One of the many expressions of the “Francis effect” is the renewed prominence of “mercy.” Pope Francis, of course, is not the first pope to speak of mercy in the context of God’s relationship with humanity, but it is certainly his signature tune—the word occurs more than 30 times in “The Joy of the Gospel.”
It is no surprise, then, that Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book Mercy carries what must be high on the current wish-list of every Catholic publisher: an endorsement from Pope Francis. Kasper, energetic and creative at the age of 81, also bears other stamps of approval from Francis, who chose him to address the church’s cardinals at the recent consistory. In his new book, as in his presentation to the cardinals, Kasper characterizes mercy as “the organizing center of God’s attributes.”
As a theologian, Kasper has always been committed to the Second Vatican Council as a gift to the church. The extensive corpus of Kasper’s writings represents a sustained reception of the council. That reception also colors Mercy. The influence of the council on Kasper is evident not simply in the footnotes that refer to conciliar texts, but in the ways the book as a whole echoes the council’s methodology.
Mercy is a powerful example of the style of ressourcement that was at the heart of the council. Kasper reads the biblical and theological tradition concerning mercy to mine its freshness and applicability to contemporary issues. In so doing, he also rehearses the council’s aggiornamento, taking up the obligation to read “the signs of the times” in the light of the Gospel and the wider tradition. For the latter, Kasper, like Pope Francis, homes in on the demands of mercy in the context of a globalized economy, unequal opportunities for education and the urgent plight of immigrants and asylum-seekers. Kasper also argues, as he has done consistently for two decades, that the call to embody God’s mercy sits uncomfortably with the policy that results in the blanket exclusion of divorced and remarried members of the church from reception of the Eucharist.
In appealing for the primacy of mercy in the Christian life, Kasper makes a compelling case that mercy is far from representing a “soft” spirituality. He showcases the link between “mercy” and “the omnipotence of love” that derives from God, but he also rails against a “one-dimensional humanism,” a “pseudomercy” blind to the requirements of justice and against any inclination to associate God or discipleship with whatever is “saccharine.”
Having been a diocesan bishop and the president of a pontifical council, Kasper is unquestionably a man of the church, but his writings have never failed to be critical of those aspects of the church’s practice that he regards as obstacles to the Gospel. In Mercy, Kasper advocates for an “ecclesial praxis” of mercy, one that does not treat the truth as “a wet washcloth, with which we beat others around their ears,” one that does include an “unassuming” lifestyle for clergy and one that eschews “overinstitutionalization” and “overbureaucratization” in favor of a less opaque witness to God’s mercy incarnated in Jesus.
Kasper’s openness to reform in manifold aspects of the church’s practice is encouraging, but three facets of his analysis would benefit from a broader approach. First, although he warns against protecting wrongdoers rather than victims, he does not address clerical sexual abuse in that context. When he does refer to that abuse, which he does only briefly, he treats it under the heading of the need for “church discipline,” an approach that seems a less than adequate response to the history of the last few decades.
Second, Kasper identifies the present state of the sacrament of reconciliation as “one of the deep wounds” afflicting the church; but in examining the causes of that situation and possible responses to it, he does not mention that the church’s authorities have restricted the use of communal sacramental reconciliation. The “third rite” may not be a panacea, but the proscription of it hardly models the merciful ecclesial praxis Kasper promotes.
Third, in the midst of a discussion of Mary in relation to mercy, Kasper dismisses as “ideological delusion” the suggestion that “the male-dominated church created an oppressive image of woman”; indeed, he contends that Mariology “is the most radical critique of a pure male church that is theologically possible.” That argument, however, is unlikely to alleviate the disillusionment of the many women who continue to experience the church precisely as male-dominated.
These three instances highlight the gap that exists between the good theology that Kasper exemplifies and the lived reality of the church. The solution to that conundrum lies not with an increase in theological study, as important as such study is for a healthy church, but in a changed practice. This change must involve the church’s authorities listening to what people of faith say about actual practice in the church, rather than telling them what they need to know, much of which fails to connect. Whether the upcoming synod on the family will develop a different approach, time will tell.
Mercy certainly rewards attention. The DNA of the theology professor runs deep in Kasper, so the book requires close engagement rather than a casual reading, but the book’s argument is accessible and the translation is fluid. Mercy stands with “The Joy of the Gospel” as a powerful reminder of how God sees us and how God enables us to live.