From the March, 2006 issue of Touchstone

Union Laborer by Adam A. J. DeVille

Union Laborer

That They May All Be One: The Call To Unity Today
by Walter Kasper
Burns & Oates, 2004
(202 pages, $25.95, paperback)

reviewed by Adam A. J. DeVille

There are, alas, not nearly enough theologians today of whom one could say that their publishing a new book is an event of some significance. (The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once acidly observed that “if I were God, I do not think that I would want to be studied by most contemporary theologians,” given that “the general intellectual level of theological argument is perhaps lower than at any time since the tenth century.”)

Happily, however, although Walter Kasper’s words command attention on the basis of his prominent position alone—he is head of the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity—in him we have a theologian of high caliber whose works have been widely read for years and can be reviewed on their own merits.

Kasper’s job is arguably the most difficult Roman appointment after that of the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Nonetheless, in all the difficulties that attend his work, Kasper has deep wells of intellectual and theological resources to draw upon, as That They May All Be One makes clear. Though this book is in most respects an anthology of papers presented or published previously (often in relatively recondite places), all the papers have been extensively revised. Kasper, notwithstanding the demands of his job, has admirably kept au courant with recent scholarship.

A Book for Winter

The result is an important book concerned in the first half with the overarching theological issues of ecumenism and in the second with particular or “practical” problems, including those of pneumatology, justification, the Petrine ministry, and pluralism.

The articles range from more general, homily-like pieces (e.g., the chapter on “spiritual ecumenism”) to very focused works of theological scholarship (e.g., the chapter on the Lutheran-Catholic joint declaration on the doctrine of justification). What holds the book together, Kasper says, is a desire to see that the ecumenical movement, currently undergoing what has been frequently termed a “winter” or “hibernation,” be guided through this “atmosphere of mistrust, self-defence, and withdrawal” to work for the time when “visible unity” and “full communion” will be fully realized.

The goal, argues Kasper, quoting then-Cardinal Ratzinger, is that “the churches should certainly remain churches, but also progressively become one Church.” For that to happen, Kasper says, the ecumenical movement must get serious about the very foundational question of ecclesiology, which he thinks it has largely ignored.

He spends the first three chapters counteracting this, in chapter one reviewing the Catholic ecclesiological and ecumenical vision sketched out at the Second Vatican Council, all of whose decrees should be “read in an ecumenical perspective,” and in the second and third chapters surveying the contemporary scene in ecumenical theology and ecumenical dialogue.

Kasper comes to the heart of his book in chapter four, “ Communio: the Guiding Concept of Catholic Ecumenical Theology.” Here he reviews the major Catholic magisterial documents of the period after the Second Vatican Council (including the ecumenically nettlesome, and frequently wildly misunderstood Dominus Iesus of 2000), as well as the major dialogues in which the Catholic Church is involved (with special attention to the Orthodox-Catholic and Anglican-Catholic dialogues), to draw out the fact that “all the dialogues . . . centre around the concept of communio.

This concept, he demonstrates, is still the object of ecumenical debate, but in general terms communio is the very heart of the Trinitarian mystery, entered into through our one, common baptism, and finds its fullest manifestation on earth in the celebration of the Eucharist in which Christians (cannot yet) participate fully together. He argues that communio means not community (as is sometimes suggested) but participation.

Communio, simply stated, is participation in the sacraments, which means participation in the Church, through which we participate in the very life of God.

Pope & Patriarch

The rest of the book focuses on more concrete problems, including the biggest of them all, the papacy, which Kasper prefers to call the Petrine ministry. Kasper again refers to Ratzinger, who spoke about the importance of differentiating the offices of pope and patriarch of the West.

“Patriarch of the West” is one of the many titles the pope has, but the vast majority of Catholics have never heard of it—it does not, for example, appear in the 1992 universal Catechism of the Catholic Church—and those who have generally regard it as meaningless. Kasper argues that it needs to be resurrected “to distinguish the essential and therefore indispensable duties of Petrine ministry from those duties which pertain to the Pope as the first bishop (patriarch or primate) of the Latin Church.”

Kasper does not offer detailed proposals for papal reform, simply noting that “far-reaching developments are possible, although the results cannot be predicted in any detail.” He puts forth some principles to guide the discussion, arguing that the papacy must draw on the whole tradition and history of ecclesiology, especially models from the first millennium, rather than the more exalted models of the papacy from the eleventh century onward.

He argues that all interpretations of the Petrine texts in Scripture and their subsequent usage must be understood with greater sensitivity to their historical and contemporary contexts. This is especially true with the ecumenically problematic First Vatican Council, which dogmatically defined papal infallibility and universal papal jurisdiction, the latter being, somewhat counter-intuitively, the bigger problem for the Orthodox.

If we follow his principles, he suggests, it may be possible to interpret the council in a way that will both “uphold the binding and unchangeable essence of the Petrine ministry and, at the same time . . . prepare a spiritual rereading and re-reception” of the doctrine. This will “facilitate a broader ecumenical reception” and so lead to a form of the Petrine ministry that would be “recognized by both the East and the West within a unity in diversity and a diversity in unity.”

For insights such as these and many others, I (writing as a Catholic) warmly recommend Kasper’s book to all those who want to understand the mind of the Catholic Church’s foremost ecumenist and one of her most prominent contemporary theologians, and also to understand the contemporary debates of ecumenical theology.

Adam A. J. Deville is a Ph.D. student at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute for Eastern Christian Studies at St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada, where he is writing a thesis on Orthodoxy and the Roman papacy in response to the papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint.

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