Who is Cardinal Kasper?

A Closer Look at one of the Favorite Theologians of Pope Francis

On February 20, 2014, Pope Francis gave retired German theologian Cardinal Kasper the high honour of addressing the entire College of Cardinals gathered in Rome for what many say is the "most important week" in Pope Francis' young papacy. The Cardinals have converged in the Vatican to witness the installation of 19 new Cardinals - as well as for a series of meetings that are meant as a preparation for the landmark Synod of Bishops on the Family on October 5-19, 2014.

On a separate important occasion - in his first Angelus address given on March 17, 2013 - Pope Francis made the rare papal act of publicly citing and praising a fellow cardinal: 

In these days, I have been able to read a book by a cardinal—Cardinal Kasper, a talented theologian, a good theologian—on mercy. And it did me such good, that book, but don't think that I'm publicizing the books of my cardinals. That is not the case! But it did me such good, so much good...

The first Angelus address of the pope is an important occasion - it is the first scheduled appearance and public address of the pope in St. Peter’s Square since the night of his election.  To publicly cite, praise and acknowledge Cardinal Kasper in his first official Angelus address indicates to us that Kasper is obviously a very important man for the pope - a “talented theologian”, as he says.   

Who is Cardinal Walter Kasper - this Cardinal whom the pope greatly respects?

This article is not your ordinary, bland profile of a cardinal.  As you will see in the next few pages, there is more than meets the eye in this Kasper-Pope Francis connection. It is important that we understand this connection, since it will have a defining impact on the papacy and the future direction of the Catholic Church.

Why are the Liberals Elated with Francis’ Elevation as Pope? 

Cardinal Walter Kasper, 80 years old, is a German cardinal who is the former head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (1999 to 2010).  He is one of the most  openly progressive and liberal cardinals of the Catholic Church. It is a well-documented fact  that he was a fierce theological opponent of the conservative Pope Benedict XVI.   

Cardinal Kasper is a former assistant to Hans Kung - one of the most liberal Catholic priests/theologians of our time and a recognized leader of the “progressive” wing in the Church. 

Hans Kung was stripped by the Vatican of his authority to teach Catholic theology for publicly rejecting the Catholic doctrine on papal infallibility in his 1971 book, “Infallible? An Inquiry”. He is a radical liberal - his books include a 1998 book entitled “Dying with Dignity”, in which he wrote that euthanasia is acceptable from a Christian perspective.

Hans Kung is a harsh critic of the papacies of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  In 2005, he published an article in Italy and Germany entitled “The Failures of Pope Wojtyla”, accusing the pope of restoring the pre-Vatican II status quo and blocking reform and inter-church dialogue.  

In April 2010, he published in several newspapers an open letter to all Catholic bishops. In the letter, he criticized Pope Benedict XVI on his handling of various liturgical, collegial and inter-religious issues, as well as the sex abuse scandals.  In the letter, he called on bishops to consider six proposals, including calling for another Vatican council.  In a 2009 interview, Kung deeply criticized the lifting of the excommunications on the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X, at the same time criticizing the pope’s theology, comparing it to the views of the council of Nicea held in 325. 

In a radio interview after the elevation of Pope Francis, Hans Kung gushed: “I was overwhelmed by joy. There is hope in this man.”  

Further on, he says that Pope Francis will conform to the progressive interpretation of Vatican II and not follow the “line of the two popes from Poland and Germany”. The condescending tone (not mentioning them explicitly by name) towards the two previous, conservative popes is notable. 

Why, all of a sudden, is this ultra-liberal, dissenting Catholic theologian “overwhelmed with joy” with Pope Francis’ elevation? 

Why is this harsh critic of the previous papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI suddenly so elated with the papacy of Pope Francis?  

Leonardo Boff, one of the fathers of liberation theology, is another liberal who has publicly given Pope Francis his approval.  Liberation theology, it must be noted, was a radical theological movement that originated in Latin America, and that was fiercely fought by then Cardinal Ratzinger. Boff was quoted by German press as saying that Francis is “more liberal” than supposed.  In an interview with New York Times, he said:  “I am encouraged by this choice, viewing it as a pledge for a church of simplicity and of ecological ideals.”

Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who unceremoniously retired because of issues related to handling of sexual abuse cases in Los Angeles, California, gleefuly bid farewell to Benedict XVI upon news of Francis’ elevation: “So long Papal ermine and fancy lace! Welcome, simple cassock, and hopefully, ordinary black shoes!”

Again, the big question is this: Why are the ultra-progressive, dissenting liberal elements within the Vatican elated with Francis’ election?  

A New Phase on the Interpretation of Vatican II

In his final address to priests and bishops as Bishop of Rome prior to his resignation, Pope Benedict XVI focused on a singular theme: Vatican II.  He lamented that because of widespread coverage of the media during Vatican II - what he calls the “council of the media” - many false interpretations of the council arose, confusing many people, and leading to a general disaster of the Faith:

We know that this Council of the media was accessible to everyone. Therefore, this was the dominant one, the more effective one, and it created so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, banal liturgy … and the real Council had difficulty establishing itself and taking shape; the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council. (1)

He closed his final address to his priests to stay true to the “real council” in the Year of Faith: “...it is our task, especially in this Year of Faith...to work so that the true Council, with its power of the Holy Spirit, be accomplished and the Church be truly renewed.”

Meanwhile, in an interview (2) with L’Osservatore Romano on 12 April 2013, Cardinal Kasper says that the election of Pope Francis will lead to a new phase on the interpretation of Vatican II. Cardinal Kasper says that Pope Francis “has given what I would call his prophetic interpretation of the council, and has inaugurated a new phase of its reception.”

Pope Francis’ papacy, according to Kasper, could lead to translating the Council statements into “practical consequences” that could re-kindle its “innovative impulse”.   Kasper says that “the church needs to take seriously the legitimate requests of the modern age.”  

For Cardinal Kasper, the “progressives” - those who pushed for reforms in the council - were the “true conservatives, those who wanted to renew ancient tradition.” 

Four days after Cardinal Kasper’s above interview, on the occasion of the 86th birthday of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis spoke about Vatican II, calling it “a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit.” (3)

He asks: “Have we done everything the Holy Spirit was asking us to do during the Council?” The answer is “No”, says Pope Francis.  

Continuing his discourse on Vatican II, Pope Francis calls for everyone to be open to change: “We celebrate this anniversary, we put up a monument but we don’t want it to upset us. We don’t want to change and what’s more there are those who wish to turn the clock back.” He says that to resist this change “is called stubbornness and wanting to tame the Holy Spirit.”

Progressives, such as Hans Kung, have often complained that not all of the changes recommended by Vatican II were implemented by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  In an article he wrote in the New York Times, Kung said: 

The Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, while addressing many concerns of the reformers and modern critics, was thwarted by the power of the Curia, the Church’s governing body, and managed to implement only some of the demanded changes. (4)

It seems that for progressives, the election of Pope Francis represents a “new springtime” for the liberal movement in the Vatican, one that may involve a movement towards the more progressive, liberal interpretation of Vatican II - what Benedict XVI was seemingly cautioning his priests against during his final address to them prior to his resignation.  And it seems that Cardinal Kasper is one of the important pieces in this liberal movement gaining momentum in the Vatican.

So then we go back to the original question of this article: Who really is Cardinal Kasper - this cardinal publicly praised by the new pope in his first angelus address?  As the reader will note in the next few paragraphs, Cardinal Kasper is known for his ultra-liberal views on various fundamental aspects of the Catholic Faith: the Eucharist, Ecumenism, the Divinity of Jesus, and others.

Ecumenism and the Eucharist

What is Cardinal Kasper’s vision and goal with ecumenism, in his capacity as former President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity?  In his book “Sacrament of Unity”, published in 2005, Kasper states that the ultimate goal of ecumenism is to “lead to fellowship in the Eucharist” amongst Catholics and Protestants.

The fact that fidelity to the truth makes it impossible in today’s situation for all Christians to meet around the one table of the Lord and take part in the one Supper of the Lord is a deep wound inflicted on the Body of the Lord. Ultimately, it is scandalous... Ecumenically speaking, we are at an intermediary stage, in a period of transition. Happily, we have reached a number of milestones along our way; but we have not yet reached our goal. Ecumenism is a process whereby life grows. On this path of growing and maturing, many intermediary steps are required. These are meant to lead finally to fellowship in the Eucharist - the sacrament of unity.(5)

There are two key points highlighted by Kasper, based on the above.  First, he says that it is “scandalous” that because of our “fidelity to the truth”, Catholics and Protestants today cannot take part in a “shared Eucharistic meal”.  

Second, the ultimate goal of ecumenism is to “lead finally to fellowship in the Eucharist - the sacrament of unity”.  The entire book, entitled “Sacrament of Unity”, is all about advocating shared Eucharistic fellowship with non-Catholics.

But will a "shared Eucharistic meal" with Protestants be faithful to the Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist? There are many points of differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, but the most important and most fundamental difference is the understanding of the Eucharist.  For us Catholics, the Eucharist is Jesus Himself - when the words of consecration are pronounced by the priest during Holy Mass, the bread and wine turn into the real body and blood of Jesus.  Catholics believe in Transubstantiation - the transformation of the species of bread and wine into the real, bodily presence of Jesus.

Protestants, on the other hand, do not believe in Transubstantiation.  For them, the Eucharistic meal is simply a remembrance of the Last Supper, a reminder of the death of Jesus on the cross. The Eucharist is the greatest and most important point of difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.  For Kasper, it is “scandalous” that because of Catholicism’s “fidelity to the truth”, we cannot share the Eucharistic meal with our non-Catholic brethren.  For Kasper, the ultimate goal of ecumenism is to lead to a shared Eucharistic meal with our non-Catholic brethren.

But we must ask ourselves: Why is it “scandalous” to be faithful to the truth? Is it scandalous to be faithful to the Catholic position on the Eucharist whenever we discuss it with our non-Catholic brethren within the context of ecumenism?  There can only be one interpretation of the Eucharist: the Catholic position (Jesus is really, truly present in the Eucharist), or the Protestant position (the eucharist is simply a remembrance).  To achieve Kasper’s vision of a “shared eucharistic meal”, one of the two has to give in: either Catholics accept the Protestant doctrine, or Protestants accept the Catholic doctrine.  

The Eucharist is the center and the essence of our Faith.  True ecumenism entails that we do not give up our Catholic position on the Eucharist.  True ecumenism entails that we are faithful to the truths of the Catholic faith.  True ecumenism should not involve a dilution of our Catholic beliefs in order to achieve the desired “Christian unity”.  Ecumenism and Christian unity should not be pursued at the expense of giving up the Catholic position with regard to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.   This is simply non-negotiable.   

Collegiality and Reform of the Curia

Cardinal Kasper advocates a more decentralized approach to Church governance, similar to the Protestant model:

It takes a new form of exercise of church leadership. This form is called collegiality, a more horizontal government. The collegiality of the bishops must extend through forms of representation to all parts of God’s people. Such collegiality would go in the direction of the Second Vatican Council of the unity in diversity among all who believe in the gospel and greater dialogue with other religions. It is necessary to get away from the dryness of Roman centralism by the conviction that the center does not mean centralization. (6)

Kasper’s views echo those of Hans Kung who says that “the Curia...is the chief obstacle to any thorough reform of the Catholic Church, to any honest ecumenical understanding with the other Christian churches and world religions, and to any critical, constructive attitude toward the modern world.” (7)

It is significant to note that one of the most significant early acts of the pope was to form a group of eight advisers who will make recommendations to precisely reform the Roman Curia. The eight Cardinal advisers, coming from all over the world, have the task of advising the pope on the “government of the universal church.” Their key task will  be to recommend changes to the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, instituted by John Paul II in 1988.  This is a document that summarizes the structure of the Roman Curia and the governance of the Church.  Are we perhaps in the early stages of a dramatic re-structuring of the Church, towards a more collegial and “horizontal” model of Church governance as advocated by Kasper and Kung?

The views on collegiality and reform of the Curia likewise reflects in the early symbolic actions of Pope Francis.  Pope Francis refers to himself more as “bishop of Rome”, rather than “pope”.  In his first public address after getting elected, Francis says that “the objective of the conclave was to elect a Bishop of Rome”.  On a more symbolic level, after his election, Francis received the cardinals’ pledges of obedience not in an elevated papal chair, as has been tradition, but on the same level as the other cardinals.   

While the mainstream media has interpreted these moves as signs showing Francis’ humility, it must be noted that these seemingly simple gestures and symbols - the elevated papal chair, the title “pope” - help reinforce a core aspect of Catholicism, which is the centrality of the role of the pope.  

The danger with this emphasis on collegiality is that it increasingly moves Catholicism to the de-centralized Protestant model, where there is no recognized pope.   According to Kasper, “it was very significant that Pope Francis made reference to the bishop of Rome...This is of fundamental importance, not only for the continuation of ecumenical dialogue, above all with Orthodox churches, but also for the Catholic Church itself.” (8)

Kung further on complains that Under the two most recent popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there has been a fatal return to the Church’s old monarchical habits.” (9)

It is clear from the first few weeks of Pope Francis’ papacy that ecumenism will be a major focus.  His first official papal meeting, the very day after his installation as pope, was a meeting with leaders from other churches.  The papal installation was attended by leaders of various churches, including the head of the Eastern Orthodox church, who attended a papal installation for the first time in hundreds of years.  On Holy Thursday, he broke with tradition and became the first pope in history to wash the feet of women - including Muslims and non-Catholics. 

While trying to accomplish Christian unity through ecumenism is very much a noteworthy cause, it will be important to observe how the Pope will ensure that in this process of dialogue with other faiths, the truth and the teachings of the Catholic Faith are not compromised.

Role of Women

Cardinal Kasper has called for a stronger role for women in the Church.  In particular, he has openly called for the Church to accept “women deacons”.  He calls for a Church deacon who will undertake pastoral, charitable, catechetical and certain liturgical services.  This office will be different from the post of male deacon, and will be commissioned by blessing, not by sacramental confession.  Kasper says: "I think if there is such a position that is not easily attached to the classic office of deacon, it would have a lot more flexibility."

One cannot help but connect this with the Holy Thursday re-enactment of the washing of disciples’ feet done by Pope Francis.  Pope Francis broke with tradition - and with Canon Law - by washing the feet of women, some of whom were Muslims.  He is the first pope in history to ever wash the feet of women during Holy Thursday. Many theologians, including prominent Canon Lawyer Edward Peters (adviser to the Vatican’s high court), questioned this act, as Canon Law expressly prohibits the washing of women’s feet during Holy Thursday.  Peters says: "By disregarding his own law in this matter, Francis violates, of course, no divine directive. What he does do, I fear, is set a questionable example."

It remains to be seen if Pope Francis will heed Cardinal Kasper’s advice to accept “women deacons” in the Church.  

On Miracles Performed by Jesus

While the Resurrection is the most important proof of Jesus’ Divinity, the various miracles performed by Our Lord during His lifetime are also important validations of His claim of being the Son of God. When he was asked by John the Baptist, through the baptist’s disciples, who he was, Jesus replied: “Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again...” (Matthew 11:4-5)

Cardinal Kasper surprisingly denies the historical nature of Jesus’ miracles. Referring to the miracle stories of Jesus found in the gospel, he said: “These non-historical stories are statements of belief in the salvific meaning of the person and message of Jesus”. (10)

For Kasper, Jesus did not call Lazarus from his tomb; He did not raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead; He did not calm storms, multiply the loaves, walk on water.  

The Divinity of Jesus

When discussing the divinity of Jesus, Kasper has at times written ambiguously about the subject.  He says that “the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity and humanity constitutes a development of the original conviction that this man is our divine salvation.” (11)

What is Kasper really saying with the above ambiguous statement?  The divinity of Jesus, for Kasper, means that this man is our divine salvation.  Instead of clearly articulating that  “Jesus, the Son of God who is truly God and truly man, is our salvation”, the above statement leaves a lot of room for confusion: Why emphasize that Jesus is “the man” - instead of Jesus the Son of God? Why is the word “divine” associated not with Jesus directly, but with “salvation”?

The Resurrection

In discussing the Resurrection, Kasper again at best is ambiguous in past instances.  He says that “the empty tomb represents an ambiguous phenomenon, open to different possibilities of interpretation.”  

What is ambiguous about the empty tomb?  For Christians, the empty tomb represents only one TRUTH: that Jesus really rose from the dead.  There is no other acceptable Christian interpretation.  The other “possibilities of interpretation” include the one of the pharisees - that Jesus’ body was stolen by his disciples. And we all know that because of this lie - this alternate “possibility” - practically the entire Jewish race, Jesus’ own people, rejected the Messiah.

The Bible contains various other instances proving the real Resurrection of Jesus. After rising from the dead, Jesus ate in front of His disciples; His disciples touched him; doubting Thomas put his hand in the holes of the hands and feet of Jesus.  Kasper says that these instances represent a certain “grossly erroneous type of assertion that Jesus was touched by their hands and ate at the table with his disciples...”, and that this “runs the risk of justifying a too coarse Paschal faith.” (12)

Instead, Kasper says that these encounters were merely “meetings with Christ present in the Spirit”. 

Kasper was one of the prime proponents behind Cardinal Bergoglio’s candidacy in 2005 papal conclave 

In September of 2005, a “secret diary” of an anonymous cardinal who participated in the April 2005 conclave that elected Benedict XVI was leaked to the Italian press.  The published diary entries were interspersed with commentary from prominent Vatican journalist Lucio Brunelli, who says that he obtained the diary from a trusted source he had known for years.  Because of the vow of silence imposed on cardinals, the identity of the cardinal was kept anonymous. Many Vatican observers and journalists believe in the authenticity of the diary, inasmuch as it gave incredibly detailed, day-by-day accounts of the papal conclave - many of which could only have come from someone who had actually been in the conclave.

According to the secret diary, Cardinal Bergoglio was the strong runner up to Pope Benedict XVI in the 2005 conclave.  In fact, in the third ballot, Cardinal Ratzinger had 72 votes versus Cardinal Bergoglio’s 40 votes - out of a total of 115 total votes.  Ratzinger was still short of 5 more votes needed to win, and there was real concern in the Ratzinger camp that the stalemate could affect the outcome of the election.  

Another interesting point raised by the “secret cardinal” was that Cardinal Kasper was one of the prime movers behind the 2005 candidacy of Cardinal Bergoglio. The other prime mover behind the failed 2005 papal bid of Cardinal Bergoglio was Cardinal Lehmann, former President of the German Bishops Conference.  

Lehmann was a research assistant to Karl Rahner. It must be noted that Karl Rahner and Hans Kung are two the most progressive and liberal Catholic theologians, and the recognized “ideological leaders” of the progressive wing in the Church.  Kasper and Lehmann were their assistants. Kasper and Lehmann were the primary “backers” of Cardinal Bergoglio in the 2005 conclave.

The 2013 Papal Elections

In the 2013 Papal Elections, Kasper openly admitted that Cardinal Bergoglio was his candidate from the very start - from the very first ballot.  When asked by a German newspaper what he felt about the new pope after coming out of the conclave, Kasper replied: “Cardinal Bergoglio was from the beginning my candidate and I have from the beginning of the conclave voted for him.” (13)

Prior to the papal conclave, in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Reppublicca, Kasper subtly emphasized the need to be open to anyone as candidate of the pope, regardless of nationality and religion: “I wish that there is no objection to anyone. We have to be open to everything, for every nationality and every geographical origin.” 

Could it be that even prior to the conclave, Kasper already had his mind set on electing Cardinal Bergoglio as pope? If yes, then this bears serious thinking: was Cardinal Kasper’s choice of Cardinal Bergoglio as pope the result of serious spiritual reflections, prayer and discussions during the conclave proper - or did he already have his mind set on Cardinal Bergoglio even before the conclave?  

The conclusion is obvious: Cardinal Bergoglio has always been Cardinal Kasper’s personal choice, both in 2005 and 2013.  

The Liberals and Progressives are Rejoicing: Why?

The disturbing question, therefore, is this: Why would one of the most progressive Cardinals of the Vatican strongly support the papal candidacy of a supposedly conservative Pope Francis? 

Also, why would Pope Francis publicly praise, through his first Angelus address, an ultra-liberal, progressive Cardinal who has openly questioned the very core of our Catholic beliefs?

Unfortunately, much as I want to close this article with clear answers - I don’t have them.  In the meantime, we watch developments in the Vatican with eyes wide open - and continue to pray for the future of our Church and the Pope. 

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  1. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2013/february/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20130214_clero-roma_en.html
  2. http://www.johnthavis.com/cardinal-kasper-pope-francis-has-launched-new-phase-on-vatican-ii#.UWps9Csd44j
  3. http://www.cathnews.com/article.aspx?aeid=35666
  4. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/28/opinion/a-vatican-spring.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1& 
  5. Cardinal Kasper on the Eucharist as “Sacrament of Unity” (from his book “Sacrament of Unity”, published 2005); taken from the introduction
  6. interview with La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper, as reported by http://eponymousflower.blogspot.com/2013/03/cardinal-kasper-leads-progressive.html
  7. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/28/opinion/a-vatican-spring.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
  8. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/deaconsbench/2013/04/cardinal-kasper-pope-is-launching-a-new-phase-of-vatican-ii/
  9. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/28/opinion/a-vatican-spring.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1& 
  10. http://www.sspxasia.com/Documents/SiSiNoNo/2001_November/Cardinals_With_No_Faith.htm
  11. http://www.sspxasia.com/Documents/SiSiNoNo/2001_November/Cardinals_With_No_Faith.htm
  12. http://www.sspxasia.com/Documents/SiSiNoNo/2001_November/Cardinals_With_No_Faith.htm
  13. http://sarumuse.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/cardinal-kasper-has-steam-up/

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