That all may be one: An interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper

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Article Ecumenical & Interfaith Dialogue

The embrace of Saints Peter and Paul depicted in the icon at left found a contemporary echo three years ago when German Bishop Walter Kasper warmly embraced Zimbabwean Lutheran Pastor Ishmael Noko. The occasion was the historic signing ceremony of the Catholic-Lutheran joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Noko is the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, and at the time Kasper was both the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and co-chair of the Lutheran-Catholic Commission on Unity, which had produced the accord.

Since then Kasper has been made both president of the pontifical council and a cardinal, and he has won many admirers-and some critics-for his openness to and promotion of healthy and frank dialogue within the church and for his advocacy of a more decentralized church leadership.

Known both as a highly respected mainstream theologian and as a pastorally minded bishop, Kasper has brought new energy and passion to ecumenical dialogue and reconciliation with other churches as well as to improving the Catholic Church's relations with Jews (which is part of his portfolio in the Roman curia as well).

The Second Vatican Council inaugurated a new era of ecumenical dialogue. But after the initial enthusiasm, the ecumenical movement seems to have stalled in more recent years. How do you see the state of the ecumenical movement today?

It is true that the enthusiasm that was common right after the council-but which sometimes may also have been a bit unrealistic and utopian-has dissipated. Meanwhile, a new generation has grown up that did not experience the time of the council.

We are now confronted with the hard core of ecumenical questions-questions relating to the constitution of and ministry within the church. When it comes to institutions, it is much harder to make progress than with doctrinal issues.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't say that the ecumenical movement has stalled, but rather that we are in a process of growing up and maturing. I think ecumenism has transitioned from a stage of youthful enthusiasm-but also adolescent rebelliousness-to a kind of adulthood. In practical terms this means that we haven't given up our old ideals but that we also see and try to deal with the very real difficulties.

In addition, the important results we have already achieved in the various ecumenical dialogues haven't really been sufficiently received yet. In many documents we may not yet have reached a full consensus, but we certainly have achieved a significant convergence. All churches ought to make greater efforts to assure that what has been accomplished will filter down to the grassroots level and is lived and received there. That's why we say that now is the time for the "dialogue of life." Ecumenism must become a reality in people's lives.

But the most important accomplishment of the ecumenical movement so far has been what Pope John Paul II in [his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism] Ut Unum Sint called the "rediscovery of Christian brotherhood." Today different churches no longer view each other as enemies or opponents, and they also are no longer indifferent to one another. They understand themselves as brothers and sisters on the com mon road to a fuller unity and know they have a responsibility to be witnesses together in faith and love and to work together for peace and justice.

That accomplishment now requires further maturation, and then with the help of the Spirit we will be able to take further steps on this path to unity.

What progress would you most like to see during your tenure?

I very much hope that we will be able to make significant progress with the Orthodox churches. Dogmatically we are already so close that you might almost say that a reconciliation of our teachings has already been accomplished. The remaining sticking point today is that the role of the papacy and its Petrine office and ministry are still interpreted differently.

How could we move forward on this issue?

The pope, in Ut Unum Sint, issued an invitation to all non-- Catholic churches and communities to enter with him in a brotherly dialogue about the future exercise of the Petrine ministry. Everybody knows there has been a long history of its evolution. The Petrine ministry in the first century was not exercised in the same way the bishop of Rome exercises it today. Therefore it can also develop and evolve further in the future.

Since the pope issued this invitation, several churches have sent both official and unofficial responses, and in addition, a lot of articles and books have been published and conferences and symposiums have been held. We have collected these responses-it's a whole big pile-and have analyzed them.

Clearly there is no immediate consensus on this issue, but what has become clear is that there is today a new openness for tackling the question of the Petrine ministry. This is quite a change from previous attitudes, when the pope was denounced by some churches as the Antichrist or the beast of the apocalypse. It's not so long ago that such things were said, and in fact, they are still being said by some fundamentalist Christians, with whom it is pointless to engage in dialogue.

Today many churches see that in this increasingly globalized world it could be helpful to have such a center of reference as the pope offers-a voice that can speak on behalf of the church.

Also, the kinds of visits, meetings and exchanges that are going on today between the pope and the many heads of other churches have in some ways already led to a renewal of the kind of communion that was practiced in the first centuries of church history.

So we have already made some significant progress on this question.

Beyond that, our remaining differences with the churches of the East primarily arise from differences in mentality and culture. Such problems must and can only be resolved by living together.

Why is dialogue with the Orthodox often still so difficult? Sometimes it seems to be pretty rough going-- not too much of that spirit of "Christian brotherhood"going on.

Looking at the Russian Orthodox Church, for example, we have to realize that it has only been 12 years since it has regained its freedom. Their society has undergone tremendous change, and they need some time to find their place in this new world. We have to be patient, and I'm convinced that with the Orthodox the most important thing for us today is to build trust and relationships.

One of my most difficult ecumenical experiences was at the last meeting of the international dialogue with the Orthodox Churches. Some of the Orthodox participants-not all of them-refused to pray with us. Not surprisingly, we were unable to make any progress in those talks. Some just wanted to be right and blame the other side for one thing or another that occurred in the 13th century-as if we had conquered Constantinople only yesterday.

I am convinced that praying together is a very important component of ecumenical dialogue. I often say, "Ecumenical dialogue happens in two places: in the chapel praying and at the table talking and eating." Ultimately ecumenical reconciliation is both a gift of the Spirit and a spiritual challenge. And the best model we have for this is Pentecost.

How can we move forward with the Protestant churches?

In our dialogue with the churches of the Reformation, the most important remaining core question is apostolic succession, which is connected to the question of the validity of ordained ministry. With the Anglicans we have already come very far because they too recognize the episcopal structure of the church, even if problems remain with respect to full mutual recognition.

I believe we can also take significant further steps with the Lutherans worldwide. In the international Lutheran-- Catholic Commission on Unity we are currently studying all aspects of apostolicity in the church. It is significant and helpful that we are emphasizing that the church as a whole is an "apostolic church," as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed. The apostolicity of the ordaining ministry of the bishop must be seen in this broader context.

Within some Lutheran churches, steps are currently being taken-through their agreements of mutual recognition with Anglican churches-that even help to reestablish that continuity of historical apostolicity in the narrower sense. But this is a long process.

Despite a relatively far-reaching convergence with Lutherans and Anglicans regarding our understanding of the Eucharist, the Catholic Church so far has been very reluctant about the practice of intercommunion. In the near future, could the currently very limited exceptions be expanded, for example, for mixed marriages?

Catholics, but the Orthodox and traditionally Lutherans and Anglicans as well, presume that church community and eucharistic community are integrally linked. That conviction, based on 1 Cor. 10:17, is a very important principle we need to uphold.

Nevertheless, according to current church law, certain pastoral exceptions are possible, even though they are very narrowly defined. I don't think the decision to expand these rules can be based on disciplinary considerations. This is not a question of church discipline but a question of faith.

If one participates in the Catholic Eucharist, one needs to be able to say amen at the end of the eucharistic prayer. But in the eucharistic prayer both the name of the pope and of the local bishop are said, Mary as the Mother of God is mentioned as is the Real Presence and the sacrifice of the Eucharist. At least on some of these issues, Protestant churches still have substantial differences with the Catholic Church. If Protestant Christians in their faith cannot say yes to these things, they can't honestly participate in the Catholic Eucharist.

This problem really does become acute within mixed marriages. For many, the division at the eucharistic table is a tragedy and presents a great difficulty. But I don't think that general rules for allowing eucharistic sharing for all mixed marriages would be appropriate.

There are mixed marriages of Catholic and Protestant spouses who strive toward and come to a common understanding of faith, and for many of them this becomes a real question of conscience. That's quite a different situation from other couples who are indifferent to faith and rarely go to church.

Thus the question of the individuals' faith is of key importance here. And in individual cases the bishop has the right to make a pastoral decision. I think that the universal church can only establish the ground rules. The situations in the various local churches are quite different.

There have been rumors that the pope himself has celebrated the Eucharist together with representatives of Lutheran churches. Is that true?

I have heard these rumors, too. But I can't really tell you anything about that.

You have been engaged in a public dispute with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about the proper relationship and balance between the local churches and the universal church. What is important for you in this question, what's at issue?

What in no way is at issue for me in this debate is the importance and role of the Petrine ministry of the pope. I believe that his ministry of unity is vitally important. But church unity also has room for diversity, and the local church is neither just a province nor a department of the universal church. Diversity is a sign of richness, not weakness. This insight must also be reflected in the life of the church.

What I objected to in my response to Cardinal Ratzinger was the assertion in a 1992 document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the reality of the universal church "ontologically and temporally" precedes the local church. That view, I believe, has contributed to things having gotten out of balance.

I think it is important today to grant greater freedom to bishops to responsibly implement rules and laws of the universal church in their particular contexts. Inevitably there will always be some tension, but I don't think tension is bad. Wherever there is life, there is tension, and where tensions end, there is death.

What kind of reaction have you gotten?

I received many positive responses from bishops around the world, but I also took some heat and criticism. How this relationship will balance itself out in the future is ultimately a question of debate and reaching a new consensus.

As a diocesan bishop in Germany, you experienced this tension between local church and universal church very directly when you and two other bishops tried to find ways to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to return to the sacraments. This experiment was later stopped by Rome. What was your intention with this initiative, and how do you see this pastoral challenge today?

There is no doubt that the situation of the many divorced Catholics who have remarried presents a great challenge and problem for pastoral ministers today.

In response to this challenge, in parts of the Western church, a somewhat loose practice has emerged. The bishops of our German church province wanted to find a pastorally acceptable path that would end abuses but at the same time would open up some new possibilities for certain clearly defined situations. We didn't try to make a general rule that would allow all remarried divorced Catholics without differentiation, to take part in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

I am still convinced that what we proposed is not counter to the teaching of the church, but at the same time I believe today that some parts of our proposal weren't sufficiently developed enough. In any case, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time was unable to agree with this approach.

This question remains an urgent pastoral problem, and it's necessary to continue to talk about it and to do more theological and canonical work on this. For many people, and for many pastors, this is an area of considerable pain.

What impact has the document Dominus lesus had on the ecumenical dialogue?

First let me say that I believe that Dominus Iesus fundamentally is in accord with Vatican II. But when it was published two years ago, it impacted our relationships with other churches in a very big way. For a whole year we had to work quite hard to explain what it meant and what it did not mean and to calm the waves this storm had caused. For a while, it certainly worsened the ecumenical situation.

What is important to keep in mind, though, is that the main message of Dominus Jesus is not concerned with ecumenical dialogue but with reaffirming the "uniqueness and salvific universality" of Jesus Christ.

The chapter that caused the most misunderstanding and criticism is the fourth chapter, which deals with the different churches. I was in favor of dropping this whole chapter, or at least changing its unfortunate abstract and dogmatic language, but I could not convince Cardinal Ratzinger to do so. This is the chapter that includes the phrase that the churches of the Reformation are not churches "in the full sense."

Now, of course, the Catholic Church is convinced that it is church in the full sense, but I would also hope that the Protestant churches are convinced that they are church in the full sense. Each church that takes itself seriously must be convinced that the church of Jesus Christ is present in its community.

So they are not churches in the way the Catholic Church views itself, but they also don't want to be church as we are church. They lack some of the elements of a Catholic understanding of church but because they have constitutive elements, they can be called churches of a different type.

When I first voiced this interpretation, some people accused me of undermining the message of Dominus Jesus, but I'm very happy to report that when I presented this interpretation at a meeting where Cardinal Ratzinger was present, he agreed with it. So we're very happy that now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity are in "full communion"!

What kind of church unity is the ecumenical dialogue ultimately working toward?

The goal is not a uniform church-- this is not what the other churches want either-but the unity of the one church in reconciled diversity. If you look at the example of the Eastern churches that are in communion with Rome, you can see that we already have a viable model for such a unity in diversity. And I believe it is crucial for us in the Catholic Church to model this possibility in a more unequivocal and inviting way.

Today we tend to define church unity as a communion, communion. In such a communion one participates in the one faith, the same sacraments, and shared ministry, but that faith can be expressed in different ways, depending on one's cultural context, historical conditions, and different spiritualities.

When we talk of a unity in reconciled diversity, this, of course, cannot mean that there would remain contradictions in principle. In such a unity it would not be acceptable for one church to declare an official teaching of another church as counter to the gospel.

The truth is always bigger than our formulas. None of us has the truth, but the truth has us. Through dialogue, with its exchange of gifts, we don't reach a new truth, but we come to a fuller understanding of the truth, which we believe we have in Jesus Christ. This is the dynamic dimension in ecumenical dialogue, and it helps us to discover our full "catholicity."

For the divisions of the church are also a deep wound within the Catholic Church. They are contrary to the will of Christ, and they are a sin. We need each other so we can come, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to a greater fullness of truth.

This article appered in the October 2002 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine (Vol. 67, No. 10, pg. 18-22).


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