Walter Cardinal Kasper: A poor church for the poor – Pope Francis theological roots

(Book review)

 

At the beginning of this year Walter Cardinal Kasper, former chairman of the pontifical council for the promotion of Christian Unity, published a book in which he presented the main concepts that have shaped Pope Francis’ Pontificate since March 2013 (Papst Franziskus – Revolution der Zärtlichkeit und der Liebe, 2015). Kasper speaks about a “new epoch” which began, when on 12th of March 2013, the Argentinian Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio – to the surprise of many – was elected as 265th pope. With the new Pope a man was chosen by the bishop’s conclave who has presented a “prophetic vision” for the Church and who – in the tradition of previous popes such as Benedict XVI ,Pope Paul VI and John Paul II – has made a wake-up call to the universal church. The key programmatic aspects of his Pontificate have been elaborated at lengths in the Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (2013) in which the Pope called for “a profound missionary transformation of the church.”

 

The new Pope chose the name Francis signaling to the world that he wants to act in the tradition of St Francis of Assisi. By doing this, Kasper comments, he has put the finger on the weak spots of a “self- referential”, tired and no more missionary church. What he basically demands in the spirit of St Francis is “a poor church for the poor.”

Kasper sheds some light on the theological tradition of Pope Francis who neither fits the prejudice of being a revolutionary progressive, nor a conservative Pope. He emphasizes that Pope Benedict XVI theologically prepared more this Pope’s Pontificate than is obvious. The essential message which the new Pope gives is that he does not look for reforms but wants a Church that radiates in a new way the message of the Gospel. As he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (EG11): “Whenever we make an effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always ‘new’.”

Cardinal Kasper sees a continuity between the encyclical “Lumen fidei” written together with Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis’ exhortation “Evangelii gaudium” (2013). The difference between the two does not lie in the “basic truths” but rather in the method and “style” which they chose in transmitting those basic truths.  Kasper calls the theology of the Pope a “kerygmatic” theology (“evangelizing theology”). He also sees a direct continuity between the “Gaudium et spes” encyclical (1965) that captured the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the documents which were published after that council by the General Assembly of Celam (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano) in Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1969), followed years later by the document of the 5th General Celam Assembly in Aparecida (2007), which was mainly inspired by the ideas of Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio.

 

Argentinian and European theological roots

 

Pope Francis is the first Pope who came from a “megapolis” of the Southern Hemisphere. The city Buenos Aires as Kasper puts is, is a “multicultural” place which was shaped by European culture, the culture of the Italian immigrants as well as by a specific Argentinian culture.  Buenos Aires is however also the “casas miserias” located in the periphery which were seen by Jorge Bergoglio as a constant challenge during his pastoral service in Buenos Aires.

The most important theological teacher of Jorge Bergoglio was Lucio Gera (1924-2012) who in 1964 at a conference in Persépolis gave a speech about the subject “The significance of the Christian message in the context of poverty and suppression.”

Kasper emphasizes that with Lucio Gera the Argentinian form of liberation theology developed its own profile. Rather than beginning with an analysis of the sociopolitical  and economic conditions, showing the contradictions in society and interpret this from a Marxist point of view, Lucio Gera starts, according to Kasper, with an analysis of the “Culture of the people” which is united by a common ethos. “It is a theology of the people and of the culture.” It does not want to indoctrinate the people, but listens to the wisdom of the people.

“Such a theology of the people is not guided by the idea of class struggle but by the idea of harmony, peace and reconciliation.”

Kasper outlines at one point that this concept of the “people” corresponds to the spirit of “democratic romanticism”, which was introduced in Argentina at the end of the 19th century, replacing the previous European illuminist cultural policy. A key influence was the philosophy of the German thinker Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781-1832) and what became known as “Krausismo” in Latin America, especially in terms of his concepts in the field of philosophy of law. According to Kasper in the Argentinian National Epos “Fierro” (1882) this tendency is being reflected.  The epos describes the life of a Gaucho, who after a long way at the end finds the wisdom of a world of justice and the common Good, a world which also leaves for the poorest the space to develop their dignity and personal qualities.

Another decisive impulse for this Pope were the apostolic writings of Pope Paul VI  “Evangelii nuntiandi” (1967) about the need to evangelize the World in which the relation between evangelization and culture was being discussed, as well as Pope Paul’s VI social Encyclical “Populorum progressio” (1967).  Despite a different background and personality, Kasper notes, among the papal predecessors Pope Paul VI may be “the closest to Pope Francis”. Another important spiritual influence on the pope were the ideas of Romano Guardini (1895-1968) whose writings the pope studied especially during his several months stay in Germany 1986. In his essay Der Gegensatz. Versuche zu einer Philosophie des Lebendig-Konkreten (“Contradiction: Attempts towards a philosophy of the living concrete”) which was published in 1925 in Mainz, Romano Guardini speaks about the polar tensions which shape life. Pope Francis likewise is convinced that one can only understand the multiplicity and contradictions in the reality of life from the standpoint of the Gospel.

 

A poor church for the poor and the Pope’s economic vision

 

Pope Francis wants to get to the basis of things.  He starts from the root (radix), the Gospel.

In the tradition of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) which put the study of the Gospel in the center of its reflections, the Pope sees the Gospel as basic.  It’s not just a book, but a “message”, the transmission of good and liberating news, which fundamentally changes the condition of man. A study of the first paragraphs of the Pope Francis’ apostolic writing Evangelii gaudium, illustrates what this Pope’s main concern is.

In this writing he contrasts the joylessness and lack of dynamics, the loneliness of modern man, whose heart is crippled (cor incurvatum) with “the joy of the Gospel (which) fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.” (EG 1 f)

Pope Francis wants to introduce a “new style” in the life of the church. His “Theology of the people” is not cheap populism, but behind it is the idea of Gods people in pilgrimage and that means constant evangelization. As he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, he demands a church which “goes forth” and whose doors are open. “I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priest and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security, I do not want a Church concerned with being caught up in a web of obsession and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our conscience, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ. Without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.” (49)

Since the beginning of his Pontificate Pope Francis has made clear that he wants “a poor church for the Poor.” He elaborated this program at length in his apostolic writing “Evangelii gaudium.” This concept was also discussed during the Second Vatican Council at the end of which  in the year 1965, as Kasper notes,  40 bishops concluded the so called “Catacomb Pact” in the Dominican Catacomb St Domitila (Rome) expressing their commitment “for a serving and poor church”. This subject was picked up again during the Latin American Bishops conference in Puebla 1979 and during the General Assembly of Bishops in Aparecida 2007, where under the direct influence of Jorge Bergoglio, a document was passed in which, this option for the excluded was strongly reaffirmed. These ideas of the Aparecida document are also reflected in various paragraphs of the Apostolic writing “Evangelii  gaudium”.

“Today we also have to say ‘Thou shall not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” And in paragraph 55, 56 and 57 he demands that we must firmly reject the “idolatry of money” underlining that the current financial crisis makes us overlook that it originated in a profound human crisis, the denial for the primacy of the human person.” He speaks of a new tyranny which is born, a dictatorship of an “impersonal economy that lacks a truly human purpose making it difficult for countries to realize their own economic potential.”

 

The perpetuating tragedy of the dying refugees

As he further states in his Apostolic writing ,“as long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of the markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter , to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.” (EG 202)

In the spirt of the social encyclicals he thus calls for the construction a more just economic order, a just world based on the respect for the dignity of man and the idea of the common good.  “He looks for a social dimension of the Gospel whose core is “Love.” “The service of love is a constitutive element of the church mission” (179)

The Pope looks at Europe from the standpoint of its “periphery”: Hence one of the Pope’s first pastoral visits was to Lampedusa, one of the poorest regions in Italy, where he blamed the Europeans for their indifference vis- a- vis the question of refugees and migrants. In San Egidio, in June 2014, he stated that Europe had become tired and that we must help it to rejuvenate, renew itself and find its roots. Very similar was his address in front of the European Parliament 25th November 2014 where he on the one side spoke about Europe’ great cultural heritage: transcendental dignity of man as a person based in the Greek and Roman philosophy and Christianity. At the same time he urged that it’s time to get away from the idea of a crippled Europe, but rather fight for a Europe that becomes protagonist of science and art, music as well as humanist values and faith.

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