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!