Academic journal article Theological Studies

Walter Kasper on the Theology and the Praxis of the Bishop's Office

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Walter Kasper on the Theology and the Praxis of the Bishop's Office

Article excerpt

WALTER KASPER, serving at the time as bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, published in a 1999 Festschrift honoring Bishop Josef Homeyer a chapter on the theology and praxis of the bishop with special reference to the relation of the local bishop to the universal Church. (1) Shortly after the publication of the Festschrift Kasper was appointed to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was named a cardinal, and, on the retirement of Cardinal Edward Cassidy, became Prefect of that pontifical council.

Keeping close to his text, I will summarize here Kasper's arguments, referring also to an earlier writing of his on Vatican I, and I will attempt to situate his theology in the context of ongoing theological reflection. I will look briefly at the discussion between Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Ratzinger on the ontological priority of the universal Church, sketch Kasper's appropriation of the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, look more substantively at Kasper's understanding of Vatican II's position both on institution of the bishop's office by the will of Jesus Christ, and the pastoral, collegial, and sacramental character of that office together with its relation to the Petrine office. Finally, I will touch on the theological status of the synods of bishops and episcopal conferences, the election of bishops, and the personal responsibility of the bishop for the leadership of his local church.


In his Festschrift article, Kasper took issue with the position of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) expressed in a 1992 letter on "Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion." (2) The letter, intended to correct some interpretations of Vatican II's position on the Church as a communion, stated that "the universal Church is ontologically and temporally prior to the local church" (no. 9). (3) Kasper wrote that the position criticized by the CDF letter, namely, the local church as a self-sufficient subject, and the universal Church as a federation of local churches, is rightly rebuked, as it is "a position no Catholic theologian could earnestly represent." (4) But, in his view, the response of the CDF is excessive. In asserting the ontological and temporal priority of the universal Church over the local church, the CDF goes far beyond Vatican II, amounting to a "departure (Verabscheidung)" from the council's teaching, "more or less a subversion (Umkehrung)" of Vatican II's position. The position taken by CDF is to be understood as "a theological attempt to restore Roman centralism ... a process which appears to have already begun." (5) In a word, "the relationship of the local church and the universal Church has been thrown out of balance." (6)

Kasper's position is that the universal Church is not ontologically and temporally prior to the local church, but the mystery of the Church is such that the universal Church and local churches exist simultaneously. When one is in the diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart one is already in the universal Church. One does not step out of the diocese in order to enter the universal Church. When one speaks of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" one does not mean just the universal Church, as though the universal Church existed as an abstraction, apart from its realization in the local churches of the world. No. What is meant is the concrete Church which is at the same time local and universal. (7) The universal Church is not ontologically prior to the local churches. (8)

Thomas Aquinas Can Surprise Us

Although the public theological debate between the two cardinals focused on the claim of the CFD of the universal Church's ontological priority, Kasper had raised a series of issues touching the bishop's office. Of interest is not only his position but his manner of doing theology. Kasper has conservative credentials, a board member of the conservative journal Communio (together with Joseph Ratzinger, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Karl Lehmann), a journal which emerged after Vatican II as a counterbalance to the more liberal journal Concilium. …

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