“The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage” (March) is a clear articulation of the importance of marriage in Christian theology and the need for churches to remain faithful to Christian teaching. But for all that it gets right, the piece contains one line of argument that Christians should be on guard against. The authors write, “Christians have too often been silent about biblical teaching on sex, marriage, and family life.” It goes on, “In a few matters, we do not speak with one voice: We hold somewhat different views about the morality of contraception, the legitimacy of divorce, and clerical celibacy.” Finally, later: “An easy acceptance of divorce damages marriage; widespread cohabitation devalues marriage. But so-called same-sex marriage is a graver threat, because what is now given the name of marriage in law is a parody of marriage.”
Taken together, these quotes represent a dangerous line of argument, because same-sex marriage cannot be abstracted from the wider background of marital collapse enabled by widespread divorce and contraception. This is true both as a matter of principle and of prudence.
As a matter of principle, any argument against same-sex marriage that invokes the reproductive end of sex necessarily implicates contraception. Contraception frustrates reproduction no less than homosexual sex does. Therefore, to say that the morality of contraception is merely questionable but the morality of homosexual sex is clear is internally incoherent. And it’s not just pure logical consistency at stake, either. The Christian intellectual tradition has the sweep and grandeur of the Cathedral of Notre Dame; it is a space of cavernous beauty and monumental profundity. Anyone who takes even a step inside is immediately struck by the sense that something important happens here. You cannot separate the discussion of gay marriage from the full scope of Christian sexual ethics without limiting this sweep and grandeur.
As a matter of prudence, prioritizing the wrongness of same-sex marriage over divorce or contraception (or even masturbation) only serves to reinforce the claim that Christians are motivated by some kind of anti-gay animus when they defend traditional marriage laws. The best defense against that charge is an equally vocal concern for all the threats to marriage, and all varieties of sterile sex.
Many of the leading writers on gay marriage have spoken well about the need to limit no-fault divorce, and are clear about their moral opposition to contraception. Indeed, “The Two Shall Become One Flesh” makes several gestures in the direction I outlined above. For instance, the authors write, “Christians are implicated in this decline. Evangelicals and Catholics are more likely to divorce than they were fifty years ago. Moreover, Christians have adopted to no small extent the contraceptive mind-set that in society at large has separated sex from reproduction and so weakened the centrality and attraction of marriage.”
But these statements coexist with the ones I quote at the start of this letter, and that creates an ambiguity that has bedeviled the marriage movement. The authors contend that Christians have often been silent on marriage. When it comes to gay marriage, this is simply not true. The debate over gay marriage has consumed the nation for several years, and there has been no lack of Christian voices expressing the Christian view. That Christians are “anti-gay” seems to be one of the few “facts” this country knows about us. But when it comes to divorce and contraception, we have not always raised clear objections. The uneasy relation this document bears to those issues does not really correct that silence. It dances around it.
The Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage” was an appropriate summary of the many articles on this question in First Things.
But please allow me to express my disappointment that there was nowhere a recognition that there is a morally and theologically serious case for the validity of lifelong, monogamous gay relationships. In addition, there was no recognition of the tensions embedded in the text. Roman Catholics make the link between sexuality and procreation an absolute (thereby forbidding the use of contraception); Evangelicals allow contraception (and therefore implicitly concede that procreation is not necessarily a required possibility in every sexual act).
In addition, with the overwhelming majority of people continuing to enjoy heterosexual marriage, I am not persuaded that the biblical theme of gender complementarity, which is modeled between Christ and the Church, is under threat, nor that this theme is authoritative for all relationships. The biblical image of our “heavenly Father and children” does not require us to exclude the legitimacy of adopted children becoming part of a family. Finally, the statement needed to explain why this issue is both more significant and less open to disagreement than other issues over which Christians disagree, such as just war and pacifism.
In the long run, First Things must make a decision. First Things aspires to celebrate a creedal and orthodox faith. There will be friends who disagree with First Things on the issue of same-sex intimacy, but support it in other areas. I know plenty of gay and lesbian couples who are strong advocates of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The question is: Are such friends welcome in these pages? There has been very little signal thus far that they are.
virginia theological seminary
R. R. Reno replies:
I do not speak for the members of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, but only as a member. So this must be read as a considered response of one person, not a statement by ECT.
The architecture of the Christian intellectual tradition admits of careful parsing. For this reason, I find Peter Blair’s claims unconvincing. The use of a condom in the sexual intercourse of a man and a woman has a different moral meaning than the intercourse of a man with a man. The first impedes by artificial means the intrinsic potential of the sexual act to give rise to new life. The second is an act that’s intrinsically sterile. The first enacts in an imperfect but real way the one-flesh union of a man and a woman, something Scripture suggests is fundamental to the human community. The second does something else entirely. In both regards, the procreative and unitive ends properly sought in our sexual lives are complex rather than simple, admitting of nuance and degree. For this reason, Evangelicals and others are not being incoherent when they allow for the use of contraception (a mistaken judgment) while judging homosexual acts immoral.
Casuistry aside, I find it very hard to understand how some Christians, perhaps most, fail to see the fundamental threat same-sex marriage poses to the biblical view of marriage. Divorce wounds marriage. Cohabitation and a contraceptive mentality reflect a private indifference to the goods of marriage. But same-sex marriage does something much more fundamental: It asserts public control over marriage, detaches it from the reality of our bodies as male and female, and remakes it into a purely affective union for the sake of . . . affective union.
Only the blind can fail to see the difference. Using pornography, a contraceptive mentality, premarital sex, divorce, adultery—all these transgressions ignore divine law, sometimes with a haughty disdain that says “To hell with traditional morality; I’ll do as I please.” Same-sex marriage is different. It insists on claiming the public sanction of the marital bond. Nobody is calling for a blessing of the condoms. Meanwhile, wedding photographers are being taken to court for failing to join same-sex celebrations.
Let me put this a different way. Onan reminds us that human beings have always sought sex without consequences—the contraceptive impulse. The Old Testament allows for divorce as a concession to human weakness, as have other religious systems. Prostitution, adultery, fornication: These are perennial. All reflect our failure to live in accord with the biblical view of sex and marriage. But same-sex marriage? It’s not an all-too-human failure. Instead it’s an assertion of human will, the conscription of a sacred institution to serve a contemporary ideology. Where is that to be found in the Bible? In the prostitution of Israel to Baal.
Blair worries that prioritizing the wrongness of gay marriage will make us seem anti-gay. Seem? Christianity is opposed to the contemporary ideology that equates us with our sexual desires and tells us we’re entitled to their satisfaction. We oppose the Gnosticism that says our bodies have no intrinsic moral meaning and are mere instruments in the service of our fine inner feelings. We assert the male-female union as normative, surpassed only by the sublime, supernatural vocation of the celibate life dedicated to divine service. Christianity can’t avoid being seen as anti-gay, because a failure to be “pro-gay” today is invariably regarded as “anti-gay.”
Christianity is “pro-person.” I am profoundly sympathetic to Christians who want to provide hospitality and companionship to our gay friends—and that includes friends who don’t obey biblical norms, and even gay friends who have married. I have such friends—along with divorced friends and friends who cohabit—and friends who have stolen, cheated, and lied. The company of the perfect is vanishingly small, and I’m not among them. But we need to get a grip on reality: We are the bad guys of the sexual revolution. We are the heretics of our time: We forbid when it is forbidden to forbid. No appeals to the great cathedral of Christian doctrine are going to change that.
Ian Markham is mistaken. The overwhelming majority of people do not enjoy heterosexual marriage. Forty years ago, 70 percent of American adults were married. Today 50 percent are. The decline comes from the collapse of marriage among the working-class and poor. Only those living in the gated moral world of elite America can possibly imagine that our grand experiment in sexual liberation has not come at a great cost to the most vulnerable. Gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich that will be paid for by the poor.
I’m glad Markham raises the question of whether First Things welcomes articles arguing for the validity of “lifelong, monogamous gay relationships.” I appreciate the delicacy with which he cordons off the question of gay marriage. But, no, we won’t. In the present climate, it is for all intents and purposes impossible for a person who publically dissents from gay rights orthodoxies to get a job teaching in higher education. It’s increasingly impossible to be the leader of a major corporation or to get a job at a major law firm. The New York Times certainly won’t publish the most modest demurrals from these orthodoxies. And I dare say one cannot find preferment in the Episcopal Church unless one subscribes to the same orthodoxies. Pretending that there is an honest public debate about the gay rights agenda is an act of dishonesty.
And not just dishonesty. There are many courageous people who have refused to capitulate to the ruthless Jacobin suppression of all dissent. Many have paid a heavy price, including gay writers who defend Christian teaching in our pages. Were we to play the idle game of “dialogue” on this issue, the implication would be clear: These people foolishly sacrificed their livelihoods and reputations for the sake of an ambiguity, not a truth. That’s an act of betrayal First Things will not commit.
Kenneth Woodward’s “A Joust with Mario Cuomo” (March) does a marvelous job of capturing the bombast of Mario Cuomo, whose minimal accomplishments as governor were for a time overshadowed by his influential flights of rhetorical grandeur. Cuomo’s famed 1984 “Tale of Two Cities” speech has been reprised by numerous politicians, including John Edwards and, most recently, New York City’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio.
As Woodward tells it, Cuomo tried to awe him at their first meeting by quickly invoking Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic forerunner of New Age philosophy. I can’t help but wonder what might have followed had Woodward quickly noted, if only in passing, that Teilhard had a soft spot for fascism in the 1930s.
Woodward does a nice job of evoking Cuomo’s fancy New Age footwork regarding abortion. It was hard to follow Cuomo without thinking that his deepest faith was, independent of the evidence, in the efficacy of government. In his twelve years as Governor Cuomo, notes Albany savant E. J. McMahon, the state lost more than a million people even as Cuomo “doubled the size of the state’s budget, and more than doubled the state’s debt.”
In my own joust with Cuomo, he insisted that, given the proper and well-funded social services, the children of poor single mothers have as good a chance of making it in society as the offspring of middle-class parents. When I suggested that he was grievously mistaken, he responded, as he had to Woodward’s doubts about his stance on abortion, not so much by refuting the argument as by rebuffing the individual who had the gall to question his wisdom.
the manhattan institute
brooklyn, new york
Kenneth L. Woodward replies:
While I appreciate Fred Siegel’s appreciation of my article, I must say that I myself regard Teilhard de Chardin as a serious scientist, a creative (to say the least) theologian, and probably a genuine mystic—regardless of what some New Agers may have made of him. Certainly Mario Cuomo was anything but a New Ager himself.
On the contrary, I think Cuomo was theologically and ecclesiologically a very old-fashioned Catholic, as I suggested in my essay. His powerful personal response to reading Teilhard appeared to me to be highly idiosyncratic. As he told me more than once, Teilhard justified for him taking this world seriously, as opposed (I gather) to what he was taught in school about the importance of preparing for the world to come. Put another way, I think Teilhard’s vision was Cuomo’s means of countering the number the Vincentians’ Irish priests did on the conscience of an Italian boy
I also think it is more profitable to acknowledge Cuomo’s rhetorical gifts, and analyze the uses he made of them, than to disparage them. For example, “family” as a metaphor for the citizens of the state of New York and of the country is a trope he employed in his speech to the 1984 Democratic Convention and again at the 1992 convention and on numerous occasions in between. It was a metaphor that particularly appealed to Catholics, both because of their immigrant roots and (among intellectual Catholics) because it resonated with the communitarian ethos of the papal social encyclicals with their emphasis on distributive justice.
Cuomo employed the family metaphor to help justify expansion of state and federal government programs, especially for the poor. It was a moral and emotional as well as a political appeal, much like Hillary Clinton’s use of the African saying “It takes a village” to argue for government-sponsored universal health insurance. But in fact, in most African villages the inhabitants are members of extended families, while the citizens of the United States are not in any reasonable sense “family.” Citizens can and do disagree about political issues, as is their right, while family members can and do appeal to family loyalty when disagreements occur. Meanwhile, neither Cuomo nor Clinton seemed to notice that real family structures, at all levels of society, were crumbling without so much as a whisper of moral concern, much less a government program, from the Democratic party.
Not all those who are worried about fracking are from “environmental groups,” as R. R. Reno implies in his March “Public Square.” Some of us have different concerns that also should be considered
In New York State, the fracking area is dangerously close to the water supply, and the possibility of contamination is very real. The Army Corps of Engineers at the beginning of the last century devised a gravity-driven water system to bring water to the downstate area. It enables eight million residents, thousands of commuters, and hundreds of tourists to turn the tap and drink potable water from miles away. Without this, there would be no New York City.
Government regulations can help to alleviate the danger, but with government comes a huge bureaucracy with tons of paperwork and other problems, which could lessen the cost-effectiveness of fracking and encourage officials to circumvent the rules.
Would fracking bring employment to the working class? Yes, but to what extent? Fracking requires people with technological knowledge. In some fracking areas, it has brought employment to engineers imported from other states with few jobs for local residents.
That we need to become energy-independent is a given. But could not smart mining engineers devise a safer way of getting resources out of the earth? Strip-mining was once thought to be easy, but it devastated the environment. Contaminating a water supply goes beyond environmental considerations. It would be a human tragedy.
Politics does make strange bedfellows, and sometimes we find ourselves on the side of those we ordinarily oppose.
glendale, new york
R. R. Reno replies:
Modern industrial society brings dangers. With electricity comes electrocution. With cars, fatal wrecks. I don’t doubt that all sorts of dangers are associated with fracking: to workers, to communities, to the environment. But like so many aspects of life, we need to weigh the costs with the benefits, and do our best to minimize the costs. In the case of fracking, there has been no incident of extensive contamination of a local water supply, and so the danger posed by drilling rigs in Allegany County to New York water is vanishingly small, not the least because that region is well west of the Catskill/Delaware watershed that provides water to New York City.
But I fear I’m unpersuasive. Sarrocco describes strip-mining as devastating to the environment, a judgment I find incredible. Strip mines are ugly gashes in the landscape, yes, but they don’t have a negative environmental impact—or more precisely no impact more negative than that of any large-scale human enterprise. To describe strip mines as environmentally devastating reflects a way of thinking that logically requires one to regard the building of dykes and reclaiming of land in Holland as one of the greatest environmental crimes of all time.
I admire Mary Eberstadt’s jiu jitsu in turning Cardinal Walter Kasper’s call for “mercy” against the persecutors of Christians and other believers (“The New Intolerance,” March). Christians have always been called to be merciful to the poor and the dispossessed, but there seems less and less traction in the secular world to show mercy to those who uphold traditional Christian views.
In the West, these believers face cultural excoriation and, increasingly, legal disabilities. In other parts of the world, they face much worse—including the beheader’s knife and the kidnapper’s harem—but Eberstadt’s lens is usefully focused on us. She correctly says that something new is happening. Partly it is the fierceness of those who have turned the sexual revolution into a credo of bodily absolutes. Partly it is the willed annihilation of history in order to open the doors of a wished-for secular utopia. Partly it is a celebration of power for its own sake: the gleeful freedom of the builders of Babel rising again as they sense that God is just a concept, and one that hinders their autonomy.
Eberstadt also calls out the faltering spirit of professed Christians who, fearing scorn and exclusion, keep their counsel. Which Christian hasn’t been in a church that retreats into tactical silence on matters such as gay marriage? “Self-censorship,” says Eberstadt, is among the worse dangers that the new intolerance breeds in us. Out of such self-censorship grow division and faction. If truth cannot be spoken for fear of ridicule, we will concede the world to the celebrants of postmodern confusion.
Eberstadt offers one slender hope: the testimony of the “victims of the sexual revolution.” They have the only authority that the secular world hasn’t really dispossessed: the authority of firsthand experience. Maybe we will find a new St. Augustine among them to lead us to a better reckoning of who we are and why we all need mercy. The answer to self-censorship is confession.
national association of scholars
new york, new york
The fact that First Things published a long article on my book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Existence is an honor even when the article is a critique, which—as usual in academic disputes—needs critique from my side as well (“What Mercy Is,” March).
But before entering into the critique, I want to express my agreement with what Fr. Daniel P. Moloney says about the rumors—whether correct or not—he heard from the Extraordinary Synod last autumn. He was told that there were two parties: those who were in favor of truth and those who were in favor of mercy. I cannot but fully agree with him that this is an incorrect juxtaposition, which isn’t mine and never was mine. Mercy itself is a revealed truth intimately connected with all other revealed truths. The message of mercy would collapse without the truth that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), without the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection of our Lord and many other truths. It is therefore theological nonsense to bring truth and mercy in contraposition. There is therefore a solid common basis for dialogue between us.
But when Moloney goes on and says that it was I who gave the impulse to the present discussion on mercy, he gives me too much honor. It was Pope John XXIII, who set the tone of mercy in his Spiritual Itinerary and then in his famous opening address to the Second Vatican Council. In this address he told the council fathers that today is not the time for the weapons of rigor but for the medicine of mercy. Pope John Paul II, who in Poland had experienced all the horrors of the twentieth century, titled his second encyclical Dives in Misericordia. Programmatically he canonized Sr. Faustina Kowalska as the first saint of the new millennium. Finally, Pope Benedict deepened the question in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Thus Pope Francis stands in full continuity with his predecessors, and my modest book is in the best company.
Therefore I didn’t say, as Moloney asserts, that the tradition has criminally neglected the issue of mercy, which obviously would be totally wrong. I said this only about the more recent theological manuals and dictionaries (if the U.S.-American ones are better, I apologize for my forward critique). My point is that the great tradition is much better and much deeper than the tradition of the more or less neo-scholastic manuals. My main support on this point is no one less than Thomas Aquinas, who was much more rooted in the biblical witness than, unfortunately, neo-Thomists normally are.
Therefore I would like to invite Moloney to look again in the Summa Theologiae, where he will find most of the theses he criticized. Among others, in the Pars prima he should study the quaestio 21 “De iustitia et misericordia.”There in articles 3 and 4 he can find what Thomas thinks about mercy as the greatest attribute of God, its precedence over and against justice, and that mercy presupposes justice and is its plenitude—affirmations Moloney thinks must be criticized. About mercyas summa vitae christianae see the Pars secunda secundae quaestio 30, article 4. And if this shouldn’t be enough, I recommend reading the fine article of Yves Congar “La miséricorde: Attribut souverain de Dieu” (La Vie Spirituelle, 106, 1962, 380–95).
He who thinks in the line of Thomas knows very well how to distinguish between the inner nature of God and the attributes of God that are related to the acts of God ad extra. The latter aren’t a part but a mirror of God’s inner nature and—as a headline in my book clearly states—mercy is a mirror of the Trinity. Thomas, following Anselm of Canterbury, goes so far as to say that mercy in salvation history is God’s justice to himself and God’s historical faithfulness (in Hebrew: emet, truth!) to his nature, which is love.
I cannot understand how Moloney’s critique could suppose the contrary and then end up with a reductio ad absurdum. Sure, if mercy were the inner nature of God, the Father would have mercy with the Son and the Son with the Spirit. But I don’t know whether there is one Catholic theologian who teaches such nonsense. As Christians, we should keep to the rule of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and instead of ridiculing each other we should interpret each other in the best possible orthodox way. If we don’t, meaningful theological dialogue becomes impossible and sacra theologia turns into a political and ideological battlefield.
Here is the trap Moloney risks falling into when he insists that dogmatic theology has to be about the eternal truths. I agree if he understands eternal truths in the sense that there are confessions of truth eschatologically valid once for all time, never out of fashion but always worthy to be remembered, confessed, and more deeply reflected upon by the people of God in order to discover always anew their eternal newness (as Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium, 11).
But these truths aren’t abstract eternal principles. They are revealed by God’s historical and dialogical self-revelation by words and deeds, and in the fullness of time by God’s eternal Son becoming flesh in a certain time and space of history; in church history under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they have to be witnessed to and developed through the living tradition (see the dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum, 2, 8). Thus these eternal truths aren’t without a concrete historical index and they have an inner dialogical character. Dogmatic theology cannot explain them—as Moloney wrongly requires—without relating (not adapting!) them to past and present history. On this point dogmatic theology distinguishes itself rigorously from ideology, which loses contact with human history and human life.
Toward the end of his critique, Moloney seems to become aware of the trap he risks falling into. He calls attention to the present discussion about mercy with regard to the protection of minors. But here he confuses two different questions. No Christian theologian will deny that a priest who became guilty of such awful deeds can, after metanoia and a via poenitentialis, find God’s mercy and be absolved. But such forgiveness has to be distinguished from the question of whether it would be responsible to entrust to him anew the normal pastoral ministry of a priest. The answer is: No, because this would be a merciless pseudo-mercy with regard to the victims and, as sad experience tells us, run the risk of creating new victims.
It is for this reason that my book on mercy, with explicit regard to this very sad question, made the clear distinction between mercy and pseudo-mercy. Why Moloney wasn’t aware of it, I don’t know, but nevertheless in this regard I do not hesitate to stand together with him on Cardinal Seán O’Malley’s side.
Cardinal Walter Kasper
In his review of Walter Kasper’s book on mercy, Daniel P. Moloney is no doubt right to point out the strangeness of the apparent opposition between mercy and truth that is operative in that work. Mercy must never be reduced to a mere cheap grace. Unfortunately, however, his reaction against Kasper gives way to a different kind of strangeness, proving his own words true: “theologians usually misstep when they react to current moods.”
Moloney invokes the authority of the classical Christian tradition in opposing the cardinal’s exaltation of mercy over justice as God’s fundamental attribute. With a straightforward logic, he argues that insofar as mercy implies relation to imperfect creatures, it cannot possibly be one of God’s essential attributes, and that therefore “divine justice must be more fundamental than divine mercy.”
But no less an authority than St. Thomas Aquinas sides with Kasper on this particular issue. In question 21 of the Summa, Thomas writes that “the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy and is founded upon it,” and that in acting mercifully God is “doing something more than justice,” for mercy “is the fullness of justice. Whence it is said: Mercy exalts itself above judgment.”
If this confuses us, we should recall that the strict rules of creaturely logic will at times tend to break down somewhat in the analogical realms of theological discourse. Mercy names a depth of God’s love that we cannot approach by any other term, and therefore it is most fittingly applied (maxime attribuenda) to God, even beyond justice. Fortunately for us, this is not a principle that St. Thomas, in accord with the classical doctrine of the saints, was likely to forget: “between creatures and God’s goodness there can be no proportion.”
Moloney does well to oppose any falsification of mercy that might appear in Kasper’s book, but this kind of overreaction is not a helpful way forward.
st. paul seminary
st. paul, minnesota
Daniel P. Moloney replies:
I’d like to thank Walter Cardinal Kasper for his response to my review. I do think that His Eminence is too modest about his influence on the popularity of the concept of mercy at the highest levels of the Church today. After all, Pope Francis gave his book the mother of all endorsements when he said, in some of the first comments of his papacy, that the cardinal’s book has done him “much good.” His American publishing house was smart to place the Holy Father’s words of praise on the cover of the English translation. So while yes, mercy is a theme of recent popes, and there is of course great popular devotion to Divine Mercy, I haven’t seen the concept used in discussions about church policy in quite this way before. For that, I’ll side with the pope in crediting His Eminence, despite his protestations to the contrary.
In his letter, Cardinal Kasper complains that I attribute to him the view that there is mercy within the Trinity, that, for example, the Father shows mercy to the Holy Spirit. He points out that in the section of his book regarding the Trinity, titled “Mercy as Mirror of the Trinity,” he makes no such assertion. And he doesn’t. But my argument was with the previous section, “Mercy as God’s Defining Attribute,” pointing out that the view there leads to the implication that there would be mercy within the Trinity, an implication we both find absurd. The two sections are obviously related: Since all three persons of the Trinity share the one divine nature, what is true of the divine nature will be true of each of the persons.
Let me restate the heart of my argument. Kasper argues in his book that mercy is God’s “defining attribute,” that “the constitution of God’s essence . . . is his mercy . . . it is his holy essence.” This is the point on which I charged him of failing to engage with the theological tradition. There is a distinction in theology between the divine attributes in general, which include all things correctly said of God, and “pure perfections,” those divine attributes that admit no imperfection into the concept. Only the pure perfections can be essential to God. (Augustine’s De Trinitate, Book V is the locus classicus for this argument; Anselm’s Monologion ch. 15 is an early follower.)
Mercy cannot be a pure perfection because mercy always needs someone in need of mercy, who has some sort of sin or imperfection or fallenness. If mercy were essential to God, then God would not be able to exist without some creature who needed mercy. But before creation, there was only God, and it would be “absurd” (in the sense of reductio ad absurdum) to claim that God shows mercy to himself.
I may be mistaken, but it seems in his letter that Cardinal Kasper is denying that in the book he said mercy is essential to God, but rather that it is only “the mirror” of God’s love among the Trinity, that the love between the Father and the Son from which proceeds the Holy Spirit has a counterpart in God’s merciful love for creation. As I suggested in the review, this sort of more modest claim would be orthodox, and consistent with the traditional view that only pure perfections pertain to God’s essence.
However, as I also said in the review, His Eminence states that he was provoked into writing the book because theologians who talked about divine attributes tended to treat mercy as a marginal attribute of God, because traditionally it was thought that mercy did not pertain to God’s essence. He repeats this point in his letter. Cardinal Kasper says he wrote his book to correct the theologians on this point. He wants to argue that mercy is not just important in the Bible’s story of our salvation, where God is sometimes described anthropomorphically or in poetic language, but that in precise theological terms mercy is the highest perfection of God. For this reason, I took his statements that “God’s essence is his mercy” to be important to his overall argument.
The claim that mercy is essential to God is also key to his argument that mercy “surpasses” or is prior to justice. He argues, “we should treat mercy not as an appendix to the exposition of God’s attributes, but rather as the organizing center of God’s attributes, with the other attributes grouped around it. . . . If mercy is the fundamental attribute of God, then it cannot be understood as an instance of justice; justice must rather be understood from the perspective of divine mercy.” If he now doesn’t want to make the claim that mercy is essential to God, I don’t see how he can make the argument that mercy should be the key to understanding the other attributes.
As a reader trying to be charitable, I face an unattractive choice: accept that His Eminence does hold the mistaken view that mercy is essential to God; or assume that when he emphatically made the multiple important statements at key points in his book that mercy is essential to God, he didn’t mean them. I’d like to think my argument was logical and theological, not ideological. I just was trying to work out the problems that flow from his claims about mercy in relation to God’s essence, claims that imply unorthodox conclusions.
It’s not true, however, that others in the tradition think as he does. In his letter, Cardinal Kasper cites St. Thomas Aquinas, particularly in Summa Theologiae I.21.3–4, as his “main support” for his claims that mercy is “the greatest attribute of God,” that mercy takes “precedence over and against justice,” and that “mercy presupposes justice and is its plenitude.” He also refers to II-II.30.4 as concluding that mercy is the summit of the Christian life. I’m not sure that last article helps his cause: St. Thomas is talking there about mercy in humans, not divine mercy, and he says explicitly, following St. Paul, that charity, not mercy, is the highest human virtue (caritas, per quam Deo unitur, est potior quam misericordia, per quam defectus proximorum supplet). But maybe Cardinal Kasper has a different reading.
In the other passage, St. Thomas does address divine mercy and justice, but he is talking about God’s work towards creation, so those passages aren’t directly relevant to the question of the divine essence considered in itself. I don’t see any claim that mercy is the greatest attribute or is essential to God, nor am I aware of any place where Aquinas asserted that mercy is of God’s essence. Aquinas actually says in I.21.3 that mercy is simply God’s goodness when directed toward creatures and considered from a certain perspective (ratio). That’s hardly an argument for its being central.
Aquinas does make a number of statements that sound like the view Cardinal Kasper wants to defend: He says in I.21.4 that “the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy and is founded upon it,” and that in acting mercifully God is “doing something more than justice,” for mercy “is the fullness of justice.” In his book, Cardinal Kasper also quotes Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and others using similar language about mercy “surpassing” justice. There are many ways in which such language can be given an orthodox construction: If, for example, you take your definition of “justice” from a law textbook (Aquinas likes the Roman jurist Ulpian) or from ordinary political usage, then there’s no problem in saying God’s mercy surpasses that. But that sort of justice (imperfect, worldly, human) is not a divine perfection, and so can’t be what we mean when we say God is Justice itself. When John Paul II in Dives in Misericordia invokes the saying “summum ius, summa iniuria” (the greatest justice leads to the greatest injustice), which Cardinal Kasper cites twice in the book, he’s not referring to perfect divine justice, but the excesses of human justice absent love.
(As an aside, I don’t think Cardinal Kasper is fair to the “neo-Thomists.” They might not use the word “mercy” as much as he wants, but they talk extensively about divine love, grace, the sacraments, and charity, all of which pertain to God’s mercy, and which they develop into soteriology, the study of the saving action of God.)
In my review, I argued that the needs of apologetics ought not drive the development of dogmatic theology. His Eminence suggests that this is some sort of “trap,” but I wonder if we are talking past each other. Let me illustrate the point I was trying to make with a historical example. In the nineteenth century, there began a movement of theologians who worried that the major theological treatises about the Church were works of apologetics, written to defend Catholic claims against Protestant objections. The picture of the Church that emerged was distorted by this apologetic context—too much emphasis was being given to points that were disputed (the authority of the pope, for example) and not enough given to other important points (such as the nature of the local churches). It was recognized that the Church needed to develop a dogmatic theology of itself, a real ecclesiology, which would express all the truths about the Church in their correct proportions, apart from this or that controversy of the moment—a project that bore fruit in Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
That’s the point I was gesturing at with my comment about the different tasks of apologetics and dogmatics: Apologetics has its place, but it should not be allowed to distort dogmatics. Of course, Cardinal Kasper is right that theology is a human enterprise, done by humans with intellectual and personal histories and dispositions, and not just a participation in a Platonic realm of ideas. But if there’s anything in theology that does approach such Platonic levels of stability, it ought to be the theology regarding God’s eternal attributes. I don’t think it’s a sign of overly rigid or “ideological” thinking to worry that changing what we say about the unchanging in response to this or that problem of the moment is a mistake.
I’m disappointed that in his letter, His Eminence doesn’t develop his answer to the question of how to put mercy into practice a bit more fully. He writes that a penitent priest sex-abuser can be given forgiveness by God, but that it would be “a merciless pseudo-mercy with regard to the victims” to put him back in ministry. In my review, I pointed out that from the perspective of forgiveness and mercy, there were certain apparent parallels between the case of clergy abuse and the case of a man who abandoned his wife and children. Why wouldn’t it be a “merciless pseudo-mercy” with regard to the wife and children to allow to be readmitted to Communion the man who ruined their lives by abandoning them?
Cardinal Kasper further suggests that all priests guilty of violating their vows with a minor present a risk of recidivism, and so none of them should be allowed to remain in ministry once that is discovered. That argument has the virtue of being forward-looking (it’s about preventing future risk) and not being simply retributive (punishing past behavior without the possibility for mercy). Of course, something similar can be said of the divorced and remarried. Doesn’t the man who left one wife and family in the past run the risk of doing the same to a second wife and family? In the U.S., two out of three second marriages, and three out of four third marriages, end in divorce. That’s also a high rate of recidivism. If zero tolerance is the policy of “mercy” and not “pseudo-mercy” in the one case, why not in the other?
In his book, Cardinal Kasper makes only one comment about sexual abuse, which is that it is “horrifying.” That statement comes in the section “Mercy in Canon Law?”, which argues for “a hermeneutics of mercy” in the interpretation of canon law, so that mercy “sweetens” the law, in part by taking into account individual circumstances when applying a general law might be unjust. I didn’t speculate on this in the review, but it did seem that by placing his comments about the sex abuse crisis in that section, he might have been trying to suggest that he had worries, like those worries shared by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles and others, about a one-size-fits-all policy that applies to all those accused of any sort of sexual overtures to people under the age of eighteen. He now makes it clear that he does not have such qualms, and in fact endorses such a policy. But in a speech at Boston College and in an article in America, he borrowed from this same canon law section of his book to argue against a single policy denying Communion to all those who are divorced and remarried, and in favor of his controversial suggestion for readmitting them on an individualized, case-by-case basis.
I’m interested in why he thinks canon law should be inflexible in the one case and flexible in the other. Cardinal Kasper wonders why his distinction between mercy and pseudo-mercy didn’t answer all my questions. I hope that he now sees why I think that more needs to be said.
I also wish to thank Bryce Evans for his letter. I think the above addresses the point he made. I also want to thank Mr. Evans for his response to God’s call to discern a priestly vocation at St. Paul’s Seminary. I’ll pray for his vocation and ask him to pray for mine.