Time to Revisit the ‘Ratzinger-Kasper’ Debate?

The Pontificator emailed me this article from the Geoffrey Kirk, Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the Anglican Diocese of Southwark: “The Way We Live Now, A Tale of Two Cardinals” (New Directions July 2001) — a look at the public theological debate of 2001 between Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Kasper from the perspective of a member of the “anglo-catholic” organization Forward in Faith:

What is at stake in this dispute?

Kasper, it appears, grounds his view, to some extent at least, on his own pastoral experience as a bishop. As the chief pastor of an increasingly secularised diocese in one of the most secularised areas of Europe, he found that both priests and people tended to resent and ignore Vatican directives on faith and especially morals. He saw the necessity, in other words, of asserting the priority and authority of the local bishop, who could then, wisely and pastorally, adapt general regulations and prohibitions to the situation of his own flock.

Ratzinger, on the other hand, constantly fears that such an approach will condemn the authority of the Church (a world-wide communion responsible to its own history and the Lord of that history) to the death of a thousand diocesan moderations and qualifications.

The dispute looks like the age old one between Aristotelian realism and Platonic idealism, except that Ratzinger bases his arguments less on Platonic philosophy than on scripture and tradition. For him the Universal Church is not simply the expansion of an initially local community. It is the ‘Jerusalem above’ which Paul describes as ‘the mother of us all’ (Galatians 4.26).

Kasper, it appears, does not deny the pre-existence of the Church; he merely asserts that pre-existence belongs not only to the Church Universal, but also to concrete historical churches, which are likewise grounded in God’s eternal mystery. . . .

Rev. Kirk comes down rather hard in his critique of Cardinal Kasper, believing the consequences of his argument are reflected in the sorry state of the Episcopal Church:

It is not entirely clear how much authority Cardinal Kasper would like to see exercised by the bishop of a particular Church. But members of Forward in Faith will already, in this brief description of the arguments, have read the runes and taken sides.

Kasper is arguing, in the midst of a world-wide crisis of authority and credibility in Anglicanism, for an Anglicization of the Roman Church. The Anglican disease is the disease of wilful autonomy. Ours is a polity which tolerates (thus far at least) any and every local ‘adaptation of doctrine’. It has, at the centre, no regulating structure or legislative authority. . . .

Traditional Anglicans in some provinces, who are hounded and persecuted for holding opinions which, in other provinces are mainstream and unexceptionable, cannot but admit that Ratzinger has a point. There is clearly a sense in which a Church which has no central authority and no means of reaching a common mind has ceased to be a Church. It has degenerated into an arena of competing ideologies.

Traditional Anglicans in some provinces, who are hounded and persecuted for holding opinions which, in other provinces are mainstream and unexceptionable, cannot but admit that Ratzinger has a point. There is clearly a sense in which a Church which has no central authority and no means of reaching a common mind has ceased to be a Church. It has degenerated into an arena of competing ideologies.

* * *

As the Cardinals decide on the future of the next pope, among the topics of discussion will be the proper distribution of ecclesial authority — about which there will be much discussion by the press and pundits (for instance, in the criticism of “centralization of power in the papacy” and the advocacy of freedom on a local, diocesian level). Perhaps now would be a beneficial time to examine once more the issues of this great debate.

As Russel Shaw noted (“Authority reconsidered: Who’s in charge here?,” Our Sunday Visitor August 12, 2001):

Theoretical as all this is, it has important practical implications involving, in Cardinal Kasper’s words,”ethical issues, sacramental discipline- and ecumenical practices.’

The meaning of that is clearer when it is borne in mind that as bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart from 1989 to 1999, Cardinal Kasper joined two other German bishops in proposing that some divorced and remarried Catholics be allowed to receive the sacraments without a declaration of nullity – a judgment by the Church that their first unions were invalid. The Vatican vetoed the idea.

Such clashes between local Church authorities and Rome have had numerous counterparts in the United States over the years.

One such counterpart, weighing heavily in not a few minds, is the scandal of defiantly “pro-choice Catholic” legislators (and presidential candidates) openly receiving communion at their parishes in the United States (more commentary on that fiasco here).

On one hand, you had for the better part of the presidential race a drawn-out discussion of the USCCB on the “complexities” of the matter, and how to resolve it in sensitive and pastoral manner without “causing a commotion” at the alter rail (or communion line, rather, since alter rails are a thing of the past).

On the other hand, you might recall Cardinal Ratzinger weighing in “from Rome” on the subject, and speaking rather clearly and explicitly on the necessity of refusing commmunion to those guilty of “an obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin” (see p. 4, 5 of Worthiness to Receive Communion: General Principles June 2004).

The scandal is ongoing, with very few bishops actually heeding Cardinal Ratzinger’s instructions. After nearly half a year of studying the issue, Cardinal McCarrick’s task force weighed the various options with no satisfactory results but a two-and-a-half-page report that concluded “there will be continuing consultation on the complex theological and canonical aspects of these matters within our Conference and with the Holy See.” Fr. Neuhaus’ appraised the situation in his Feb. 2005 column of “The Public Square”):

According to Cardinal McCarrick’s report, everything was handled just right. “Bishops, pastors, and parishioners across the country have been wrestling with how our faith should shape our decisions in public life. This has been a very good thing.” Yes, there were problems. “The media or partisan forces sometimes tried to pit one bishop against another.” Oh dear, the media and partisan forces are at it again. Especially those partisan forces that are obsessed by the “one issue politics” of abortion. Never mind that some bishops very publicly stated that support for abortion and embryonic stem-cell research gravely compromised a politician’s communio with the Church, while others just as publicly said they saw no problem and happily invited such politicians to receive Communion. “We do not believe,” says the McCarrick report, “that our commitment to human life and dignity and our pursuit of justice and peace are competing causes.” But nobody said they were competing causes, except possibly Cardinal McCarrick and other bishops who seem to think the Democratic Party has a monopoly on the pursuit of justice and peace. At the November meeting, there was neither opportunity nor stomach for discussing McCarrick’s report. Which may be just as well. The bishops were simply grateful that they had escaped the prospect of having a radically pro-abortion Catholic in the White House. Except, of course, for those bishops committed to the pursuit of justice and peace.

So, Catholics in the United States continue to live with the scandal of “pro-choice” politicians coming under censure by their bishop in one diocese, and happily receiving communion in another, all the while blatantly living in a state of open rebellion against the Church.

Perhaps the Rev. Geoffrey Kirk is right: are we witnessing the ‘Anglicanizing’ of the Catholic Church in America?

Resources on the ‘Ratzinger-Kasper’ Debate:

Key Articles:

Supplementary Articles:

* * *

Update: Regarding Russel Shaw’s example of Cardinal Kasper proposing “divorced and remarried Catholics be allowed to receive the sacraments without a declaration of nullity,” a reader reminds me that Cardinal Ratzinger mentions a similar proposal in Salt of the Earth (Ignatius, 1997), p. 207:

“. . . The principles have been decided, but factual questions, individual questions, are of course always possible. For example, perhaps in the future there could also be an extrajudicial determination that the first marriage did not exist. This could perhaps be ascertained locally by experienced pastors. Such juridical developments, which can make things less complicated, are conceivable.

I thank the reader for bringing this up. Given the volume of content on my website as well as Ratzinger’s works, my memory certainly fails at times. However, we should note that the cited passage is immediately followed by the Cardinal’s qualification:

But the principle that marriage is indissoluble and that someone who has left the valid marriage of his life, the sacrament, and entered into another marriage cannot communicate does in fact hold definitively.

Furthermore, the entire question is situated in a section in which Ratzinger stresses the necessity and significance of abstaining from communion by the faithful in such circumstances.

Unfortunately, Ratzinger does not elaborate further in the interview what he means by “extrajudicial determination . . . ascertained locally” — but I suspect that given his role as Prefect in the October 1994 decision “Concerning reception of Holy Communion by Divorced and Remarried Persons”), whatever he meant in the passage cited could in no way be equated with the joint-proposal by Daneels, Kasper and Saier as described in John Allen Jr.’s article “Reopening the divorce question” National Catholic Reporter Oct. 29, 1999).

Lastly, as Cardinal Dulles comments on the matter (Zenit, May 28, 2001):

“Good arguments can be made both for and against allowing Holy Communion to be given in certain problematic cases,” Cardinal Dulles writes. “But in the context of Kasper’s article the essential question is whether the solutions should be worked out by particular churches on their own authority. Is the situation in the diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart so peculiar that it should be allowed to go its own way on these two questions?

“From reading Kasper’s text I do not see why the problems in Rottenburg or Stuttgart differ significantly from those in Munich, Johannesburg, or New York. Whatever policy is permitted in Rottenburg-Stuttgart does not concern that diocese alone; it will inevitably have repercussions all over the world.”

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