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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.
Last night Cathleen Kaveny interviewed Cardinal Walter Kasper at Fordham University in front of a packed house. The cardinal has been making the rounds in New York and Boston, promoting his new book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. It was a fascinating conversation, veering from the abstract (How is mercy the key to understanding God's nature?) to the practical (How merciful must I be when grading students' papers?) and back again. Kaveny asked excellent questions, as did the audience, and Kasper offered fascinating responses, some of which I live-tweeted. After the event, one of my Twitter followers suggested I collect some of my my tweets via Storify. So that's what I'm going to do--or at least try to do. Caveat lector: unless you see quotation marks or I say otherwise, I'm not directly quoting anyone, and it's possible that I misheard some of the Qs & As (and sorry for any typos--autocorrect is against me). I've never Storified before, so bear with me--and let me know whether this is remotely useful--after the jump.
Last week, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rebuked representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for giving an Outstanding Leadership Award to Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, "a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings." He called that decision "a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment"--
Yesterday Pope Francis took to Twitter to launch a new phase of Catholic Social Teaching. With just seven words he shook the foundations of the Catholic moral universe: "Inequalty is the root of social evil," Francis wrote. Both Catholic and non-Catholic observers alike struggled to find their bearings. Joe Carter of the social-justice think tank the Acton Institute responded quickly: "Um, no it's not. Hate and apathy are the roots of social evil." He wondered whether Francis had "traded the writings of Peter and Paul for Piketty"--the economist whose latest book on the unfairness of capitalism has become a global phenomenon.
Catholic Culture poobah Phil Lawler also expressed skepticism, calling the pope's tweet "a fairly radical statement, [and] as an a piece of economic analysis a very simplistic one." He decided that the best way to understand Francis's tweet was to go to the original Latin: that "version of this tweet is even simpler: Iniquitas radix malorum. That phrase has a somewhat different meaning." Lawler's Latin expertise leads him to assert that "iniquitas" might also mean "iniquity" or "injustice," which would "make more sense," even though the Spanish version of the tweet "admittedly looks more like the English."
Non-Catholic Mollie Hemingway was likewise confused. "I don't understand what this is supposed to mean, exactly," she tweeted, later suggesting "envy and coveting" were really to blame for social evil. Former Catholic Rod Dreher found himself flummoxed too: "What does that even mean?" He continued: "Twitter pronouncements like the Pope’s are simplistic and confusing."
It's true. Twitter is not an ideal place to advance complex moral arguments. Wouldn't it be better if the pope developed some of this at greater length, in, say, some sort of letter to the faithful? He might even consider exhorting his people in an apostolic manner, for example, with a title like Evangelii Gaudium or some such, perhaps under a section heading reading "The Economy and the Distribution of Income." Come again? He's done just that? Over the course of several paragraphs? And it's been publicly available for months? Oh. Roll tape.
In sworn testimony released yesterday, Fr. Kevin McDonough, former vicar general and abuse-prevention czar of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis disputed Archbishop John Nienstedt's claim that McDonough had advised him not to keep written records of conversations about accused priests because they might be discovered in litigation. Having served three archbishops, two as vicar general for nearly twenty years and Nienstedt as "delegate for safe environment," few know more about how the Twin Cities diocese handled clergy accused of sexual misconduct. (More from MPR here, full video here.)
During the six-and-a-half-hour interview--which ended abruptly after lawyers disagreed about the allotted time--McDonough acknowledged what most observers of the crisis already knew: for many years, archdiocesan practice was not to routinely laicize abusers. Nor did it, as a matter of policy, report all accusations to the police. But McDonough also provided his version of the events surrounding several controversial cases, including that of Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer, now jailed for molesting children, and that of Fr. John Shelley, whose computer was found to contain "borderline illegal" pornographic images (a county attorney did not press charges).
The release of McDonough's deposition comes two days after Nienstedt's was made public. Their court-ordered testimony was taken in connection with a lawsuit by a plaintiff who claims he was abused by a priest in the 1970s. The suit alleges that the archdiocese, along with the Diocese of Winona, created a public nuisance by hiding information about accused priests.
McDonough's deposition differs markedly from Nienstedt's, not only because it was about 50 percent longer (a judge ordered the archbishop to be deposed for four hours), but also because of the kinds of answers the former vicar general gave attorney Jeff Anderson. He spoke at much greater length--often to Anderson's chagrin--offered digressions, corrected the premises and terms of questions, showed a sense of humor, and even took a moment to compliment Anderson's choice of necktie.
On April 2, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis was deposed by attorney Jeff Anderson as part of a lawsuit filed by a man who claims he was molested by a priest in the 1970s. The plaintiff alleges that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, along with the Diocese of Winona, created a public nuisance by failing to disclose information about clerics accused of sexual abuse. At a press conference this afternoon, Anderson released a slightly redacted transcript of the deposition. The archdiocese posted the transcript and full video to its website, noting that Anderson did not ask any questions about the abuse allegations that occasioned the deposition.
The wide-ranging and often contentious conversation reveals an archbishop who felt comfortable delegating authority to deal with the abuse crisis--even though he's "a hands-on person"--and who still believes that he and his delegates have done a good job handling the problem. According to Nienstedt's sworn testimony, one of those delegates recommended that conversations regarding accused priests shouldn't be put in writing because they could be discovered in litigation.
"You followed his advice, didn't you?" Anderson asked the archbishop.
"In terms of?"
"Not putting things into writing."
"Yes," Nienstedt replied.
Last week, Kansas City Detective Maggie McGuire was honored for her work on the troubling case of Shawn Ratigan, a now-laicized priest serving a fifty-year sentence for possessing and creating child pornography. Recall that in 2012 Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St.
Dear readers, I'm afraid I owe you an apology. Last week, I criticized members of the media for their coverage of Pope Francis's meeting with President Obama. Before the meeting, some commentators suggested that the pope was planning to confront the president about his support for the contraception mandate and abortion rights. And after the meeting others contrasted the Vatican's press release with Obama's recollections at a press conference. I wrote:
There's nothing perplexing about the differences between a formal Vatican statement and a president's ad libbed remarks to the press. The Vatican's news release was never going to contain revealing language about the pope's emotional response to meeting Obama. It was never going to go on at any length or in any detail about what they discussed. When Benedict XVI met with George W. Bush in 2008, for example, it was, yes, awesome, but the joint statement of the Holy See and the White House didn't exactly describe the visit in florid terms. That's just how these things go.
How mistaken I was. If only I'd waited a couple of days to post, I would have had my illusions dispelled by George Weigel's analysis. He, too, took issue with pre-meeting speculation, noting that some of it caused "confusion" that was "instructive on several counts." According to Weigel, that shows just how "poorly equipped" most of the media is "to cover the Vatican and its ways." But those ways are right in Weigel's wheelhouse, so he attempts to sort through them for the rookie Vaticanista, beginning where so many of Catholicism's riches lie: symbolism, especially photographic symbolism, particularly photographic symbolism that entails the appearance of popes with other world leaders.
Pope Francis conducted his conversation with President Obama across a desk — a stage-setting exercise on the Vatican’s part that one canny media veteran thought “a tad aggressive” and another observer said resembled a school principal having a firm talk with a recalcitrant student.
I hadn't considered that. But now that Weigel mentions it, I see his point. How many office-hours have I spent sitting across the desk from a teacher who offered firm rebuttals to my half-baked musings on this or that theological problem? Of course, I may have been too arrogant to understand how thoroughly my incompetence had been exposed. But I had no illusions about who had authority and who did not.
See for yourself:
There you have it. On one side: Leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, chosen by the College of Cardinals to serve for the rest of his life, whose approval ratings are the envy of elected officials across the globe. On the other: president of a country of about 320 million, half of whom aren't happy with his leadership, and a tiny fraction of whom cares enough to vote. Could Pope Francis have been any clearer? When a pope places a desk between a world leader and himself, it's obvious to anyone who knows anything about the Catholic Church that he is signaling the distance between the two--if not his outright disapproval.
Just look at how Pope John Paul II handled talks with his collaborator--or at least pen pal--Ronald Reagan:
Today the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced that it has suspended a high-school teacher accused of having a sexual relationship with one of her students this year. Which is what a diocese does when it learns that one of its employees may have abused a minor. But what does a diocese do when it also learns that the staff member who first received the allegation waited weeks to report it?