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Walter Kasper’s Theology

Most Anglicans associate Cardinal Walter Kasper with his work as a Christian ecumenist. Kasper was a key player in the dialogue leading up to the momentous Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) between the World Lutheran Federation and the Vatican. Between 2001 and 2010, as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and chairman of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Cardinal Kasper worked tirelessly as an interpreter of the Second Vatican Council to the broader world. While duly recognizing these accomplishments, a recent conference, “The Theology of Walter Kasper: A Celebration of his Life and Work,” hosted April 25-27 by the University of Notre Dame’s theology department on the occasion of Kasper’s 80th birthday, aimed to provide a more comprehensive picture of the cardinal’s lifetime achievements.

In her opening remarks, conference organizer Kristin Colberg (St. John’s, Collegeville) noted that, by his own admission, Kasper’s theological work has proceeded from a single question: How do we translate Christian tradition in the modern context and the modern context through the Christian tradition? In setting these questions at the forefront of his inquiry, Kasper clearly stands in line with the theological concerns of the Second Vatican Council. But Colberg was quick to point out that Kasper’s quest for relevance never led him to reduce the Church to another social-transformative institution. Rather, the Church achieves its relevance solely by insisting on and preserving its distinctive identity. As such, at the heart of Kasper’s translational theology is what Colberg calls the “identity-relevance dilemma.”

Colberg set the stage for a rich and sumptuous fare of lectures. A renowned, international group of visiting panelists — including Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity School — joined Notre Dame’s theology faculty in paying homage to Kasper. These lectures highlighted Kasper’s achievement not only as ecumenist and participant in interreligious dialogue but as a dogmatic theologian in his own right. As is typical at Notre Dame, the conference was as much an affair of the heart as an affair of the head, and at the request of the coordinators, talks were interspersed with grateful personal anecdotes and memories of many of Kasper’s former students as well as a slide show and birthday celebration featuring, appropriately, Black Forest chocolate cake.

As a basic point of orientation, Cardinal Kasper’s theology can best be understood as a part of the broader work of Roman Catholic faculty at the University of Tübingen. In line with the school’s early divines, such as Johann Sebastian von Drey (1777-1853) and Johann Adam Möhler (1796-1838), Kasper’s work is rooted in a dialogue with and a recovery of German Protestant idealist Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854). The other indelible influence on Kasper’s thought is clearly the Second Vatican Council. Although Kasper was still a graduate student when Pope John XXIII’s prayer for a “New Pentecost” was answered in the form of the council, Kasper soon inherited its mantel and became one of its chief interpreters. In both of these influences, Kasper’s theology represents a turn away from the intramural concerns of neo-Thomism to a dialectical theology, rooted in human experience and aimed at “rendering an account of the Christian hope to every human being” (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).

Conference panelists paid tribute to two of Kasper’s central dogmatic works, Jesus the Christ (1974) and The God of Jesus Christ (1982), which represent his Christology and trinitarian thought, respectively. In discussing Jesus the Christ, William Loewe of the Catholic University of America noted that despite Kasper’s reliance on Günther Bornkamm’s outdated portrait of the historical Jesus present in Jesus von Nazareth (1956), Kasper succeeded in grounding Christology in the life of the historical Jesus, a decision repeated in Benedict XVI’s recent Jesus of Nazareth. Rather than reducing Christology to “Jesuology,” however, Kasper rightly points to “the reciprocity of the earthly Jesus and the Risen Christ.”

Kasper’s most comprehensive theological work in a single volume, however, if one judges by the frequency of its appearance in conference papers, is The God of Jesus Christ. It is here that Kasper sets out his trinitarian vision in full. Notre Dame professor Cyril O’Regan, in a masterful appreciation of this work as a “midrash” on Karl Rahner’s landmark book The Trinity, argued that Kasper stands in both continuity and discontinuity with Rahner and becomes his translator and corrector. While adopting Rahner’s radical move to root trinitarian thought in the economic rather than the immanent Trinity (inverting Augustine and Aquinas), Kasper likewise goes beyond Rahner (who apparently never quotes Scripture in The Trinity and only occasionally notes it) by transplanting and elaborating his trinitarian thought in firmly biblical soil.

While the foregoing reflections might be considered a prolegomenon of sorts to Kasper’s ecumenical and interreligious work, it would have been equally fair to begin with his more “practical” work and move back to his dogmatic thought. This feature of Kasper’s theology, its cyclical navigation of the “identity-relevance dilemma,” stands as one of his abiding challenges to the Church he loves.

Kasper stands out as a translator for his own tradition. In his otherwise retrospective remarks in the Keeley Vatican Lecture given on the eve of the conference, “The Origins of Vatican II,” Kasper could not help giving some perspective as well on the continuing importance of the council for Roman Catholic life. For Kasper, Vatican II is very much still in its initial stages of reception. As Kasper noted: “If the documents of the Second Vatican Council represent a faithful compass for the Church, the needle of that compass is still wavering wildly.” Hailed as too liberal by some and too conservative by others, Kasper represents a unique middle voice in the translation of the council, calling for “new forms of ministry” that stand in striking continuity with the tradition. For Kasper, Pope Francis serves as an icon of the kinds of changes the council intended.

Kasper’s thought on reception and his work in ecumenical dialogue also prove highly relevant for Anglicans. Kasper reminds us that the Anglican Communion is in a process of reception, namely, the reception of the Anglican Covenant. Despite the Covenant’s approbation or adoption by several provinces, its limited success in America and Great Britain has resulted in many calling it dead in the water. Against such a precipitous judgment, Kasper reminds us that reception is always a long process, usually taking at least a century to unravel in its full details. If this is the case, then the Anglican Covenant, which was submitted for consideration to the provinces in 2009, is only in the nascent stages of its reception. Even if parts of the Covenant, such as Section IV, prove in need of emendation, the jury is very much still out on the positive effects it may have on helping the Anglican Communion recognize and live into the new life to which the Spirit is calling it.

It should perhaps have come as no surprise, then, that when I asked Kasper one evening about promising avenues of future Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, his first response was not Anglicanorum coetibus but the Anglican Covenant. Kasper spoke of a deep friendship with Rowan Williams and of the great boon the Covenant would provide for helping identify the constituent core of Anglicanism as one of the sister churches in dialogue.

Cardinal Kasper’s support of the Anglican Covenant sends a twofold message to the Anglican Communion. First, in response to those who have unfairly characterized the Covenant simply as an intramural power play aimed at provinces in North America and focused on a single issue, Cardinal Kasper’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Covenant re-emphasizes the broader ecumenical import of the document and its fundamental aim of identifying an Anglican theological core, not of policing peripheral issues.

Second, in response to those who would in turn argue (somewhat justly) that the Covenant is itself an “innovation” in Anglican history, Kasper’s own Johannine ecclesiology of spiritual progress and the witness of the Second Vatican Council in the life of all churches (see especially the breathtaking concessions made to Protestant churches in Unitatis redintegratio) poses the reciprocal question: What if indeed the Anglican Covenant and the expression of communion it embodies is precisely the new thing that the Spirit is trying to teach us? Above all, Kasper’s ecclesiology presents not the Church as bearer of stagnant dogmata, but rather dogmatic theology as the expression of “a living truth that is on the move” for the sake of Christian unity. We err not only by precipitously outrunning the consensus fidelium but also by staying rooted in the proverbial moss-covered error and falling behind where the Spirit is leading.

Of course, discerning which theological translations are Spirit-led and which are false trails is, in Kasper’s words, “never easy.” Neither is our dialogue with one another across the fragmented body of our Church. “Yet we must not shy away from it,” as Kasper proclaimed at Notre Dame. “It is the mandate of our Lord. The joy of the Lord is our strength” (Neh. 8:10). In his classic, biblical way, Kasper here sums up his theological method: the impetus for translation, the courage to do theology, the animus of face-to-face dialogue and ecumenical and interreligious friendship all depend upon a new infusion of joy — the gaudium of our crucified and risen Lord. Only then can the Church “let go of much that has been familiar” and approach “true Catholic breadth.”

Cardinal Kasper


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