Ethics Institutions

Cardinal Kasper, the ‘pope’s theologian,’ downplays Vatican blast at U.S …

Cardinal Walter Kasper speaks at a public event sponsored by The Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture on Monday (May 5) in New York. Photo courtesy of Trace Murphy

Cardinal Walter Kasper speaks at a public event sponsored by The Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture on Monday (May 5) in New York. Photo courtesy of Trace Murphy

NEW YORK (RNS) The German cardinal who has been called the “pope’s theologian” said fresh Vatican criticism of American nuns was typical of the “narrower” view that officials of the Roman Curia tend to take, and he said U.S. Catholics shouldn’t be overly concerned.

“I also am considered suspect!” Cardinal Walter Kasper said with a laugh during an appearance on Monday (May 5) at Fordham University. “I cannot help them,” he added, referring to his critics in Rome.

The 81-year-old Kasper, who served as the Vatican’s chief ecumenical officer under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is seen as a close ally of Pope Francis. When Francis summoned bishops for a two-day summit on family issues in February, he tapped Kasper to give an opening address to lay the groundwork.

In many ways, Kasper may better reflect Francis’ outlook than the crackdown on U.S. nuns launched by the Vatican’s doctrinal office. Just as Francis has downplayed the focus on rule-following and hot-button issues in an effort to widen the church’s appeal, Kasper has pushed the importance of pastoral flexibility and realism in walking with Catholics throughout their imperfect lives.

Kasper is in the U.S. to discuss his book, “Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life.” It includes a blurb from Pope Francis, who has made mercy a cornerstone of his ministry since he was elected last year.

On Monday, Kasper told the audience that after Francis praised him by name just days after his election, “an old cardinal came to him and said, ‘Holy Father, you cannot do this! There are heresies in this book!’ ”

"Mercy" by Walter Kasper. Photo courtesy of Paulist Press

“Mercy” by Walter Kasper. Photo courtesy of Paulist Press

As Francis recounted the story to Kasper, he said, the pope smiled and added: “This enters in one ear and goes out the other.”

It was Kasper’s way of providing context to the news that the Vatican’s doctrinal czar, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, had sharply criticized leaders of more than 40,000 American nuns for disobedience to Rome and for “fundamental errors” in their beliefs.

Mueller’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been trying to rein in the American sisters for two years. Talks were believed to be going well, especially after the election of Francis. But Mueller’s criticisms and stark warning that the nuns must heed his demands seemed like a major setback to those hopes.

Kasper said that he hoped that the confrontation between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference for Women Religious would be overcome.

“If you have a problem with the leadership of the women’s orders, then you have to have a discussion with them, you have to dialogue with them, an exchange of ideas,” he said. “Perhaps they have to change something. Perhaps also the Congregation (for the Doctrine of the Faith) has a little bit to change its mind. That’s the normal way of doing things in the church. I am for dialogue. Dialogue presupposes different positions. The church is not a monolithic unity.”

“We should be in communion,” he continued, “which also means in dialogue with each other. I hope all this controversy will end in a good, peaceful and meaningful dialogue.”

At Fordham, Kasper also praised an American feminist theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, who is scheduled to be honored by the U.S. sisters and whom Mueller singled out for criticism.

Mueller had ripped the LCWR for deciding to honor Johnson without seeking Rome’s approval. Johnson, a renowned theologian who teaches at Fordham, was rebuked by the U.S. bishops’ doctrinal committee in 2011 for arguments she made in her popular book, “Quest for the Living God.”

Asked about Johnson and another feminist theologian, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, whose views have also been disputed by the hierarchy, Kasper said that he has known them both for years and added: “I esteem them both.”

Kasper — often a sparring partner with his fellow German theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Benedict XVI — said that critiques are part of academic discourse but said that the CDF sometimes “sees some things a little bit narrower.”

He said that the criticism of Johnson “is not a tragedy and we will overcome,” and he noted that St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian now considered one of the greatest minds in the church, was condemned by his bishop and lived under a shadow for years.

“So she is in good company!” Kasper said of Johnson.


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • I’m glad to see this preliminary evidence that Pope Francis understands what a losing proposition it was for Benedict and the anti-gay bishops in the US to attack the good Sisters for being “insufficiently homophobic.”

  • So there’s the real deal. The Vatican now knows that it has ZERO authority on any issue, anytime, anywhere, as long as Mr. Francis and Mr. Kasper are in charge.

    It’s safe to say the same thing for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. They’re dead in the water, just like the Vatican. In fact, Catholicism itself is effectively dead in the water, no longer vibrant and influential against secularism and the gay cultists.

    That’s a hard thing to say, but you already know it’s true.

  • Kasper is not the Pope’s theologian. Is he?!

    In the Roman Catholic Church, Theologian of the Pontifical Household (Latin: Pontificalis Domus Doctor Theologus) is a Roman Curial office which has always been entrusted to a Friar Preacher of the Dominican Order and may be described as the pope’s theologian.

  • These theologians make it up as they go.
    How insulting to the Nuns who had to sit through all that berating to turn around and say “we didn’t mean it”.

    This religion stuff is manufactured by fearful primates. And it shows.

  • Why shouldn’t church people in the U.S. be concerned about the ways the Roman curia, especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, starting with Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, Cardinal Levada, and continuing even more brazenly under the new Cardinal Mueller, be concerned about the ways certain churchmen are trashing U.S. nuns.

    U.S. nuns, have come a long way from under the thumbs of local bishops since Vatican II, and in that progress they have become more humane and adopted a wide variety of good Gospel “charisms” that are lacking with too many male clergy. The nuns should not be subjected to such trashing as Cardinal Mueller and Archbishop Sartain are practicing. Francis ought to send Mueller back to Germany. It is extremely harmful for the church to be subjected to the wiles of such a clone of Benedict’s and Levada’s.

    It does no good, no matter how much ease Cardinal Kasper might be trying to infuse into the ugly matter, for any churchman to say anything as long as other churchmen are allowed to disrespect the good U.S. nuns who are every bit as intelligent, knowledgeable, spiritual, and holy as the likes of Cardinal Mueller.

    It is long past the time when Mueller and the rest of the Roman curia are stopped from presumptuously trying to determine how everyone in the church studies, thinks, believes, and practices faith. It doesn’t work. It has never worked. And the presumptuous attempts must be openly ended!

    The only way for that to happen is for the people in the pews to continue revolting by exiting the church and not returning. The dearth of so-called vocations, especially the vocations of women, is mainly caused by the arrogance of the male clerical structure. What person in her right mind would submit herself to such a disrespectful travesty of order?

  • Those nuns should have walked out! It is downright unchristian to subject oneself to such religious abuse as has been practiced by the past three prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger, Levada, and Mueller, toward U.S. nuns.

    All the while, that congregation and the rest of the Vatican curia–and John Paul II and Benedict–ignored the sinful sexual violence of church clergy against our young people. They still do.

    The church headquarters belongs in Italy, the land where the Mafia originated. The male clergy are the original “untouchables!”

  • Yes, Kasper’s orthodoxy is quite clearly a bit suspect. But he marginalized himself in the eyes of the other Cardinals by the talk he gave to the Cardinals at the Conclave, disregarding the Gospel teaching of Jesus and instead promoting Holy Communion for people living in adulterous “second marriages.” Catholics could not agree with Kasper about that if they know their Faith on a basic level and have some modest logical capacities and love for Jesus Christ, for their neighbor, and for moral goodness. Kasper told us what we need to know to understand very easily that Kasper is not trustworthy as a theologian, and not even someone one would allow to teach catechism to children. Where a believing Catholic would tend to not care thenceforth what Kasper thinks, RNS on the contrary becomes intensely interested in promoting his thoughts and spinning his comments as a rebuttal to Pope Francis’ official representative in dialogue with LCWR, Cardinal Muller. That is a stretch!! The talk about dialogue is actually a description of what is in fact happening–a considerable amount of respectful dialogue. In fact both Archbishop Sartain who is the US point man for this dialogue, and the LCWR in a statement described the dialogue that followed the introductory remarks of Cardinal Muller in positive terms as frank, respectful, etc. LCWR can’t have its own non Catholic belief system going forward (the Barbara Marx Hubbard stuff in particular is absolutely off-the-deep-end loony besides being very heretical), LCWR needs to be soundly Catholic or else it is going to lose its canonical status (individual orders also need to actually be Catholic in what they are teaching). I have been paying attention, have even interacted with several of the parties involved, and I see some reason to suspect some of the LCWR top leaders like Sr Janet Mock know and accept that better than many of their other membership. And make no mistake, Francis supports Muller in this LCWR dialogue, while also maintaining a friendly face toward the sisters (and this is very helpful). Francis has already stated that he endorses the CDF’s doctrinal assessment of the LCWR.

  • Your statement is completely moronic. There never was any such denunciation, and the fact that you go around lying about things says volumes

  • And yet, the church is growing, its leader is the most popular man in the world, and Catholic Social Justice policy is admired by both President Bush and Obama.

  • No, the media made that up. David Gibson should know better, but he is trynig to fluff Kasper up. The truth is, that although Francis allowed him to give a speech at the last convention, the idea was that he was allowing unusual ideas to be presented. According to other sources, 85% of the Cardinals in attendance disagreed with Kasper.

  • No one said “we didn’t mean it”
    The nuns are flakes – even you might realize that when you read their “Conscious Evolution” theories – they say that matter is becoming conscious. So a scientist such as yourself should be able to fgiure out how idiotic that is .

  • It would be helpful to the discussion if you knew what you are talking about.
    Nobody is getting trashed, thats just wild talk from people who cannot legitimately defend these weird nuns
    First of all, this is a small group of highly politicized nuns who want to engage in politics. They took oaths and were hired to be nuns. If they want to be activists, feminists, Moon worshippers or whatever other nonsense, they need to stop pretending they are Catholic nuns.
    The nuns present speakers at their conventions that have anti-Christian ideas. They present odd, New Age hippy ideas such as “Conscious Evolution” that make no sense, not even to a hippy.
    Then, when their employers says “Hey, you were hired to be Catholic nuns, not political activists”, the nuns then run crying to the media,like a bunch of litltle girls, saying “Waaah,, the boys are picking on us because we are girls!”
    Its pathetic. They should have the honesty to leave and stop using the Catholic church as cover.

  • And they claim to represent thousands of nuns, but they don’t. It’s an old trick to form an organization, call it something and then pretend to represent a bunch of people who have barely heard of you.

  • Stop being overly emotional about it. The CDF has done nothing at all to them except talk to them. Talking to them and trying to work things out is “abuse” in your book because the Nuns are so obviously wrong no one can defend them. So we get massive exaggerations like they are undergoing “religous abuse” and other such exaggerated nonsense. And to try and confuse the issue, you bring up an entirely unrelated issue – the sex abuse thing. You can’t defend them, so you try to change the subject.

  • It’s interesting that the left is worshipping at the feet of Kasper.
    Remember, his suggestion for allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.was to create a class of second class Catholics who were “tolerated” but not “accepted” for having remarried.

  • Especially the idea that Kasper is the “Pope’s theologian”. Certainly Francis has never said anything like this. The media wants to puff Kasper up, so they are giving him titles now! This is something the media just made up. As of yesterday. The Pope has an official theologian, and it ain’t Kasper.

  • The fact is, the LCWR represents 80% of currently active nuns in the United States.

    The way normal adults deal with issues is to request a meeting, in private, with the person(s) with whom one has an issue. Instead, Mueller meets with the nuns, then rushes to the microphones to denounce these women, thundering his disapproval that they didn’t get “permission” from the male hierarchy to invite an esteemed theologian to speak to them.

    Francis is likely laughing at this. Remember what he said last June:

    ” Some see his affirmation of the Vatican mandate for LCWR reform as an essential political move to be respectful of Benedict XVI, even as he told a group of nuns in June: “Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine [of Faith] will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing…. But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward.”

  • Kasper’s statement about Aquinas is not accurate. Aquinas was never condemned by his bishop while he was alive. After he died in 1274, the bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, issued a list of condemned propositions in 1277, some of which were things Aquinas had taught. Aquinas was not mentioned by name. And most theologians think that Tempier got things wrong and/or he misunderstood what Aquinas was really saying. And as we know, the history of the Church has shown it’s not unusual for one bishop to make incorrect statements. So the comparison doesn’t hold.

  • Besides, the biggest difference is that Aquinas was humble and would have immediately retracted anything he had inadvertently said against Church teaching. On his deathbed he said, “I have written and taught much about this very holy Body [ie. the Eucharist] and about the Holy Roman Church, to whose correction I expose and submit everything I have written.” When Johnson says that, I’ll agree she can be compared to Aquinas. Not until then!

  • “And as we know, the history of the Church has shown it’s not unusual for one bishop to make incorrect statements. ”

    Amazing. You actually stumbled into the truth (i.e., Donald Wuerl).

  • Something for American Catholics to think about.

    The recent Supreme Court’s “limited approval” of public prayers to open town hall meetings reveals a further diminution of their power of reason, a skill presumably required for confirmation .

    Justice Kennedy in his decision joined four other Catholics on the court. He claimed prayers were a long part of the nation’s heritage. Apparently, to him, a long history is sufficient to determine law.

    Very well. Let’s string out Justice Kennedy’s logic. According to anthropologists, New Guinea natives have practiced cannibalism for perhaps 40, 000 years. History doesn’t get much longer than that. Should they pass laws legalizing cannibalism? That would be lunacy, right?

    But wait! The religion practiced by these five Justices teaches them a wafer literally changes into the body of a long dead religious zealot which their heritage teaches them they should eat.

    Let’s face it. If we could revive a cannibal from 40,000 years ago and try to convince him a cracker was a 2000 year old dead person he would consider us the lunatic, not him.

    Yet these are the folks appointed to the highest court in the land. If only prayer worked. Mine would be, “God save us all.”

  • Are you sure you’re not looking for a Jack Chick thread on another forum?

    Your comments are germane to nothing being discussed here.

  • Are you yet in a position to let us know the “sources” that you referenced above?

  • What is the Pope’s position on the jailing of gay people and gay supporters in Uganda? What is his opinion that representatives of the church told congregations to turn in their gay children to reap their reward in heaven? This is not just talk, this is injustice at its most insidious. Speak up, Pope Francis! And don’t just talk, take action!!

  • No religion has any credibility if it allows contradiction of the kind you condone.If God does not command that its orthodoxy be obeyed,what use is the religion to anyone?(I am not religious,but believe in kicking people out of any ideological organization who don’t follow exclusive doctrines).

  • Understand that any religion that is too accepting becomes meaningless and useless.Disobeying a “thou shalt not” needs to have consequences or nobody cares what you have to say.

  • “Execute the unbelievers” – Thomas Aquinas.

    Stop telling me about the humility of christians.

  • You are so right! Let’s all have our own ideas about the Catholic Church and damn the Pope, Curia, and the Majestirum! And as far as God’s Will, well mine should come first, not His! And the hell with obedience, we can all act the way we want without obeying any kind of authority, especially that which comes from the Church!

  • Gilhcan, I think you are ready to start your own religion! You and those nuns want it your way and only your way. So if you don’t like the Catholic Church you have options, exercise them! Furthermore, those orders that maintain the traditional forms (habits, living together, etc.) seem to be increasing in their numbers!

  • Dwight, they say they represent 80%! That is merely based on the number of orders within the US. Just like the teachers unions say they represent all teachers, but most teacher are not always in concert with their union!

  • Elizabeth D, right on! The rest of the comments here make very little sense. You have the correct analysis!

  • Totally agree. You have to reveal the source of your words. Wothout that, your words mean nothing.

  • She’s a self-proclaimed expert who wrote (and is promoting) a book on how the keep religious sisters in the US “Catholic and faithful.” One of the EWTN cohort of gossips, snitches and spies.

  • The members of the Catholic laity in the United States know quite well that it has been the religious sisters of a wide variety of congregations who have had their backs and have sacrificed much in their faithful commitment to empower and form the laity into a mature people willing and able to take their rightful place as members of the People of God. Unless those who make up the Vatican Curia wish to complete their slide into irrelevancy and contempt in the eyes of the faithful, these princes of the Church ought to really think twice before screwing with the sisters.

  • Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been trying to rein in the American sisters for two years.

    Interesting that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been trying to rein in the American sisters for two years…while the Congregation is also responsible for reigning in the pedophile priests. I wonder why the Congregation will not arrest and try those leaders, the Popes, Cardinals, Bishops and Archbishops against whom, there is overwhelming, credible evidence they covered up the rapes of children and moved pedophile priests from parish to parish, thereby being responsible for the continued rapes that happened by these priests. They knew about a lot of them, some of these priests raping over 200 kids…but they sought to protect these priests and the church and say the hell with us victims of their perverts.

    So when the Congregation goes after these Pedophile Pimps…then maybe we will say…look they are finally doing something. Instead they go after nuns whom are doing the work Jesus Christ commanded them to do instead of going after the scum whom covered up these rapes like Jesus commanded us to do.

    For it would be better to tie a huge millstone around your neck and throw yourself into the deepest of lakes than to harm a single hair on the head of a child.

    Whom do you think in the end Jesus is going to stand up for?

    Those whom raped us and covered up these rapes? or those of us whom were raped and had our souls and lives destroyed by these perverts?

  • I am new to this site and it is interesting to see the Roman Catholics at war with
    each other. It is somewhat “positive” to see the openness of various Romans
    about their own problems. I notice that for every critical comment on the nuns
    there appears to be an equally critical comment on priests. This is a good thing,
    as ironic as it is it allows exposure. No one wearing a collar should be exempt.

  • Finally, some common sense.
    For decades religious orders and priests have betrayed Jesus in various ways…crime, apostasy, activism, immorality…all the while cashing their little checks, getting insurance, getting respect as holy people.
    If they want to leave, they should just be honest. But that wouldn’t give them the platform and respect.
    This is miserable for the decent ones. Many of them are the ones who have to leave and have a Christian life as lay people.
    I was close friends with a genuine Christian priest. It hurt me to see him ridiculed for giving away his money, hanging about the emergency rooms to offer help, being on the side of poor blacks in this southern city.
    The Church puts up with awful behavior and keeps paying the bills for it.

  • Do not be happy you non Catholics over this bickering. There are Catholics who are only catholic in name but protestants in practice. Jesus sais “When the Son of man returns, shall he find faith on earth? If you watch and do not convert, it is up to you.

  • An odd conclusion as to the mission of the Church. i have searched the New Testament and the Church Fathers for Jesus’ thoughts on Secularism and Gay Cultists. No mention. He seemed focused on God’s encompassing love and tolerance of human frailty. Imperious denunciations from the religious establishment earned his condemnation.
    And a minor correction: it is POPE Francis and CARDINAL Kasper.

  • As far as homosexuality goes, it was already a “given” in Jesus’ time from the Old Testament on through to St. Paul in the New Testament—the act is a sin. Jesus covered it when he said, “Thou Shalt not commit adultery” — any sex outside the marriage of a man and a woman is sinful period. Telling people the Truth in Love, can save their souls.

  • Since when is the Catholic Church a democracy? Someone has to set the standards and the rules. You cannot revise doctrine and the pope’s “stalking horse” is very willing to do just that. When Moses went up to the mountain top, his brother Aaron was forced by the people to build a golden calf to Ba’al.