Cardinal Kasper calls sacraments a sign of God’s mercy and grace


Catholic News Service

NEW YORK — Mercy, the “most central attribute of God,” has been criminally neglected as a topic in the church. And mercy without justice is “cheap grace,” according to German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a theologian and retired president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper (CNS file)

Cardinal Kasper spoke May 5 at Jesuit-run Fordham University in a wide-ranging conversation on “Practicing Mercy, Seeking Justice: Living a Gospel Life.” In front of a capacity crowd of 200 people, he addressed questions posed by legal scholar and moral theologian Cathleen Kaveny. She is the Darald and Juliet Libby professor at Boston College, serving both the law school and the department of theology.

God’s mercy is a mirror of his love to people coming from a dark 20th century with two world wars that destroyed millions of humans, into a new century that began with the Sept. 11 attacks, Cardinal Kasper said.

Humans are the mediators of God’s mercy, he said. “Mercy is not contraposed to justice. Mercy is the maximum we can do. Justice is the minimum,” Cardinal Kasper said.

Mercy opens people’s eyes to situations where they can engage the rules of justice. “There is no choice between justice and mercy. It would be very cheap mercy, which is not also justice,” he said.

Those who oppose public support for welfare programs reject mercy, he said, adding, “I cannot understand such people,” Cardinal Kasper said.

Mercy is a creative activity and God’s faithfulness to his love, Cardinal Kasper said. It is expressed in the way God gives a new chance to humans and does not “let them fall into a hole with no way out.”

Although God wants salvation for every person, God respects the freedom of human beings and does not impose salvation, the cardinal said. “We can go astray and miss the final goal of existence, yet we have reason to hope God may reach the heart of every person,” he said.

“When Jesus speaks of hell, it is a strong warning,” Cardinal Kasper said. He stressed the importance of praying for the souls of all people, even those thought to be beyond redemption.

“We are responsible not only for ourselves, but for others, by prayers, deeds and missionary work,” he said. Their salvation depends on the prayers and good works of others. “It’s a beautiful part of Catholic tradition that we are upheld by the communion of saints, even people who have no one to pray for them,” he said.

Cardinal Kasper said atonement for sins is misunderstood as a punishment, when it is actually an opportunity to mature in the love of God and cleanse the soul. “There is no culture without sacrifice because culture needs to be oriented to higher values.”

If mercy was rendered as a sculpture, it would be the good Samaritan bent over in a dirty street to care for the set-upon traveler, he said. Alternatively, it might be the Prodigal Son’s father, whose outstretched arms are “a wonderful image of what’s expected of us,” Cardinal Kasper said.

Cardinal Kasper said he learned a lot about being a bishop by visiting gravely ill people as a young priest, meeting people at weekly parish Masses and conducting synods of laity and clergy. A bishop doesn’t just teach, he has to listen and get the “sensus fidelium,” the sense of the faithful, he said.

Cardinal Kasper said it is inconsistent for the church to teach that every sin can be forgiven, yet withhold access to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics who seek absolution. “We have to interpret the word of Jesus in the context of God’s mercy,” he said. “Sacraments are signs of God’s grace and mercy.”

Cardinal Kasper said when he raised the issue with the consistory of cardinals preparing for the fall 2014 Synod on the Family, Pope Francis was in favor of discussing it at the synod.

The cardinal said the current tension between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a reminder that the church is not a monolithic entity and there is an opportunity for communion and dialogue. “Perhaps CDF and LCWR both have to change a little,” he said.

The cardinal’s lecture was sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.