Cardinal Kasper's Interview

First, congratulations to Grant Gallicho and Matthew Boudway at Commonweal for scoring an in-depth interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper and, more importantly, for doing their homework and asking really smart, well-prepared questions. Second, kudos to Cardinal Kasper for inviting all of us to think more deeply and with greater nuance about a host of issues. Whether one agrees with all of his conclusions or insights, his is a powerful and faithful mind.

The interview will no doubt generate a great deal of comment. Here are a few things that jumped out at me. Gallicho and Boudway asked the cardinal about the practice of the Orthodox Church. Here is the relevant passage:

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.

One of the least remarked aspects of the whole discussion about divorce and remarriage is that before the 1917 Code of Canon Law was adopted for the universal Church, in this country and most others, the parish priest dealt with the issue. To be sure, there were far fewer cases of divorce back then, although spousal abandonment in immigrant communities was not unknown. It was a canonical procedure, to be sure, but undoubtedly a pastor dealing with people he knew brought that pastoral element to the situation in a way that a canonist on a tribunal dealing with a stack of papers cannot. And, to be sure, very few of those pastors had extensive training in canon law. But, for all that surety, I suspect the system was better at avoiding what Kasper here calls "jurisscience" and exercising, instead, jurisprudence.

The very next question and answer is also illustrative. Here is the text:

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.

The thing that first jumps off the page is that in the third sentence of his reply, Kasper refers to "the council" and does not mean Vatican II, but Trent. We who still live in what can appropriately be called the "post-conciliar period" need to ever be reminded that there were councils before Vatican II and, in many ways, the reticence of earlier councils on certain issues, their "very cautious" approach to certain theological issues, is a thing to be admired. I was discussing this whole divorced and remarriage issue and the different way the Orthodox handle it with a very conservative priest friend. And he told me something interesting. "If I ask an Orthodox theologian," he said, "if I am a validly ordained priest, the theologian will reply only that I am not a priest of the Orthodox Church. When pressed, the Orthodox theologian will refuse to answer my question about the validity of my orders. They do not believe it is right to put excessive limits and proscriptions on the action of God's grace." This was a key insight. There is much, very much, to admire about our Western penchant for legal thinking, but it can sometimes lead us to ask questions that it is not the Church's business to ask, still less to answer.

The second thing that caught my eye is Kasper's awareness of, and lack of disturbance by, the way nontheological contingencies affect theological reasoning: "because Venice has some islands." The Lord works in mysterious ways.

The third thing that warrants attention is the realization that approaching these issues is not undertaken in a vacuum. It is entirely appropriate to consider what impact these deliberations on how to deal with the indissolubility of marriage in a culture where half of all marriages are dissolved will have on ecumenism, just as those who push for gay rights in the Church must ask themselves whether such a push will risk dividing the Church in the affluent West from the more traditional Church in the global south.

Of course, the key comments of Kasper's that will warm the hearts of liberal Catholics are his various insistences on the need to ask the question: Where is the mercy for people in this situation? This is a question Christians must always be prepared to ask. It is always a relevant question. But before this line of thinking leads us to a general and unspecific suspicion of legalism and canonical concerns more generally, let us modify the question a tad: Where is the mercy for priests who sexually abused minors? Surely, God's sacrifice on Calvary redeems them too, does it not? Nor is it enough to observe that if the Church shows mercy to priests who abused minors, the Church does an injustice both to the victims of clergy sex abuse and to the 95 percent of priests who have never touched a minor inappropriately. No, we must face the question head-on, and it is not an easy question. The best I have come up with? It is a strange form of mercy that permits a priest who abused a child to return to a way of life that will continue to give him a unique type of access into other people's intimate lives, where the temptation to commit the sin and crime again will manifest itself anew. It is akin to putting an open bottle of scotch in front of someone struggling to stay sober. I confess I am not entirely satisfied with that answer, but, as I say, it is the best I have been able to come up with. The larger point is this. Yes, we must always ask how we can be vehicles of God's mercy, but balancing mercy with justice, as Cardinal Kasper suggests, cannot be a smokescreen for laxity. Similarly, in hearing some commentators chastise Cardinal Kasper for threatening the Church's approach to the issue of divorce and remarriage, one has the suspicion that they get some kind of thrill by appearing to be rigorists. Rigor is to be avoided as much as laxity.

This discussion on divorce and remarriage will continue, and it is just so damned healthy to see the discussion being held in the open, with cardinals unafraid to contradict each other. It thrills me to see two nonordained journalists having a deep and penetrating conversation with a Vatican cardinal. And, the fact that, under Francis' leadership, this issue will be less about internal Vatican workings and more about following synodal processes, this is something that opens up a truly new chapter in the life of the postconciliar period. These are exciting times and the deepest level of excitement comes from the sense that the Spirit is moving. 

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