Cardinal Kasper and the Good Friday Prayer

Just when you thought things could not get any stranger, some traditionalists are citing a private letter by Cardinal Kasper on the revised Good Friday Prayer as damning evidence of a papal plot to subvert the Faith, joining Jewish critics of the prayer in rejecting it.

Surely the Adversary is enjoying this circus.

Christopher Ferrara

Cardinal Walter Kasper

(Posted March 5, 2008 As this article goes to press, Cardinal Walter Kasper is at it again, agitating for a “solution” to the “problem” of the revised Good Friday prayer.  According to one news account, Kasper “expects a conciliatory solution” with the aid of—who else?—Cardinal Bertone, whose personal campaign to conceal the words of the Virgin Mary in the Third Secret of Fatima is the subject of my book on the subject, now off the presses. 

Kasper claims that “he will talk about the process with the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem [and] Bertone” and that “there will then be a statement. Then the process should be settled.” Whatever “statement” is issued at the end of this “process” cannot, of course, alter the Church’s traditional teaching, which the revised prayer affirms, as Jewish leaders have acknowledged. It is urgently necessary to defend the doctrinal integrity of the prayer against the political maneuvering of these two prelates. For as Antonio Socci has noted in connection with the Third Secret controversy, the Pope is virtually alone in the Vatican, and there can be no question His Holiness has encountered fierce opposition from the Vatican bureaucracy in the matter of the Motu Proprio and the other moves he has made toward an ecclesial restoration.

Therefore, permit me to depart somewhat from Michael Matt’s conciliatory editorial line on the Good Friday prayer issue, which I think is certainly indicated.  On one point I feel compelled to take a harder line for the sake of the intellectual integrity of the traditionalist position.  For it seems there are some traditionalists who actually hope that Kasper and Bertone will succeed in their maneuvering, so that they can proclaim a vindication of their audacious thesis that Pope Benedict XVI is a sinister Hegelian modernist who intends to “synthesize” tradition and novelty into some hideous hybrid that would destroy the Faith.

In this regard, it is completely unacceptable, and beneath the dignity of our cause, to suggest that Cardinal Kasper’s letter to Rabbi Rosen of February 13, 2008 is “proof” of such papal duplicity in revising the prayer.

First of all, Kasper’s letter, which he (or someone) strategically leaked to the press, has no doctrinal or juridical import whatever.  The letter to Rabbi Rosen begins: “Dear Rabbi Rosen, Upon my return to Rome, I found your letter of 10 February 2008 regarding the prayer formulated for the extraordinary rite of the Good Friday liturgy.” It is simply ludicrous to contend that the Pope personally “authorizes” as his teaching such informal private missives from the heads of Vatican departments to individual recipients. To be perfectly candid, I am disgusted that any traditionalist would seize upon this letter as evidence of a papal intention to betray us. This is the essence of rash judgment; and rash judgment of papal intentions is an especially grave matter.

Worse, in his letter the always-pernicious Kasper has managed to mislead both Jews and some traditionalists by declaring as follows:

The reformulated text no longer speaks about the conversion of the Jews as some Jewish critics wrongly affirm. The text is a prayer inspired by Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 11, which is the very text that speaks also of the unbroken covenant. It takes up Paul's eschatological hope that in the end of time all Israel will be saved. As a prayer the text lays all in the hands of God and not in ours. It says nothing about the how and when. Therefore there is nothing about missionary activities by which we may take Israel's salvation in our hands.

The italicized passages are disingenuous turns of phrase that will fail to mollify any but the most credulous Jewish readers. The Jewish leaders who have actually studied the revised prayer know quite well that it restates and thus revives the Church’s traditional teaching on Jewish conversion. And yet, absurdly enough, certain traditionalists are agreeing with Kasper’s less-than-honest suggestion that the revised prayer eschews the conversion of the Jews. This sudden reliance on the views of Kasper by traditionalists who never trusted his opinion before bespeaks the grinding of an axe rather than a respect for the truth.

Let me comment very briefly on the key phrases in Kasper’s letter in order to demonstrate why no traditionalist should be so foolish as to take it seriously:

The reformulated text no longer speaks about the conversion of the Jews.

What does Kasper mean by “no longer”? The original prayer did not speak about the “conversion of the Jews” either.  Rather, both the original and the revised prayer speak of the “enlightenment” of the Jewish people.

In fact, the revised prayer goes farther than the original prayer by including the intention that “as the fullness of the peoples enters Your Church, all Israel may be saved.” The original prayer said nothing about the salvation of the Jews, but only their “enlightenment.” Jewish readers of the revised prayer have not failed to note this, but, strange to say, a few traditionalist readers seem determined to ignore it.

The text is a prayer inspired by Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 11, which is the very text that speaks also of the unbroken covenant.

Saint Paul does indeed speak of “the unbroken covenant” in Romans, although he does not use Kasper’s phrase.  But St. Paul means the covenant with Abraham, which has been fulfilled in the New Covenant, not broken, by Christ.  He does not mean the Mosaic covenant of Mount Sinai, whose ritual prescriptions and sacrifices no longer obtain after Christ, as Paul teaches again and again elsewhere. As Romans 11 states: “I say then: Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.” St. Paul is referring simply and only to the unbroken (but fulfilled) Abrahamic covenant, which embraces all of the elect in the Church, and Kasper knows it.  Traditionalists should know it too, if they have taken the trouble to read Romans carefully, along with a good traditional commentary such as the one by Father Haydock.

It [the revised prayer] takes up Paul's eschatological hope that in the end of time all Israel will be saved.

So what? The Church, following Saint Paul,  has always had this eschatological hope, which is not in the least inconsistent with the Church’s perennial petition on Good Friday, reiterated in the revised prayer, for the present-day “enlightenment” and thus conversion of the Jewish people—an enlightenment that is to happen as, not after, the other nations enter the Church.  As Brian McCall has noted, the Latin text of the revised prayer—the only one that matters—uses the present participle intrante (entering), which can only connote a present and continuing action of entry into the Church, not an isolated future event.  Kasper knows this as well, as would anyone familiar with Saint Paul’s teaching.

All doubt on this score—and there really is none—has been precluded by Pope Benedict’s catechesis of March 15, 2006, in which the Pope addressed the universal Church as follows:

In choosing the Twelve, introducing them into a communion of life with himself and involving them in his mission of proclaiming the Kingdom in words and works (cf. Mk 6: 7-13; Mt 10: 5-8; Lk 9: 1-6; 6: 13), Jesus wants to say that the definitive time has arrived in which to constitute the new People of God, the people of the 12 tribes, which now becomes a universal people, his Church.

With their very own existence, the Twelve—called from different backgrounds—become an appeal for all of Israel to convert and allow herself to be gathered into the new covenant, complete and perfect fulfillment of the ancient one. The fact that he entrusted to his Apostles, during the Last Supper and before his Passion, the duty to celebrate his Pasch, demonstrates how Jesus wished to transfer to the entire community, in the person of its heads, the mandate to be a sign and instrument in history of the eschatological gathering begun by him.

The “eschatological gathering” begun by Christ 2000 years ago and carried on by “the twelve” and their successors is the very Church the Jews have been called to join ever since, as the Pope plainly teaches in this lucid instruction. The Pope here explicitly reminds us that the Church issues “an appeal to all of Israel to convert and allow herself to be gathered into the new covenant, complete and perfect fulfillment of the ancient one.” What more needs to be said?

Thus, the Pope himself has reaffirmed the traditional teaching on the “eschatological” element in the conversion of Israel—the same teaching Saint Paul proclaimed in Romans. It is embarrassing to our cause, and really quite outrageous, for anyone calling himself a traditionalist to ignore the Pope’s public preaching before the whole Church and the correct interpretation of Romans in favor of Kasper’s inconsequential and craftily ambiguous letter, mailed privately to a rabbi on 56th Street in Manhattan. This kind of polemic is shameful.

It [the revised prayer] says nothing about the how and when [of Jewish conversion].”

Again, so what?  Neither does the original prayer speak of how and when the Jews will convert.

Therefore there is nothing [in the revised prayer] about missionary activities by which we may take Israel's salvation in our hands.”

Yet again, so what? The original prayer likewise says nothing about “missionary activities,” nor have the pre-conciliar Popes called for “missionary activities” concerning the Jewish people.  In fact, not since apostolic times has the Church sent missionaries as such into Jewish communities to seek converts. Rather, the Church has perennially prayed for the conversion of the Jews while tolerating, and indeed protecting, their private worship from disruption within Catholic territories.

Indeed, at least from the time of the Theodosian Code in late fourth century, the Church has admonished civil authorities to leave the Jews unmolested in their worship. Hence, as the Theodosian Code declares: “It is sufficiently established that the sect of the Jews is forbidden by no law. Hence we are gravely disturbed that their assemblies have been forbidden in certain places. Your Sublime Magnitude will, therefore, after receiving this order, restrain with proper severity the excesses of those who, in the name of the Christian religion, presume to commit certain unlawful acts and attempt to destroy and despoil the synagogues.”  (XVI.vii.9, 29 September 393).  On the other hand, the Theodosian Code provides severe penalties for the practice of pagan idolatry, even in private.

This does not mean that the religion of the Mosaic covenant is still efficacious for salvation, or that the Jews are somehow saved under the Abrahamic covenant without Christ, or that Jews are not under an objective duty to “acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men,” as the new prayer states. Rather, the Church has always recognized that Jewish conversion involves an extraordinary grace, given the unique position of the Jews in relation to the Church since the destruction of the Temple and the Diaspora, followed by centuries of not only spiritual but cultural alienation from their own Messiah.

Could any traditionalist really be unaware that since apostolic times, and for well nigh 2,000 years, there have been no organized missions and no mass conversions among the Jews, as there have been among pagans who were sent missionaries by Rome? The Church has long understood that her fundamental approach to the Jewish people—and, for that matter, the Muslims—must be to pray for their conversion, rejoicing at the relative few conversions that have occurred over the centuries, while awaiting the ultimate conversion of “all Israel.” As for the fate of the Jews who show no signs of embracing Christ in this world, God will read their hearts. It is not for us to know what happens in the souls of any people before they leave the wayfaring state. On that score, I have to agree with my fellow pro-life attorney, Michael Hirsh, a Jewish convert to the Faith with thirteen children, who wonders why some traditionalists seem less interested in attracting Jews to the Church than in shaking their fists at them.

What seems to be at work here are two kinds of ignorance: an ignorance of Church history and an ignorance of the extent to which the sacred liturgy, outside of the Roman Canon, is subject to minor revisions as circumstances may dictate.  As to the former, I direct the reader’s attention to Michael Matt’s excellent article discussing the unimpeachable historical scholarship of William Thomas Walsh on the Church’s traditional approach to the Jewish people. As to the latter, I note the highly pertinent example of the Council of Trent’s excision from the Roman Missal of the original sixth stanza of the ancient Easter sequence:

Credendum est magis soli

Mariae veraci

Quam Judaeorum

Turbae fallaci….


The faithful Mary's

testimony of itself

is preferable to that of

the deceitful Jewish crowd…

History does not record any outcry by sixteenth century Catholics over the papal decision to eliminate from the Missal an ancient liturgical reference to “the deceitful Jewish crowd.” One may suppose that Catholics then did not regard such minor liturgical alterations as threats to the Faith, and that they would not have so regarded the revised Good Friday prayer—especially if sixteenth century Jews had objected to it! Perhaps those raising a hue and cry about the revised prayer will next call for a return to the pre-Tridentine Missal? The way things are going, my question is only half in jest.

In sum, when read with even minimal discernment Kasper’s letter turns out to be a lot of nothing. It is painful to watch certain traditionalists argue that Kasper’s private correspondence reveals a sinister papal plan to abandon Jewish conversion, even as they ignore the Pope’s public catechesis to the contrary, the authentic teaching of St. Paul and, to boot, the historic breakthrough of the Motu Proprio. I fear that this sort of thing will create the perception that traditionalists in general, far from being too clever to be deceived, are so lacking in discernment that they are unable to recognize a good faith papal move in favor of Tradition unless it is accompanied by a blast of trumpets and a Vatican page unrolling a scroll that declares “the errors of Vatican II” are hereby repudiated.

What exactly is the principle these few traditionalists profess to be fighting for? Is it simply that they consider the original prayer to be irreformable in its precise wording, as if it were a solemn dogmatic definition? What is their authority for that strange proposition, seeing that John XXIII changed the prayer without any serious objection by traditionalists and that Pope St. Pius V approved the excision of an ancient stanza from the Easter sequence referring to “the deceitful Jewish crowd”?  Do they maintain that the Pope may subtract words from an ancient prayer, as Pope John did, but not rewrite it, even to state the same thing in substance? What is their authority for that proposition? Or, if they will admit the Pope has the power to revise a prayer in the propers of the Missal—and how can they deny it?—then what is the ground for their objection to the prayer as revised, given that Kasper’s letter, their own Exhibit A, admits that the revision  faithfully reflects the Pauline epistle? Are they seriously suggesting that St. Paul’s teaching is “ambiguous” or even heterodox?

I see no “principle” here besides this: If a Catholic is convinced a Pope should not have done what he did, or that there was no need to do it, or that he did it for suspect reasons, then the Pope’s decision can be rejected, whether or not one can point to some clear contradiction of the Faith.   Since when has that been the traditionalist way of thinking?

Archbishop Lefebvre, who confirmed my own wife as a member of the Church in 1983, obediently accepted the changes in the 1962 Missal, including Pope John XXIII’s revision of the Good Friday prayer for the Jews, because he could not in good conscience say that the changes were contrary to the Faith. Accordingly, citing St. Thomas Aquinas, the Archbishop bid adieu to a group of rebellious priests who rejected the 1962 Missal.  There is no doubt the Archbishop did not favor the changes, yet he did what a Catholic must do in such circumstances: he and the Society of Saint Pius X accepted the Pope’s decision and adopted the 1962 Missal. Whether it pleases us or not, we traditionalists have a duty to accept the revision of one prayer contained in that same Missal.

Therefore, even if we were to assume that the Pope made a serious prudential error in revising the Good Friday prayer under pressure from non-Catholics, given that the prayer is indubitably orthodox there is no principled basis on which Catholics can proclaim their adamant rejection of it. Much less can any Catholic drum up public opposition to the Pope’s decision on the basis of the rash presumption that the Pope, by replacing one orthodox prayer with another, is somehow engaged in a plot to subvert the Church.

In the same spirit as Archbishop Lefebvre, the Transalpine Redemptorists, an uncompromisingly traditional order of priests long associated with the Society, immediately and publicly expressed their obedience to the Supreme Pontiff and their acceptance of the revised prayer. Furthermore, numerous Society faithful, the Transalpine Redemptorists, representatives of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, the editors of major traditionalist publications, and some 2,000 other prominent traditional Catholics from around the world, have signed The Remnant’s International Declaration in defense of the Pope, even though virtually all of those signatories would have preferred that the traditional Good Friday prayer be retained.

As the signatories recognize, what is at stake here is something far more important than the wording of a particular prayer said once a year.  What is at stake is the authority of the papal office, which is now under attack by critics of the Church because the Pope has dared to remind the world that the Church’s teaching on the conversion of the Jews (along with all other peoples) has not changed.

For Catholics to join Abe Foxman and other non-Catholic critics of the Pope in rejecting the revised Good Friday prayer, even though that prayer is wholly orthodox, is an unprecedented spectacle that threatens to make a mockery of the cause of Tradition and the memory of Archbishop Lefebvre, who would never have encouraged such behavior. We can only hope that if and when the Society of St. Pius X issues an official statement of its position on this matter, it will be consistent with the standard of Catholic fidelity exemplified by the Society’s heroic founder and carried on by its current Superior General.

Perhaps this Pope will turn out to be the wily neo-modernist trickster that some traditionalists sagely assure us he is.  In view of what has happened over the past year I rather doubt it, although I would be the first to admit real evidence in support of that view. (And I can hardly deny that I myself was deeply pessimistic about the course of this pontificate for its first eighteen months.) Meanwhile, to those few traditionalists who maintain that Cardinal Kasper’s private letter to a rabbi in New York is proof positive of the Pope’s subversive intentions, I would offer this advice: Think carefully about the consequences of rash judgment of the Supreme Pontiff, especially when that judgment is issued in a public forum on the basis of incompetent evidence.