Mercy according to Cardinal Kasper
by Fr Serafino M. Lanzetta
|Christ and the Samaritan Woman:|
"The man you are living with now is not your husband..."
We greet with great interest the theological effort of Cardinal Walter Kasper to restore the theme of God’s mercy not only to the centre of the Church’s preaching and pastoral approach, but – above all – to the centre of theological reflection. In his recent book on Mercy, which appeared in German in 2012 and was then translated into Italian by Queriniana (Giornale di Teologia 361) in 2013, "Misericordia: Concetto fondamentale del vangelo - Chiave della vita" [published in English under the title "Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life], the German Cardinal, for many years president of the Pontifical Council per Christian Unity, parts from a bitter observation: Mercy, which occupies a central place in the Bible, has in fact fallen completely into oblivion in Systematic Theology, being treated only in an accessory manner. Up until the threshold of the 1960s it has no central place in the manuals of Systematic Theology, and in the more recent manuals it can even be totally lacking. If it does appear, it takes a place which is wholly marginal. Notwithstanding the fact that the pontificate of John Paul II gave a great impulse to the rediscovery of Mercy, as a theological and spiritual theme – thanks above all to the Polish saint, Faustina Kowalska – and that Benedict XVI made it, in a certain way, his guide, with the first encyclical on love, "Deus caritas est", the theme still remains hidden in its potential development for theology, and therefore for Christian life. Our Cardinal, then, in his text with which we occupy ourselves (5th Italian Edition, 2014), takes up this issue, and presents on a systematic level the theme of God’s Mercy.
A Justice that retracts into Mercy?
Mercy is an indispensable medicine, it is the ingredient that is sadly lacking, but that – on closer inspection – represents the only true response to the Atheism and the ever so pernicious ideologies of the Twentieth Century. How does one announce again a God whose even existence, after Auschwitz, we would do better to pass over in silence? Historically, in Kasper’s judgement, supported by O. H. Pesch, "the idea of a chastising and vindictive God has cast many into anguish regarding their eternal salvation. The most well-known case, and a harbinger of grave consequences for History, is that of the young Martin Luther, who was for a long time tormented by the question: 'How can I find a kind God?', until he recognised one day that, in the sense of the Bible, God’s Justice is not his punitive justice, but his justifying justice and, therefore, his Mercy. On this matter, in the Sixteenth Century, the Church divided" (p. 25), and so, from that moment, the rapport between Justice and Mercy became a central question for western theology.
Our Cardinal prefers not to enter the theme of Justification according to Luther, but he praises it (as he will again at pp. 121. 137). Although there would be many things to say, to take one from among them: Justifying Mercy is seen by the German Reformer not as ontological forgiveness, as Man’s full reconciliation with God, in Truth and in Justice, but as a being simply clothed with the merits of Christ (not of Man), whilst intrinsically remaining sinners, although declared just. Is this the Mercy of God? Where Man remains affected not only by the vulnus of concupiscence, but by sin’s filth itself, while being at the same time just? Just in Sin? About all this Card. Kasper shows himself benevolent, skimming over it, referring only to the enormous effort of both sides, the Catholic one and the Lutheran, to find a fundamental consensus on the doctrine of Justification with the official Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification of 31st October 1999, a collaboration of members of the Lutheran World Federation and of the Catholic Church – represented by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity – with our Cardinal presiding (cf. p. 26). To this Declaration, followed by the joint Declaration of 1997, it had been necessary to prefix, in 1998, an official Catholic Response (developed by the common agreement of the CDF and the PCCU, but signed only by the latter), remaining all the same with a Protestant vision – not reconcilable with the Catholic one – in the ecumenical attempt to no longer consider the condemnations of Trent as divisive for the churches.
In any case Kasper is conscious, in his book, of an assumption: we have to pull Mercy "out of its Cinderella existence, in which it had fallen in traditional theology" (p. 26). Certainly, Mercy is not a mawkish vision of God, of a God who is possibilist towards the desires of Man, compliant, bonist; but rather it is a true challenge – not only theological, but also social and political – if we want it. From true Mercy comes an image of God as the adequate response to the ideology still en vogue, whether Marxist or Capitalist.
Card. Kasper is very careful to denounce all the risks that hide in the almost obsessive emphasising of Mercy, but at times against the truth. A world that has renounced God and Reason can satisfy itself only with good sentiments. He writes, for example: "Mercy without Truth would be deprived of honesty; it would be simple consolation, ultimately empty chattering. But, vice versa, the Truth without Mercy would be cold, standoffish and ready to damage" (p.241).
The primary aim of Kasper’s book on Mercy, all the same, is to give systematic order to the great absentee in theological speculation and debate, provoking a wider awareness. Our author, in this manner, after having examined attentively the message of Mercy in the Old Testament and in the preaching of Jesus, offers important reflections for a general speculative outline for Mercy. We shall occupy ourselves a little longer with this particular point, because – on close scrutiny – in this systematic outline, something seems to be insinuated that could upset the whole: easily exaggerating the merciful traits of God, while at the same time cutting them down. Let us examine this work step by step.
Blessed the poor in spirit
There is an almost radical novelty to Christ in respect to the message of the Old Testament, Kasper comments, consisting in the fact that Jesus, "preaches definitive Mercy for all. He opens out the way of access to God not only to a few just ones, but to all… God has definitively silenced his own anger and has made space for his love and his mercy" (p. 103). This drastic separation with the Old Covenant, where – it seems – speaking in such a way, there would be no place for compassion and love, does not appear well supported. It is enough to think of the Psalms which praise the Father’s merciful love for us (cf. Ps 117, along with those which our author cites, convinced that from the Exodus right through to the Psalms God is merciful and piteous, cf. p.93). Mercy, basically, derives from God’s creative act itself, which arouses in Him approval and joy (cf. Gen 1, 4. 10. 12. 18). God does not despise what He has made; he does not deny the work of His hands.
But rather, what the Cardinal pushes to underline, in the merciful emphasis of the New Testament, is this affirmation, which in reality is very obscure: "His (Jesus’) recipients were in a particular way the sinners; these are the poor in spirit" (p. 103). And this, it would seem, for the fact that Jesus is a friend of publicans and sinners. (cf. p.104). The sinners are the poor in spirit? Therefore, one who commits sins is blessed because he has lost something in the spirit? One can see to what conclusions such a consideration would bring us, not to mention real errors, which in fact are already encountered in so much preaching, in so many merciful infatuations. Poverty of spirit is not a material lack of something (of the grace of God?), but an interior condition, an attitude of the intellect and of the heart, simple, penitent and humble, placed before God, without human means, listening to his Word (cf. Mt 5, 3 in the light of Ps 69, 33ss.).
On this point an important Protestant theologian, Heinz Zahrnt, has very clear ideas when he says the following, commenting on the public ministry of the Lord: "Sinners are not excused and the illness does not come to be idealised. Jesus is a friend of sinners, not their comrade… Certainly, the return of the sinner remains indispensable; however it is not the condition, but rather the consequence of the gracious gift of God" ("Jesus aus Nazareth. Ein Leben", Munich 1987, p. 109). The poor in spirit are those who convert, not the sinners who remain such.
Mercy: Mirror of the Trinity?
Kasper refutes the classic metaphysical vision and instead make his own the Critique of Kant, well expressed in the question: "What can we hope for?" That is, our intelligence is limited; it cannot surpass the field of the visible and of human experience. That which goes beyond is not given us to know, but is relegated to Hope, which represents a mere postulation (cf. pp. 190-191). This is true also for Kasper. In fact, he writes: "It is not possible to surpass Kant’s critique of the attempts at a Theodicea; all these attempts are to be considered as failed" (p. 191). But does there arise, at least sometimes, the problem that a hope as a simple presupposition, yet in fact founded on doubt, is already desperation?
Theodicea, bound to an existentialist vision of God, which – among other things – excludes Mercy from the attributes of the Divine Being, instead reducing them to only (strong) attributes like Omnipotence, Justice, Infinity, etc., would leave room, in the Sacred Scriptures, for a more existential form of the "Ego sum qui sum" Ex 3, 14): not I am the Being, but I am always with you and for you (cf. p. 129). But if metaphysics has excluded Mercy from among the essential attributes of God (cf. p. 23), because it is revealed to us by God in his historical self-manifestation beginning with the Sacred Scriptures – the metaphysical attributes of God regard that which Reason can gather as universal and without the necessity of a supernatural revelation –, Kasper in reality strives to try to place Mercy itself within the very essence of God, as God’s fundamental property; moreover, in his own words, as "mirror of the Trinity" (p. 140). This, in fact, allows him to be obliged to look now and always to Justice from Mercy: "If Mercy is the fundamental property of God, then this cannot be a mitigation of Justice, but the Justice of God must, rather, be conceived parting from his Mercy. Mercy is, then, the Specific Justice of God" (p. 137).
Here our author’s ecumenical effort is perceivable, in a discourse in which Luther’s vision seems to form the gracious background, but, in any case, what jars is the attempt to absorb Justice into Mercy. In theology, Mercy qualifies as gift, a grace, not an exigency, as Justice is, even if naturally it contemplates also the Aristotelian Epikeia. Mercy perfects and completes Justice but it doesn’t annul it; it presupposes it, otherwise it would not have, in itself, a raison d'être. And this is also because the divine properties, or attributes, on a rational level, are deducible from that which Reason is capable of expressing about God. Saint Thomas says: "Mercy is to be attributed to God in the most principal manner (maxime attribuenda); not for what it has of sentiment or passion, but for the effects (that it produces)" (S. Th., I, q. 21, a. 3).
Though Kant disagrees, Reason remains, all the same, open to reality as such, to things that are in as much as they are, to the things that exist. If God exists (how does Kasper know this? Only by faith? By hope?) Reason is open to all being; Reason is open to all being because God exists. But these arguments can appear too fixist, as having passed out of fashion.
Yet our Cardinal strives to demonstrate, with Saint Luke (6, 36), in a way that truly escapes us, that "Mercy is the perfection of the Essence of God. God does not condemn, but pardons, yields and gives in a measure that is good, solicitous, sifted and superabundant" (p. 105). If then Mercy appertains to the Essence of God, perfecting it (sic! In reality what can perfect God but God himself? At any rate, one must decide whether to make use of metaphysics or not), then, "the Trinitarian Essence of God is certainly not realised in Mercy, but it is in Mercy that it becomes concretely reality for us and in us" (p. 144). Kasper resumes the thesis of the self-retraction of God in his human kenosis, not in the Protestant sense of renouncement of his divinity: for Luther, God in his kenosis is "raumgebend", that is, one who makes space for the self-determination of the other, rather in the sense of his revelation. God, infinite in himself, retracts to make space for the other; to make space for the Son and, through Him, for the Holy Spirit. In God this retraction, within his infinity itself, is kenosis, stripping of self, then presupposed, because the infinite God might make space for Creation. The Trinitarian self-retraction has its moment of sublime revelation in the Incarnation and the Cross of Jesus Christ, revelation of his omnipotence in love. So states Kasper (cf. p. 144).
Let us ask ourselves: if God retracts to make space for the other, be this a divine person or be it Creation, what will this other be? God himself who retracts to the point of losing himself in the other? Is Man the self-stripping of God? Is the Humanity of Jesus the revelatory self-stripping of God? Is there not the risk that God might remain then only the God of Jesus Christ, in the revelatory kenosis of God? And that Jesus Christ might be God no more, but only the retraction of the Father? Questions that grow and that catch us by surprise, but that place us in front of the concrete risk of the abandoning of Metaphysics.
How we can avoid despair
Another important theological chapter in Kasper’s analysis regards Mercy in relation to the eschatological discourse. Once again Kasper, now supported by Hans Urs von Balthasar, asks himself, with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: "What can we hope?” a question that summarises, according to his judgement, "all human questions" (p. 158). However, as for philosophical Reason, so also for the intellectus fidei, a problem immediately presents itself: not so much what, but how can we hope? What is the correct theological mode of exercising hope? It seems that, as for Metaphysics, also in an eschatological ambit Kasper’s analysis presents a vulnus.
In Sacred Scriptures we discover two different series of affirmations which for Kasper, as already for von Balthasar in his "Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? " (orig. German 1986, tr. in Italian 1989) appear irreconcilable. For von Balthasar they remain in fact irreconcilable and, that is, in synthesis: on the one hand there is the incontrovertible statement that God wants the salvation of all men (1Tm 2, 3) and on the other, a summary of other scriptural references, there is Final Judgement, in which some will go to eternal perdition and others to eternal salvation (Mt 25, 31-46).
According to Kasper’s judgement, the universalistic salvific affirmations are a hope for all, but do not regard the effective salvation of every single man, while the affirmations which speak of judgement and of effective damnation do not mean to speak of any man who has actually been damned. This gives the German Cardinal a way to deduce the following: "The eternal damnation of no concrete human being has been revealed and the Church has never taught in a dogmatically binding manner, regarding anyone, that he had fallen into eternal damnation" (p. 166). Not even of Judas could one say such a thing with sureness. But here it seems that Dogmatic Magisterium, which teaches without any doubt the existence of Hell and the effective perdition of one who dies in a state of mortal sin (see, as the synthesis of numerous interventions, the CCC nn. 1033-1035) is confused with some sort of infallible declaration that one such person is in fact damned. The Church, as we well know, does not give "canonisations" for who is damned, but teaches infallibly, based on the clear teaching of the Lord, that Hell exists and that it is not empty.
However, for Kasper, and this is the true problem of his analysis, "we can neither interpret the universal historical-salvific affirmations, full of hope, in the sense of the doctrine of the Apokatastasis, as knowledge of the fact of the effective salvation of every single man; nor can we deduce, from the threat of judgement and the real possibility of Hell, the effective eternal damnation of single human beings or even of the majority of men" (p. 167). And this is Kasper’s position: "We can hope for the salvation of all, but – in fact – we cannot know whether all will be saved" (p. 169). This is in fact the docking place of Kantian Criticism. One cannot hope, against Faith, for the salvation of all. As there is no Hope against or without Reason, analogously there is no theological Hope against or without Faith. One cannot hope against the most clear words of the Lord: "… and these shall go to eternal perdition, and the just to eternal life" (Mt 25, 46) as though they were mere exhortations to be good.
Kasper, in his analysis, searches a middle way between the position of von Balthasar – from whom he wants to detach himself – and the doctrine of the Church; but in the end he does not succeed.
Von Balthasar had maintained that "it is not known whether all will be saved, but one 'can' hope that no-one shall be lost" ("Sperare per tutti", p. 13). In the end the Theologian of Basle, responding to his critics in an ardent manner, will say that not only can one, but even that one must hope that no-one shall be lost. Whoever were to think that, beyond himself, even only one other man were lost eternally, would no longer love without reserve ("Breve discorso sull’inferno", orig. German 1987, tr. in Italian 1988, p. 57). In support of his original idea, more possibilist but not yet exclusivist, von Balthasar loved to refer to a "cloud of witnesses", of mystics, who would have shared his thesis.
In reality, it was show in the same year of 1986, by the German Review "Theologisches", that none of the mystics indicated by von Balthasar support his vision of an "empty Hell", with the only exception of Adrienne von Speyr. All the saints and mystics confirm the vision of the doctrine of the Church: there are some damned to Hell; not last among these testimonies is the message of Our Lady at Fatima. If there were any apparent discrepancy among the visions of mystics about the ultimate realities – Balthasar for example loved to refer to the Mercy of the Little Theresa, more than to the mystical theology of the Great Theresa – the thing becomes resolved looking at all the saints together, and not to isolated cases, and doing this through the optic of the Magisterium of the Church.
Kasper also, to reinforce his thesis, cites numerous testimonies of different saints, especially women. But he normally cites them from von Balthasar. Ultimately, von Balthasar’s true problem was his dependence in toto on Origen, as Werner Löser will reprove him: the Theologian of Basle wanted to execute all his work "in the spirit of Origen"; with the difference, however, that he did not propose also the salvation of the Devil, but only that of men.
A God who suffers for the sake of Mercy?
Lastly, we can dwell a moment on another systematic aspect with which Card. Kasper highlights the Mercy of God within himself. Now the emphasis is put on the suffering of God and one can immediately understand that also here the question becomes very delicate: on the one hand there lies in ambush the so-called Patripassianism, an old error which admitted the suffering of the Father in the passion of the Son; and on the other hand there is a sort of apathy of God, a reason for which many have withdrawn from a God who seems not to have a heart; a cold, calculating God who remains mute before the mystery of sorrow and innocent suffering.
God is not apathetic, says Kasper. "According to the testimony of the Bible, God has a heart for us men, suffers with us, rejoices with us and grieves for us and with us" (p.183). The Bible does not know a God who dominates in an insensitive manner. Coming to the New Testament, the example of Christ is dazzling, of he who assumed for us the form of a servant, humiliating himself (cf. Phil 2, 6ss.). A God on the Cross: true scandal for the world in the foolishness of human thoughts. Kasper’s attempt here is to unite the teaching of the Bible, that is, of a God who suffers for the sake of love, with the teaching of classical theology and metaphysics, according to which God cannot suffer in himself, which would clearly be a becoming, and hence a solemn imperfection.
In Kasper’s judgement, however, "for the Bible… the co-suffering of God is not an expression of his imperfection, of his weakness or of his impotence, but is the expression of his omnipotence… He cannot then be struck by sorrow passively and against his will, but in his mercy he sovereignly and freely lets himself be struck by sorrow" (pp. 184-185). God in his mercy is free to suffer and does suffer for us. In such a manner, Kasper concludes, "today many theologians of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant tradition speak of the possibility that God has to suffer and to co-suffer with us" (p. 185).
It is very important to explain that God can suffer, or rather that he made himself man precisely in order to be able to suffer for us and with us. Hence he is not insensitive o apathetic. But in what mode are we speaking of God, when we attribute suffering to him? What extension does the concept "God" have in Kasper and in the other theologians who sustain the "suffering of God", evidently without distinguishing it from God as such? It seems, after deliberation, that Kasper – in order to determine the merciful suffering of God – uses the concept "God" in a universal mode, or if we like, in relation to the Trinity, in what is a rather modal manner. It is necessary to ask ourselves: Does God suffer as God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; or not rather as Son, and only in his human nature? Truly, the suffering is Christ’s and is circumscribed by his human nature. We can attribute it also to the divine nature of the Son – in this sense God suffers, God dies, God is on the Cross, etc. – in virtue of the "communicatio idiomatum", a communication that does not move the suffering of Christ to God and therefore to the Trinity, but attributes the suffering of the human nature of "Christus patiens" to his divine nature, a nature hypostasised by the divine person of the Word and so, in any case, delimited to the second divine person of the Most Holy Trinity. God does not suffer as God but as man in Christ. The logically incorrect process is to attribute to God three and one, in an improper manner, what is Christ’s. What Saint Bernard of Clairvaux says is certainly valid, that God is "impassibilis" but not "incompassibilis", capable, that is, of having compassion but not of suffering, but it is not correct to take this citation, along with that of Saint Augustine in "Enarrationes in Psalmos" 87, 3: the Lord assumed human weakness and death not for the wretchedness of his condition but for his will to have compassion, and place it alongside that of Origen in "Homilia in Ezechielem" VI, 8, according to which God "prius passus est, deinde descendit. Quae est ista, quam pro nobis passus est, passio? Caritas est passio" (cf. p. 186). Here Origen is not acceptable: it is against the dogma of the Church to admit suffering in God, even before the Incarnation, and transform Charity – which is most pure, most simple Love – into suffering. If even God suffers in his Eternity, who shall ever be able to free us from suffering, once and for all? And if God suffers, but for the sake of love, who shall give sense to my love, which is essentially a request to suffer no more?
It goes without saying that for Kasper the only true response to evil, to tragedy, to natural catastrophes, is Hope, and – that is – the exercise of Mercy. Neither Reason nor Faith can tell us anything more (cf. pp. 187-199).
May we be allowed, at this point, also some perplexity in thinking of the system of Mercy that would succumb to the "Gospel of the family", the introductive theme and guiding line for the work of the upcoming Synod on the family.
What, in fact, is the Mercy that ought to function as a bridge between "the Church’s doctrine on marriage and the convictions lived by many Christians"? Perhaps that the remarried divorced, who would want to make communion, are the poor in spirit, to whom nothing remains but Hope as the exercise of Mercy?
The saints, in truth, teach us to be very cautious with God’s Mercy, to not take it lightly, nor to misconstrue it, closing oneself in a desire for Justice at any cost. The apostle of Germany, Saint Peter Canisius, S.J., says in this regard: "We ought to behave with the God’s Mercy in such a way as to be conformed to his Justice. Blind men let themselves be seduced by a vain confidence in Our Lord’s Mercy" (Letter to his sister Wandelina van Triest, born Kanis, Cologne, 23 March 1543).
* Fr Serafino Lanzetta is a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, a Professor of Dogmatic Theology, and since 2006 has directed the theological journal "Fides Catholica".
[Source, in Italian. Translated exclusively for Rorate by AM]