Synod on the Family: Ratzinger-Kasper Rivalry Revisited


Cardinal Walter Kasper speaks with a Catholic News Agency correspondent at St. Peter’s Square in April 2011.
Cardinal Walter Kasper speaks with a Catholic News Agency correspondent at St. Peter’s Square in April 2011. (photo: Ernesto Gygax/CNA)

While Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium is in Rome for the synod on the family, I hope that he has a chance to visit Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The retired prelates may wish to reminisce about synods past, especially the 1985 extraordinary assembly on the 20th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.

St. John Paul had called the special synod in January 1985 to assess how Vatican II had been received in the life of the Church, examining both achievements and failures. In 1985, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was still in his first years as John Paul’s doctrinal lieutenant, and Cardinal Danneels was the boy wonder of the College of Cardinals, having recently been made a cardinal while in his 40s. John Paul’s biographer, George Weigel, explains that the Belgian was not happy with the German as the synod opened.

“Shortly after the extraordinary synod convened on November 24, 1985, Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium complained at a press conference that ‘this is not a synod about a book; it is a synod about a council!’” Weigel wrote. “The book in question was Cardinal Ratzinger’s review of the post-conciliar state of the Church, a lengthy interview with the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, which had been published in early 1985 under the provocative title The Ratzinger Report. Danneels was right, of course, and Ratzinger would be the first to admit it. … [But] The Ratzinger Report was a major factor in setting the intellectual framework in which the synod’s deliberations were conducted and its recommendations framed.”

The preliminary commentary before the synod was all about whether the bishops would follow Cardinal Ratzinger’s critique of the post-conciliar period. Cardinal Ratzinger had used the incendiary word “restoration” in his interview, and the Catholic world waited to see if the synod would do just that — restore Catholic life to its former ways. The synod did not do that, but its lasting achievement was calling for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, completed in 1992. The Catechism, arguably the most significant initiative of the John Paul II-Ratzinger collaboration, completed the Council in a certain sense, providing doctrinal and spiritual clarity after the years of post-conciliar confusion.

The Catechism was a consequence of the 1985 synod, and that synod played out on terrain scouted by Cardinal Ratzinger’s interview. It was a synod about a council, but a synod shaped by a book. As Cardinal Danneels returns to Rome three decades later, appointed a member of this synod in his retirement, might he recognize a similar dynamic? Is this going to be a synod about another German cardinal’s pre-synod interventions?

The last days before the synod have seen a ferocious debate over the proposals by Cardinal Walter Kasper, another retired cardinal, to reverse the Church’s traditional teaching that living in an invalid “marital” union prevents one from receiving holy Communion. This week alone, Kasper has given interviews to America magazine in the United States, La Nacion in Argentina, Salt & Light TV in Canada and Catholic News Service in the United States, pressing his argument that those who are divorced and civilly remarried should be admitted to sacraments, despite being sacramentally married to someone other than their current conjugal partner.

Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the economic secretariat, has criticized this as the “capitulation” to contemporary culture, which all the enemies of the Church desire. Cardinal Kasper, for his part, has said that Pope Francis agrees with him, and those cardinals who criticize him are “politicians” motivated by “fear,” whose real target is the Holy Father’s preaching of mercy. There have been incendiary comments aplenty on all sides. Thus the preliminaries to the 2014 synod have focused even more on one man’s view than was the case in 1985.

What might Benedict himself think of all this? He likely would be surprised — perhaps rueful? — that the long Ratzinger-Kasper theological rivalry has followed them both into retirement. In a peculiar symmetry, the role that he played before the 1985 synod in advancing John Paul’s agenda is apparently now being done for Pope Francis by Cardinal Kasper. The synod of 2014 marks just the latest twist in the intertwined careers of him and Cardinal Kasper. In 1993, Kasper, like Ratzinger, a gifted academic theologian appointed a diocesan bishop in Germany, issued a pastoral letter advocating admitting the divorced and remarried to Communion. Ratzinger, then doctrinal prefect, rejected Kasper’s claim in no uncertain terms on behalf of the Holy See.

In 1999, Pope John Paul appointed Kasper as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. When, during the Great Jubilee of 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger published the declaration Dominus Iesus, teaching that Jesus alone is the unique Savior of mankind and that the Catholic Church alone is the fullness of the Church he founded, Kasper was publicly critical. So great was the criticism, fanned by then-Archbishop Kasper, that Pope John Paul took the unusual step of voicing his support for Dominus Iesus at a Sunday Angelus address, making it clear that in the sharp conflict between the two German Curial cardinals, it was Ratzinger who spoke for the pope.

Demonstrating rather impressive magnanimity, Pope John Paul elevated Kasper to the cardinalate a few months later and appointed him president of the Council for Christian Unity in March 2001. Cardinal Ratzinger quickly intervened to have Father Marc Ouellet, a Cardinal Ratzinger pupil then teaching in Rome, appointed secretary of the same council and ordained a bishop on less than three weeks’ notice. The joke in Rome at the time was a play on an old Latin phrase: Quis custodiet ispos custodes? (Who will watch the watchmen?)

Bishop Ouellet’s rapid installation had tongues wagging: Quis custodiet Kasper? Who will watch Cardinal Kasper? Cardinal Ratzinger had installed a reliable theological disciple to keep his German comrade in check. Unsurprisingly, Cardinal Ouellet, now prefect for bishops, recently published his rejection of the Kasper proposals. More than a decade later, he is still keeping watch.

The early years of the new millennium also brought a respectful, if pointed, argument between Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper in theological journals about the nature of the Church. Cardinal Ratzinger argued that the Church universal was prior to the local Churches, while Cardinal Kasper took the opposite view. It was the third high-profile disagreement between the two.

Then, March 2013 brought yet more twists to the 20-year Ratzinger-Kasper conflict. In choosing to abdicate on Feb. 28, Pope Benedict graciously permitted Cardinal Kasper to participate in the conclave to elect his successor. Had he waited less than a week, until March 6, Kasper would have been 80 and barred from entry on grounds of his age. It was during the conclave preparations that Cardinal Kasper gave Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio his book on mercy, which, in turn, the new Pope Francis publicly praised during his first Angelus address.

To those with Roman ears to hear, it was breathtaking — not yet a week elected, Pope Francis selected one cardinal for praise to a worldwide audience, and it was the one most known over two decades for public conflict with Ratzinger/Benedict. The world may have missed the significance, but it was not lost on the College of Cardinals that, with Benedict less than two weeks into retirement, Pope Francis was highlighting the work of his longest and most vocal critic in the Curia.

A year later, Pope Francis would invite Cardinal Kasper to address the consistory of cardinals, wherein he reiterated his 1993 proposals. If the Holy Father had wanted a thorough airing of options, there was no shortage of gifted theologians — including Cardinal Ouellet — with significant teaching on the family who could have also been invited to speak. Yet Cardinal Kasper was given the podium alone, and, after his proposals were resoundingly rejected by the vast majority of the cardinals who spoke, Pope Francis came to his public defense the next morning, inviting Cardinal Kasper to address the consistory again. Again, not a few cardinals present were curious as to the reasons such papal favor was being bestowed on a retired cardinal most famous for public clashes with Francis’ predecessor.

The degree to which Cardinal Kasper’s proposals have been publicly criticized reflects primarily their contradiction of the clear teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19, but there is undoubtedly an element of loyalty to Pope Benedict too, as many who consider Ratzinger/Benedict a great gift to the Church in our time are astonished that Cardinal Kasper should be given a leading role in this synod.

When the synod opens on Sunday, Cardinal Danneels will be there. Cardinal Kasper will be there. And Pope Emeritus Benedict will be close by, no doubt mindful of 1985, when he clashed with the former, and 1993 and 2000, when he clashed with the latter. Benedict’s abdication has meant a return for his rivals, making the question of 2001 relevant again for the forthcoming fortnight: Quis custodiet Kasper?

Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998-2003.