Beware the Kasperization of Newman

Note: This is the third in a series of columns on Cardinal Newman in anticipation of his canonization on October 13. The other columns in the series can be read by clicking here and here. 

Now that the canonization of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-90) is imminent, there is much festive expectation on the part of the faithful, many of whom thank God for the faithful witness he showed to what he called “the one True Fold of the Redeemer.”  But there is also apprehension that certain figures within the Church are misappropriating his legacy to advance positions from which he would have recoiled.

As Newman once said in a 1846 letter to Henry Wilberforce: “even those who think highly of me have the vaguest, most shadowy, fantastic notions attached to their ideas of me; and feel a respect, not for me, but for some imagination of their own which bears my name.” Of all the commentators currently seeking to misappropriate Newman, none has been more brazen than Cardinal Walter Kasper.

In 2008, the cardinal spoke at the Lambeth Conference, which debated admitting women and homosexuals to the Anglican episcopate. There he told the Anglicans: “Ecclesiological questions have long been a major point of controversy between our two communities. Already as a young student I studied all of the ecclesiological arguments raised by John Henry Newman, which moved him to become a Catholic. His main concerns revolved around apostolicity in communion with the See of Rome as the guardian of apostolic tradition and of the unity of the Church. I think his questions remain and that we have not yet exhausted this discussion.”

This is probably an implicit reference to Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which brilliantly reconfirmed the Church of Rome “as the guardian of apostolic tradition.”  Yet Cardinal Kasper ended his talk on an ambiguous note:

Perhaps in our own day it would be possible. . .to think of a new Oxford Movement. . . .a fresh recourse to the Apostolic Tradition in a new situation. It would not mean a renouncing of your deep attentiveness to human challenges and struggles, your desire for human dignity and justice, your concern with the active role of all women and men in the Church. Rather, it would bring these concerns and the questions that arise from them more directly within the framework shaped by the Gospel and ancient common tradition in which our dialogue is grounded.

Sandro Magister, the highly respected Vatican commentator, read these remarks to mean that Kasper was opposed to the innovations of the Anglicans. But was he?

Kasper told the Guardian in 2010, prior to Newman’s beatification, that he did oppose the Anglicans’ innovations.  “Look at the Protestant churches. . . . They have married priests and women priests, too. Are they doing better? The Church of England has also taken on terrible problems with these developments. I wouldn’t wish those problems on my church.”


The Church of England, Kasper believed, risked implosion by acquiescing in the spirit of the age: “There is a crisis of values and direction in western society, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, and was given added impetus by the radical movements of the 60s. And because the churches live in this society, their faith is weakened.”

Earlier still, in 1978, Kasper had written: “The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage and the impossibility of contracting another marriage whilst the first partner is still living form part of the binding tradition of the Church’s faith and cannot be abandoned or dissolved by appealing to a superficial understanding of cheap mercy.”

Yet in his keynote address on marriage to the Synod of the Family in 2014, Kasper argued that the Church might alter Catholic teachings on the indissolubility of marriage and the Eucharist to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to the Blessed Sacrament.

Professor Juan José Perez Soba, a respected scholar of the theology of John Paul II, countered that notion, arguing that “one cannot even begin to conceptualize Cardinal Kasper’s so-called ‘pastoral solution’ without first having clarified the existence of the marriage bond. Considering his way of reasoning, one might suppose that the cardinal raises doubt about the permanence of the marriage bond.”

In Stimmen der Zeit (November 2016), Cardinal Kasper insisted that Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, “speaks not from an abstract image of the family thought out at a desk, but a realistic one of the joys as well as the difficulties in family life today. . . . It does not want to criticize or moralize or indoctrinate, but it addresses sexuality and eroticism openly and in a relaxed manner expressing understanding and appreciation for the good that can also be found in situations that are not or not fully conforming to church teaching and ordinance.”

Cardinal Kasper had moved a world away from the ancient tradition that he had once praised Newman for reaffirming.  Yet he expressly invoked Newman to justify these grave deviations, claiming that the Church’s teaching on marriage:

does not change but it can be made more profound, it can be different. There is also a certain growth in the understanding of the Gospel and the doctrine, a development. Our famous Cardinal Newman had spoken on the development of doctrine. This is also not a change but a development on the same line. Of course, the pope wants it and the world needs it. We live in a globalized world and you cannot govern everything from the Curia. There must be a common faith, a common discipline but a different application.

This is the celebrated “paradigm shift,” as he called it, borrowing a phrase from Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, the upshot of which for Kasper is that in life, as in doctrinal development, “there is no black and white but only different nuances and shadings.”

Reading this, one can see that Cardinal Kasper’s ideas of development have undergone startling developments of their own, but they have nothing to do with the authentic development reaffirmed by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Caveat lector.


*Image: John Newman by Henry Joseph Whitlock, 1879 [National Portrait Gallery, London]

Edward Short lives in New York with his wife and two young children. His most recent book is Newman and History (Gracewing).