Kasper and Moloney on the Divine Attributes

Fr Daniel Moloney recently reviewed Walter Cardinal Kasper’s book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life for the March issue of First Things. I have not read this book, and I have to admit that Kasper is not one of my favorite theologians. The German bishop has recently returned to the limelight with his advocacy of the restoration of communion to penitent divorced Catholics.

So I read Moloney’s review of Kasper’s book with interest. I found it surprising. If Moloney’s analysis is correct, then Kasper is a sloppy theologian—and that made me wonder whether Moloney was giving the good Cardinal a charitable hearing. Moloney here states Kasper’s thesis:

Kasper thinks that the Catholic theological tradition doesn’t talk about mercy enough and that the classical concept of God, which sees God as perfect and unchanging, is “pastorally … a catastrophe.” To most people, “such a God appears to them to have little or nothing to do with the situation of the world, in which almost daily horrible news reports come, one after the other, and many people are deeply troubled by anxieties of the future.” To counter this, we need a new dogmatic theo­logy of divine mercy: “What is now required is to think through anew the entire teaching about God’s attributes and, in the process, to allow mercy to assume its proper place.” And its proper place is as the fundamental attribute of God, while all other divine attributes are in some way secondary. Even God’s justice is to be made subordinate to his mercy, because mercy “surpasses” and “goes beyond” justice.

Now I am as suspicious as the next priest when someone describes the classical understanding of God as a pastoral catastrophe. Is it the theological understanding that is at fault or the translation of that understanding to the realities of human existence? But so far, anyway, Kasper hasn’t said anything that Pope John Paul II hadn’t already said in his encyclical Dives in Miseridordia:

In this way, mercy is in a certain sense contrasted with God’s justice, and in many cases is shown to be not only more powerful than that justice but also more profound. Even the Old Testament teaches that, although justice is an authentic virtue in man, and in God signifies transcendent perfection nevertheless love is “greater” than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love. The primacy and superiority of love vis-a-vis justice—this is a mark of the whole of revelation—are revealed precisely through mercy. This seemed so obvious to the psalmists and prophets that the very term justice ended up by meaning the salvation accomplished by the Lord and His mercy.

Perhaps there are substantive differences between Kasper and the Pope on mercy and justice, and if there are, I hope someone will tell us what they are. But Moloney reads Kasper as falling into a serious blunder. I quote him at length:

Mercy is a virtue that requires someone who needs mercy, someone with some sort of sin or other imperfection. The Father is not merciful to the Holy Spirit. He loves the Holy Spirit, but there’s nothing imperfect about the Holy Spirit so that he needs the Father’s mercy. For mercy to be essential to God, as Kasper holds, it would mean that God could not exist without ­expressing mercy. But since God does not show mercy to himself, it would not be possible for him to exist without there also being sinners in need of his mercy—and that notion is absurd.

So there is a good, basic reason that the tradition has not made mercy essential to God. The Father can be loving and just to the Son and the Spirit, and so to say that God is loving and just essentially doesn’t create the problems that come from saying he’s essentially merciful. It’s not hard to see how God’s mercy ­toward sinners could be rooted in his goodness and love, that when God shows mercy he’s manifesting his love in a particular situation. To say this is perfectly coherent with the classical doctrine.

Kasper doesn’t actually make arguments for his views but says, among his many statements that aspire to be premises in an argument, that “mercy is the externally visible and effectively active aspect of the essence of God, who is love (1 John 4:8, 16). . . . In short, mercy expresses God’s own goodness and love” ­[emphases added]. These are perfectly orthodox things to say. Unfortunately, Kasper also says that “forgiveness belongs to [God’s] essence,” “God’s mercy is the . . . ground of creation,” and “mercy is the perfection of God’s essence.”

It’s disappointing that Kasper never bothers to respond to traditional objections to his sort of view. According to the classical doctrine, divine justice must be more fundamental than divine mercy, because justice is essential to God and mercy is not. But God’s justice is not more fundamental than his love, since both are essential—God is Love (and loving), and God is Justice (and just). This suggests that there must be some way of talking about love and justice—whether human or divine—such that they are at least not contraries; ideally, the concepts would be defined so that every action that is just is also loving and every action that is loving is also just. In either case, it would not make sense to say, as Kasper does repeatedly, that love “surpasses” justice or “goes beyond” justice, either in God or in creatures, since God is both of these things, essentially and completely.

Mercy cannot be an essential attribute of divinity because mercy requires a universe toward which God can be merciful. Mercy is love as directed to imperfect, sinful creatures. If God had never created the world, then mercy disappears from the inventory of the divine attributes. This is obvious, of course. But as I tweeted to a Catholic theologian last month:

Cardinal Kasper has now responded to the First Things review.  He too is perplexed that Moloney could attribute such an elementary blunder to him:

Therefore I would like to invite the author of the critique to look again in the Summa Theologiae, where he will find most of the theses he criticized. Among others, in the Pars prima he should study the quaestio 21 “De iustitia et misericordia.” There in articles 3 and 4 he can find what Thomas thinks about mercy as the greatest attribute of God, its precedence over and against justice and that mercy presupposes justice and is its plenitude—affirmations Moloney thinks must be criticized. About mercy as summa vitae christianae see the Pars seconda secundae quaestio 30, article 4. And if this shouldn’t be enough I recommend reading the fine article of Yves Congar “La miséricorde. Attribut souverain de Dieu” (La vie spirituelle, 106,1962,380–95).

He who thinks in the line of Thomas knows very well how to distinguish between the inner nature of God and the attributes of God which are related to the acts of God ad extra. The latter aren’t a part but a mirror of God’s inner nature and—as a headline in my book clearly states—mercy is a mirror of the Trinity. Thomas, following Anselm of Canterbury, goes so far as to say that mercy in salvation history is God’s justice to himself and God’s historical faithfulness (in Hebrew: emet, truth!) to his nature, which is love.

I cannot understand how Moloney’s critique could suppose the contrary and then end up with a reductio ad absurdum. Sure, if mercy would be the inner nature of God, the Father would have mercy with the Son and the Son with the Spirit. But I don’t know whether there is one Catholic theologian who teaches such nonsense. As Christians, we should keep to the rule of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and instead of ridiculing each other we should interpret each other in the best possible orthodox way. If we don’t, meaningful theological dialogue becomes impossible and sacra theologia turns into a political and ideological battlefield. [my emphasis]

Given that I have not read the book, I cannot confirm whether Kasper expressed himself poorly or the reviewer just badly misread him. Moloney remains convinced it’s the former. In his rejoinder he reiterates his criticism as if Kasper had not just clarified his position. Moloney apparently thinks he knows Kasper’s mind better than Kasper does.

I find Moloney’s rejoinder cavillous and unconvincing. If Kasper says that he well knows the difference between love and mercy and would never have committed the elementary blunder of which Moloney accuses him, then take him at his word and get on with important matters. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Moloney’s review may evidence a deeper problem, however. “God’s justice,” he writes, “is not more fundamental than his love, since both are essential—God is Love (and loving), and God is Justice (and just).” In what sense, though, is God properly described as Justice? Are we to think of God as having (or being) two equally balanced attributes, ineffably united in the divine simplicity? This way of thinking about the essential properties, I suggest, inappropriately prescinds from God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ as Holy Trinity. God is constituted as triune by the immanent relations of mutual self-giving between the Father, Son, and Spirit. As Met John Zizioulas writes: “God is love in his very being. It is not however himself that he loves, so this is not self-love. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit loves the Father and the Son: it is another person that each loves. It is the person, not the nature or essence, who loves, and the one he loves is also a person” (Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, pp. 53-54). We properly think of the trinitarian being as communion, as divine substance constituted in the dynamic coinherence of the eternal hypostases.  And for this reason “love ceases to be a qualifying—i.e. secondary—property of being and becomes the supreme ontological predicate” (Being as Communion, p. 46). If God is a communion of love, constituted by love and in love, how do we speak of love and justice as complementary essential attributes?  It’s not clear to me that we can.  Moloney asserts that the Father is loving and just to the Son and Spirit, but I find this problematic.  How is the Father just to the Son and Spirit?  How is the Son just to the Father and Spirit? Are the divine persons defined by justice?  But perhaps I am simply exposing my theological ignorance. At any rate, it remains a question for me, and I welcome correction.

I do not know if Kasper would agree with Zizioulas on the trinitarian being; but at this point I am less interested in defending Kasper (I have no dog in this Roman Catholic hunt) than in noting the deficiency in Fr Moloney’s presentation of the divine attributes.  If God is eternal communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then his justice toward mankind must be seen, and can only be seen, as an expression of his absolute and infinite love.  God wills our good and only our good—what a wonderful mercy!

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9 Responses to Kasper and Moloney on the Divine Attributes

  1. God is love (noun), and God is just (adjective). These are not parallel attributions to God’s nature as far as I can see. I’m not sure where Maloney is coming up with this stuff. George MacDonald (and Kasper?) would seem to hold a more truly orthodox (and Orthodox) understanding inasmuch as he appears to be using “mercy” as a synonym for “love” (as do many of the Scriptures which use this term–especially in translation of the OT term “chesed,” which is often translated “mercy” or “lovingkindness” and denotes God love for His people. See: http://www.bible-researcher.com/chesed.html).


  2. Dallas Wolf says:

    Well, when you build your theology and concept of God from the starting point of fallen man, these things can happen…


  3. Kim Fabricius says:

    Finely discerning, judicious, and very helpful post, thanks.


    • Kim Fabricius says:

      Btw, Aidan, do you know the work of the great Congregationalist theologian P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921) (often called a Barthian before Barth)? In Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History (2013), the wonderful Jason Goroncy has given us a selection of Forsyth’s sermons (as well as providing an excellent scholarly introduction to them). In the context of your post, Forsyth’s 1877 sermon “Mercy the True and Only Justice” is an unmissable lubricant to the discussion.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I read some Forsyth on the atonement many, many years ago and remember benefitting from him greatly. Thank you for the recommendation of this sermon!


  4. This is a bit above my level, but my understanding of divine justice is informed by Josef Pieper’s reading of Aquinas. According to this reading, justice is the quality of giving to everything what it is due or what is proper to it. I forget whether Pieper or Aquinas himself drew out this point, but God’s just mercy to creation manifests in his giving to man according to his own act of creation; creation is “due” something because and insofar as God created it and so invested it with value in the hierarchy of being. I would assume, then, that justice would manifest in the inner trinitarian life as a mutual recognition of divine holiness and thus worthiness for love. This way of thinking about justice (and God’s justice specifically) was hugely helpful to me, and it also provides a rebuttal to the Calvinist argument that God’s justice attribute must manifest as eternal punishment.


  5. brian says:

    Well, I read Kasper’s The God of Jesus Christ years ago.
    I also read most of Mercy. I did not stop reading because I found it offensive or theologically stupid; I agreed with the basic argument and then got bored.
    Kasper is reasonably astute, imo. I vaguely recollect finding some issues with The God of Jesus Christ, but I think he is generally a proponent of an understanding of God consistent with the Gospel.

    As Kasper notes, discussions of justice and mercy will tend to founder if one fails to distinguish between the economic and the immanent trinity. We naturally are concerned with God’s relation to his creation. Questions that may be non-sense in the mysterious Triune life are vitally important for us. This is not to say that there is any fundamental divergence between the immanent and the economic trinity. Rather, the manifestation of God’s love is less simple and more complicated in creation because creation is complex and being is equivocal.

    I still say that to posit any radical difference or opposition between God’s justice and mercy is mistaken. Zizioulas’s claim that divine being is love ought to be axiomatic with a basic understanding of the trinity. Why isn’t it? In this respect, any explication of justice that departs from the radical gift-nature of God’s loving personhood automatically fails as a form of idolatry. God’s agapeic will is always that his creation should flourish. His justice is rooted in the beginning where each creature is called from nothing into existence. Insofar as we “miss the mark” of our unique, inner telos, God’s grace must act to ensure our ultimate attainment of our being’s inner-most calling.

    This is not something that we, ourselves, create out of an indeterminate freedom. Rather, prior to any willing or reasoning or intellectual grasping, we find ourselves loved and nurtured and “sent” from a beyond with a “mission” to realize an identity that is “received” as a passion before it is determined upon and made through any determinate action of our own. That the world as we know it (and ourselves as part of that world) is evidently entangled in evil and death and failure only makes the discovery of our initial rootedness in a Good beyond good and evil both a fidelity to child-like wonder and a work of thought, and struggle, and grace.

    God’s justice is an achievement of his mercy. Ultimately, this requires and entails an eschatological culmination to an imperfect and fragmented temporal experience. It is a result of modern individualism, nominalism, and voluntarism that we see all this as something that can be split off from the destiny of the Whole. We think that some kind of justice that may imply an eternal condemnation to infernal suffering for some is consistent with a separate act of mercy towards others. This is completely confused — for one thing, the relation between beings is part of each constitutive being. The fate of a butterfly or of a hated criminal is not unconnected to the destiny of the Whole.

    God, who is beyond the Whole and cannot be comprehended by any dialectical grasp, nonetheless labors to bring the entire creation into a nuptial reality of sabbath joy. The day of the Lord and the rest of Genesis is something proleptically achieved on the Cross (“it is finished”) and yet awaiting (at least from our perspective) the parousia. Yet revelation and a properly attuned metaphysical wonder before existence allow us to anticipate and in a mirror darkly to recognize the “overdetermined” and prior richness of love that creates, sustains, and nurtures towards perfection everyone and everything called from nothing into being.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Robert C Singler Jr says:

    So I read Moloney’s review. There is so much wrong with that review. But what I found interesting about your post Fr. Kimel, particularly in relation to a previous post you made on George MacDonald, involves the questions around Mercy and Justice being treated co-equal principles. I think that’s really where my chagrin arises with respect to Moloney’s criticism of Kasper. I almost couldn’t believe that Moloney meant to write things like : “it would not make sense to say, as Kasper does repeatedly, that love “surpasses” justice or “goes beyond” justice, either in God or in creatures, since God is both of these things, essentially and completely.” Had he not repeated himself, I would have assumed the guy had simply written something he didn’t intend to write. I think the greater issue here is that there’s almost no way to believe in God’s mercy because of all of that emphasis on ‘justice’ (i.e. retribution, vengeance, punishment, and then maybe a side dish of fries and the eastern treatments on Hell as seeing the Lord’s face instead). I still have a hard time believing Moloney meant what he said because it’s like the cross is irrelevant, the mercy is irrelevant, the forgiveness is nonsense to the guy. But this definitely deserves more review and consideration in my opinion- how Christians are supposed to deal with these competing themes of Mercy and Justice (i.e. God is vengeful or will nicely be merciless [ha!]… No? Yes?)

    In any event, it is a true pleasure to have your blog lighting up my cell phone regularly, I’m only interested in about a quarter to a tenth of the emails, but that’s a lot. I can’t believe how hard you work on this blog! THANK YOU!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “How is the Father just to the Son and Spirit? How is the Son just to the Father and Spirit? Are the divine persons defined by justice? […] God wills our good and only our good—what a wonderful mercy!” I would not be surprised if I am simply exposing my own theological ignorance, but cannot ‘love’ and ‘justice’ each and both be described as ‘willing the good of the “other” ‘, whether that ‘other’ indicates a Person of the Trinity or a creature (notably, a ‘created person’)? Willing the good of an epektatic [if that’s the adjective from ‘epektasis’] created person, even an unfallen one, will have its differences from willing the good of a Co-equal, Co-eternal, Co-superessential, Co-perfect Person, but (if that is not putting it nonsensically) its identity as well. The ‘perfection’ of the ‘epektatic person’ is by definition one of infinite (so to put it, ‘asymptotic’) ‘progress’/’improvement’/’betterment’, as the Perfection of his Father as his Father is Perfect is one of Simple Perfection. Willing less than that creaturely-personal perfection would be ‘unjust’ and equally ‘unmerciful’ (and ‘mercy’ could never be a pretending that imperfection insofar as characterized by ‘hamartia’ is creaturely-personal perfection). How that ‘sits’ with possibly mind-bogglingly protracted creaturely-personal resistance to God willing our good and only our good and so our creaturely-personal perfection, I do not know.


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