Kasper’s “mercy” is not the mercy of God

Over at First Things, Fr. Daniel Moloney of the Archdiocese of Boston has written a succinct yet ample review of Walter Cardinal Kasper’s book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. In just a few paragraphs, he effectively dismantles the Kasperite notion of “mercy”, which is at the core of proposals to change perennial Catholic praxis regarding the reception of Communion by divorcees who have entered a second civil union or cohabitate with another person during the lifetime of the original spouse.

[UPDATE 23 March 2015: At First Things, Cardinal Kasper has issued his rebuttal to Fr. Moloney, and Fr. Moloney has delivered a robust counter-response. Regardless of one’s position, this exchange is the standard for genuine theological debate.]

Cardinal Kasper and his theological allies in the Sacred College (Baldisseri, Maradiaga, Marx) argue that, on the basis of mercy, the Church could permit certain “remarried” divorcees to Holy Communion after a period of penance. This would introduce a significant novelty into Roman Catholic practice. The Church has always held fast to the teaching of Christ Himself on divorce and remarriage (Mark 10:2-12, Matthew 19:3-12, Matthew 5:31-32, Luke 16:18), considering any cohabitation outside of marriage as adulterous, and therefore, grave matter which impedes a person from worthily receiving communion. In line with the relativistic antinominianism which characterizes the postmodern era, Kasper and his party argue that the mercy of God should apply to those “remarried” or cohabitating divorcees, if they are sincerely sorry for the failure of the first marriage and have undergone a period of penance. The scandalous practical effect of this Kasperite mercy is that such “remarried” persons would then be admitted to the Holy Eucharist while remaining in an objectively adulterous union.

The resurgence of Kasper

On 17 March 2013 (Feast of Saint Patrick), mere days into the new pontificate, Pope Francis preached his first noontime Sunday Angelus message in St. Peter’s Square. As customary, the Pope gave a brief reflection on the Mass readings for the day. It was the Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year C, which gives us the Gospel story of the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11). 

In questa quinta domenica di Quaresima, il Vangelo ci presenta l’episodio della donna adultera, che Gesù salva dalla condanna a morte. Colpisce l’atteggiamento di Gesù: non sentiamo parole di disprezzo, non sentiamo parole di condanna, ma soltanto parole di amore, di misericordia, che invitano alla conversione. “Neanche io ti condanno: va e d’ora in poi non peccare più!”

In this Fifth Sunday of Lent, the Gospel presents us the story of the adulteress, whom Jesus saves from a death sentence. Christ’s composure strikes us: we do not hear words of contempt, we do not hear words of condemnation, but words of love and mercy which invite conversion. “Neither do I condemn you: go and sin no more!” 

The Pope went on to expound on the theme of mercy, referring to Cardinal Kasper’s book.

In questi giorni ho potuto leggere un libro di un cardinale, del cardinale Kasper– un teologo in gamba, un buon teologo– sulla misericordia. Mi ha fatto tanto bene quel libro, ma non credete che io faccia pubblicità ai libri dei miei cardinali, eh? Non è così… ma mi ha fatto tanto bene! …Il cardinale Kasper diceva che sentire misericordia, questa parola, cambia tutto. È il meglio che noi possiamo sentitre. Un po’ di misericordia rende il mondo meno freddo e più giusto. Abbiamo bisogno di capire bene la misericordia di Dio, questo padre misericordioso che ha tanta pazienza.

In the past few days I was able to read a book of a Cardinal, Cardinal Kasper– a capable theologian, a good one– on mercy. That book did me very well, but don’t think that I’m advertising [faccia pubblicità] the books of my cardinals, ok? It’s not like that, but the book did me very well! …Cardinal Kasper said that experiencing mercy– experiencing this word– changes everything. It is better that we should experience it. A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand well the mercy of God, the mercy of this merciful Father who has so much patience.

That last sentence about the merciful, patient Father indeed points to the real meaning meaning of mercy– God patiently awaits the man who turns away from sin. Unfortunately, in Kasperite mercy, the system is reversed: instead of God waiting for his prodigal son to return, man waits for God to grant him a license to remain in his sin. Christ’s admonition to the adulteress, that non peccare più (sin no more) which Francis cited, vanishes.

Despite saying that he was not “advertising” Kasper’s book, the Pope did exactly that— and he went even further when, during Consistory 2014, he tapped Kasper to speak to the Sacred College concerning the controversial topic of admitting “remarried” divorcees to Holy Communion. In St. John Paul II’s 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (par. 84) and in a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed to all the world’s bishops (14 September 1994), Francis’ two predecessors had already affirmed the age-old discipline of the Church by directly addressing the same ideas on “mercy” that Kasper pushed back in the 1980s and 1990s. Kasper (Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart at the time) and two other German bishops responded negatively to the 1994 CDF letter, prompting a personal response from the CDF Prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger. As Pope, Benedict XVI developed and more profoundly articulated the teaching of Familiaris Consortio 84 in his 2007 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (par. 29). Both Wojtyla and Ratzinger consistently upheld the requirement that divorcees must cease living in adultery and obtain sacramental absolution before being readmitted to communion.

With a seemingly double endorsement from Francis, however, Kasper has emerged from obscurity, bringing with him an issue that the magisterium of St. John Paul II handily put to rest two decades ago. Thus the Church is once more faced with the errors of the Kasperite thesis, errors which Fr. Moloney has capably dissected and analyzed for an English-speaking audience.

The Kasperite error

Kasper’s theology places an overemphasis on “mercy” as an attribute of God, going so far as to consider it God’s most important attribute. As Fr. Moloney notes in his First Things article,

Kasper doesn’t actually make arguments for his views but says, among his many statements that aspire to be premises in an argument, that “mercy is the externally visible and effectively active aspect of the essence of God, who is love (1 John 4:8, 16)… In short, mercy expresses God’s own goodness and love” . These are perfectly orthodox things to say. Unfortunately, Kasper also says that “forgiveness belongs to [God’s] essence,” “God’s mercy is the… ground of creation,” and “mercy is the perfection of God’s essence.”

What Kasper holds as a self-evident premise (“mercy is the perfection of God’s essence”), other than being open to gravely heretical interpretation, is in fact not self-evident at all, as Fr. Moloney will insightfully demonstrate. For Kasper, mercy is

the fundamental attribute of God, while all other divine attributes are in some way secondary. Even God’s justice is to be made subordinate to his mercy, because mercy “surpasses” and “goes beyond” justice.

This sounds profound, but does not withstand examination. Mercy is a virtue that requires someone who needs mercy, someone with some sort of sin or other imperfection. The Father is not merciful to the Holy Spirit. He loves the Holy Spirit, but there’s nothing imperfect about the Holy Spirit so that he needs the Father’s mercy. For mercy to be essential to God, as Kasper holds, it would mean that God could not exist without ­expressing mercy. But since God does not show mercy to himself, it would not be possible for him to exist without there also being sinners in need of his mercy—and that notion is absurd.

In short, mercy is not the fundamental attribute of God, because God has no need to be merciful. In fact, God has no need of anything. Kasper is wrong on this matter, plain and simple. Mercy does not “go beyond justice”; rather, mercy is a component of justice. Justice demands that mercy be shown to those who sincerely turn away from sin, while those who persist in sin will earn their due recompense. As Holy Scripture says, quasi una voce, God will judge each man according to his deeds (cf. Exodus 3:24, Job 34:11, Psalm 62:12, Proverbs 24:12, Ecclesiastes 3:17, Jeremiah 17:10, Ezekiel 18:20 and 36:19, Matthew 16:27, Romans 2:6, 2 Corinthians 11:15, 2 Timothy 4:14, Revelation 2:23 and 20:12-13). If one’s deeds are not consistent with true penance, if one continues in an adulterous union despite “feeling sorry for the failure of the first marriage”, mercy does not apply. Kasperite mercy essentially amounts to a Get Out Of Jail Free Card; God’s mercy, on the other hand, is always linked to his justice and his truth.


The perennial doctrine of the Church permits no false dichotomy between mercy and justice, between truth and charity. Kasper’s thesis, on the other hand, presupposes such a false dichotomy. Furthermore, what the Cardinal proposes would introduce not only a change in praxis, but would necessarily precipitate a change in doctrine. Such a case would be unacceptable, and when Kasper re-proposed his old thesis at the 2014 Consistory, an overwhelming majority of the Sacred College of Cardinals voiced opposition. Likewise, at the October 2014 Synod, the bishops of the world largely rallied behind John Paul II’s teaching as expressed in Familiaris Consortio. Or, we might rather say, the bishops rallied behind the teaching of Christ Himself concerning divorce.

What if the Lord, upon rescuing the adulteress from the stones of human judgment, did not admonish her to “sin no more”? The woman might indeed be saved from bodily death, but she would face the death of her eternal soul for remaining in her sin. That is no act of “mercy”. Wherefore the Church teaches that to admonish sinners and to instruct the ignorant are among the Spiritual Works of Mercy— and Jesus gave us an example of this mercy when he commanded the adulteress to reject her sinful past.

Kasperite “mercy” is not the mercy of God– in fact, Kasperite “mercy” is no mercy at all.

[UPDATE 23 March 2015: At First Things, Cardinal Kasper has issued his rebuttal to Fr. Moloney, and Fr. Moloney has delivered a robust counter-response. Regardless of one’s position, this exchange is the standard for genuine theological debate.]

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