Reflections on Walter Kasper’s ‘On the Church’
Maybe the devil made me do it, but after reading Bishop (now Cardinal) Walter Kasper’s essay "On the Church" (reprinted in America, 4/23) for the second or third time, I went back through the text and conducted a little test. I changed bishop to pastor, local church to local parish and Roman Curia to chancery. And very soon—with some obvious adaptations—I had an article any experienced pastor could write about nearly any chancery in the United States.
Pastors in the field frequently feel misunderstood and even mistreated. Unfortunately, sometimes they are. More than a few bishops may get more than a passing acquaintance with purgatory because of it. But every pastor sooner or later experiences circumstances in which central authority seems insensitive to his particular flock and their particular problems. Whether every pastor is right is another matter.
Drawing on my own pastoral experience, I judge Cardinal Ratzinger’s concerns about postconciliar ecclesiology to be well founded.
Thus, while Cardinal Kasper deserves enormous respect as a thinker, I couldn’t read his article without remembering that the author is a gifted and fruitful intellectual responding to challenges from another, equally gifted and fruitful, man—all in the context of a German episcopate disappointed by recent guidance from Rome. This may account for the apparent discomfort in some of his comments.
One of the differences between Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Kasper is that the former, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has come to symbolize an aspect of the Petrine ministry that some Americans and Western Europeans would like to ignore. Of course, this does not place his reasoning above dispute. In fact, Cardinal Kasper offers excellent arguments for the legitimacy of respectful discussion within the church about the role of local churches and bishops. (I would take issue with his judgment of the Captivity Letters and the Lucan account of Pentecost, but that’s another article.)
But in presenting a dialectic—setting pastoral experience against the perception of Ratzinger’s abstract reasoning—Cardinal Kasper’s text inadvertently creates a caricature of the church’s doctrinal concerns. The abstract and the pastoral do not stand in opposition. Cardinal Ratzinger was himself a diocesan bishop. For that matter, so am I; and drawing on my own pastoral experience, I judge Cardinal Ratzinger’s concerns about postconciliar ecclesiology to be well founded. Let me explain with three simple points.
First, we should be skeptical whenever Vatican actions since the Second Vatican Council are described as reactionary. Cardinal Kasper himself recalls a variety of situations in which the Curia had to intervene, not because it was craving for power, but because some local churches seemed to have forgotten the need for unity—so strongly emphasized in the New Testament. Excessive pluralism, local particularism and religious nationalism—a few of the problems Cardinal Kasper acknowledges—are hardly abstract. Neither is the tendency of bishops and bishops’ conferences to abdicate their responsibility and find cover behind a superior order.
But the same article seems to imply a model of bishop that helps create these problems—a bishop caught in the middle between Roman superiors who want norms enforced, and the needs of the local faithful to whom he must listen; a bishop who must bring the two parties together and help them understand each other. This frames real problems in regrettable language. A bishop will naturally seek to be a bridge between the local and universal needs of the people of God—but his first task is not to broker peace, but to teach and preach the truth, as Cardinal Kasper himself notes.
So the questions become: is the refusal of Communion to divorced persons in irregular marriages an act of bureaucratic vindictiveness or an expression of honesty and real pastoral charity, rooted in a concern for people’s lives, marriages and salvation? Are Catholic rules for eucharistic hospitality inappropriately restrictive or an honest description of what real communion is and what genuine unity of faith should entail? (And, by the way, such rules are actually less restrictive than the standards applied by our Orthodox brothers.) If responsible freedom, in the words of Cardinal Kasper, does not mean opening the door to cheap compromises, then what exactly does it mean in regard to practical, pastoral situations like these?
Second, as one lay friend suggested, praying for more rain in the middle of a downpour may not be prudent. Dismantling an authoritarian model of the papacy and acknowledging the proper freedom of bishops and local churches—these are enormously healthy things with long-term implications for Christian unity. But can anyone seriously dispute that Western church life has been stuck in a kind of centrifuge for the past 35 years? What could unity with the Orthodox, or anyone else, mean if our own interior church life is a witness of theological disarray? Let’s remember that the nation setting the tone of the emerging global culture is the United States—a nation seemingly committed to radical individualism, personal consumption and privatized meaning. In such an environment, the one thing we don’t need is more fragmentation.
Surely the fruitfulness of the Petrine ministry has never been more obvious than in the travels and teaching of Pope John Paul II. When Cardinal Kasper expresses concern that the trend toward centralization returned after the council, we can reasonably ask: How else but through a vigorous Petrine ministry would the church begin to deal with the challenges facing her? It is true that ideally bishops, clergy and laypersons should spontaneously shoulder that work. But what happens when they don’t, or can’t, or don’t know how? In a centrifugal age, John Paul has been the church’s—in fact, the world’s—centripetal pastor, a man devoted to bringing coherence out of confusion, reintegration out of unraveling.
Seeking coherence is hardly reactionary. Reform, to survive and take root, must be shaped by common sense and a shrewd understanding of the human need to balance change with stability. The perceived bad manners or clumsy arrogance of this or that Vatican official may be irritating; but the work of Cardinal Ratzinger’s office—which seems to be the focus of most of the unhappiness about centralization—has never been more needed, nor more respectfully and thoughtfully exercised.
Third, an alternative to the tensions between fragmentation and centralization in the Western church seems to present itself in the experience of the Orthodox churches. The Orthodox have come through centuries of persecution with their sense of liturgy, tradition and doctrine intact—and all without the benefit of a centralized authority analogous to the papacy. Cardinal Kasper’s approach to ecclesiology will have strong appeal to Orthodox thinkers, and it makes him invaluable for the work of ecumenism. In fact, in discussing this article, Metropolitan Isaiah, Denver’s Greek Orthodox hierarch, a friend and colleague in local ecumenical dialogue, praised Cardinal Kasper for captur[ing] the spirit and identity of the church...as accepted by Orthodox Christianity.
In a centrifugal age, John Paul has been the church’s centripetal pastor, a man devoted to bringing coherence out of confusion, reintegration out of unraveling.
At least two obstacles exist, however, to adopting the Orthodox model as a remedy for the present condition of our local Catholic churches. Reverence for tradition in the East runs deep. It did once in the West as well. But both within and outside the church, tradition has been under assault for decades in the West. American culture is deeply skeptical of the old, the venerable and even of history itself. That is why the sociologist Christopher Lasch described Americans as locked in a permanent present, permanently restless, permanently eager for change. American Catholics are not immune to this weakness; in fact, quite the contrary. And while West European cultures have much longer memories, they seem no less eager to forget their patrimonies and get on with the process of secularization—which, at least in the Netherlands, now includes infanticide, assisted suicide and euthanasia. Western Christians hoping to root unity in tradition will at the moment be sorely disappointed.
Nor can liturgy suffice. Most practicing Orthodox experience the eucharistic liturgy as deep, organic and sacrosanct. It is the food that sustains Orthodox life. Many Western Catholics are blessed with the same devotion. But for the past 35 years we have operated on the liturgy as surgeons work on a patient—exteriorizing and objectifying it in a way that has tended to remove it from the realm of the sacred and transfer it to the realm of the functional. We’ve compounded that with disputes over language with deep doctrinal implications. To assume that we will now unite around our worship in a manner that guarantees the unity of the local churches with the universal church would be naïve.
Cardinal Kasper, of course, does not suggest this. He understands the gravity of the opportunities and problems facing the church, and his intellect is matched by his obvious love for the church. He is also right when he says that Catholics have room both for his and Cardinal Ratzinger’s approach to ecclesiology. John Paul II opened the door in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995) to a reconsideration of the form and manner in which the Petrine ministry is exercised. In fact, as one of my Greek Orthodox priest friends has suggested, The conciliar approach, which Cardinal Kasper upholds as properly reflecting pastoral considerations, and the primatial authority of the universal church, which Cardinal Ratzinger maintains as critical to maintaining the dogmatic and doctrinal integrity of the Christian faith, are mutually complementary.
I believe that is true. My hope is that the polemicists who will do the work of interpreting Cardinal Kasper will also take the time to share his deep faith and his loyal love for the church—the same faith and love he shares with Cardinal Ratzinger.