Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In one of his first statements after his election, Pope Francis said of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book Mercy that “This book has done me so much good.” The book received a more extended—and critical—assessment in Daniel P. Moloney’s widely discussed review for the March issue of First Things. Below is Kasper’s response to the review, and Moloney’s reply. –Ed.

Walter Cardinal Kasper:

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.

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 a 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. 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 20th century, wrote 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 US-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 the author of the critique 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 mercy as summa vitae christianae see the Pars seconda 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 which 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 would be 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 reminded of, 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 looses 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, after metanoia and a via poenitentialis can find God’s mercy and can be absolved. But such forgiveness has to be distinguished from the question of whether it would be responsible to entrust to him anew normal priestly pastoral ministry. 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 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.

Daniel P. Moloney:

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 current 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, the section entitled “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 which 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 pertained 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 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, that 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 he 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.21.3–4 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 “summa 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 have used 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 developed 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 an 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, he 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-sized 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.

Walter Cardinal Kasper is President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Daniel Patrick Moloney is a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles