Saint John Paul II and Cardinal Kasper on Mercy and Holiness

With the Year of Mercy just around the corner, it is fitting to return to what is perhaps the greatest explication of the doctrine of mercy in recent years, that of Pope, now Saint, John Paul II in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia.

Like Pope John Paul II before him, Pope Francis has made mercy something of a theme in his pontificate, a fact often forgotten by secular and Catholic commentators alike. Discussions surrounding the extraordinary synod on the family in 2014 and the ordinary synod of 2015 are often couched in references to a “theology of mercy” which in many ways does not adequately define what mercy in fact is.

German cardinal Walter Kasper has made much out of this in his recent publications, most particularly his work Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, as well as the publication of his address to the consistory of Cardinals in February 2014 The Gospel of the Family. Where Kasper falls into the trap of playing mercy off against doctrine, John Paul II was able to navigate through the often murky waters of human experience, advocating not a “gradualness of the law,” but rather a “law of gradualness” as he described in paragraph 34 of his Familaris Consortio.

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This is not mere semantics as it may seem at first, but rather an assertion of a firmly held truth, namely that holiness is not an impossible ask, but is achievable through the unity of both human effort and the grace of God. For John Paul II the law of gradualness is an acknowledgement that, while one is certainly changed from an initial encounter with Our Lord, human nature is such that the path out of serious sin will take time and continuous effort coupled with God’s grace.

Mercy then is not somehow a relaxation of the call to holiness, but the grace to truly obtain it—to experience redemption and ultimately union with the Trinity and the Communion of Saints in heaven. This is something deeply embedded in John Paul II’s theological conception of the human person, his theological anthropology, if you will.

Even a passing observer of the teaching pontificate of this great saint of modern times will note the recurrence of one particular phrase that he uses as a launch pad to develop a rich body of teaching. Taken from paragraph 22 of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, this key text is the source of much of John Paul II’s highly Christocentric and Trinitarian teaching.

The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.

As it is elaborated in his many encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, and other addresses and teaching documents, for John Paul II it is Christ who is the measure of man, and our ultimate goal. For some it seems that this call to radical holiness is too much. Despite the promise of Christ’s Holy Spirit (Jn 14:26), the admonition to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) is seen not so much as reality, but a burden.

This is seen perhaps most acutely in Cardinal Kasper’s so-called “merciful” proposal for the re-admittance to the sacraments for Catholics who are civilly divorced and remarried. In his speech to the college of Cardinals in February of 2014 he sketches a particularly hard case of persons, one or both of whom are civilly divorced and remarried, who are not in a position to separate from their current partner so as to not incur further guilt, presumably because of children born to this second relationship.

In such circumstances Saint John Paul II, in line with the tradition of the Church has pointed out the reality of the indissolubility of marriage, and consequently the invalidity canonically of the second “marriage.” For such persons who seek to live in full communion with the Church and who wish to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist, the Church counsels that they live together as “brother and sister.” Against this Kasper unfortunately claims, “To live together as brother and sister? Of course, I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian.”

Kasper seems to think that sanctity is not something asked of everyone. We can not expect holiness from everyone.

Rather than acknowledging man’s final end (i.e. union with the Triune God and the Communion of Saints), or the action of the Holy Spirit in the life of one striving for holiness, Kasper seems to be proposing a dualistic “natural” goodness, which is enough for the average Christian, leaving “supernatural” goodness or holiness for the select few. This is an odd conclusion to reach for one shaped in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which clearly taught, in line with the tradition of the Church and with the teachings of Christ himself, that the call to holiness is universal (see chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium).

Against this false conception of mercy, which seeks only to “lower the bar,” Saint John Paul II’s radically Christocentric teaching is the perfect antidote. Mercy in his conception does not lower the bar to man’s capabilities, but instead is an efficacious call to the perfection of our heavenly Father.


  • Tom Gourlay

    Tom Gourlay is the president and co-founder of the Dawson Society for Philosophy and Culture Inc. and the Manager of Campus Ministry at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in education from the University of Notre Dame Australia, and has worked as classroom teacher and faculty head of Religious Education in a number of Catholic schools in Western Australia. Tom is currently working towards a Masters degree in theology at The John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne, Victoria.

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