By Father Robert Lauder
I can’t think of a better book to read in 2016 than Cardinal Walter Kasper’s “Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to the Christian Life” (Translated by Walter Madges. New York: Paulist Press, 2014, pp. 288). It is for people interested in Pope Francis’ thoughts or interested in theology or interested in what has come to be called “spiritual reading,” a term I don’t particularly like.
In the translator’s preface, Madges writes the following:
“In this book … Cardinal Kasper explores in depth the meaning of mercy and the role it must play in the life of the church and the world. He calls for rethinking the understanding of God. Rather than understanding God primarily in metaphysical terms (Being Itself, all-knowing, all-powerful, etc.) as has been the case for most of the history of the church, Cardinal Kasper, drawing upon deep biblical roots, identifies mercy as God’s fundamental and defining attribute. He then describes the consequences for the praxis of the church and for the life of individual Christians entailed by this theological orientation.
“Beginning with a description of the pressing need for mercy in our contemporary world, Cardinal Kasper reviews how mercy is understood and articulated in philosophy, the Bible, and contemporary theology. The book explores the relationship between mercy and justice and describes the value and necessity of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy for church and society.” (p. x1)
On the back cover of the book is a statement from Pope Francis: “This book has done me so much good.”
If that statement does not spark the interest of potential readers, then I don’t know what might. Recalling that the title of Pope Francis’ last book is “The Name of God Is Mercy,” the relevance of Cardinal Kasper’s book seems obvious.
I confess that because of my interest as a college student studying philosophy and perhaps, even more because of teaching philosophy for almost 50 years, I tend to think of God in metaphysical terms. To do so, I believe, has some advantages, especially when a person is trying to think deeply about his or her personal experiences. However, I am determined to expand both my consciousness and my conscience through understanding better the God of Scripture. Reading and re-reading Cardinal Kasper’s book is, for me, a step in the right direction.
When I was a college student and perhaps even as a major seminarian, I thought of the God of the Old Testament as a God of vengeance. Of course, I eventually came to see that this was a very incorrect way of looking at the Old Testament. I had allowed certain images of God to overshadow the God of love who, time and again, forgave His people and pursued them with enormous love and mercy.
Somehow I had allowed the profound truths about God’s love to get lost. My guilt about shrinking the image of God were alleviated to some extent when I read the following words of Cardinal Kasper about the issue of mercy in the foreword to his book:
“Thinking about and investigating this issue led me to fundamental questions about the doctrine of God and God’s attributes as well as to fundamental questions about Christian existence. I determined that mercy, which is so central in the Bible, has by and large been forgotten or is given very little attention in systematic theology. Christian spirituality and mysticism is way ahead of academic theology in this question, as in other questions.
“Therefore, the present text attempts to connect theological reflection with spiritual, pastoral, and also social considerations concerning a culture of mercy.” (p. xv)
As I begin this series, I am trying to picture what readers have the theological background, leisure time and interest to read the cardinal’s book. I am hoping theology majors in Catholic colleges will be exposed to the book. But I don’t believe that the book need be limited only to people pursuing degrees in theology.
Though Cardinal Kasper is brilliant and is dealing with great mysteries, his writing is clear. In fact, as I re-read the book I have the impression that he is teaching me. The book is structured and written so that it will be accessible to a large audience. I am hoping that some will use “Mercy” not only in classes, but also in discussion groups. A year spent reading and discussing the book would be a year well spent. If a book might deepen and broaden our image of God, does it need any other endorsement?
Dealing with the mystery of God, Cardinal Kasper is a wonderful guide. I suspect that he must be a great teacher.
Father Robert Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).