Understanding Cardinal Walter Kasper
The eminent Austrian philosopher Thomas Stark contends that the controversial cardinal is one who filters St. Thomas Aquinas through the lens of Hegel and Kant, which is a mistake.
VIENNA — What are some of the philosophical underpinnings behind Cardinal Walter Kasper’s controversial proposal to grant certain divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics access to holy Communion in certain cases?
This question was among those addressed at a colloquium held last fall in Vienna, as part of the launch of the German translation of the book Remaining in the Truth of Christ. The colloquium brought together representatives from the Cistercian Abbey of Heiligenkreuz, the German-speaking academic world and the traditional organization Una Voce Austria.
Among the featured presenters at the colloquium was professor Thomas Stark, professor of philosophy at the Benedict XVI Academy of Philosophy and Theology (Heiligenkreuz) and professor of philosophy at the University of St. Pölten in Austria.
Stark delivered a lecture in German entitled: “Historicity and German Idealism in the Thought of Walter Kasper.” The lecture examined the philosophical roots of the German cardinal’s theological thought, especially as they pertain to the controversial claims he made in his 2014 address at the extraordinary consistory in preparation for last year’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.
The Register sat down with professor Stark to discuss the contents of his lecture, his belief that Cardinal Kasper’s thought can ultimately be traced back to Hegelian philosophy (“the rational alone is real”) and what this means for the German cardinal’s understanding of the Church’s teaching and practice.
Professor Stark, can you summarize your talk for the benefit of our English-speaking readers?
I asked myself if there are any roots, according to the positions in moral theology, in the philosophical foundation of Kasper’s theology. And then I came across an article that the famous Italian historian Roberto de Mattei had written in Il Foglio; and therein he said that one of the reasons why Kasper is taking his positions is because he is very much influenced by the late [Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph] Schelling. And I tried to find out whether there are any connections to Schelling. …
So I delved more deeply into the whole topic, because I had already agreed to address Kasper’s position and his roots in the philosophy of German Idealism.
My conclusion? I would say that one can clearly see that Kasper’s position is deeply rooted in German Idealistic philosophy, but I would say more so in [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel than in Schelling.
The problem with this philosophy is the relationship between history and truth. And the problem with Kasper’s position, as far as I understand him, is that he accepts historicism [where history is seen as a standard of value or as a determinant of events] just as a fact. He says, “Well, we are living in a time after historicism in the 19th century; history is the main framework in which we have to think and to live,’” and he is quoting [Ernst] Troeltsch, who said the encounter between Christian life and Christian theology and history will be even more problematic than the encounter between theology and science that had already taken place a century ago.
In addition, he seems to just accept the status quo and says, as far as I understand him, “Well, we are living in times that are influenced by historicism, and we have to live with it,” and then he historicizes truth and does many other confusing and perplexing things along these lines, I would say.
I have said several times, “As far as I understand him,” because the problem with this sort of theology is that it is difficult to understand, not because one has to be very intelligent to understand it, but because it is not coherent, in my opinion. And one can only figure it out if one understands the language they use. I mean, it’s not only Kasper; it’s very many people of influence in modern theology. If one reads this language carefully, one can easily see an admixture of imitating [Martin] Heidegger and the influence of Existentialism, some pieces from [Emmanuel] Kant and Hegel, which are read into Thomas Aquinas. They read Thomas through the lens of Hegel and Kant, which simply cannot be done, in my opinion. And they mix up various philosophical positions that really can’t be put together in a coherent, logical way.
The way they attempt to intertwine all of their theories forms a sort of pseudo-dialectic that is not really logical and coherent, and they put it in such a way as to provide an opportunity to get away with novel theories without being under the critical view of the magisterium, because they can always shift to the right and then to the left, as need be.
How do we see the principles you’ve just described play out, for example, in Cardinal Kasper’s proposal to allow remarried divorcees to have access to holy Communion?
Well, this is obvious. They say, “We cannot change doctrine, but we must change the pastoral application of doctrine or the practice,” which is contradictory, because you can’t change practice without altering doctrine, because practice follows directly from doctrine. So this is pure fantasy.
For anyone who thinks on this for a moment, it becomes clear that it simply can’t be done. You have to change doctrine in order to change the moral teaching.
Including the Sixth Commandment and the Church’s doctrine on the holy Eucharist?
Of course. Yes. So they are essentially destroying the whole sacramental structure of the Church by pretending to be addressing mere “pastoral” considerations. It is a ruse.
Do you think it is a conscious effort to subvert the Church’s teaching? Do you think they are conscious of what they are doing or that they think it’s all truly acceptable?
Well, I’ve thought about this quite a lot, especially since I’ve studied theology. My main specialty, of course, is philosophy, but I have a master’s degree in theology, because I’m of the opinion that, as a Catholic philosopher, one must have real knowledge of theology. And I was obliged to push back against some of my more progressive teachers when I studied theology.
I have often thought about what is really going on in the minds of these people. Initially, I couldn’t figure it out, but the more I am exposed to their thought, the more I become convinced that we’re dealing with a sort of dementia.
I will give you one of the best examples: If you read, for example, what people like Cardinal Kasper and others have written about the mystery of the Resurrection, you really can’t understand what they are saying. Did Jesus Christ rise from the dead or did he not? Or is the question of any real importance? They don’t come right out and say, “Well, it’s not important whether the tomb of Christ is empty.” Rather, they posit that there could be some kind of Resurrection that does not conflict with not actually knowing whether the tomb is empty or not. It’s all very vague, and the student walks away not understanding what this is all about. I always say, “Well, the tomb is empty. I’ve been to it very often, and I’m a witness. I’ve been in the tomb of Our Lord several times, so I can tell you that it’s empty.” The question isn’t whether it’s empty, but how it got empty.
Do you think it’s a kind of sophism?
It is very much a kind of sophism! And I fear that the real reason for all of this is, tragically, that a lot of theologians today have simply lost not their faith, but let me put it in these words: They have lost their faith in their faith. They are people who don’t believe what they believe, and this is precisely the definition of Modernism. Charles Peguy says that Modernists are people who do not believe what they believe. And I think that it’s exactly correct. These people believe in the resurrection of Christ with no empty tomb. They believe in miracles without miracles having actually taken place. For example, Kasper does not believe in the miracles that have to do with nature — the calming of the Sea of Galilee, for example, or the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, things like that. He just believes in things like, “Well, there were people who were said to be possessed by demons — with the background, we don’t believe that — and Christ takes a sort of therapeutic approach to them; and this, in fact, was interpreted as a miracle, but of course these things don’t need to be taken in the literal sense." So the Modernists believe in miracles without miracles, in the Resurrection without a resurrection, in virginity without virginity, etc. And this is why I use the word “dementia,” since what they are saying violates the law of non-contradiction.
Is it consistent with Pope St. Pius X’s 1907 encyclical on the doctrines of the modernists, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (The Doctrines of the Modernists)? In that encyclical, he talks about agnosticism being the beginning of modernism.
Yes, exactly! What St. Pius X wrote about Modernism is of outstanding value to understanding these men. It is exactly what he says.
So would you go so far as to say that Cardinal Kasper is an agnostic?
I would say Kasper is a Modernist, which includes a sort of agnosticism.
Would you go so far as to call it apostasy?
Well, this is a strong word, but I certainly fail to understand how this line of thinking does not lead to apostasy, at least objectively speaking.
What else can I think of someone who writes that dogmas can essentially become outdated and pointless or that they even can be stupid? And yet this is what I was quoting just today. Or somebody who says, “Well, one of the effects of historicism,” which he openly accepts, “is that ancient holy Scriptures or texts lose their validity”?
I don’t know what people who say things like this really believe, but in my opinion, what they believe is not what a Catholic believes. I mean, I’m really sorry to say that, and I hasten to add that when I started to write my lecture, I was very careful to give every benefit of the doubt. I really tried to approach the work of Kasper in a neutral way, because I have every desire to understand him. But when I got deeper into his thought, I was confronted with a system, if there is one, and with ideas that are so shocking that I really can’t see how somebody who is arguing — who is talking — in that way can still be considered a Catholic.
I’m really very sorry to have to say this, but this is the only conclusion I can draw; and it is based not only on my suppositions, but on Kasper’s own words.
You spoke in your lecture about a dichotomy between finding salvation in Christ and finding salvation in progress. Can you say a few words about that?
We have certain periods of history, and according to the New Testament, the periods are the following: First, God created the world. After a while, original sin happened. And then a different sort of history began, and this is the history in which we find ourselves to this day. And the question is: How will it all end? And there are two metaphysical concepts, as far as I see, regarding the end of history: that which is written down in the last book of the New Testament, where we are informed by God himself, because it is God’s word, that history will culminate in a huge catastrophe when the world falls away from God; and then Christ will come back after the Antichrist has reigned for — I think the Church Fathers say — three and a half years, or something like that. This is one concept.
So the question is: What is the climax of history in this concept? The climax of history is the time between the incarnation of Christ and his ascension into heaven. This is the climax of time, the fullness of time.
And then there is a different way of explaining history and the climax of history, which has it that the climax of history will be reached at the end of history because history is a process of perfection.
This is Hegel, isn’t it?
Yes, this is Hegel. And at the end of history, the climax of history will be reached. And someone who made a modern version of this concept of history in theology was Teilhard de Chardin, who said we are on our way, in process, to the so-called Omega Point, whereby creation and God will be reunited, but because of a process of self-perfection, which takes place in history. And this is the polar opposite of what the New Testament — the inspired written word of God — tells us. And again, Cardinal Kasper tries, as far as I understand him, to join these two concepts under one hat, which are absolutely contradictory. He tries to make one mega story out of all of this, which just doesn’t work. You have to decide what you believe.
Has the fullness of time already taken place, and are we facing the reign of the Antichrist sometime — who knows when, maybe next year, maybe 500 years? You have to decide what you believe. What is the sense of history? One or the other? And all concepts which try to mix these two interpretations of history are just illogical nonsense.
Is this seen in a concrete way in Cardinal Kasper’s proposal concerning the divorced and “remarried” having access to holy Communion?
To get to his practical points: If you have a concept of history like Kasper has, everything and anything is possible. Because what was important yesterday is maybe of no value today, and what will be of any value tomorrow we just don’t know. So it is history itself. I think he thinks it is the objective way of history that tells us what to do and how to adapt to the way of history in which he, to my opinion, has every confidence.
And this has something to do with this whole optimistic atmosphere in the ’60s. People trusted in what I said in my lecture: They trusted in the vision that modernity produced of its own future. So they thought: Things are getting better, people are getting freer, there is a dialectic in history which is an emancipation which makes people freer, and we just have to go along with history, and history will somehow tell us where to go. But, I’m sorry, this is not the concept of history that we find in the New Testament, that we find in the Church Fathers, that we find in the doctors of the Church, that we find in Scholasticism or anywhere else. We find this concept in Hegel and in de Chardin, but there is no legitimate way for a Catholic theologian to accept these novel concepts. Not as far as I see.
And they have great resentment towards everything in and of the past. Our great-grandfathers were stupid idiots, in their opinion. [A friend] says a funny thing when we go to Venice, and we go down by boat through the Canal Grande. And when he is with us, he always says, “Well, look at this city, all these houses in the water. Weren’t the people really stupid at that time? They had no idea how to do things; they had no idea of architecture. It’s all rubbish.”
Everybody loves medieval things. I think all those people who have this resentment against the Middle Ages should not be permitted to go into cities like Venice. This was — of course — a joke. One has to add that clarification in these humorless times of political correctness.
Cardinal Kasper is reported to have said at the 2014 synod that he was of the belief that all of the German bishops were in support of his position. How would you respond?
This is not true. If Cardinal Kasper really said that, then he is either not well-informed or he is telling a falsehood. As I know from an absolutely reliable source, there are at least three German bishops, not auxiliary bishops … who did not agree with the paper of the German bishops’ conference, supporting Cardinal Kasper’s position and presented by Cardinal [Reinhard] Marx at the synod. They explicitly voted against it. These bishops are: Bishop [Gregor] Hanke of Eichstätt, Bishop [Rudolf] Voderholzer of Regensburg and Bishop [Konrad] Zdarsa of Augsburg. And I know two of them personally, one of them quite well.
So it was clear to me from the beginning that they couldn’t have agreed with the paper in question. So to suggest that all the German bishops back the Kasper clique is just a lie. But there is much lying in today’s Church, and it is all about an ideology that is in opposition to constant Church teaching of two millennia, which nobody, absolutely nobody, ever has the right or even the power to change.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.