Walter Kasper, a newly appointed German cardinal, has been appointed head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican's ecumenical department.

On March 3 Pope John Paul announced, as expected, the retirement of Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, the 76-year-old Australian who has directed the council since 1989, and named 68-year-old Kasper as his successor.

Kasper has served as the pontifical council's secretary for the past two years. In January Bishop Kasper was named as one of the new members of the College of Cardinals. This was widely interpreted as a sign that he was about to succeed Cardinal Cassidy as the Vatican's chief ecumenical officer. Cardinal Kasper's appointment has been warmly welcomed by leading Protestant officials.

Cardinal Kasper has had wide experience as a theologian, coming into contact with some of the most gifted theologians of his generation. From 1961 to 1964, Walter Kasper was assistant to Hans Küng at the University of Tubingen, and from 1970 to 1989 he was professor of dogmatic theology. He has written many books on theology, and in 1989 he was appointed Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart.

In 1979, he was chosen by the Vatican as one of a dozen Catholic theologians to sit on the World Council of Churches' Faith and Order Commission, which has been described as "the most comprehensive theological forum in Christendom."

In 1994 Cardinal Cassidy appointed Kasper as co-chairman of the Lutheran-Catholic Commission on Unity.

A Canadian priest, 56-year-old Marc Ouellet, has been appointed by the Pope to succeed Cardinal Kasper as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. At the same time, Pope John Paul has announced that Father Ouellet is to be made a bishop.

On January 22, the day after the Pope announced the names of the new cardinals, including Kasper, a Catholic magazine in Austria, Die Furche, published an interview with Kasper in which he expressed doubts about the presentation and interpretation last year of a controversial Vatican document, Dominus Iesus, which annoyed many Protestant churches.

Dominus Iesus, published on September 5 and signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated that the churches which grew out of the Reformation of the 16th century were not "churches in the proper sense."

"That affirmation offended other people," Walter Kasper told Die Furche, "and if my friends are offended, then so am I. It's an unfortunate affirmation—clumsy and ambiguous." He added that the section of Dominus Iesus on the Protestant churches was written in "abstract, doctrinaire language, which in some ways excludes [others]. The tone is not appropriate."

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Another negative aspect of Dominus Iesus signaled by Kasper was its failure to mention the fruits of ecumenical dialogue undertaken since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He pointed out that Pope John Paul had specifically referred to this dialogue in his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut unum sint, published in 1995.

Referring to the claim that Protestant churches were not "churches in the proper sense," Kasper said out that Cardinal Ratzinger had correctly explained that "churches which grew out of the Reformation have a different idea of church from us [Catholics]. There is no dispute about that. These churches do not wish to be churches like the Catholic Church. They do not retain the apostolic succession for the episcopate or the ministry of Peter, which for us are essential. So in fact Dominus Iesus does not signify any change in the Vatican's ecumenical policy."

Moreover, he added, "the document upholds the common ecumenical belief that Jesus Christ is the sole and universal mediator of our salvation. Protestants say the same thing."

In an interview with Lutheran World Information in Geneva late in February, Cardinal Kasper also commented on Dominus Iesus, saying that the original controversy had now been more or less overcome. He felt that the pontifical council had succeeded in its attempt to clarify the misunderstandings that had arisen. The language of the statement was certainly different from that of the Second Vatican Council and from that used by Pope John Paul, and did not mention previous dialogues, Cardinal Kasper admitted. He added that Dominus Iesus was intended as a warning against "a relativism or a fundamental pluralism" and stressed that Pope John Paul had repeatedly stated "that for him, the decisions taken at the Second Vatican Council are irrevocable and irreversible for the ecumenical process."

Recent statements by Cardinal Kasper prompted La Repubblica, a leading newspaper in Rome, to declare, following the announcement of his new job, that "An anti-Ratzinger is now at the center of the Curia [Vatican bureaucracy]. The new president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is the right man to resume dialogue with Protestants affected by the declaration Dominus Iesus published by Cardinal Ratzinger last September." The newspaper described Cardinal Kasper's appointment as a strengthening of the "reformers" faction of the College of Cardinals. He could also support moves for a "third Vatican council."

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In Geneva, Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, welcomed Cardinal Kasper's appointment. "Cardinal Kasper comes to this central position of ecumenical leadership in the Roman Catholic Church with broad pastoral experience and sensitivity and after a distinguished career as a theological teacher," Raiser said. "His competence will be an asset for our work together. We look forward to his leadership and inspiration in the years ahead."

Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, also based in Geneva, said he was filled with "great satisfaction" to know that in the coming years, Cardinal Kasper "will continue to be a decisive architect of ecumenism in the Roman Catholic Church." Noko described the new president of the pontifical council as a "renowned, respected theologian" who brings "a quality of theology and style of leadership that facilitate collaboration in the ecumenical movement."

"We know Cardinal Kasper and have found in him a common faith in the living God, who will guide us in these complex times towards the unity which God makes possible in Christ," said Noko.

Both Raiser and Noko paid tribute to Cardinal Cassidy's achievements as head of the council for 11 years.

Related Elsewhere

More on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is available at the Vatican's Web site.

Earlier Christianity Today articles on Dominus Iesus include:

Honest Ecumenism | The Vatican's recent statement on the nature of the church is a step forward, not backward, for Christian unity. (Oct. 23, 2000)

Poland's Catholic Bishops Reject Criticism of DominusIesus | Ratzinger's declaration that Protestant denominations are not proper churches is making waves in pope's birthplace. (Sept. 20, 2000)

DominusIesus a 'Public Relations Disaster' for Ecumenism, Say Critics | Vatican's statement reasserting itself as the one true church lamented inside and outside Catholicism. (Sept. 13, 2000)

Not All in the Family | Vatican official proclaims Protestant churches not "sister churches" to the Roman Catholic faith. (Sept. 6, 2000)

Read Dominus Iesus, a declaration reiterating Catholic teachings on the uniqueness of the church.