Cardinal Walter Kasper Is Uninvolved With Theological Controversies for a Change

German Cardinal Walter Kasper walks in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on March 4, 2013. Photo by Tony Gentile/Reuters

Cardinal Walter Kasper practically bounds down Borgo Pio as he heads to lunch at a favorite trattoria a few blocks from the Vatican, a broad smile on his face. The 85-year-old German churchman appears to be irrepressibly happy, even when he is dodging clueless tourists and annoying motorbikes. (At one point he does have a few words of reproval for the guy on a motorino who suddenly pulls in front of him, parks and walks away — this is, after all, Rome.)

Such cheeriness is not necessarily what one expects from Kasper, who for the past few years has been blasted by church conservatives for his close association with Pope Francis and the pontiff’s more inclusive, pastoral and compassionate approach to Catholics and, indeed, to the world.

Kasper is certainly used to the jostle of Vatican debates. He is one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the past generation — a rival for the title might be his more famous countryman, erstwhile sparring partner and colleague in the Roman Curia, Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

But Kasper has endured a different kind of criticism since becoming so closely identified with Francis, Benedict’s successor.

At one of Francis’ first public appearances after being elected pope in March 2013, he cited Kasper as a “very sharp theologian” and effectively blurbed Kasper’s recent book on the topic of mercy – “That book has done me so much good,” Francis told a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Kasper’s theme would become central to Francis’ own papacy.

“I was shocked when I saw it, I saw it on television,” Kasper said as he tucked into a plate of seafood. “Later, the pope came to me, he saw me and said, ‘I have made publicity for you!’”

Though Kasper officially retired in 2010 after a decade as the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, Francis deployed him in February of 2014 to address a meeting of the College of Cardinals about the need to recover a sense of pastoral flexibility on topics that for years were considered off-limits, such as finding ways to allow Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive Communion.

Cardinal Walter Kasper in his home at the Vatican on Sept. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

Kasper’s address, and the meeting itself, was effectively the opening salvo in Francis’ effort to open the church hierarchy to long-suppressed debates over doctrine, pastoral practice and personal conscience. Francis challenged the cardinals to reorient the church’s entire approach to evangelization toward reaching out, rather than preaching and waiting for converts to show up.

Kasper was a central figure in the process of dialogue and discernment over the next two years, attending two monthlong synods in the fall of 2014 and 2015 that were marked by increasingly fierce disputations over the role of doctrine. As they ended, he helped formulate the final documents that opened to door to the kind of pastoral creativity that Francis intended.

The documents, and those synods, also opened the floodgates to a deluge of efforts, unprecedented in modern history, aimed at countering the pontiff’s teaching and his authority, and even seeking to depose Francis as pope. Kasper has been vilified almost as much as his boss by old-guard traditionalists and self-appointed heresy hunters on social media.

Over lunch, Kasper expressed his relief at being uninvolved in the just-ended Synod on Youth, where few doctrinal issues were at stake and conservative carping never caught fire. “When you become older you do not like to have all these controversies. And I had strong controversies! Many people were against me. But I asked the pope, ‘Holy Father, what I should do? Should I answer them?’

“He said, ‘You are a man of discernment, you are free. You can decide what you want to do.’ He did not give me any direction. Just ‘You are free.’ I was very impressed by this.”

In the end, Kasper decided he could no longer answer all the attacks. “Because whether you answer or not, you cannot convince some people,” he said. “It’s impossible.”

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Source: Religion News Service