Synodalists think they have won the ecclesiastical game. They have another think coming.

This old German cardinal wins against Benedict XVI in injury time, even though he has already been taken off the field

ANALYSIS Cardinal Walter Kasper is considered one of the great theologians of the twentieth century. Years ago he lost an intense theological battle against Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. Now he is 90 and Pope Francis still lets him win that competition about the identity of the Catholic Church.

He was not on the list of participants in the synod of bishops that deliberated last month in the Vatican on the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet every day, the 90-year-old German Cardinal Walter Kasper casually walked past the Swiss guards, through the Vatican gate and into the synod hall. No one stood in his way.

Anyone who wants to understand the historical significance of this must take a few steps back in time.

In 1999, Kasper, at that time bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, published a theological article in which he strongly criticized his fellow German theologian Joseph Ratzinger. Seven years earlier, Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had published a document that had made Kasper's hair stand on end. This grew into a two-year theological ping-pong game in the public space between the two most prominent German theologians of that time.

Curial cardinals

This was followed in succession: a response from Ratzinger during a lecture in Rome (1999), a rebuttal from Kasper in the German Jesuit magazine Stimmen der Zeit (2000), criticism of this from Ratzinger in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (2000), a response from Kasper in the American Jesuit magazine America (2001) and a response to it by Ratzinger in the same magazine. and female deacons

As if all this were not spectacular enough, Kasper was promoted to Rome by the then Pope John Paul II in the middle of this conflict, to head the Vatican Ministry for Ecumenism. The Roman Catholic Church suddenly even had two warring Curic cardinals.

The fuss actually only revolved around one small sentence from the 1992 document. Ratzinger wrote in it that the universal church 'ontologically and chronologically precedes every individual particular church (read: local diocese, ed.)'. In short: the universal church determines the local churches and not the other way around.


Ratzinger had already used the phrase in question twice before in his personal theological work. Now he turned his personal theological view into official church teaching. And that was against Kasper's sore leg.

Opposite to Ratzinger, who thinks 'from top down' - the local dioceses as a kind of reflection of the universal church - is Kasper, who thinks 'from bottom up'. In 1999, as a local bishop, Kasper found the increasingly centralistic intervention from Rome increasingly oppressive. Theologically he has the Second Vatican Council on his side. Ratzinger argues from Rome and fears that too much plurality and freedom for local bishops endangers the unity of the church.


In 2005, four years after the debate had died down, Ratzinger was elected pope. It seemed that Ratzinger had won the battle for good. But Roman centralization failed during his pontificate. As pope, the German top theologian does not keep things under control and the Vatican rolls from one scandal to the next.

The 2013 conclave took a different tack. Cardinal Kasper was allowed to participate in the nick of time; he turned eighty five days after the abdication of Benedict XVI. He himself was therefore not a serious candidate for Pope, but the cardinals chose someone who shared his ideas and who, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, had also suffered from Rome's lust for regulations.

Shortly after taking office, Pope Francis wrote in his programmatic text Evangelii Gaudium about the 'salutary decentralization' that the church needs. It is "not appropriate for the Pope to take the place of local bishops in assessing all issues affecting their territory."

Injury time

He organised the synod on the renewal of the church from the bottom up. Under his predecessors, decisions were made in Rome and communicated 'downstairs'. But Francis began his synod in 2021 by listening to ordinary believers. Everything that arrived in Rome through national and continental intermediate steps is discussed by the synod of bishops.

The final document of its first session talks about 'identifying and encouraging forms of decentralisation'. About the church as 'a community of churches'. And about a Roman curia that should 'consult local bishops more and listen more attentively to the voices of local churches'.

Kasper must have watched it all with satisfaction. In injury time, while sitting on the bench waiting for the final whistle, he wins the game after all. Thanks to an Argentine substitute.



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