Page 13, 11th February 2005

11th February 2005
Page 13
Page 13, 11th February 2005 — Kasper, the friendly cardinal

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Locations: Rome


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Kasper, the friendly cardinal

Raymond Edwards on a call to unity by ‘the smiling face of ecumenism’ That They May All Be One: The Call to Unity Today by Walter Cardinal Kasper, Burns & Oates, £12.99 There are not many celebrities in the College of Cardinals, but Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, is one. He is the smiling face of ecumenism. In some sections of the media, he has been adopted (on flimsy grounds) as a standard-bearer for a progressive Catholicism opposed to the rigidity of Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Cardinal Kasper’s latest book gives a broad survey of Christian ecumenism from the standpoint of one of its major players. Its 10 chapters are uneven in quality. The first two are rather dull accounts of the contemporary situation: encouraging in some areas (dialogue with the ancient non-Chalcedonian churches of the East), in others (Russian Orthodoxy) apparently stalled. Later chapters examine themes relevant to these dialogues: the theology of the Holy Spirit and the filioque clause; the doctrine of justification. His final chapter, on Christianity in a pluralistic world, could almost be a précis of Ratzinger’s Truth and Tolerance, only less nuanced and much blander.

Several times, Kasper refers to the short-lived furore over the CDF document Dominus Iesus, issued in 2000, which declined to consider the ecclesial communities arising from the Protestant Reformation as churches in the proper sense, let alone, as are the Eastern Orthodox, “sister churches”. Those who see Kasper as a theological liberal quietly agin the CDF will be disappointed to find he concurs with the content of Dominus Iesus, although mildly regretting its undiplomatic language. As Kasper points out, it does not say that truth is not to be found outside Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Indeed, communion exists fundamentally but imperfectly between all Christians, and is not to be found in completeness except eschatologically. Similarly, the statement of Lumen Gentium that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church is here given a standard gloss: the fullness of truth guaranteed to the Church neither denies the elements of truth and ecclesial reality outside its formal boundaries, nor claims that the dogmatic formulations of Catholicism exhaust (how could they?) the richness of God’s revelation. Regarding dogmatic development in the field of ecclesiology, Kasper is surely right to see “subsists in” as “the ecumenical open door”. Dialogue, prayer, and witness may lead us to a fuller understanding both of our particular traditions and of the truth of the Gospel.

(All of these themes, by the way, could equally be found in the writings of Ratzinger.) Kasper’s chapter on the Petrine ministry borrows arguments from Ratzinger, suggesting first that particular dogmas, those formulations of papal primacy and infallibility made at the First Vatican Council, are in need of “re-reading”; and, secondly, that some elements of papal authority (he lists “uniform canon law, the uniform liturgy and the designation of episcopal thrones [sic] by the central power in Rome”) belong more properly to the Pope’s role as patriarch of the west rather than to his function as universal primate, and could thus legitimately be modified. Elements of this rely on controversial theses (recent CDF documents deny the distinction between patriarchal and primatial roles); but the general impression is of a mind careful and realistic.

He downplays some obvious difficulties, especially those with Christians of the Protestant tradition. Some of the practical forms taken by liberal Protestantism – in sexual and medical ethics, liturgy, ministerial orders – are from a Catholic perspective so extraordinary, and so far from traditional Christian practice, as to present (surely) a greater barrier to ecumenism than any unresolved dogmatic formulations inherited from the 16th century. The contrast here with eastern Orthodoxy, which has retained traditional forms, is marked. Kasper alludes to “new contradictions in ethical questions” between Christians, but does not pursue the matter. Earlier, he had argued that the Catholic Church “must overcome her onesided monolithic structure and develop more communal, collegial and synodical structures”. He does not, however, describe what these structures might be, or reflect on the unfortunate experience of governance by synod seen in the Church of England. Here, as with a later muted call for “open discussion” within the Church, one suspects a token nod (and smile) to his fans among the progressives.

There is, too, the problem of dialogue with partners who speak in many voices – an issue with Anglicanism and the autocephalous national churches of Orthodoxy. With regard to the Anglican Communion, it is odd that Kasper nowhere comments on the ecumenical difficulties arising from its internal disagreements on doctrine and praxis; nor on its lack of any authoritative teaching body able to mandate acceptance of the precariously balanced ARCIC statements.

Division between Christians remains a scandal; as Kasper insists, dialogue towards reunion is an absolute duty. He also notes that such dialogue must be rooted in an honest assessment of the differences between Christian bodies. Taking refuge in platitudinous aspirations is as unhelpful on the intellectual plane as any indiscriminate rush to intercommunion is on the spiritual. Unfortunately, this is just what, at several points, this book does. Taken as a whole, though, it is informative and filled with clearsighted concern for the imperative of Christian unity, which is not something given for our own satisfaction: “Jesus prayed that all may be one so that the world may believe” (John 17:21).

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