ROME — German Cardinal Walter Kasper has been appointed head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican's ecumenical department.

On March 3 Pope John Paul announced, as expected, the retirement of Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the 76-year-old Australian who has directed the council since 1989, and named 68-year-old Cardinal Kasper as his successor.

Cardinal Kasper has served as the pontifical council's secretary for the past two years. His appointment to head the council has been warmly welcomed by leading Protestant officials.

He has had wide experience as a theologian and has written many books. From 1970 to 1989 he was professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Tubingen. In 1989 he was appointed Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart.

In 1979, he was chosen by the Vatican as one of a dozen Catholic theologians to sit on the World Council of Churches' Faith and Order Commission.

In 1994 Cardinal Cassidy appointed then-Bishop Kasper as co-chairman of the Lutheran-Catholic Commission on Unity.

A Canadian, 56-year-old Father Marc Ouellet, has been appointed by the Pope to succeed Cardinal Kasper as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. At the same time, Pope John Paul has announced that Father Ouellet is to be made a bishop.

On Jan. 22, the day after the Pope announced the names of the new cardinals, including Cardinal Kasper, a Catholic magazine in Austria, Die Furche, published an interview with him in which he expressed doubts about the presentation and interpretation last year of a controversial Vatican document, Dominus Iesus.

In a series of public appearances in Germany, Cardinal Kasper had also raised questions about the declaration , which was published Sept. 5. He said that the declaration — which described Protestant communities as not, properly speaking, “churches” — lacked sensitivity and was “too brief” in describing the relations between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities.

Referring to the claim that Protestant churches were not “churches in the proper sense,” Cardinal Kasper said that the declaration had correctly explained that “churches which grew out of the Reformation have a different idea of church from us [Catholics]. There is no dispute about that. These churches do not wish to be churches like the Catholic Church. They do not retain the apostolic succession for the episcopate or the ministry of Peter, which for us are essential. So in fact Dominus Iesus does not signify any change in the Vatican's ecumenical policy.”

Moreover, he added, “the document upholds the common ecumenical belief that Jesus Christ is the sole and universal mediator of our salvation. Protestants say the same thing.”

Another difficulty with Dominus Iesus signaled by Cardinal Kasper was its failure to mention the fruits of ecumenical dialogue undertaken since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He pointed out that Pope John Paul had specifically referred to this dialogue in his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) , published in 1995.

At the same time, the ecumenist made it clear that his complaints were with the document's tone, not its content, which he said “correctly rejects” attitudes downplaying the need for truth in dialogue.

In an interview with Lutheran World Information in Geneva late in February, Cardinal Kasper also commented on Dominus Iesus, saying that the original controversy had now been more or less overcome. He felt that the pontifical council had succeeded in its attempt to clarify the misunderstandings that had arisen. He added that Dominus Iesus was intended as a warning against “a relativism or a fundamental pluralism” and stressed that Pope John Paul had repeatedly stated “that for him, the decisions taken at the Second Vatican Council are irrevocable and irreversible for the ecumenical process”.

Cardinal Kasper's outspokenness on sensitive issues has attracted repeated German media attempts to pin him down on the ideological spectrum, but he told reporters in 1999 that he rejects the “conservative vs. progressive” schema.

“The current crisis (in the Church) is primarily a crisis of faith. Concern for preservation of the faith may mark one as a conservative, but I am convinced that one can only conserve what one simultaneously renews,” he said.

In Geneva, Dr. Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, welcomed Cardinal Kasper's appointment. “Cardinal Kasper comes to this central position of ecumenical leadership in the Roman Catholic Church with broad pastoral experience and sensitivity and after a distinguished career as a theological teacher,” Dr. Raiser said. “His competence will be an asset for our work together. We look forward to his leadership and inspiration in the years ahead.”

Dr. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, also based in Geneva, said he was filled with “great satisfaction” to know that in the coming years, Cardinal Kasper “will continue to be a decisive architect of ecumenism in the Catholic Church.” Dr. Noko described the new president of the pontifical council as a “renowned, respected theologian” who brings “a quality of theology and style of leadership that facilitate collaboration in the ecumenical movement.”

“We know Cardinal Kasper and have found in him a common faith in the living God, who will guide us in these complex times towards the unity which God makes possible in Christ,” said Dr. Noko.