Meditating on the meaning of mercy

During his first Angelus address, Pope Francis recommended a work of theology that “has done me so much good” because it “says that mercy changes everything; it changes the world by making it less cold and more fair.”

May 16, 2014

VATICAN: During his first Angelus address, Pope Francis recommended a work of theology that “has done me so much good” because it “says that mercy changes everything; it changes the world by making it less cold and more fair.” That book is Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Cardinal Walter Kasper, which has just been published by Paulist Press. Before serving as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (2001-2010), Kasper was bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart (1989-1999). He has taught theology at the University of Tubingen, the Westphalian University of Munster, and the Catholic University of America. Last week, associate editors Matthew Boudway and Grant Gallicho spoke with the cardinal in New York. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In your book you refer to John Paul II’s second encyclical, in which he writes that justice alone is not enough, and that sometimes the highest justice can end up becoming the highest injustice. Has that been the case inside the Church itself, especially with respect to the way the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has dealt with certain theologians?
Kasper: Mercy concerns not only individuals. It also an imperative for the Church itself. The Church defined itself at the Second Vatican Council as a sacrament of God’s grace. How can the Church be sacramental, a sign and instrument of mercy, when she herself doesn’t live out mercy? So many people do not perceive the church as merciful. It’s hard. John XXIII said that we must use the medicine of mercy within the Church. Mercy is also a critical point for the Church. She has to preach it. We have a sacrament of mercy — the Sacrament of Penance, but we have to re-evaluate it, I think. And it has to be done in social behaviour and in social works. Pope Francis has said we must become a poor Church for the poor — that’s his programme. In this respect, he begins a new phase of the reception of the Council.

When it comes to the CDF’s criticisms of some theologians, there was not always due process. That’s evident, and here we must change our measures. This is also a problem when it comes to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried people, which is now under consideration in preparation for the Synod of Bishops this autumn. On the other hand, we have positive signs of mercy within the Church. We have the saints, Mother Teresa — there are many Mother Teresas. This is also a reality of the Church.

In your speech to open the Consistory in March (published in English as The Gospel of the Family), you talk about the possibility that a divorced and remarried Catholic might, after a period of penance, receive Communion again. Are you envisioning a situation in which a divorced and remarried Catholic — a Catholic with a new partnership and a civil marriage — could not live with his or her new partner “as brother and sister” without destroying that partnership, since the other partner might not allow the relationship to continue on those terms? Is that the kind of scenario you had in mind?
Kasper: The failure of a first marriage is not only related to bad sexual behaviour. It can come from a failure to realize what was promised before God and before the other partner and the Church. Therefore, it failed; there were shortcomings. This has to be confessed. But I cannot think of a situation in which a human being has fallen into a gap and there is no way out. Often he cannot return to the first marriage. If this is possible, there should be a reconciliation, but often that’s not possible.

In the Creed we say we believe in the forgiveness of sin. If there was this shortcoming, and it has been repented for — is absolution not possible? My question goes through the Sacrament of Penance, through which we have access to Holy Communion. But penance is the most important thing — repentance of what went wrong, and a new orientation. The new quasi-family or the new partnership must be solid, lived in a Christian way. A time of new orientation — metanoia — would be necessary. Not punishing people but a new orientation because divorce is always a tragedy. It takes time to work it out and to find a new perspective. My question — not a solution, but a question — is this: Is absolution not possible in this case? And if absolution, then also Holy Communion? There are many themes, many arguments in our Catholic tradition that could allow this way forward.

To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian. That could also create new tensions. Adultery is not only wrong sexual behaviour. It’s to leave a familiaris consortio, a communion, and to establish a new one. But normally it’s also the sexual relations in such a communion, so I can’t say whether it’s ongoing adultery. Therefore I would say, yes, absolution is possible. Mercy means God gives to everybody who converts and repents a new chance. --

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