Mercy and the theology of Cardinal Kasper


The lead-up to the synod has been dominated by the theme of ‘mercy’ and especially by consideration of how that might apply to the situation of the divorced and ‘remarried’. It is on the grounds of showing mercy that the admission of the divorced and ‘remarried’ to Holy Communion is being advocated, especially by Walter Cardinal Kasper. In this article we will consider the true meaning of mercy.

The Latin word for mercy, misericordia, means “sorrowful at heart”. The merciful man or woman feels sorrow at the suffering of another. The purpose of our emotions is to move the intellect and will. In the case of mercy one is moved to remove the cause of the other person’s suffering. Hence St Thomas Aquinas affirms the definition of St Augustine that “Mercy is heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress, impelling us to succour him if we can.”[1] In his own words he states:

“a man is said to be merciful, as being, so to speak, sorrowful at heart; being affected with sorrow at the misery of another as though it were his own. Hence it follows that he endeavours to dispel the misery of this other, as if it were his; and this is the effect of mercy.”[2]

The merciful man is moved by the suffering of the poor widow to give alms to alleviate her poverty. The merciful nurse is moved by the suffering of a thirsty patient to give him water to drink. The merciful judge on receiving an appeal from a prisoner may be moved to mitigate the sentence and so alleviate the suffering.

The effect of mercy is always the removal of a ‘defect’ which causes suffering. While the divine nature is not moved affectively, “it does most properly belong to Him to dispel that misery, whatever be the defect we call by that name.”[3]

When God forgives sin he mercifully removes the defect of sin and its effects. This is not a mere covering over, or forgetting of sin, but its absolute removal. In the words of St Thomas, it is “blotted out.”[4] Or as Sacred Scripture says, “Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as snow” (Is 18:1). The Council of Trent decreed that justification is “a remission of sins” and “also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man.”[5]

Cardinal Kasper acknowledges that all sacramental marriages are indissoluble yet he suggests that because God is merciful it can be permitted for those living in an objectively sinful state to receive Holy Communion. This suggests that Kasper sees the divine mercy more as a ‘looking over’ or ‘forgetfulness’ of sin rather than as an eradication of sin and a profound interior renewal. This is of course an essentially Lutheran position which sees the justified sinner as, in Luther’s famous words, “dung covered by snow.”

Kasper explicitly identifies himself with the Lutheran position on justification, which he thinks is a true discovery, or rediscovery, of the true Christian position. In Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life he says of Luther:

“the question – “How do I get a gracious God?”  – caused  a frightening turmoil of conscience [for Luther] for a long time until he came to know that, according to the Bible, God’s justice is not God’s punitive justice, but rather God’s justifying justice, which includes his mercy.”[6]

He makes the same point later in the book:

“The insight that God’s justice is not punitive justice, but rather a justice that justifies the sinner, counts as a great Reformation discovery of Martin Luther, a discovery that also liberated him personally from anxiety about sin and from a troubled conscience. Luther’s discovery is fundamentally a rediscovery. It has older roots in the common tradition of the early church.”[7]

He later reasserts it for a third time by following up criticism of the “weighty baggage” of St Augustine with the following statement:

“The Reformation breakthrough for Luther consisted in the discovery of the original biblical sense of divine justice, which is not a punitive justice, but a free and justifying divine justice.”[8]

The Lutheran understanding of original sin and justification, which was solemnly condemned by the Council of Trent, asserts that everything man does is sinful and he is justified without his sinfulness being removed. On the contrary the Council of Trent taught that, through the mercy of God, “not only are we reputed but we are truly called and are just.”[9]

There seems to be a clear link between Kasper’s views on the divorced and remarried and the Lutheran influence on his views on justification. Indeed he asserts it quite plainly:

“Not until the twentieth century could we find a fundamental consensus between Lutherans and Catholics concerning the question of the justification of the sinner. That was only possible because together we realized that God’s justice is his mercy. Nevertheless, the implications for the doctrine of God and for a new way of speaking about a liberating and justifying God, which are entailed by our agreement concerning the doctrine of justification, have scarcely been drawn up to now. Here we face a fundamental common challenge in reference to a new evangelization.”[10]

It is precisely these “implications” that Kasper presented before the consistory on 20th February 2014. They are based on an understanding of mercy and justification that stands contrary to the tradition of Catholic Church.

True mercy is obtained through repentance and leads to remission of sins and profound interior renewal. The ‘mercy’ promised by Cardinal Kasper causes men and women not only to remain in sin but to commit new sins of sacrilege. ‘Heroism’ Kasper believes ‘is not for the average Christian.’[11] Here we see a clear parallel with the Lutheran notion that no real sanctification is possible and that man cannot really live a life without sin.

The teaching of the Catholic Church is very different:

“But no one, however much justified, should consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments; no one should use that rash statement, once forbidden by the Fathers under anathema, that the observance of the commandments of God is impossible for one that is justified.

For God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes thee to do what thou canst and to pray for what thou canst not, and aids thee that thou mayest be able.”[12]

by Matthew McCusker



[1] ST II-II Q. 30 Art. 1 co.

[2] ST I Q.21 Art 3. co.

[3] ST I Q. 21 Art. 3 co. The fullness of human emotion is experienced by the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity through His human nature.

[4] ST Suppl. Q. 5 Art 1

[5] Decree on Justification, Council of Trent, Session VI, Promulgated by Pope Paul III on 13th January 1547

[6] Walter Kasper, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, trans. William Madges (New York, 2014), p12

[7] Kasper, Mercy, p79

[8] Kasper, Mercy, p100

[9] Decree on Justification, Council of Trent

[10] Kasper, Mercy, p12-13

[11] Interview with Cardinal Kasper in Commonweal, 7 May 2014,

[12] Decree on Justification, Council of Trent