do not deny that the bond of marriage remains. But the fathers of the church had a wonderful image: If there is a shipwreck, you don’t get a new ship to save you, but you get a plank so that you can survive. That’s the mercy of God—to give us a plank so we can survive. That’s my approach to the problem. I respect those who have a different position, but on the other hand, they must see what the concrete situation is today. How can we help the people who struggle in these situations? I know such people—often women. They are very engaged in parish life; they do all they can for their children. I know a woman who prepared her daughter for First Communion. The parish priest said the girl can go to Holy Communion, but not mama. I told the pope about this, and he said, “No, that’s impossible.”

The second marriage, of course, is not a marriage in our Christian sense. And I would be against celebrating it in church. But there are elements of a marriage. I would compare this to the way the Catholic Church views other churches. The Catholic Church is the true church of Christ, but there are other churches that have elements of the true church, and we recognize those elements. In a similar way, we can say, the true marriage is the sacramental marriage. And the second is not a marriage in the same sense, but there are elements of it—the partners take care of one another, they are exclusively bound to one another, there is an intention of permanence, they care for children, they lead a life of prayer, and so on. It’s not the best situation. It’s the best possible situation. Realistically, we should respect such situations, as we do with Protestants. We recognize them as Christians. We pray with them.

CWL: And we know that they don’t consider their marriages a Catholic sacrament—

Kasper: There are other problems. We consider the civil marriage of Protestants as valid, indissoluble marriages. They don’t believe in the sacramentality. There are also internal problems in the current canon law. How do you explain this to a Protestant—“it’s a valid marriage for you, but for a Catholic it’s not”? So we should to some degree reconsider the canonical regulations.

CWL: Is it fair to say that your critics think this is a disagreement about the indissolubility of marriage, but you’re saying that the disagreement, such as it is, is about the purpose of the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist?

Kasper: In no way do I deny the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage. That would be stupid. We must enforce it, and help people to understand it and to live it out. That’s a task for the church. But we must recognize that Christians can fail, and then we have to help them. To those who say, “Well, they are in a sinful situation,” I would say: Pope Benedict XVI has already said that such Catholics can receive spiritual communion. Spiritual communion is to be one with Christ. But if I am one with Christ, I cannot be in a situation of grave sin. So if they can receive spiritual communion, why not also sacramental Communion? I think there are also problems in the traditional position, and Pope Benedict reflected a lot about this, and he said that they must have means of salvation and spiritual communion. But spiritual communion goes very far: it’s being one with Christ. Why should these people be excluded from the other Communion? Being in spiritual communion with Christ means God has forgiven this person. So the church, though the sacrament of forgiveness, should also be able to forgive if God does it. Otherwise there is an opposition between God and church—and that would be a great problem.

CWL: The pope has said that the church needs a better theology of women. You’ve said that we need to find a way to give women leadership roles inside Vatican offices. Do you see that happening any time soon, and how might that work?

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.

CWL: How would you describe the atmosphere at the Vatican right now? Is there a lot of nervousness, anticipation that changes are underway or will be soon, or is there a sense that a lot of the international media hype about the new papacy is sort of trivial and not closely related to the life of the church?

Kasper: The Vatican is a plurality of people, and they are different. At the Vatican there are many of us who are very much in favor of Pope Francis because we saw at the end of the last pontificate events like Vatileaks, so something went wrong. It wasn’t functioning. Many people are in favor of some modifications, some changes—and the pope wants it. But of course to change is not easy. The Curia is the oldest continuously existing institution in Europe. Such an old institution has its ways of doing things, so it’s not easy to change from one day to another. There is some resistance. And when you change something there’s always a debate, pro and contra, which is happening at the Vatican. But I have the impression that Pope Francis is determined to make some changes. He’s already made very important ones. I think there’s already a point of no return. He made changes, for example, in financial and economic areas. He wants the church to have a more synodical structure. He wants the local churches to be taken more seriously—not in a way that denies the primacy of the universal church. Primacy and synodical structures are not opposed to each other. They are complementary, and Francis wants that. We’re not having just one synod on marriage and the family—but we’re going through a synodical process. Between the two sessions of the synod, this year and next, he goes back to the local church so this can be discussed at the parish level. He wants to bring in the voices of the faithful. These are changes that have met with some resistance, of course, but there are also many who are in favor of them. So the pope, very determined, goes on. If he's given a few years, he will do something.

CWL: The pope is seventy-seven years old. Given the fact that others will be responsible for carrying out his reforms—along with the institutional inertia that you just described—what are the prospects for success?

Kasper: Pope John XXIII only had five years, and he changed a lot. There was also a point of no return with Paul VI. Pope Francis cannot do everything by himself; he thinks in categories of process. He wants to initiate a process that continues beyond him. He will have the opportunity to appoint, I think, 40 percent of the cardinals, and they're the ones who will elect a new pope. In that way he’s able to condition a new conclave.

Of course the Holy Spirit is also present. I wouldn’t look at this only at the institutional level. The election of Pope Francis was a surprise—for us cardinals in the conclave too. This new pope is a surprise every day. During the conclave, I felt the Holy Spirit at work. So I trust more in this reality, in people. But Pope Francis’s popularity is not only hype. Many pastors in Rome told me that last year and this year many more people went to confession at Eastertime—people who for years did not go to confession. If everybody who for years did not go to confession starts going again, then that’s more than hype. That’s a very deep personal decision. And these people returned, they said, because of the way the pope speaks about mercy. There is, I think, a deeper reality going on. And this deeper reality is, for me, very important.

[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]

This article is also part of a Commonweal reading list on Catholic marriage today.

Published in the June 13, 2014 issue: 

Matthew Boudway and Grant Gallicho are associate editors at Commonweal.

This story is included in these collections:

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