OK, OK, I know this isn't an engaging title for a blog posting, but I was fortunate this evening to hear Cardinal Walter Kasper give the lecture accompanying his being awarded the Johannes Quasten Medal by the Catholic University of America and I am excited about his talk. The audience was much larger than expected and we were tightly squeezed into the auditorium at Caldwell Hall but I was fortunate to arrive early and get a seat behind a row of young Dominican friars in their white habits. From an ecclesial perspective, it was a rather diverse audience—a lot of religious in their habits, diocesan seminarians in their collars, professor types in jackets with elbow patches, business people in suits, a huge assortment of people in dress-down casual, and, of course, the usual NCR lefty types in sensible shoes. The talk was well received because it was really an apologia for Pope Francis’ pontificate. Kasper was the man behind the podium but Francis was the man of the hour.
The Cardinal began by giving a contrast between the theological methodologies of Popes Benedict and Francis. Benedict was, as one would expect of a scholar of his background, steeped in the classic European theological method, though from the patristic sources rather than the Thomist perspective that had so long dominated Catholic dogmatic theology. Francis—whom Kasper described as “not a Franciscan in disguise, but a Jesuit through and through” works from the Ignatian model of discernment which Saint Ignatius developed in his Spiritual Exercises In Francis’ theological model this is interpreted through the Argentine experience of the Communidades de Base, the so-called “Base Communities” that study the scripture together in order to arrive at a “hermeneutic from below” and which use a “See, Judge, Act” methodology to move from theological theory to concrete action. Kasper admitted that this draws on “the Argentine model of Liberation Theology” which he very carefully distinguished from the Marxist models of the same. Nevertheless, it was clear from his talk that it is respectable, indeed more than respectable, again to be fan of “liberation theology.”
Cardinal Kasper moved from Francis’ model of theological reflection to the Pope’s preoccupation with the idea of “joy” which he learned from reading the Gospel with these communidades de base. This led Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, to understand that the Gospel is not a dogmatic text but a living message of God’s love for the world. One of the key insights the Cardinal gave in his talk is that dogma or doctrine does not interpret the Gospel but the Gospel is the key to interpreting the doctrines. This alone made the talk more than worthwhile as so many Catholics are trapped in a pseudo-theology where the Joy of the Gospel (in Latin: Evangelii Gaudium—which is the title of Francis’ encyclical) can be trumped by the rigors of dogma.
This joy of the Gospel opens our eyes to the central message of the Gospel which is the Mercy of God. Mercy—and this is another great idea expressed by the Cardinal—is the maximization of justice whereas justice is the minimalization of mercy. In other words, the barest minimum of mercy is to offer justice, but justice—expanded to its fullness of virtue—will always manifest itself in mercy. Mercy will always manifest itself in love. The Church’s mission—and mission is the priority of the Church in the world—is to spread this message of God’s love in a cynical and weary world.
The Cardinal went on then to talk about Francis’ understanding of Church. Of the various ways in which we can look at the Church, Francis emphasizes the Church as communio, as the People of God. The Institutional model of Church doesn’t hold much of Francis’ interest. Again this understanding of the Church as a communion of people, of the living and the dead, comes from his experiences in the communidades de base. But Francis also sees the Church not as a centralized institution, but as a communion of local Churches, each gathered around its bishops and in communion with all others. This has great impact on the potentials for ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. And Francis, the Cardinal said, sees the Church’s relationship with other Churches not in the model of concentric circles of truth, diminishing in truth as they move further and further from the Catholic center, but as a gem with its many facets, each of which reflects the light, albeit it in different ways and in different intensities.
So all in all it was an evening of stimulating thought and exciting vision for the future. Not everyone clapped at the end. I notice the professor types were, for the most part, somewhat reticent but academia is filled with its Sheldon Coopers who think no one else is quite so intelligent or has so much to say as themselves. And as we walked into Caldwell, I notice two sad souls (three, if you count the life-size statue of Our Lady of Fatima they brought with them. It would be nice to count her as she was the only one with a smile, though a somewhat wry smile.) They were saying the Joyful mysteries of the rosary. Too bad the talk wasn’t tomorrow so they could say the sorrowful ones. Joy didn’t befit them. But then, as the Cardinal implied in his talk, that is the difference between Religion and the Gospel.