Meet the 82-year-old progressive German cardinal who has an outsized influence on Pope Francis

In the coming weeks or months, Pope Francis is expected to come out with a significant teaching on how the Catholic Church should respond to the new shapes and challenges of the modern family. As he prepares the document, there may be few individuals as important in understanding the pope’s thinking as an 82-year-old German theologian named Cardinal Walter Kasper.

The prolific author and longtime Vatican bureaucrat has long been a major figure in the Catholic theological world, beloved by reformers who want to see the church adjust and change more and dreaded by more orthodox Catholics who fear that altering practice and teaching could divide the church and lead people away from Jesus.

But since becoming pope, Francis has made Kasper almost a household name, praising the German at his very first Sunday blessing as pope by mentioning Kasper’s then-new book, “Mercy.”

“It did me such good, that book,” Francis said in 2013. Then Francis selected Kasper to give the tone-setting opening address of a major bishop meeting last year — the first of two historic meetings Francis called to seek input on how the church can live out the teachings of Jesus while applying them in a modern context.

The second meeting ended last weekend with dozens of the church’s top bishops producing a final paper meant as a suggested theological road map for Francis. As pope, he has final say on whether the church will make changes to things like the place of divorced and remarried couples or how churches should relate to families with same-gender couples. While the document they agreed to suggests no changes to practice — including not adopting Kasper’s call for Communion to Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the church — it unmistakably gave new priority to open dialogue, the possibility of more local control and mercy, three of Kasper’s hallmarks.

“He was at the heart of negotiations,” said Bradford Hinze, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a student of the German church.

While Kasper’s Communion proposal, which became the most hot-button topic at the synod, was not approved, the ideas to which he has devoted his life now seem to have priority among the pope’s guiding principles. The question Francis will answer in the coming weeks, theologians say, is how he plans to meld his obvious desire for a more pragmatic, flexible church with one still devoted to traditional ideas about the family.

Francis biographer Austen Ivereigh, who attended the synod that ended last week, said while Kasper clearly influenced Francis, the reason the German is getting so much attention is because the church is swinging toward things he has been raising for decades: the need for the church to focus less on the forming of theological discussions and much more on the day-to-day care of people.

“In Catholic Church terms that is a very significant shift. It may not look like it from the outside, but it is,” Ivereigh said. “Doctrine and pastoral action aren’t in contradiction, but they are in tension.”

Part of the reason Kasper is important is because he is part of the wealthy, theologically prominent German church — the home of Pope Benedict. Ivereigh was among those who called it “a breakthrough moment” for last week’s synod, after weeks of bishops debating, when the German group was able to hash out a kind of compromise as various groups worked toward creating a final paper. That a famous reformer like Kasper was able to come to agreement with a towering conservative like Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Vatican’s doctrine-enforcing arm, said everything.

That was a key moment, and it hinged on leaving some questions unanswered.

While Francis brought Kasper’s name into the spotlight — his tome on mercy went from 1,000 books sold to 70,000, in 10 languages — he wasn’t as obviously visible during this synod. Some say that was by design, as he’d become such a controversial figure. Kasper in a way has become a metric for the forces shaping and dividing the Francis papacy.

“When I first heard what Francis had said [at his first Sunday blessing], that he had mentioned Kasper, I went to YouTube to watch his speech and hear it for myself,” said Thomas Stark, a theology professor at the Benedict XVI Academy of Philosophy and Theology in Heiligenkreuz, Austria, who has written essays highly critical of Kasper. “At that time, I had fear that things would go the way that they have. All the things that are happening now. Kasper is not the root. But he is, at the moment, the most prominent representative of a movement.”

Kasper drew great attention in February 2014, when he spoke at the first synod on the family. There, he expounded on his Communion proposal for divorced Catholics, saying it would not infringe on church teachings about the indissolubility of marriage. Rather, he said, through penance, they could earn a path back to the sacrament — a suggestion that scandalized some in room.

Francis’s precise position on Kasper’s proposal remains unclear. But the decision to grant him such a powerful pulpit nevertheless had the effect of elevating the progressive theologian who had stepped aside from full time duties during the tenure of Pope Benedict XVI.

“Kasper, a man in semi-retirement, suddenly became the name giver of factions within the church. Out of nowhere, there were now ‘Kasperites,’”said a senior German cleric at the synod who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I think it started an unhealthy focalization on Kasper. It made him a symbol, and a kind of scapegoat for those who didn’t like his ideas.”

The Rev. George Augustin, head of the Cardinal Walter Kasper Institute in Vallendar, Germany, said it is wrong, however, to describe Kasper as a “liberal.” Rather, he described the cardinal as someone who simply wants the church to have “a dialogue with the modern world.”

Speaking about how Kasper has been demonized by some in the church, Augustin said, “it is sad and unfortunate because I think all these so-called conservative Catholics, especially in these fanatic times, have misunderstood what Kasper has said.”

“He never questions the indissolubility of marriage,” Augustin said. “He is only talking about a pastoral way for helping those who are in a situation where there is no way for them to come back to their first marriage to find a full place in the church. I would say he is in line with Pope John Paul II in much of what he says. They misunderstand him, and they started a big campaign against him. But all he is talking about is mercy and a pastoral way.”

Kasper declined to comment for this article, saying in an e-mail that he was feeling ill. But in an interview last weekend with the Italian press after the synod, he said he was satisfied with the final recommendations to the pope.

On his pet issue — Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics — the synod offered a vaguely worded recommendation. As part of a way to bring divorced Catholics closer to the life of the church, the synod raised the concept of a case-by-case analysis by priests of each couple’s situation. While never mentioning a reinstating of Communion rights, it did not explicitly exclude it either. It’s left to the pope to clarify.

“I am satisfied, a door was opened on the possibility to give the Communion to the divorced remarried,” Kasper told the Italian newspaper Il Giornale. “There’s some opening, yes, but consequences haven’t yet been talked about. Now it’s all in the hands of the pope, who will decide what to do.”

After serving for years as the bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, one of Germany’s largest dioceses, he was brought to Vatican City by Pope John Paul II, taking over the church’s office on dialogue with other Christian faiths in 2001.

A key moment in the relationship between Francis and Kasper came several days before Francis was anointed by the conclave in March 2013. Kasper had recently obtained a few Spanish translations of his book — simply called “Mercy.” Inside the Vatican’s lodgings, he happened to hand one to an Argentine cardinal staying in the room across the hall. That cardinal was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would shortly become Pope Francis.

Who says “there is no such thing as fate?” said the Rev. Bernd Hagenkord, head of the German language section at Vatican Radio.

Kasper was one of a handful of clerics who would later stand behind Francis as the pope gave his first blessing in St. Peter’s Square. It was a new and higher profile role for the cleric. During the papacy of John Paul II, Kasper would engage in heady theological debate with a fellow German cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI. That debate, which played out in public, focused on whether the church should be — as Kasper argued — less centralized, giving more freedom and control to local bishops’ groups and individuals.

“What’s at the root of this is that rules do not apply themselves. They have to be applied and they may be applied differently in different circumstances,” said Terrence Tilley, a Fordham University theologian who participated in a public dialogue with Kasper last year.

Kasper chose to retire four years ago and had been far less in the public eye when Francis pulled him back there.

His re-emergence has appeared to re-energize him and other clerics seen as reformists — as well as their opponents. Last year, Kasper’s conservative critics penned an entire book aimed at refuting the theology behind his arguments.

Those arguments “share the same main issues, openness and mercy,” said Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, a liberal cleric who made headlines last year by openly calling for the church to recognize the spiritual value of same-sex relationships.

Yet because of Francis’s penchant for ambiguity, it’s not clear what he thinks of Kasper’s proposals — particularly the idea to give Communion to the divorced and remarried. Kasper suggested at one time Francis supported it but later said what Francis actually backed was broader debate.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington and a close Francis ally, said Kasper was less visible at this year’s synod, compared with last year’s, “because it became clear that there wasn’t a groundswell of support” for his proposal. “His voice became less audible, but that doesn’t mean his voice or ideas went away.”

Indeed, Kasper’s fingerprints were all over the one minor victory scored by liberals at the synod: a vague reference to an “internal forum” that could bring divorced and remarried Catholics closer to the faith.

The theological term refers to the private relationship that exists between a priest and his parishioners. Reformists had wanted to explicitly state that through penance, the priestly relationship could be used to eventually restore Communion rights. Though Communion rights for divorced Catholics were never mentioned in the final synod text, the mere fact that the internal forum was made was interpreted as a breakthrough for liberals. They say the language gave the pope the maneuverability he needs to make such a declaration should he choose.

The language came from the German working group — the one including both Mueller and Kasper.

Interviews with five participants in the group suggested its generally collegial atmosphere was punctuated by tense moments, particularly as Kasper and other reformist bishops and cardinals sought to sway Mueller with a legal-like case citing the scholarly evidence for a selective application of church rules based on each parishioner’s unique situation.

German Bishop Franz-Josef Bode said that eventually, the body of cited evidence brought Mueller around to the position that a crack in the door could be opened that would give Francis the final say.

“This path we are describing is not a general opening, it is an opening under very strict criteria,” Bode said.

The types of examples theologians mentioned as exceptions might be whether a woman becomes Catholic in places in the world where polygamy is common, and she is in a polygamous marriage. Should she have to leave her family? What about condoms for someone who is HIV positive? These are not the most common cases, but the Kasper proposal heightened debate about when exceptions are okay — even if the specific proposal was rejected.

“This isn’t done yet,” Hinze said. “From the perspective of a lot of people who left the synod, it’s very much viewed as not a done deal. A lot of people said for the first time people were talking about things that mattered. Francis said, ‘You can’t say to anyone: This can’t be said.’ And Walter Kasper embodies that.”