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Cardinal Kasper balances values with reality

NCR Staff

Cardinal Walter Kasper, 68, talks in a remarkably open way, making it difficult to believe at times that he actually works in the Roman curia.

He often speaks about decentralization in the church, the need for pastoral flexibility, and the problems created by pugnacious Vatican documents such as last fall’s Dominus Iesus. All are taboos that could have been career-stoppers in a cleric’s rise up the ecclesiastical ladder.

Yet Kasper, in the space of a few days in late February, became one of the most powerful men in the Catholic hierarchy. He entered the College of Cardinals in a Feb. 21 consistory, and a few days later the pope named him to head the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in effect making him the church’s top ecumenical officer. He also figures on most lists as a papabile, or a candidate to be the next pope.

Kasper’s ascent suggests to Vatican observers that currents swirling in anticipation of the next papal conclave, whenever that might occur, lead to a surprisingly wide range of possibilities.

NCR interviewed Kasper in his office in Rome April 24. Part of the interview focused on comments a day earlier by Kasper’s fellow German cardinal, Karl Lehmann of Mainz. Lehmann made headlines with the suggestion that it may be time to convoke a new ecumenical council -- Vatican III. Lehmann was the second cardinal to float the idea of a council. Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, a favorite of the church’s progressive wing, made a similar proposal in 1999.

Though Lehmann spoke carefully, his proposal to involve the world’s bishops in making decisions reflects widespread frustration over what many church leaders see as a stranglehold on power in Rome.

Kasper said Lehmann’s desire for decentralization is on the money, whether or not it takes a council to get there. “I am convinced that we have to foster collegiality in the church,” he said.

Kasper agreed that a council is “worthy of being discussed,” though he has yet to decide whether he supports the idea himself. His main concern, he said, would be to make such a gathering as ecumenically inclusive as possible.

“We have to reflect in what way we can involve at least the Orthodox bishops and the Orthodox churches,” he said. Kasper would like them to have a more direct role in proceedings than the observer status they had at Vatican II, though short of full participation. “An ecumenical council without reflection about this point for me is impossible.”

Born in Germany in 1933, [Kasper] studied at Tübingen, considered the “big leagues” of the European theological universe, where he earned a reputation as a gifted scholar. He is comfortable in English. In 1983 he taught as a visiting professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Kasper’s career has been a study in contradictions, perhaps accounting for his legendary ability to see all sides of a problem. Incredibly, Kasper was an assistant in the 1960s for both Leo Scheffczyk, also made a cardinal by John Paul Feb. 21, and Hans Küng. Two men farther apart theologically would be difficult to identify.

Scheffczyk is deeply conservative; in 1995, he publicly lamented that John Paul had not formally declared the ban on women’s ordination infallible. Küng, meanwhile, is a liberal who lost his license to teach Catholic theology precisely for his doubts that popes can say anything infallibly.

When a Vatican investigation against Küng reached its climax in 1979, Kasper’s low-key response disappointed some. A theory that he had sold out gained credence when he became bishop of Rottenberg-Stuttgart, the German diocese that includes Tübingen, in 1987.

Yet Kasper was hardly a reliable yes man. In 1993, he joined Lehmann and another German bishop in issuing a pastoral letter that, in effect, encouraged divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to the sacraments. The letter was criticized by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal officer.

In 1999, Kasper, who had served on the official Catholic-Lutheran dialogue since 1994, came to Rome to take over as secretary of the ecumenical affairs office. There, defying Vatican culture, he continued to joust with Ratzinger. Kasper was sharply critical of Dominus Iesus. The document “offended people,” Kasper told Die Furche, an Austrian Catholic paper. “And if my friends are offended, then so am I. It’s an unfortunate affirmation -- clumsy and ambiguous.”

Behind the scenes, Kasper is known to have argued against the document. As the church’s ecumenical czar, Kasper knows that most other Christian churches are wary of what they see as overweening claims to power by the papal bureaucracy. Kasper said he expects the issue to surface at a special consistory, a meeting of the world’s cardinals, in Rome May 21-24.

“The pope himself mentions reform of the curia along with the synods of bishops and the episcopal conferences” in his document Novo Millenio Ineunte, which is to set the agenda for the consistory, Kasper said. “You can’t speak about the future of the church without speaking about these matters.”

Given his background as a diocesan bishop, Kasper knows what it feels like when the Vatican’s efforts to enforce doctrine bump up against local realities.

A case in Germany came to a head at the Feb. 21 consistory, when Pope John Paul II distributed a letter to Germany’s nine cardinals. Among his concerns the practice of intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants in Germany. Except under special circumstances, the practice contradicts church law.

Kasper recognizes the value the pope is trying to defend.

“There’s an old principle that eucharistic Communion and ecclesiastical communion belong together,” he said. “On the universal level, I think we have to uphold this principle.”

Yet, Kasper says local realities sometimes dictate flexibility.

“I think we cannot solve all these problems on this universal level,” Kasper said. “There’s also a responsibility for the bishops and the bishops’ conferences. Sometimes we have to be aware of very difficult concrete situations, and let solutions emerge from the grassroots.”

Kasper said he knows Rome often counsels patience in the face of requests for change, but he notes pastors don’t always find that advice helpful. “People have to live today,” he said.

It’s the kind of understanding not always associated with Vatican prelates, and it helps explain why a reference to a genial cartoon character has suggested a nickname for Kasper already popular in English-speaking circles in Rome.

That moniker?

“Kasper, the friendly cardinal.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001 [corrected 05/25/2001]