Guest Columnist The Synod’s Biggest Loser: Cardinal Kasper’s Credibility

When the history of this year's Synod on the Family is written, there will be any number of people and ideas that will be seen as winners or losers in the process. But of all the synod's surprises, Cardinal Walter Kasper's collapse of credibility stands in a category of its own.

For the second time in as many pontificates, Cardinal Kasper embarrassed not only himself, but the pope as well. This time, it seems unlikely that his progressive reputation can be salvaged.

Four years ago, just before Pope Benedict XVI's trip to England, Kasper said in an interview: "When you land at Heathrow Airport, you sometimes might think you have landed in a third world country." Outrage ensued, and Kasper quickly bowed out of the trip, with health issues being the official explanation.

Now he's done it again. He told veteran Vatican journalist Edward Pentin last week that at the Synod on the Family, "[The Africans] should not tell us too much what we have to do." He also said: "Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they're very different, especially about gays. You can't speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It's not possible. It's a taboo."

The outcry was swift, and nearly universal. And his few defenders soon found themselves in an untenable position when even Cardinal Kasper himself declared the comments abhorrent, saying: "I am appalled. I have never spoken this way about Africans and I never would."

With the release of the audio by Pentin, the denial became as unbelievable as the comments themselves, further damaging Kasper's credibility, and casting him as an elitist not only disdainful of Africans and the third world, but of the truth as well.

What makes his derisive comments even more shocking, is the fact that Kasper regularly claims to be speaking for Pope Francis. To what extent the pope actually agrees with some of Kasper's more radical theological notions is matter of significant controversy. The controversy is certain to grow if Kasper continues to claim to speak for a pope who hails from the "Global South," and whose program has focused on outreach to poorest margins of society. With Kasper now widely seen as holding a disdainful view of the "third world" and being dismissive of its bishops and cardinals, the juxtaposition is undeniably discordant.

For more than a few Synod observers, it seems that "mercy" in Kasper's lexicon, may only apply to "first world problems."

But even in the first world, his credibility faces a problem.

In a May interview with Commonweal, he noted – concerning celibacy in a remarriage – that "heroism is not for the average Christian." The comments provided an interesting perspective indeed, coming as they did from a cardinal pledged to personal celibacy. While heroism may not be for the non-celibate laity, Kasper, by his own definition, is both heroic and above average.

Furthermore, having decided that the average lay person cannot do what he does, and thus needs abundant "mercy," he ironically moved on in the same interview to decry the "clericalist" mentality. He suggested that a step toward overcoming such a mentality might be to appoint women as advisors to the CDF. Kasper did not, in this case, venture an opinion as to what ethnic or cultural backgrounds might be preferred.

Going into the Synod, Cardinal Kasper's credibility on matters of faith was already strained in the eyes of many of his brother bishops and cardinals because of his outspoken agitation for a controversial movement in favor of a radically new interpretation of Church teaching: an interpretation seen by many as both heterodox and at odds with scripture.

Coming out of the Synod, what was strained before is now irrevocably broken. Given his gaffe on Africa and his denial of those taped comments, one might reasonably conclude that Cardinal Kasper should do as he did in England, and again at the Synod last Thursday: have mercy – on the pope, his brother bishops, and the rest of us – by removing himself from public view.

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