Volume > Issue > Love of God & Love of Neighbor: One Commandment or Two?

Love of God & Love of Neighbor: One Commandment or Two?


By Christopher Roberts | January-February 2020
Fr. Christopher Roberts is pastor of St. Paul and Holy Family parishes in Marion and Gas City, Indiana.

Walter Cardinal Kasper’s book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (2012) has played a prominent role in setting the pastoral agenda in today’s Church. During Pope Francis’s first Angelus message after ascending to the Chair of Peter, he approvingly cited the book, saying he had read it recently and it had done him “much good.” The vision of God’s mercy that Kasper puts forth has been one of the principal themes of the Argentinian Pontiff’s reign. Indeed, Francis went so far as to proclaim an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy and to collaborate on a book-length interview on the topic, The Name of God Is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli (2016). Since then, Kasper’s ideas have influenced discussions about how to extend mercy in the Church. The German cardinal’s views are worth examining more deeply, both for their influence on the direction of the present pontificate and their theological merit. The fresh manner in which Kasper claims to explain mercy demands scrutiny, especially the way in which he grounds mercy in New Testament revelation and the Fathers of the Church. Such scrutiny reveals that Kasper’s sources often do not say what he claims they say.

The New Testament fulfills the promises of God’s mercy from their deep Old Testament roots. During Jesus’ three years of public ministry, His principal message was the alleviation of suffering, as evidenced not only by His spiritual exorcisms and physical healings but by His moral teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Despite having obvious continuities with the Old Testament, there is also a certain discontinuity between our Lord’s message of mercy and the Old Covenant. Kasper holds that “Jesus opens up access to God not just for a few righteous people but all.” In the Old Testament, only Israelites who keep the law benefit from God’s mercy; in the New Covenant, everyone benefits, regardless of racial or moral history. The contrast between the “few righteous people” and everyone else includes not only those who are not Jews but even those who are morally weak, like prostitutes and tax collectors.

If the four Gospels reveal that mercy is the essence of God, then mercy must also be the highest perfection for the Christian disciple. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ urges His disciples to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). At first glance, this counsel appears to be an exhortation to attempt the impossible. In order to clarify this point, our German cardinal turns to the parallel verse in the Sermon on the Plain, wherein Jesus teaches His disciples to “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36), thus specifying the content of the type of divine perfection men are called to imitate. While it is beyond the realm of possibility for men to copy all of God’s perfections, they can try to follow God’s example by being merciful.

Kasper concludes that when these two verses are read together, it is clear that “mercy is the perfection of God’s essence.” Kasper finds additional support for this position in his examination of our Lord’s parables. The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son provide a sort of diptych that illustrates the two sides of Christian mercy. God pours mercy out freely and abundantly (the Prodigal Son), and those who follow Christ are called to do the same (the Good Samaritan).

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