Cardinal Kasper and Vatican II: Ecclesiological Investigations

by Graham Kings

Date added: 18/06/2015

Cardinal Walter Kasper and Vatican II “The Catholic Church of the 21st century will have a charismatic face,” declared Cardinal Walter Kasper in the National Cathedral. His keynote address was the highlight for me of the conference held at Georgetown University “Vatican II: Remembering the Future” (May 21-24 2015). We discussed especially the ecumenical, interfaith, and secular perspectives on the Council’s impact and promise.

It was the ninth conference in a series organized by the “Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network,” a global group of theologians co-founded and led by Georgetown’s Catholic theologian Gerard Mannion and Oxford’s Anglican historian, Mark Chapman. It followed previous events in India, Belgium, and England.

Kasper has long been a theologian of the Spirit and was responding to the rise of the Charismatic Movement, in the historic churches of the world, and the spectacular growth of Pentecostal churches worldwide. I shall consider first his recently translated major book on ecclesiology, second his conference address, and third some key paragraphs from the Vatican II document on unity and ecumenism.

1. The Catholic Church: Nature, Reality and Mission

I have greatly enjoyed reading Walter Kasper’s book The Catholic Church: Nature, Reality and Mission (2015). He wrote the preface to the original German edition in Holy Week 2010 during the Papacy of Benedict XVI. Perhaps, it was, in effect, a retirement project to put Vatican II firmly back in the mind of the Church? His keynote address at the conference rejoiced in the Papacy of Francis and the renewed interest in Vatican II.

Kasper sees his book on ecclesiology as the third of his series of major monographs, after Jesus the Christ (1974) and The God of Jesus Christ (1982).

The first chapter, “My Journey in and with the Church,” lays out a fascinating autobiographical theology. It provides a setting for the following systematic chapters, which may have developed out of his lectures in Munster (1964-70) and Tübingen (1970-89). He later served as Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart (1989-99) and President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (1999-2010). He covers his whole vocation in theology over those years, including the early theological influences on him of Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar; he distances himself, somewhat, from Hans Küng.

It seems to me that Kasper himself fulfills the three principles that he states guided the Catholic Tübingen School of the nineteenth century: “scholarly rigour, ecclesial faithfulness, and critical constructive contemporaneousness” (6).

His style of writing includes some wonderful flourishes: “Doctrine is in no way a dead formula carried about like a monstrance. Rather, doctrine must be pastorally translated into life and proclamation” (11).

Concerning labels during Vatican II, Kasper is perceptive and finally witty:

Already during Vatican II there emerged two groups which have often been called “conservatives” and “progressives.” Yet, these two terms originally had different meanings from those which they received after the Council. On the one hand, those who were originally called progressives were, in fact, conservatives who promoted anew the great and older Tradition of Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers. On the other, those who were originally called conservatives focused exclusively on the post-Tridentine tradition of the previous handful of centuries. (12)

I enjoyed that final dismissive rhetoric: “handful of centuries.”

One of the key insights I gained from his book came from his pointing out that the phrases concerning the Church in the Creed are set within its section about the Holy Spirit. It seems so obvious now, but overlooked by many. Kasper concludes from this:

Hence, ecclesiology must not be developed only as a doctrine of an institution, but has to be dealt with in the context of pneumatology and the entire diversity of the charisma in the Church (21).

Concerning dialogue with the Eastern Churches, he relates:

On the penultimate day of the Council, the excommunications of 1054, often regarded as the beginning of the schism, were declared to be eraseable from the memory of the Church, and this was accompanied by a long applause from the whole Council. I dare say that this deserves to be called a prophetic act (27).

That phrase “eraseable from the memory of the Church” is extraordinary and raises many issues of “error,” or at least of “contextual error.”

2. Cardinal Kasper’s Address at the Conference on Vatican II

The following quotations are based my notes taken during his address: eventually, his full text will be published.

In the National Cathedral, Cardinal Kasper stated, “Mercy is the essence of the Gospel and the key to Christian life.” Mercy is the title of his seminal book published by Paulist Press. There was much talk at the conference that, perhaps, in the providence of God, Kasper’s most influential years are now and in the future, as the key theologian closest to Pope Francis.

I heard from the representative of the Paulist Press that the Spanish translation of his book Mercy was published just before the Conclave for the election of the Pope in 2013. In the guest house, just before the Conclave, Kasper happened to have the room across the corridor from Jorge Bergoglio and gave him a copy. Bergoglio devoured it, and it seems it fed into his speech at the Conclave. As Pope Francis, he has declared a “Year of Mercy,” which will begin on December 8 2015, fifty years from the end of the Council.

In his keynote, Kasper set out how, at Vatican II, ecumenism became a “cantus firmus.” He also elucidated the famous shift describing the one and only Church of Jesus Christ, which moved from the traditional “is the Catholic Church” to “subsists in the Catholic Church.” To explain Lumen Gentium‘s move from est to subsistit in, he used the strikingly strong word “annuls:”

“Subsists in” annuls the strict identification of the Church with the Catholic Church …. All the baptized are part of the one Body of Christ.

He went on to quote Ignatius of Antioch: “The Catholic Church is where Jesus Christ is present.” Kasper added, “Catholic and Ecumenical are not opposites but two sides of the same coin.”

In The Catholic Church, Kasper describes subsistit in as “an opening clause:”

With this, the claim of the Catholic Church was neither relativized nor taken back, but it is now no longer advocated in the sense of all or nothing. It was to say that outside the Catholic Church there was not simply an ecclesiological vacuum (160).

In our discussions about unity, he pleaded, “We need a hermeneutic of trust” and then outlined three types of division:

  1. Oriental and Orthodox. He mentioned the divisions in 431 (Assyrian), 451 (Oriental Orthodox), and 1054 (Orthodox).
  2. Reformation. He claimed that this introduced the concept of confessionalism, founded in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, which produced various effects: “The Catholic Church had never before considered herself a confessional Church, but after the Reformation adopted confessional church aspects. Vatican II shows the end of the confessional age.”
  3. Evangelical. He outlined the charismatic and evangelical movements within the traditional churches and applauded the founding of the Global Christian Forum, which includes evangelical and Pentecostal movements beyond the historic churches. “While many mainline churches are declining, many evangelical and Pentecostal churches are experiencing growth.” (He develops the “Charismatic Dimension of the Church” in The Catholic Church, 135-145).

Although he admitted that “agreement is nowhere in sight and the great expectations of the Council have not been fulfilled,” he added that “ecumenism does not mean conversion of one church into another church but conversion into Jesus Christ,” and “the unity of the Church is a Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit.”

He mentioned the ironic light which contemporary persecution in the Middle East casts on the one Church: “Persecutors of Christians do not discriminate between Christians. All are killed. Ecumenism is written not in ink, but in the blood of the martyrs. We are in one boat on a stormy sea.”

In concluding, he referred to Francis and John XXIII. I noted his omission of Benedict XVI. In the section in his book, “The One Church and the many individual Churches” (273-76), Kasper mentions the “fierce discussion, which also led to a debate about the relation between the local church and the universal Church between the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and myself” (274). Earlier, Kasper had admitted to his “at times Swabian stubborness” (10). It may be that this whole section may help Anglican theologians in the Global South and Global North to reflect on unity and diversity in the Anglican Communion.

Kasper stated, “Francis wants a listening Magisterium” and believes that “the Apostolic Church is in permanent mission, as a poor Church, for the poor.” He said that Francis’s vision of the Church is as “a multifaceted prism, not concentric circles.” This, it seems to me, moves beyond Vatican II and is a very powerful three-dimensional metaphor.

Kasper continued succinctly:

For the conversion of the Church we need renewal and reform. There are structures of sin in the Church. We need conversion of the Primacy and the Papacy. Francis is an old Pope, but he has a young heart: he is an evangelical Pope.

I could not help reflecting that Pope Francis is an evangelical Catholic and Archbishop Justin is a catholic Evangelical.

Kasper ended by quoting the powerful metaphor of Pope John XXIII, “We must pass on not the ashes but the glow of the Gospel.” The whole address was profound and he was given a standing ovation.

3. A Reading on Ecumenism from Vatican II

Following Cardinal Kasper’s keynote address in the National Cathedral, we all joined in a short service that was based on the concluding service of Vatican II on December 4 1965. As part of this, it was a privilege for me to be asked to read out some powerful words from the document on unity and ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio.

The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men and women as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.

But the Lord of the ages wisely and patiently follows out the plan of grace on our behalf, sinners that we are. In recent times more than ever before, He has been rousing divided Christians to remorse over their divisions and to a longing for unity. Everywhere large numbers have felt the impulse of this grace, and among our separated brothers and sisters also there increases from day to day the movement, fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the restoration of unity among all Christians. This movement towards unity is called “ecumenical.” Those belong to it who invoke the Triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, doing this not merely as individuals but also as corporate bodies. For almost everyone regards the body in which he or she has heard the Gospel as his or her church and indeed, as God’s Church. All however, though in different ways, long for the one visible Church of God, a Church truly universal and sent forth into the world that the world may be converted to the Gospel and so be saved, to the glory of God. The Sacred Council notes all this.

As I read the passage from that key Catholic document written 50 years ago, in that public context, it struck me that it referred to my identity and calling as an Anglican bishop. I was very moved. It is a passage for meditation and prayer.


It was fascinating for me, in the same month, to move from the Alpha Global Leadership conference in early May in London, with 6,500 participants, including many Catholic Bishops, to this conference in late May, in Washington, with about 145 theologians. Ecumenism benefits from both the dynamic of the Charismatic movement and from the reflective insights of theological discussion. Spirit and Word interweave to draw us into the unity of our one God.

I remember Cardinal Suenens leading the Chaplains mission to the University of Oxford in 1977, speaking over several nights in the Sheldonian Theatre. The combination of his theological insight and his warmth in the Holy Spirit was profound.

image1During this conference, we also heard an extraordinarily challenging and uplifting address from the charismatic Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Luis Tagle — whom many at Georgetown University thought may well succeed Francis as Pope.

Cardinal Kasper is a bridge-builder supporting the Pontifex. Perhaps our next Lambeth Conference — the “whether,” “when,” and “where” of which the Primates of the Anglican Communion will decide — should aim to be as theologically far sighted and profound as the Second Vatican Council?

The images of Bishop Kings, Cardinal Kasper, and Cardinal Tagle were supplied by the author and taken by Chiyono Sata at Georgetown University.

Republished with permission from Covenant site, published on 17 June 2015

Graham Kings

Graham Kings

Wood panel

Wood panel


A bronze