WHEN CARDINALS CLASH IN PUBLIC, IT’S SERIOUS
The Kasper-Ratzinger Debate & The State of the Church

April 2002By Philip Blosser

Philip Blosser is Professor of Philosophy at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, North Carolina.

My priest and I occasionally share articles with each other in an ongoing amicable discussion about the state of the Church. He recently gave me a copy of an article written by Walter Cardinal Kasper entitled “On the Church” from the Jesuit magazine America (April 23-30, 2001), which was directed against Cardinal Ratzinger by name. My priest suggested that the comparatively young Kasper might make a good pope someday (“Kasper, the friendly pope?”), perhaps right after Cardinal Martini of Milan, who, he said, might make a good immediate successor to Pope John Paul II. Both Kasper and Martini are described in current discussions about papable cardinals as “leaning left” on various issues. Now, my priest is no flaming liberal. He describes himself generally (and accurately) as “orthodox,” though he views himself as a “moderate” on pastoral issues. His willingness to align himself with Kasper (against Ratzinger) in this debate, as well as his favorable remarks about Martini, represent a fairly widespread point of view within the Church today, which I would like to examine.

The Kasper-Ratzinger debate began, as Ratzinger notes in a follow-up article entitled “The Local Church and the Universal Church: A Response to Walter Kasper” (America, Nov. 19, 2001), when Kasper had an article published that sharply criticized the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church as Communion, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which Ratzinger is the head. Ratzinger forthrightly characterized Kasper’s original article, originally published in 1999, as an “attack.” I do not intend to review the history of this debate or go into all its details, but rather to examine a few points raised by Kasper’s 2001 America article which seem representative of a much broader conflict among Catholics today. It is a conflict between those, on the one hand, who are concerned to safeguard the unity of traditional faith and morals, and those, on the other hand, who are concerned with keeping abreast with the changing times. It is a conflict that rather ominously pits Cardinal against Cardinal in public debate. The conflict has escalated to the point where opponents of Rome’s supposed rigidity, fossilization, and legalism seem to be working with an understanding of the Church that is quite alien, if not unintelligible, to non-revisionist Catholics.

Kasper’s article, beneath its complicated details, is animated by the desire to secure greater “pastoral flexibility” in areas where a gap seems to be widening between the Church’s official positions and the actual practices of many local churches. It is a fact that the Church’s official positions tend to be implemented with increasing reluctance, if not simply ignored, in many local churches throughout the world, particularly in countries such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, and the nations of western Europe. Areas of disagreement and contention with the Vatican include, according to Kasper, “ethical issues, sacramental discipline and ecumenical practices.” This likely translates into the Church’s widely controverted and ignored prohibitions against homosexual acts, premarital cohabitation, and “remarriage” outside the Church — and her ban prohibiting those involved in these things, or those whose affiliation is non-Catholic, from receiving Holy Communion. There is also the matter of contraception. It is widely known that there are bishops and priests who favor an open communion policy, and that few would turn away anyone approaching the altar, whatever his sexual practice, marital status, or church affiliation. Cardinal Martini of Milan has been reported as saying, for instance, that the Church has no business getting involved in the personal morals of individual Catholics. As we shall see, Kasper seems inclined to agree with this perspective.

It is humbling to consider the pressures faced by bishops and priests from the surrounding contemporary culture. I can only imagine how hard it must be to stand with Rome when Rome is widely portrayed in the media (and perceived by one’s own parishioners) as the last bastion of repressive, ignorant, patriarchal authoritarianism. What is one to do when the inner meaning of the Catholic Faith and Tradition is so far removed from the world’s understanding of things? What is one to do when so many Catholics themselves share the world’s ignorance and indifference regarding the Church’s teachings, practice contraception, approve of abortion, cohabit before marriage, enter into active homosexual partnerships, divorce and “remarry” outside the Church — and regard themselves as members in good standing in their parishes? What is one to do when non-Catholic denominations, in a spirit of Christian brotherhood, adopt a policy of open communion, making Rome’s position seem uncharitable, closed-minded, reactionary, and arrogant? When all of Paris is storming the Bastille, the slightest hesitation to join in the rioting may easily get one tarred as a member of the ancien régime.


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