The Catholic Church

Nature, Reality and Mission

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Walter Kasper
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , April
     488 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book, originally intended to be called “The Church of Jesus Christ” (3), continues the trajectory of Walter Cardinal Kasper’s earlier volumes, Jesus the Christ and The God of Jesus Christ. The revision to this title tells the reader much about both the scope of the work and the author’s self-awareness of his theological location. Kasper here presents a wide-ranging ecclesiology that is both thoroughly Roman Catholic and the product of his decades-long engagement with ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. While he describes a very traditional Roman Catholic ecclesiology, it is a Catholic ecclesiology formed by a deep understanding of the unity and the divisions that exist between Christians.

The Catholic Church begins with a kind of theological autobiography, detailing the upbringing, education, and work that lay behind Kasper’s writing of this book. This history is visible throughout the book, both because of the ongoing emphasis on the theology of the Tübingen school, and because this is a theology of the church shaped by long-term encounters with other Christians and members of other religions. Kasper is continually aware that he speaks from somewhere, and that catholicity is always encountered in and through the local. He regularly examines the differences between Catholics and other Christians, not to foster division, but to help his reader understand their differences and to develop an understanding of the Church that is informed by those dialogues.

In recent years, Kasper has developed a reputation as the leader of the Vatican’s more progressive wing. This is tied largely to his appeals for mercy around the synod on the family. Readers who approach this book looking for a description of the church that questions traditional Catholic claims will be disappointed. While Kasper does deal carefully with a number of issues guaranteed to produce heated discussion, he does so coolly, and in order to argue for traditional Catholic positions. At times, he merely reasserts these positions, or stipulates that they are clear and do not require further argument. In a book that covers such a breadth of issues, this is understandable, if occasionally disappointing.

Kasper does comment on his famous interchange with Cardinal Ratzinger on the nature of the church, but only to insist that there is little real disagreement between the two cardinals. While this argument is often described as being a dispute about church politics, Kasper instead describes himself as defending the theology of Henri de Lubac, in which “we can speak neither of a priority of the local church against the universal Church nor vice versa, but only of the simultaneity and mutual permeation of both” (274). This understanding of the church is found throughout the volume. It grounds Kasper’s account of the church, which is sacramental and open to the mystery of God, without falling into either ecclesiolatry or neglecting the reality of sin among God’s people.

The translation is generally very good. It is readable, clear, and mostly correct. There are a few small difficulties, such as a section in which the translation of morgenländisch leads to a confusion between the Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) and Eastern Orthodox churches. Given the book’s strength as a textbook, it would have been preferable if more of the Latin expressions had been rendered in English as well. Less importantly, some names—such as Bonaventura—are left in their Germanic forms, rather than following a more typical English style.

This book should quickly become the standard Roman Catholic textbook on ecclesiology. It hews carefully to official teaching, but situates that teaching within the ecumenical and interfaith dialogues of the last half-century. Kasper provides an excellent text for preparing students to understand the theology of the Church in which they will minister. It breaks little new ground, but as a good text should, it covers the landscape with both rigor and charity. Other Christians will find here a careful account of a Roman Catholic understanding of the church that is neither dismissive of its positions, nor willing to ignore real differences. In the next phase of the ecumenical discussion, such mutual understanding will be necessary if we are to come to deeper unity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jakob Karl Rinderknecht is Director of the Pastoral Institute at the University of the Incarnate Word.

Date of Review: 
August 11, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cardinal Walter Kasper was President of The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. A German by birth, he spends much time lecturing and giving conferences in the English-speaking world. 




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