The National Catholic Review
Kevin F. Burke

“It is obvious that the ecclesiastical ministry in today’s church is in crisis: the barque of Peter is in trouble at sea.”

These words might remind readers of a Boston Globe editorial pronouncing smug judgment on the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the priest sexual abuse scandal. Or they may appear to echo the gloomy appraisals of Catholic commentators from various sides of the ecclesial spectrum. They come, however, from a pen neither smug nor gloomy. This sentence opens a rich, meditative essay sparsely titled “Episcopal Office” and sets the context for a magisterial collection of seven essays, Leadership in the Church, by the German theologian and bishop, Walter Cardinal Kasper.

Upon careful reading, one first notices that Kasper’s words address not the church as such, but the ecclesiastical ministry of church leaders. And upon further reading, one encounters a tone both hopeful and humble, and a vision of church leadership at once learned, practical and wise. That combination, together with the stature of the author, marks this as one of the most important books in ecclesiology to appear in some time. But it is the content and depth of the essays that make the publication of this beautifully translated book so welcome.

Cardinal Kasper has long been well known in the theological community and in the arenas of ecumenical dialogue and Jewish-Christian relations. A professor of dogmatic theology at Tübingen University and the author of such important works as Jesus the Christ and The God of Jesus Christ, he was ordained a bishop for the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart in 1989. In 1999 he was appointed to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and in 2001 Pope John Paul II appointed him president of that council and elevated him to the College of Cardinals.

Three distinct competencies that appear in the pages of this book emerge from this varied background: the intellectual acumen of the dogmatic and historical theologian, the pastoral sensitivity of the bishop and the practical wisdom of one engaged in serious, open dialogue with members of other churches and religions.

Along with his essay on the office of bishop, separate chapters appear on the offices of deacon and priest. Kasper addresses the well-documented problems of the declining numbers of priests, but he does not attempt to tackle everything. He brackets, for example, the hot-button questions of priestly celibacy and the ordination of women. This allows him to focus theological attention on a key historical factor in the restoration of the diaconate by Vatican II—“it was the fruit of a movement ‘from below’”—and to acknowledge that the real crisis in the priestly office is “not a shortage of priests, but a shortage of faithful and of communities.” In a personal aside, he adds, “I am firmly convinced that the contemporary crisis [in priestly ministry] must not be seen only in the light of its negative aspects: we could also consider it a kairos for developing, if not a new church, then at any rate a new epochal form of our church as it enters the third millennium of its history.” These remarks signal what is so fresh about Kasper’s approach throughout: he consistently attends to the living reality of the church as the ground of its rationality.

Perhaps the most interesting and moving essay in the collection is “The Universal Church and the Local Church,” Kasper’s response to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who had criticized a previous essay by Kasper on this topic. Kasper’s response and a further response from Cardinal Ratzinger appeared in America two years ago (4/23/01, 11/19/01). Here Kasper clarifies his primary concern.

 

My [earlier] remarks were not primarily dictated by a systematic theological interest. Rather, they were born of my pastoral concerns and experience: as the bishop of a large diocese, I have seen the steady widening of the gulf between the norms of the universal church and local praxis. In many cases, one could go so far as to speak of a mental and practical schism. Many laypersons and priests can no longer understand universal church regulations and simply ignore them. This applies both to ethical issues and to questions of sacramental and ecumenical praxis such as the admission of divorced and remarried persons to communion or the offer of eucharistic hospitality to non-Catholics.

 

The problem facing a bishop is that he must balance his responsibility for church unity (universal church) with his “obligation to listen to the faithful and to his clergy” (local church). Where Cardinal Ratzinger argues that the universal church has historical and ontological priority over the local church, Cardinal Kasper calls this theological opinion into question, and respectfully addresses the differences between their positions in terms of the distinct philosophical systems of Bonaventure and Aquinas that stand behind them. He then poses a trenchant question. “Why should a plurality that was possible in the Middle Ages no longer be possible today?”

Over and over, the essays in Leadership in the Church lucidly probe how legitimate authority in the church should be exercised. While the collection does not address the church’s “trouble at sea” in a way that the popular press might deem newsworthy, and while it leaves many important questions unanswered, it represents a “must read” for those who indeed exercise church leadership (bishops, pastors, deacons, canonists, theologians), for educated Catholics interested in understanding better the logic of authority in their church, for all those committed to ecumenical dialogue among Christians and for all who promote dialogue among Christians, Jews and other religions.

Kevin F. Burke, S.J., is associate professor of systematic theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass.