Francis' theological spokesman Walter Kasper publishes new book on pope

Cardinal Walter Kasper greets clergy as he arrives for Pope Francis' ecumenical vespers Jan. 25 at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. (CNS/Paul Haring)

German Cardinal Walter Kasper has emerged as Pope Francis' theological spokesman. In his recently published book, Pope Francis' Revolution of Tenderness and Love, released Feb. 18, Kasper portrays the pope as neither conservative nor liberal but a radical who wants to bring about a revolution of mercy.

Kasper begins by describing how in a very short time the new pope managed to bring a fresh wind to the church, which soon attracted favorable attention worldwide. Within 18 months of Francis' election, a great many books about him were published. Most were in favor, but there were also a few critical voices, Kasper wrote. And in certain circles, both open and hidden criticism of Francis has increased.

"A considerable number of people do not trust the new enthusiasm, are exercising genteel restraint and have adopted a wait and see attitude," Kasper wrote. "What for most people seems a new spring, is for them a passing cold spell -- not a new beginning but just an intermezzo."

However, Kasper is not going to detail church political assessments, biographical details, anecdotes or inside stories about what is really or supposedly happening behind Vatican walls. "That may all be interesting but it doesn't get to the heart of the matter," he wrote.

His book is an attempt to "approach the Francis phenomenon theologically," to throw light on the theological content of the present pontificate and to elucidate the new perspectives it opens up. Francis is neither a star nor a theological lightweight but a deeply mystical person, Kasper wrote.

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While the pope's theology cannot be assigned to a particular school of thought, there is no doubt in Kasper's mind that Romano Guardini (1885-1968), a German priest, author and academic and one of the most seminal figures in Catholic intellectual life in the 20th century, profoundly influenced Francis, who studied Guardini's works during his stay in Germany in 1986. According to Kasper, Guardini's Attempts at a Philosophy of what is Concrete and Alive had a pivotal influence on Francis.

In 12 short but concise chapters, Kasper analyzes the Argentine and European roots of the pope's theology and not surprisingly devotes a whole chapter to mercy, which he says is the keynote of this pontificate. Kasper writes that the pope's emphasis on mercy as the fundamental interpretative principle denotes a paradigm shift from a deductive method to a method of see-judge-act.

"Such a paradigm shift can give rise to irritation and misunderstandings as though it suggested that what has been wrote previously no longer stands," Kasper wrote. "If it is understood correctly, however, the paradigm shift does not change the content of what has been valid up to now but the perspective and the horizon from which it is seen and understood."

In his epilogue, Kasper outlines the future and weighs the prospects of whether or not Francis will succeed in reforming the church. There is no doubt that the pope fascinates people both within and outside the church, Kasper wrote, but to date, he has only provided stimuli for his "passionate" revolution of tenderness and love. This leaves the question open as to how concrete his program is.

"Will Francis really trigger a comprehensive reform or will his pontificate disappoint expectations? These are the questions many people, including those favorably disposed towards him, are asking," Kasper wrote.

There is no doubt that Francis will continue to realize individual points on his reform agenda step-by-step and that we can expect many a surprise, but it is "humanly impossible" to tell whether he will be able to set an irreversible process of reform in motion that will last beyond his pontificate, Kasper wrote.

The answer, moreover, does not depend only on the pope but also on how far the Roman Curia, the local churches, the religious orders, the movements, the theological university faculties and Christians take up the pope's impulses.

"One can't just lean back and say 'let's wait and see what the pope does.' We ourselves must venture out of our starting blocks." Kasper wrote.

The challenges of this papacy are far more radical than most people imagine, he points out. It is a challenge for those conservatives who reject reform but also for those progressives who expect viable and specific solutions straight away.

"The revolution of tenderness and love could disappoint both and yet in the end prove right. The Christian realism of the 'Joy of the Gospel' is beyond reactionary ideology and utopian effusions," Kasper wrote. "What the pope proposes is the humble way of committed people who can move mountains. A little compassion can move the world, Francis says. That is the Christian revolution, a revolution in the true sense of the word, namely a conversion to the origin of the Gospel message as a way to the future, a revolution of mercy."

[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London Catholic weekly The Tablet.]

A version of this story appeared in the March 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: Francis' theological spokesman publishes new book on pope .

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