Kasper, the friendly religion ghost? Progressive cardinal's dismissive words on Africans go unreported (updated)

Editor's note: Dawn is away from her keyboard today and I have been on the move, as well. Yes, we know that all holy heck has broken loose on this story. For updates, check out this timely note from Deacon Greg Kandra, formerly of CBS News, and this commentary from Elizabeth Scalia at The Anchoress. (tmatt)


When German Cardinal Walter Kasper speaks in favor of communion for the divorced and remarried, the Associated Press calls him "a pre-eminent theologian." But when he speaks about how African bishops participating in the Vatican's Extraordinary Synod on the Family "should not tell us too much what we have to do," the AP, and U.S. mainstream media outlets at large, respond with ... crickets.

Kasper's comments to veteran Vatican reporter Edward Pentin, published in ZENIT (since taken down) have set the Catholic blog world aflame. But although they were noted in Italy by the AP affiliate ASCA, and in the U.K. by Damian Thompson at the Spectator, as of last night there was not a peep from Stateside mainstream-media outlets, which until now have seemed to hang on the "progressive" cardinal's every word regarding the Synod. In other words, so long as liberal journalists see Kasper as a "friendly," Pentin's interview is going to disappear into the ether like the proverbial "religion ghost."

The cardinal raised the topic of African bishops to Pentin after the reporter asked him about the five bishops Francis chose to join Cardinal Peter Erdo in composing the Synod's much-discussed midterm report, none of whom were from Africa. The omission is significant since, as the AP's Nicole Winfield notes, African bishops tend to be more "conservative" (i.e. doctrinally faithful) on family issues. Here is the relevant part of Pentin's interview: 

ZENIT: It has been said that [Francis] added five special rapporteurs on Friday to help the general rapporteur, Cardinal Peter Erdo. Is that because he’s trying to push things through according to his wishes?
Cardinal Kasper: I do not see this going on in the Pope’s head. But I think the majority of these five people are open people who want to go on with this. The problem, as well, is that there are different problems of different continents and different cultures. Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo. For us, we say we ought not to discriminate, we don’t want to discriminate in certain respects.
ZENIT: But are African participants listened to in this regard?
Cardinal Kasper: No, the majority of them [who hold these views won’t speak about them].
ZENIT: They’re not listened to?
Cardinal Kasper: In Africa of course [their views are listened to], where it’s a taboo.
ZENIT: What has changed for you, regarding the methodology of this synod?
Cardinal Kasper: I think in the end there must be a general line in the Church, general criteria, but then the questions of Africa we cannot solve. There must be space also for the local bishops’ conferences to solve their problems but I’d say with Africa it’s impossible [for us to solve]. But they should not tell us too much what we have to do.

Is it news that the cardinal whom mainstream journalists admiringly call "the pope's theologian" is saying that African bishops' "taboo" about homosexuality is reason to deny them "too much" influence at the Synod? Matthew Schmitz at First Things thinks so:

“But they should not tell us too much what we have to do.” This despite the fact that Africa—home to 135 million Catholic Christians in 2005, and a projected 230 million by 2025—is where the future of the Church lies. (Europe is on trend to have fewer Catholics than Africa within a decade.) 
One can reject utterly proposals like Uganda’s law on homosexuality—as I do—without dismissing the opinions of an entire continent as the product of mere taboo.

The response from Schmitz and other Kasper critics in the blogosphere prompted a defense of the cardinal's remarks from Grant Gallicho at Commonweal. Whatever you may think of Gallicho's effort at damage control, give him credit for being the first (and so far only) opinion writer at a liberal outlet to mention Kasper's comments. In a blog entry titled, "No, Cardinal Kasper is not a racist," Gallicho writes,

Those comments [of Kasper's], even though they do little more than state the obvious truth that a one-size-fits-all pastoral approach doesn't work in a global church, have occasioned much flouncery. ...
Of course, there is nothing condescending, or xenophobic, or discriminatory, or--and let's just use the word that the most strident critics want us to think of--racist about Kasper's remarks. Look at what he said: Africa is not like the West when it comes to homosexuality. Neither are Islamic and Asian countries. In some places it's a taboo subject. Is that news?
Yes, he said "you can't speak about this with Africans and people from Muslim countries." But he didn't mean that it's a waste of time, or they're impossible. 

It's not my job at GetReligion to critique commentary, so I won't. But it is worth noting, even if Gallicho is correct about Kasper's not being a racist, that this is not the first time the cardinal has been quoted speaking of non-Europeans as though they were the proverbial Other. Four years ago, he caused a furor in Great Britain when, as the BBC reported at the time, he told a German magazine,

 England today is a secularised, pluralistic country. When you land at Heathrow Airport, you sometimes think you'd landed in a Third World country.

Faced with demands that he apologize for that comment, Kasper held his ground, insisting through a spokesman that he meant nothing racist or xenophobic.

If Kasper, in the wake of his Pentin interview, clarifies his intent as he did in 2010, reiterating that he is not a bigot, I am prepared to believe him. What I have trouble believing is that there is no double standard afoot when it comes to media coverage of Catholic bishops' remarks.

If Cardinal Raymond Burke, or any other white bishop whom the media labels "conservative," were to suggest that people from Africa did not deserve to be heard, would the mainstream media fail to find it newsworthy? Would reporters' memories also be so short as to forget any previous remarks in which he displayed a condescending attitude toward people from Third World countries?

Not a ghost of a chance.

Photo of Cardinal Kasper via Wikipedia.

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