Voices of the Times – 2019-20

Advent in fears
By Klaus Mertes
[This article posted in 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/145-2020/12-2020/advent-in-aengsten/.]

Illness is not only an individual problem, but also a social one. In ancient times, this was particularly evident in the case of leprosy. This disease was inevitably associated with social exclusion. The sick themselves participated in their exclusion, out of solidarity, in order to protect the healthy from themselves. “The leper should shout: Unclean, unclean! As long as he has the disease on him, he remains unclean!” (Lev 13:45). Sermons before the coronavirus usually castigated these conditions of exclusion, only to then praise Jesus all the more, who overcomes exclusion by touching the lepers and at the same time pays the price for it: “A despised man, and we have not esteemed him. Yet he bore our diseases” (Is 53:3 f.).

One difference between leprosy in ancient times and corona in the present is that the distinction between infectious and non-infectious does not work with corona. Scholars argue about the actual infectiousness of the coronavirus. In fact, however, the fear of infection has been lurking in everyone’s encounters with everyone since March of this year. It has a double face: the fear of being infected and the fear of being infected. Everyone carries both fears within them. Sometimes the two fears form a community of interests, sometimes a collision of interests, each of which is resolved differently.

Corona has also brought the motif of exclusion back into society. It starts with the simple insight that keeping your distance protects you from infection, in other words: if everyone keeps their distance from each other, everyone is protected. But then come the differences: some groups of people are more vulnerable than others. There are people who find it difficult or impossible to keep their distance – for professional reasons, such as in almost all social professions, or due to their life situation, such as children, young people, the sick, people with dementia or other groups of people. People are affected to varying degrees by lockdown and quarantine measures, the little people and the socially weak more than the strong and secure. For understandable reasons, it is also difficult for people to understand the meaning of the measures.

In times of coronavirus, it is also clear that fear jumps from object to object. The self-employed small business owner is afraid of infection, but less because of the disease than because of the quarantine, which would jeopardize his existence and that of his business. The child, who feels a throat clearing, is afraid, not so much because of the disease, but because the whole school could be closed because of him. The management of the retirement home imposes stricter rules than those prescribed by the government to prevent it being accused of negligence in the event of a coronavirus outbreak in its own home. Many church leaders have also made a timid impression in recent months due to their fear of becoming a hotspot and then being pilloried in the media.

In view of this social and ecclesiastical situation, how can the Advent message be proclaimed other than in anticipation of the angels’ message? “Do not be afraid” they call out to the shepherds in the field (Luke 2:10). This does not mean: “Do not be afraid”, but: “Straighten up and lift up your heads!” (Luke 21:28), in other words: “Do not be paralyzed by fear, but set out so that joy does not escape you”. In the “great joy” (Luke 2:10) of the dawning time of salvation, Jesus overcame both aspects of fear. He embraced contagious people and then celebrated feasts with thousands. In the incarnation of God, too, there is not only a potential for self-endangerment – see the crib and the cross – but also for endangering others. This is shown by the perilous and painful journey of Joseph and Mary from the beginning to the end.

The anticipation of the child in the manger is a joy in the midst of danger. What can this mean in concrete terms in times of coronavirus? First of all: keep your head and heart clear for the discernment of spirits. We know this from anxiety therapy: You have to look fears in the eye, especially justified fears. Weighing up the risks must then be followed by action. Fear takes place in the mind, as does reflection on fears. Victory over fear, however, is decided in reality, in action in the midst of fears. This certainly applies to Christmas, the festival of closeness par excellence. Advent anticipation does not come about if closeness is fraught with fear and should even be for reasons of infection control. It will be decided locally in the congregations whether and how the church says yes to God’s closeness. A great deal depends on this for the proclamation of the Christmas message. However, the proclamation will not succeed with the primacy of distance over proximity.

    Klaus Mertes

    Superior of the Ignatius House in Berlin, editor of the cultural magazine STIMMEN DER ZEIT, studied classical philology and Slavic studies in Bonn and, after joining the Jesuit order, philosophy in Munich and theology in Frankfurt. He has worked as a teacher since 1990, first in Hamburg from 1990-1993 and then at Canisius College in Berlin from 1994-2011, where he was rector from 2000. From 2011 to 2020, he was Director of the International Jesuit College in Sankt Blasien.

Religion or spirituality?
By Stefan Kiechle
[This article posted in 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/145-2020/11-2020/religion-oder-spiritualitaet/.]

We associate “religion” with a wide range of meanings: public rituals, office, institution, book, doctrine, creed, church building. Preaching, knowledge of faith and the teaching of it. Long history and rich traditions. Large assemblies. Theological reflection. Administration, law and “structure”. Hierarchy and control. Ancient vestments and chants, candles and icons, bells and incense. Monks, nuns, priests – highly religious people, many of them old and some of them wise. God, approachable in ritual and present in deeds of power.

We also associate many things with “spirituality”: being personally touched by God or his spirit. Seeking God in silence. Also remoteness from God, emptiness, desolation. Seclusion from the noisy world and a simple life. Living by Christian values such as love and mercy, commitment to peace and justice. Generous sharing with others, diakonia. Spiritual communities and common prayer. Discernment of spirits, individually and in groups. Mystical contemplation. Crossing the boundaries of religions, denominations, cultures. People from everywhere. God, tangible, mysterious, intangible.

Catholicism has always consisted of a lot of religion, German Catholicism with its strong institutionalization, its staff of functionaries, its associations and committees even more so. In Protestantism, on the other hand, the institution is less important, at least in theory – but in Germany its actual institutionalization in the regional churches is well advanced. Other religions, especially Asian religions, see themselves more clearly as spirituality. They do not need supra-regional organization and structure.

Corona has now – especially in Germany – stifled a great deal of religion, completely unplanned and unpredictable. This was accepted surprisingly uncomplainingly. There weren’t even any Easter services. The staff, who were still well paid, were less needed for their traditional tasks and sometimes found themselves in crises of meaning. Did spirituality become stronger instead? The eerie silence in the streets, the many people sitting at home and the loss of work led many people to reflect, to search spiritually and also to communicate more in close circles. Others became lonely. Some were plunged into crisis and confusion, even into doubt, depression, existential fears and real hardship, which threw them back to the question of God. Previous religious practice fell away, while devotions streamed on the internet led many churchgoers – and some non-churchgoers – to pray at home, alone or in families. Many had the surprising experience that “you can do without a church service”, without church, without “religion”. Many helped their neighbors in a diaconal way.

Does spirituality grow in a crisis? Of course, freely searching around, uncontrolled, sometimes anarchic and chaotic, but also creative, innovative, often painful or stimulated by pain. Is a more mystical and less ecclesiastical faith growing? After Corona, the churches will probably not be as full as before. The fact that someone only lives religion, without personal spirituality, has been declining for a long time and will continue to decline with Corona – is that a real loss?

Of course, the Catholic faith needs religion: people are sensual beings, they want rituals, contact with concrete things, with institutions, and they need communal experiences. This is not only said by religious functionaries who have to protect their sinecures; every sensible contemporary knows this. Religion is more sensual and more intellectual, more public and more political – all of this is what makes people human. But without spirituality, religion will disappear, because spirituality is more personal, more intimate, it takes place in the chamber of the heart and in relationships. The spirit blows freely, and without feeling it, religion is no longer plausible in a non-religious environment.

After Corona, religion will change – it is still difficult to say how much and how. It will do the church good to tolerate the decline of religion and promote spiritual life, despite all fears of loss. During the coronavirus period, it has learned a lot about this – certainly with difficulty and by no means enough: not only the technology of streaming, but also praying at home, and the relevance of the question of God…

After all, the aim of the church is not to recruit members, preserve the institution, spread the right doctrine, influence politicians… Its aim is to promote the kingdom of God – and this is more spirituality than religion: trust in a mysterious God; cooperation between people based on faith, hope and love; global justice and peace in the Holy Spirit. Where religion and spirituality have lived together and enriched each other in 2000 years of Christianity, faith has often flourished. Will corona be the impetus for spirituality to grow and for religion to become more authentic again? That the church works less for itself and more for the kingdom of God?

    Stefan Kiechle SJ, Dr. theol., born 1960, was a university pastor and novice master, city chaplain and provincial (head of Germany) of the Jesuits. He is currently editor-in-chief of the cultural magazine “Stimmen der Zeit” and commissioner for Ignatian spirituality.

Also interesting

    Plus issue 2/2024 p. 105-117
    The mysticism of life affirmation: Etty Hillesum’s notes By Jürgen Werbick
    Plus issue 9/2023 p. 689-690
    Aesthetics of faith: Seven theses By Niklas Sobotka
    Free issue 3/2023 p. 161-162
    Light and darkness of the church By Stefan Kiechle

Patriarchal structures and sexualized violence

Despite new approaches, patriarchal structures, which have their roots in antiquity and in biblical times, are still very deeply rooted in society and the church. Ansgar Wucherpfennig SJ, Professor of New Testament in Frankfurt am Main, Sankt Georgen, highlights these structures and points out the consequences for sexualized violence and questions of faith. The text grew out of a lecture series at Sankt Georgen in the 2019/20 winter semester.
By Ansgar Wucherpfennig
[This article posted in 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/145-2020/11-2020/patriarchale-strukturen-und-sexualisierte-gewalt/.]

The number of victims of sexualized violence is alarming, and not only in the Catholic Church. A 2012 headline in the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper read: “One in eight is affected”. This also affects everyday church pastoral work. The psychologist Erika Kerstner assumes that in every group of four Christians there is one person who has experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives.1 Like all violence, sexualized violence against children usually has a lifelong aftermath. Sexual violence, however, hurts a human life particularly deeply because it affects people in their ability to trust and love. It hits the central nerve of a spiritual and social structure of meaning. There is hardly any area of life that is not affected by the experience of violence. My following considerations can therefore also be stressful for victims of sexual violence. It is a primal fear of people that they themselves, their own children or relatives will be affected by sexualized violence. This also makes the topic difficult and attempts to avoid it understandable.

Authority extended upwards

Sexualized violence not only has a personal history for the individual victims, but also has a long religious and cultural history. In the Catholic Church, sexualized violence has theological and spiritual roots in male-fatherly patterns of dominance. Those affected have often experienced authority as being extended upwards and covered from above. In the authority figure, they therefore experience not only the man himself, but a greater and higher power.

One affected woman, who experienced her torment in her own family, says: “God was an unpredictable tyrant to me – beyond a conscious image of God – until I was 40 years old – he was like my parents. Even a theologically responsible image of God was no match for that. My experience knew better – or more precisely: worse – than any theology. “2 Her voice is typical. There are similar statements from many victims. Another victim experienced sexualized violence at the hands of her pastor. Her experience is very similar: “The pastor was above me and then God came right away, the pastor was like God.” A child’s experiences with their parents merge with their ideas and images of God in later memories. And it is not only the parents who shape the relationship with God throughout life, but also other authority figures: Pastors, teachers, coaches, close relatives. If children are tormented by such authority figures, they carry wounds with them in later friendships and love relationships that restrict them in a similar way to a serious physical injury. Relationships that they usually experience as positive become toxic. Where trust could be at home, mistrust and fundamental skepticism have moved in. Love, which can give meaning to life, is experienced as damaged or even destroyed. And this also affects the experience of the relationship with God. Many victims of sexualized violence experience themselves as beaten and injured in their relationship with God.

What is patriarchy?

When human and divine authority merge without clear boundaries, this is favored by patriarchal structures in the church tradition. In the 1970s and 80s, patriarchy was a term of understanding for feminist theologians and all those who sympathized with them. Patriarchy allowed women to criticize many things that were connected to male dominance in the family, church, society and heaven. Feminist theology used the term patriarchy to attribute oppression and violence against women to a systemic context. Today, however, patriarchy can no longer be defined solely in feminist terms, but also as an analytical concept. Patriarchs are not just angry white men, any more than God is an old white man. Patriarchy is not tied to gender and skin color. Rather, I understand patriarchy to mean certain patterns of embodying authority and submitting to it. The image of God as an old, white, benevolent father, but at the same time as a powerful and strict judge, has supported and spread these patterns of authority.

The term patriarchy literally means “father’s rule” and is already found in the biblical scriptures, more precisely the Greek word “patriarch”. Abraham is called a patriarch in the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 7:4). The Acts of the Apostles calls the twelve sons of Jacob “patriarchs” (Acts 7:8 f.) and even David is called a “patriarch” (Acts 2:29). With this term, Greek-speaking Judaism reconstructed the biblical story of Israel’s origins according to the later Hellenistic-Roman family image of their environment. Social and hierarchical behavioral patterns of the Hellenistic-Roman family were thus transferred back to the prehistory of Israel. The stories of the mothers and fathers of Israel thus became a patriarchal story, in children’s Bibles a story of old, wise men with long white beards. In the biblical writings themselves, however, this was hardly viewed critically.

Even when the term was taken up again in the early modern period, it was not originally meant to be critical of the rule of fathers. In his treatise Patriarcha3 , the English constitutional theorist Robert Filmer justified the monarchy in the English Civil War. His justification was also biblical and went back even further than the biblical patriarchal period:

According to Filmer, God had entrusted Adam with dominion over all his descendants. It had passed to Noah at the Flood, and after that the paternal rule over Noah’s sons Shem, Ham and Japheth had spread over the entire world. Robert Filmer drew far-reaching state-theoretical consequences from this:

“1. That there is no form of government, but monarchy only, 2. That there is no monarchy, but paternal. 3. that there is no paternal monarchy, but absolute, or arbitrary [willfully, decidedly]. 4. that there is no such thing as an aristocracy or democracy. 5. that there is no such form of government as a tyranny. 6. that the people are not born free by nature”.4

In a secular way, Filmer plays through political justification patterns that are still effective today in the theological justifications for the official structure of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church also understands episcopal rule in patriarchal-monarchical terms. The Latin term of endearment for father papa is the form of address for the pope as bishop of Rome; the question arises as to what a papa emeritus is actually supposed to be. Whether the pope or a bishop relinquishes or shares power depends largely on his wisdom and benevolence. There is hardly any right to share hierarchical powers. Outside of experiences of violence, the patriarchal ecclesiastical hierarchy is often not experienced as tyranny, but – at least occasionally – as a beneficial concentration of responsibility. More often, however, it appears opaque because it creates dependencies on paternal benevolence. Democratic elements or even aristocratic elements of a collegial rule of the best are largely rejected for theological reasons. In state theory, however, Filmer’s biblical-patriarchal justification of monarchy did not last long; even John Locke decisively contradicted it.

The patriarchal structure of the family was then viewed with radical criticism in the social philosophical writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They subjected the glorifying images of bourgeois love and family to radical criticism. In Mozart’s Magic Flute, woman and man reach out to the deity and their prosperous togetherness is to be protected from “female treachery”, and in Schiller’s poem The Bell, the family stands as a solid foundation for peace on earth. Marx and Engels exposed these idealizations as patriarchally unjust. Their critical analysis of the family reflects the mass poverty of the working class in early capitalism and industrialization. Friedrich Engels spoke of single marriage as the “subjugation of one sex by the other”: “The first class antagonism”, Engels said, “that occurs in history coincides with single marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male. “5 Together with other socialist authors, the two expected that at a higher stage of civilizational development, an original mother right would be restored as freedom, equality and classless fraternity.

Women’s emancipation in the 1970s and 80s drew on the early socialist critique of patriarchy – this ideological background was often held against it. However, the socialist critique of the bourgeois family also uncovered socio-psychological mechanisms that actually encourage the abuse of authoritative power, and not only within the church. It has uncovered patriarchal roles of authority that can be assumed by both men and women. They can already be found in the biblical writings, for example in the letter to the Hebrews. The letter propagates an educational ideal that was widespread in antiquity; it takes up verses from the biblical book of Proverbs (12:5-6) and extends the authority of the educator upwards to God. There it says (Heb 12:7-9):

“Persevere in chastening! God treats you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you were not chastened, as all have been up to now, you would not be legitimate children, you would not be his sons. Furthermore, we had harsh educators in our biological fathers and we respected them. Shall we not then all the more submit to the Father of spirits and so have life?”

These verses are addressed to men who are reminded of the submission they experienced in their own youth. Such men continue the authority roles they have been taught without interruption in their own children, and they are admonished by the letter to the Hebrews that God also acts in such an authority role towards them.

Patriarchally understood authority creates a mixture of fear and love in the other person, between hatred on the one hand – and identification with paternal authority over the weaker members of a community on the other. In the patriarchal understanding of authority, the fulfillment of duty has a high priority, while the search for personal happiness often generates feelings of guilt. These psychological dynamics of authority also have an impact on sexuality and love, as they are among the most elementary sources of personal happiness and inner peace. A model of authority that is based on a mixture of fear and affection harbors the risk of hurting people in their ability to love. Victims of sexual violence characteristically perceive authority in a split, as benevolent and helpful and on the other hand deceitful and arbitrary. They have often been attracted to the kind side and then experienced how the bitter harshness of the other side strikes.

When victims of abuse accuse God for not saving them from their trauma, this often triggers further feelings of guilt, because authority in a patriarchal system is not allowed to be criticized, especially not God.

Patriarchy and hope
from the New Testament

The reference to the letter to the Hebrews has shown: Biblical writings also share in patriarchal structures. The first Christianity adopts the patriarchal structures from Judaism, in which it is rooted. The father-son relationship is of central importance throughout. Paul shows no insight into the subordinate or even oppressed social position of women, he even legitimizes it. The patriarchal order is also evident in the area of sexuality: in Romans, Paul calls the sexual union of a man with a woman a “natural use” (Romans 1:26)6 . It is therefore natural that men use women sexually. Women and men who oppose this natural use and being used are at the mercy of God’s wrath. The very premise that there is a legitimate use of people to satisfy sexual needs, however, contradicts the reciprocity of love, and even more so there is no legitimate sexual use of children or adolescents.

But there are also approaches in the New Testament to overcoming patriarchal structures. Jesus rejects “father” as a form of address for Christian holders of office and honor. Power is taken away from the head of the family – i.e. the patriarch – because it belongs to God. Paternal authority is therefore not additionally legitimized religiously from above by divine authority. The analogy between the father in the human family and God as Father is denied, the difference is emphasized: God is Our Father in the heavens (Mt 6:9b).

Jesus and later also Paul call those who belong to them “sister” and “brother”. Already in the first Christian communities, love between sisters and brothers, the philadelphia (1 Thess 4:9, Heb 13:1 and 1 Pet 1:22), takes the place of family-structured love. And the biological family as an economic and domestic unit is replaced by the ekklesia as a household assembly. Who belongs to the household is determined by the relationship to Jesus as the Messiah, not by the biological-economic structure of the family. The theological talk of the church as familia Dei, on the other hand, is problematic because it transfers social family models to the church. When Paul speaks of siblings, it is not in such a way that the other roles of the biological family can be supplemented and God takes on the role of common father. Christians are not siblings because they have God as their common father, but because they belong to Christ as sisters and brothers. In the Christian community, therefore, no one should call themselves “father” and likewise no one should play a father as if they were God or God-like. If this happens, then the fatherly address to God alone is at least disturbed, if not destroyed, and thus the relationship with God is also massively irritated.

God crisis and faith

The Viennese theologian Wolfgang Treitler is himself a victim of sexualized violence. He has processed his experiences and reflected on them theologically in a novel worth reading entitled “Sehr gut”. In it, he also tells of the protagonist’s difficulties in still seeing God as a father. The metaphor has gone bankrupt for him because his tormentor deliberately used the father metaphor to get to him. Instead of the Lord’s Prayer, he prays:

“My Father in heaven, is your name still holy? Your kingdom has not come. And if your will has been done for me, then you have lost. I received the tough daily bread from the kitchen, better from friends. Guilt was beaten into me and fingered out of me, guilt that I never had and that I will never forgive. I was spared temptation. But in this good place here I have released myself in a strength and in a glory that my body had given me, in which I could not have endured and survived without this glory. Amen. “7

This prayer is also typical. For many victims of sexualized violence, the question of God is not a theoretical question, but an existential one: Where are you, God? Who are you that I don’t understand you? Where were you when I was being tormented? The reciprocity of the prayer for forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer is also difficult for them to understand: they cannot forget what has happened to them and find it difficult to forgive the guilt that has befallen them. Their voices accuse God, just as Job does in the Bible, together with prayers in many psalms. However, only a few victims reach Job’s experience of finding an encounter with God at eye level in their lament. This is what Job says at the end: “Until now I knew you only by hearsay, but now I have seen you with my own eyes” (Job 42:5). The abuse crisis therefore becomes an existential crisis of God. And this crisis of God harbors the danger that people will give up the search for God as a just and loving counterpart.

If faith in the abuse crisis is to remain the message for people today that the God of life has defeated the powers of death, then this requires a consistent understanding of the sources of this faith that is critical of patriarchy, both the biblical writings and the theological tradition. It also requires that the church no longer sees itself as the downward extension of God’s authority. Ministers are not fathers and not exclusively representatives of God; all people are, because they are made in God’s image. A new understanding of the sources of faith can show that God is different from human mothers and fathers. God does not lead into dependence, but allows people to fly on eagles’ wings. God leads to freedom, including the freedom to trust again or to trust anew.

    1 Erika Kerstner, Barbara Haslbeck and Annette Buschmann: So that the ground can support you again. Pastoral care after sexual abuse. Ostfildern 2016, 14; cf. this: Achtsam Feiern, Sprechen, Lernen. In: “Children have rights”. The European Day for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse on November 18. Working aid. Edited by Elisabeth Eicher, Sabine Hesse and Andreas Zimmer.
    2 Kerstner, Haslbeck, Buschmann: Damit der Boden wieder trägt (Note 1), 75.
    3 Robert Filmer: Patriarcha, or the natural power of kings. Robert Filmer lived from 1588 to 1653; the treatise was published posthumously. Cf. K. Lichtblau: Art. Patriarchy, Patriarchalism, in: HistWbPhil VII. 204-205.
    4 Ibid.
    5 Friedrich Engels: The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Following Lewis H. Morgan’s research. Berlin 1946, 43.
    6 Possibly, however, a paraphrase of the Stoic view. Cf. Ansgar Wucherpfennig: Sexuality in Paul. Freiburg 2020, 121-125.
    7 Wolfgang Treitler: “Very good”. Novella. Perchtoldsdorf 2019, 189. I also owe the final thought in this article to an email exchange with Wolfgang Treitler.

    Ansgar Wucherpfennig

    Dr., theologian, is a Jesuit and professor of exegesis.

Conspiracy thinking: The secularized Satan

Sinister powers that want to establish a dictatorial world government or pharmaceutical companies that spread pandemics merely as rumors in order to do good business: Conspiracy myths provide explanations for all sorts of things. Michael Mertes narrows down the concept of conspiracy theory and examines why “total mistrust” is on the rise. Mertes is a lawyer, author and translator.
By Michael Mertes
[This article posted in 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/145-2020/11-2020/verschwoerungsdenken-der-saekularisierte-satan/.]

The word “conspiracy theory” has been booming for some years now. Recently, we have also been hearing more and more about “conspiracy myths”. This term is much more accurate, because conspiracy “theories” are generally not scientific hypotheses, but grand narratives about the struggle of secret powers against the well-being of entire groups, entire peoples, indeed the majority of humanity.

The most accurate term would be “conspiracy thinking”. The proponents of such theories or myths are not interested in selective explanations for selective events; rather, they are driven by a certain basic attitude. Anyone who is convinced that the manned moon landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969 did not actually take place will also be more willing to believe that the Mossad was behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Anyone who is certain that the US federal government is holding secret talks with extraterrestrials in the restricted zone “Area 51” will also be more willing to believe that “reptiloids”, human-like intelligent beings, have infiltrated the earth.

In all cases, the basic assumption is that the people are constantly being lied to and deceived, monitored and manipulated by the ruling elites, especially the governments. Anyone who thinks this way feels a deep mistrust of conventional explanations of world events. This basic mistrust gives rise to total skepticism, which paradoxically goes hand in hand with an unshakeable trust in wild rumors and “alternative facts”. To a certain extent, total skepticism clears the terrain on which total credulity can proliferate unhindered.

It would be worth investigating when the inflationary use of the word “conspiracy theory” began. The word is by no means new; in fact, the idea that secret powers are pulling the strings in the background and trying to manipulate our lives is an ancient one. However, the genesis of the term is less important here than its clarification – not least because the word “conspiracy theory” has now become a sharp rhetorical weapon in the battle of opinions. “Everyone is now calling everyone who thinks differently a conspiracy theorist,” complained Curia Cardinal Gerhard Müller in May 2020.1 The cardinal is not entirely wrong – however, the accusation directed at him of having encouraged conspiracy thinking was factually correct in view of the adventurous speculation in the appeal “Veritas liberabit vos”, which he co-signed on May 7, 2020.2

Conspiracy thinking can occur on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. In the race between extremes, radical right-wing and radical Islamic conspiracy theorists are currently in the lead. On the radical left, conspiracy thinking tends to be expressed in theories about “structural violence” anyway. They are part of a world view in which the secret powers behind the scenes are not people of flesh and blood, but systemic dynamics that need to be uncovered and smashed. In the words of Karl Marx, the faceless system hides behind “character masks” – and its opponents do the same today by covering themselves in Guy Fawkes masks. But many on the right of the political spectrum also see “the system” itself as the enemy: parliamentary democracy, they are convinced, is opposed to the true will of the people and must therefore be replaced by a new order. Conspiracy thinking – regardless of its color – is dangerous because it can serve to legitimize violence. From his point of view, violence against the forces of darkness is actually defensive in nature. It is counter-violence, resistance, self-defense – and therefore justified.

As I said, the term “conspiracy theory” is not new. The word plays a prominent role in the work of philosopher Karl Popper, namely in his 1945 work “The Open Society and its Enemies”.3 Popper interprets the term not only in terms of social or political science, but also epistemology, namely as the flip side of the conviction that truth is manifest. If the truth is obvious, then there are in fact only two explanations for error and ignorance: The mistaken person deliberately closes his eyes to the obvious – or he is a victim of forces that obscure the view of the obvious. As an example of a conspiracy theory, Popper therefore cites the Marxist view that the capitalist press distorts and suppresses the manifest truth in order to instill a false consciousness in the workers.4 It is a hallmark of conspiracy thinking that it distinguishes between those who see through, who have freed themselves from the clutches of lies, and those who – without knowing it – are stuck in the dungeon of lies of dark forces. Veritas liberabit vos!

Example of inflation and pandemics

The attractiveness of conspiracy theories certainly also has to do with the human tendency to attribute certain events and developments to intentional action instead of interpreting them as unplanned consequences of human action. Two examples may suffice to illustrate this: Inflation and pandemics. Economists can explain the laws that lead to currency devaluation and inflation – but it is much easier to portray them as the machinations of small and powerful interest cartels that want to enrich themselves by impoverishing large sections of the population. Virologists and epidemiologists can explain to us why a virus spreads at breakneck speed – but it is much easier to interpret the pandemic as a large-scale experiment by certain states with new biological weapons or as a cynical demand generation program by pharmaceutical companies that want to make a lot of money with new vaccines. In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that the Black Death was caused by poisoning and well poisoning by the Jews.

The way the word “conspiracy theory” is used in public debates implies that it is something unreasonable, even pathological. But why should this be the case in all circumstances? Even phobias are not always and everywhere irrational. Fear of spiders is nonsensical (at least in our part of the world) – fear of tigers, on the other hand, can save lives. We should therefore be careful not to immediately denounce every suspicion of conspiracy as pathological. There is a broad spectrum with fluid transitions between sensible suspicion, harmless crankiness and pathological delusion. And sometimes the most unlikely scenarios turn out to be reality.

Conspiracies – to put it more neutrally: secret agreements to realize a common purpose – occur very often in reality. Let’s leave out the less problematic forms, such as cliques, rope teams or “old boys” networks. It becomes illegal when competing companies make price agreements in back rooms to the detriment of consumers; when board members of financial service providers set up a global fraud conspiracy; when mafiosi organize a major drug smuggling operation; when robbers arrange a bank robbery; when terrorists plan a massacre. Words such as “hybrid war”, “grey zone warfare” or “sharp power” are used to describe new forms of inter-state aggression with information and communication technology ammunition: Disinformation campaigns in social networks, hacker attacks on governments, parliaments and strategically important commercial enterprises, infiltration of digital “Trojans” to paralyze critical infrastructures.

There are also secret operations that could be described as “legal conspiracies”: Resistance fighters team up to commit tyrannicide. Police and intelligence services deploy undercover investigators. Public prosecutors coordinate simultaneous raids in different countries. Incidentally, such conspiracies are mostly examples of counter-conspiracies. While the rest of us go about our business peacefully, a shadow war is raging behind the scenes between organized crime and coordinated law enforcement, between domestic cyber defence and foreign network aggressors.

But is this real-life shadow world the subject of what are commonly referred to as “conspiracy theories”? The answer is no, even if there are certainly links between it and the parallel universe of conspiracy theories. Just think of untrue or half-true rumors that are deliberately spread by state secret services in order to feed such theories.

The first difference has already been mentioned. It is that conspiracy thinking offers a universal key to understanding our complex reality. In a sense, conspiracy theories are secularized versions of religious explanations of world events. In Homer, it is the gods who pull the strings behind the scenes; in Manichean ideas, a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness manifests itself in all earthly crises and conflicts.

In modern times, superhuman powers of destiny – above all Satan – have been replaced by real or supposed secret societies of various kinds: the Illuminati, Freemasons, Jesuits, the Wise Men of Zion, the Bilderbergers, Wall Street, the American East Coast press, the military-industrial complex, the Deep State, Opus Dei, international corporations, charity clubs, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – and so on. Not even the imagination of Dan Brown is sufficient to picture all the conspirators. Moreover, individual elements of the conspiratorial pandemonium can be combined with one another. To cite a widespread delusion as an example, “world Jewry” uses its financial power (Wall Street), its media power (Hollywood, East Coast press) and its networks (Freemasons, Lions and Rotary5) to manipulate large sections of humanity in its favor.

It should not be denied that there are indeed secret societies with a criminal agenda. One of the most important examples from the recent past is the organization “Propaganda Due”, a former Italian Masonic lodge that was exposed in the early 1980s. However, “Propaganda Due” is too specific to fit into a universal world explanation model; it is, strictly speaking, a tangible example of organized crime.

The second difference to reasonable suspicion is that a conspiracy theory cannot be refuted in principle. Circular reasoning is the mechanism that immunizes it against criticism. It has this in common with the persecution complex. A follower of the QAnon cult6 cannot be convinced by rational arguments that he is wrong. On the contrary, they will see any criticism as confirmation. Because either the critics themselves are part of the conspiracy – or they are unsuspecting victims of conspiratorial powers that have brainwashed them out of the dark with the support of the “lying press”, the “GEZ media” and other “fake news” producers.

The third difference lies in the logic of universal suspicion. A criminal investigator routinely asks about possible motives for a crime, for example a murder. He uses the question: Cui bono? Who benefits from the crime? The investigators must follow up this lead. But a lead alone does not prove anything – an alibi can exonerate the suspect. Supporters of conspiracy theories, on the other hand, consider their answer to the cui bono? question to be conclusive proof. To uncover a conspiracy, they believe, one need only reveal the hidden interests of the actors involved.7

Instructive examples of this kind of evidence have recently been provided by the debate about the background to the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Defenders of the Russian leadership argued that the Kremlin could have no interest in such an attack because it would damage its international reputation. However, certain forces in the West would certainly have an interest in disavowing Russia and causing the Nord Stream 2 project to fail. It follows that it was these circles that commissioned the murder. The main suspect is the US fracking industry, which wants to sell its own natural gas and therefore oust the Russians from the Western European energy market.

The fourth difference between reasonable suspicion and paranoid suspicion is the contempt for common sense, everyday reason and life experience. Supporters of a conspiracy theory who see themselves as cranks do not regard common sense as a healthy corrective, but as a manifestation of the sick “mainstream” that feeds on poisoned sources. This is by no means to claim that common sense is always right. Common sense can also be wrong. But it provides standards to distinguish the plausible from the implausible until proven otherwise. Even the first appearance speaks against the moon landing deniers – a common-sense idea that is said to have been formulated by Abraham Lincoln as follows: “You can fool some people for all time and all people for some time, but not all people for all time.”

Common sense thrives on the fact that there are tacit agreements in a society that everyone – or at least most people – spontaneously trust to be reliable. The extent of the spread of conspiracy theories is therefore a good indicator of the level of mistrust that prevails in a country. It is therefore also an indicator of the degree of social polarization, as a country divided into irreconcilable camps is affected by the pandemic of a general loss of trust.

There is some evidence to support the assumption that there is a causal link between great social inequality and a low willingness to trust one’s fellow citizens.8 Another explanation for the increase in conspiracy theories could be the advance of identity politics, which leads to tribalization, even Lebanization; politics is then no longer a civilized struggle for competing solutions to problems, value priorities and visions, but a clash between ethnically, religiously or culturally defined groups. In this constellation, it is no longer a question of whether something is good or bad for the common good, but whether something benefits this or that group. The logic of right and wrong is replaced by the logic of loyalty and betrayal.9

Our image of reality is largely based on the fact that we trust external sources without constantly accounting for the extent to which we are dependent on them. This can also be well illustrated by the current example of Navalny. Who should we believe more: the Berlin Charité hospital or the Omsk clinic where Navalny was initially treated? The German BND or the Russian GRU? The German government or the Kremlin? Anyone who places their trust in the Charité, the BND and the German government – or in the Omsk Clinic, the GRU and the Kremlin – is ultimately relying on plausibility, and certainly not on their own observations. There is a huge gap between plausibility and certainty. It is filled by trust: I trust the German institutions more than the Russian ones – despite all the individual criticism – not least because they are under the supervision of an independent judiciary and independent quality media.

Some people – not only on the right and left of the political spectrum – see it differently: the BND only carries out the instructions of the Berlin “regime”, our judiciary is ideologically “totally filthy”, the “lying press” gets its language regulations from the Federal Press Office, all opinion polls are falsified, the Charité gets its press releases dictated from above – and so on and so forth. In Germany, as surveys repeatedly show, such delusions only form the sediment of public opinion. However, this is not a plea for credulity, but a plea against total mistrust. If Lord Acton’s famous dictum that power has a tendency to corrupt its holders is true, then it is virtually a civic duty to treat the holders of state, social and economic power with a moderate amount of mistrust.

This is not primarily about a feeling of mistrust; rather, it is about a fundamental insight into the susceptibility of power to abuse. It finds its institutional expression in precautions against the abuse of power: separation of powers, checks and balances, free elections, freedom of the press and so on. We should always hope for the best holders of power – and prepare for the worst. Where these institutional precautions against abuse of power work, trust can flourish. Conversely, as can be studied today in Lebanon, when these institutions fail, a country is consumed by total distrust. The rule of total mistrust ultimately leads to civil war.

What can be done? Above all, the fight against the causes of social polarization and against the replacement of rational argumentation with emotionally driven suspicion is essential. Common sense is and remains the best remedy against the unculture of shouting each other down. The education system should promote the culture of reading. The novel “Fahrenheit 451” shows a world in which people are no longer allowed to read books and are constantly entertained by video screens. There, people are incapacitated by a dictatorship; today, they are digitally incapacitating themselves. Printed texts are not manipulated by emotional background music – and only rarely by suggestive images. State-funded programs to promote democracy in schools are well-intentioned and certainly not harmful – but instant solutions do not help against conspiracy thinking; its causes lie too deep for that.

    1 Viganò appeal: Cardinal Müller rejects criticism of signature. On: Tagespost Online (May 10, 2020).
    2 Cf. the appeal Veritas liberabit vos from May 7, 2020. German at: <https://veritasliberabitvos.info/aufruf>.
    3 Karl R. Popper: False prophets. Hegel, Marx and the consequences (The open society and its enemies II). Bern and Munich 31973, 119.
    4 Karl R. Popper: Conjectures and Refutations. The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York and London 1962, 7.
    5 E.g. Art. 22 of the Hamas Charter of 1988 (at: <https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp>).
    6 See, for example, Philip Eppelsheim and Morten Freidel: Auge um Auge. A conspiracy theory from America says that politicians drink the blood of children. Now it is reaching Germany. Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (August 30, 2020), 7.
    7 Popper (note 3).
    8 See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: Equality. Why just societies are better for everyone. Berlin 52016, 67 ff.
    9 The loss of the US common sense is analyzed particularly impressively by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: How Democracies Die. New York 2018, 178 ff.

    Michael Mertes is former Secretary of State for Europe of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.


Christian social ethics as human rights ethics

Michelle Becka, Professor of Christian Social Ethics in Würzburg, writes that human rights are the expression of human dignity in concrete claims. She describes what this means – in theory, but also in practice – in the context of Christian social ethics and using specific examples such as the debates on migration and sexual abuse in the church.
By Michelle Becka
[This article posted in 2019 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/144-2019/11-2019/christliche-sozialethik-als-menschenrechtsethik/.]

Daily headlines cast doubt on the assertiveness of human rights. Amnesty International denounces an increasing “policy of demonizing human rights”. And human rights are also controversial in the humanities and social sciences – for example with reference to imperialism, instrumentalization or their obvious ineffectiveness. So while the number of conventions and agreements is higher than ever before, a declining relevance – or even rejection – of human rights can be seen at various levels. Are human rights mere rhetoric?

These questions should be taken as an opportunity to take a closer look at human rights from a theological perspective. With this in mind, I would like to understand Christian Social Ethics (CSE) as human rights ethics – and at least open up the discussion here as to what exactly this means. The basic assumption of this article is that human rights should not be withdrawn in the face of current challenges and demands, but rather strengthened.

The dangers of the human rights discourse – especially those of (moral) imperialism – are not ignored. Without being able to explain this here, I understand this ethics as a critical and “context-sensitive” one, in the sense of sensitivity towards – and the avoidance of – instrumentalization of the human rights discourse by other interests. Such an ethic is attentive to the experiences of those affected by human rights violations, which become the site of reflection,1 and open to different interpretations of those rights.
Why Christian social ethics as human rights ethics?

Based on the philosophical justifications of human dignity and human rights as well as the historical human rights movements, which can be understood as struggles for recognition, the human rights discourse provides a normative framework in which Christian social ethics can be located. This brings with it a gain in terms of content, but also in terms of methodology.

Methodologically, CSE has proven itself in recent decades in developing theories of justification for right action by drawing on philosophical discourses. Nevertheless, there is still some talk of applied ethics, as if the theoretical findings only had to be applied to certain fields of practice. Even if there is a broad consensus that this neither works nor is meant to be the case, it often remains unclear how the theory-practice relationship is to be understood and methodically understood. How is the critique of existing conditions justified? In what normative horizon does social transformation take place? How can socio-ethical reflection begin with the experience of violated or withheld rights and what follows from this? Christian social ethics is not limited to the formulation and justification of theories. Ethics is a reflection (theory) of action – the theory-practice relationship is constitutive for the subject! The human rights perspective therefore offers a hermeneutic that enables us to perceive practice and grasp its normativity. In this framework, interactions become possible: reflection is respected as an immanent part of practice itself.2 At the same time, it points beyond practice, because the needs of practice must be interpreted and systematically developed, whereby both that theory and, in the repercussions, practice itself are changed. So while different reference theories are important for social ethics, the human rights discourse makes a special contribution to the understanding and development of the theory-practice relationship.

Social ethics as human rights ethics has interdisciplinary and theological connections. Theology has important motives to contribute to the human rights discourse and at the same time must ask itself self-critically why these have become effective so late. A serious examination of human rights can strengthen the relevance of theology in society and in interdisciplinary discourse and sharpen its profile. Ultimately, human rights themselves are strengthened because it is not only important to justify them in principle, but also to give good reasons for their importance in specific situations.

Human dignity and human rights

Human rights are based on the assumption of human dignity. It can also be said that they are the unfolding or spelling out of human dignity in concrete claims. One strand of the tradition of the concept of human dignity begins in the Holy Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. The image of God indicates the special position of human beings, the filiation with God unites all (initially believers, later all people) in this specialness, thus creating an equality that is underlined by Gal 3:28: There is no longer Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. All are equal in their particularity and uniqueness. Even if the important question is to what extent the bond in Christ must be understood as a prerequisite for this equality, the impulse towards equality is nevertheless set. We also know that for centuries this certainty of faith did not result in any moral or even political claims: the recognition of equal dignity did not result in a claim to the protection of this dignity, nor was it associated with a claim to rights. And when this did happen in modern times – in the combination of emancipatory movements and Enlightenment theories – the church was not a pioneer, but a preventer.

And yet today we rightly emphasize the church’s human rights protection mandate on the one hand, and a theological mandate on the other: we combine our theological thinking with reflections on the justification, protection and enforcement of human rights. In this way, we also read socio-ethical traditions on the basis of human dignity and human rights. The principle of personhood illustrates what a contemporary reading of socio-ethical tradition can look like. It is traditionally understood as an expression of the anthropological dual structure of the human being. According to this principle, man is a rational individual who can recognize right and wrong and is therefore a responsible subject. At the same time, also in line with tradition, this human being is regarded as a community being, a relational being that is always already referred to by others and to others. Man does not owe himself to himself, his being is an owed being.

A very similar idea can be found in contemporary concepts of autonomy and dignity, which, primarily due to the influence of feminist theories and intersubjectivity theories, no longer construe autonomy and dependence as opposites, but rather as intertwined: There remains the assumption of the moral subject, which is self-determined and responsible. But this ability is “relativized”: We are always also conditioned by structures and by others. People are relational and therefore also vulnerable beings, without having to give up their claim to autonomy. Why is this important? Those approaches that are often construed as mutually exclusive, such as autonomy-based concepts of dignity on the one hand and care ethics on the other, are not opposites. Rather, an autonomy-based concept of dignity also includes vulnerability. Precisely because people are vulnerable and their autonomy can be disregarded, they require special protection.

A human rights reflection of the principle of personhood takes this into account. In this way, the protection of the person and their particularity as well as the traditional view of social doctrine that the person must be at the center of institutional action are given concrete form. This is because the dignity of this person is spelled out in concrete rights. Human dignity is a “fundamental and arbitrary judgement on the intrinsic value of the human being “3 that emphasizes the special status of the human being. However, this humanity must be realized – in a self-determined life (relational and in the awareness of vulnerability), which takes place in actions (ibid. 64-79). Accordingly, these spaces for action must be protected. A social ethics based on human rights thus substantiates the claim of the principle of personhood by translating it into concrete rights, thereby giving it binding force. Conversely, theology and the context of faith can provide special models and motives for advocating the protection of dignity and rights.

The human rights approach can be justified in different ways. Seyla Benhabib’s approach is characterized by the fact that she combines an action-theoretical approach with the concept of communicative freedom and in this way takes into account the political dimension of human rights. She convincingly justifies human rights as the rights of all and as going beyond a mere moral claim. The starting point is the “recognition that human beings are moral persons who are equally entitled to legal protection on the basis of rights that do not accrue to them as nationals or members of an ethnic group, but as human beings as such. “4 The communicative freedom that characterizes all human beings results in a moral legal claim that this freedom (of action) must be protected and made possible. Benhabib thus assumes that the core moral content of human rights must be translated into a legal form that can differ in its form in the respective contexts. This also constitutes a context-sensitive approach: a universal claim does not exclude particular differences! However, the safeguarding of freedom through the ability to act must always be guaranteed. This includes the classic rights of freedom as well as the so-called social rights. In terms of action theory, this means that action requires freedom and well-being. Human dignity therefore results in a claim to protect or guarantee these actions (freedom rights) and to enable their realization, and consequently to create the necessary conditions accordingly (social rights).

Christian social ethics as human rights ethics shares this claim, which is both the starting point for criticism and a normative standard for shaping society. Due to the critical and universalistic claim of human dignity and human rights, it is always about the dignity and rights of all people. Anyone who demands the protection of their own dignity and at the same time denies it to others is not arguing in the spirit of either human rights or Christian social ethics.


Example of success: Convention for Persons with Disabilities

The Convention for Persons with Disabilities was adopted in 2006 and came into force in 2008. It has been ratified by a particularly large number of countries. It is mentioned here because this text is an example of the interaction between theory and practice, which is so important for social ethics. Numerous associations have collaborated on this text, the experience of people who do not have access to their rights is incorporated and is strongly expressed in the concretization of human rights for this group of people. Finally, the text itself offers a starting point for ethical reflection, so that new insights are produced and practices evoked in the interaction between theory and practice.

The so-called CRPD is not about special human rights – as if these had not previously been granted to people with disabilities – but about the implementation and concretization of general human rights for a group with special impairments. It is a remarkable convention in many respects, and many speak of a paradigm shift in disability policy, namely from the medical to the human rights model of disability at international level. “The human rights model of disability is based on the realization that the worldwide desolate situation of disabled people can be explained less by individual impairments than by socially constructed disenfranchisement of (health) impaired people. “5

However, the paradigm shift is not only a political one, but also a theoretical one. The CRPD speaks – for the first time – of “autonomy” with regard to people with disabilities. It expresses the concept of autonomy mentioned above in a remarkable way, because it assumes that it is not “the disabled” who are dependent and not autonomous, while “the non-disabled” (or “healthy” or even “normal”) are completely autonomous. The relativization of the concept of autonomy, in the sense of assuming the possibility of autonomous action for everyone to varying degrees, makes it possible to claim autonomy for people with disabilities. Respecting, strengthening and protecting their rights also means respecting their scope for action, expanding it and, where necessary, supporting their actions. The CRPD is regarded as an “empowerment convention” that abandons the welfare principle. At the same time, the recognition of disability as an integral part of human life contributes to the humanization of society. It is noteworthy that the CRPD has an equal impact on the practice that has to implement it, as well as on the theory that refers to this convention and further develops the basic ideas.

Challenge: Migration

Human rights issues arise in many complex ways in the context of migration – at national and international level. There are many unresolved issues, for example in the area of tension between human rights and national sovereignty. On the one hand, this manifests itself in the question of who is responsible for respecting, protecting and guaranteeing the rights of migrants. There is a responsibility that no one feels responsible for, so that Hannah Arendt’s central demand for the right to have rights is still unfulfilled. On the other hand, this can be seen in the massive resistance to various forms of immigration – in many countries with the recurring fear of a threat to one’s own by the foreign or an assumed threat to order. It is the task of social ethics and other disciplines to counter this with human rights arguments and thereby convince people. And finally, there are the numerous human rights violations in the context of migration: from illegal practices such as human trafficking, forced prostitution etc. to questions about the protection of unaccompanied minors, the denial of healthcare, exploitation in employment relationships and many more.

In the following, I will focus on an example in which human rights issues have recently received new attention in the public discourse on migration: the discussion on sea rescue. At the latest when the Seawatch 3 entered the port of Lampedusa in Italy under the command of Captain Carola Rackete on June 29, 2019, the issue became the focus of public attention. Rackete became a symbolic figure for resistance motivated by human rights, stylized as a “late-modern Antigone “6 by some and described as presumptuous because she defied the law by others. And yes, it is true that individuals should not simply disregard the law. And yet forms of resistance and disobedience may be necessary in order to question the correctness of the law and its conformity with human rights, to which it is committed: On the one hand, there is the European migration policy, which is still attached to the Dublin system, which has long since proven to be unworkable and lacking in solidarity. With Habermas, the social validity of the law and, in view of questionable arguments, its validity can at least be critically questioned in the face of non-enforcement.

On the other hand, Italy attempted to make sea rescue impossible. The situation has been defused by the new government. However, there is still a risk of destroying the right to asylum by preventing people from landing in Europe.

The fact that Europe is not in a position to develop a political concept for migration and integration is no justification for letting people drown.7 It is a moral and legal imperative – the form it takes is secondary. The fact that numerous voices from civil society as well as politicians from various countries have spoken out in favor of sea rescue this summer gives hope for movement: Awards for Pia Klempp and Carola Rackete are significant symbolic acts, but at the same time threaten to become cynical. After all, political responsibility goes further: not only must sea rescue be decriminalized, but European migration policy must be developed further. After all, people’s rights are threatened or suspended at many points in the migration process (not only in the Mediterranean).

Serious case: abuse crisis

In conclusion, the scandal of sexualized violence by priests and religious and the reaction to the MHG study illustrate how irrelevant and ineffective theological ethics can become if they do not correspond to the basic insight underlying human rights ethics, namely respect for dignity. There is no question that the abuse crisis is complex. At this point, however, we are not concerned with attempts to explain it, but with a basic theological-ethical assumption which, depending on how it is made, already obstructs access to the problem. This alone will be considered below.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church’s sexual morality has developed significantly, and a personal understanding of sexuality has become established to some extent – this is far more the case in German-speaking moral theology, which is beyond question here. And yet a fundamentally negative image of sexuality remains present and powerful in church teaching: the Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the following in a row – without differentiation: “Adultery, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, rape, homosexual acts (no. 492) “8. The row is headed Main sins against chastity. Even intuitively, this ranking seems wrong. The acts that are placed on the same level are all too different. An abstract nature of sexuality, however it may be understood, does not help to clarify the matter.9 However, if all the practices listed are considered morally wrong as a violation of the chastity requirement, it becomes difficult to differentiate between them. Responsibly practiced sexuality cannot be distinguished from sexual violence. This church teaching makes it difficult to clearly condemn sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence.

The necessary criterion that is obviously missing here is respect for human dignity. This is the basic principle that is being violated: Sexual violence disregards the dignity of the person because the “victim” is not respected as a person, but downgraded and instrumentalized. In a relationship characterized by strong asymmetry and an imbalance of power, the other person is not respected on an equal footing, not as a person with equal rights. This is a violation of the right to (sexual) self-determination – a right that is to be understood as a negative and positive right. If, as Martin Lintner rightly emphasizes (ibid. 204), sexuality that is not designed for procreation is fundamentally suspected in church doctrine of making the partner an object of one’s own lust, the actual instrumentalization and degradation that arise through abuse of power and disregard for the other person are lost sight of, as are the structures and theological transfigurations that promote them.

Anchoring the principle of dignity would also contribute to a differentiated approach to the categories of perpetrator and victim. It prevents victimization insofar as so-called “victims” as survivors do not lose their dignity and self-determination, but rather retain and shape it with all their injuries. Conversely, this anchoring in dignity – and in the traditional principle of personality! – that perpetrators are not hastily excused or that they or third parties demand forgiveness from the victims.10 All forgiveness and redemption narratives are preceded by the acceptance of responsibility for one’s own actions. Otherwise, theology undermines its own basic anthropological and ethical assumptions.

 As long as respect for dignity does not become the linchpin of sexual morality, church teaching cannot adequately address sexual abuse, let alone deal with it. There is obviously still a problem with the acceptance of self-determination. A human rights ethic consistently demands this acceptance.

The concretizations show how Christian social ethics gains in profile and sharpness through its anchoring in human rights. Such an anchoring could also help to ensure that the human rights discourse is not exhausted by rhetoric, but is instead re-examined in terms of its effectiveness.

    1 Cf. Michelle Becka and Johannes Ulrich: Blind practice, deaf theory? Social-ethical reflection on the human right to health, in: Bernhard Emunds (ed.): Christian Social Ethics – Orientation of Which Practice? In honor of Friedhelm Hengsbach SJ. Stuttgart 2018, 301-321. I would like to thank my colleague Johannes Ulrich for his important suggestions for this article.
    2 Friedhelm Hengsbach, Bernhard Emunds and Matthias Möhring-Hesse: Ethical reflection on political faith practice. A contribution to the discussion, in: This (ed.): Jenseits Katholischer Soziallehre. New drafts of Christian social ethics. Düsseldorf 1993, 215-291.
    3 Marcus Düwell: Human dignity as the basis of human rights, in: zfmr 1/2010, 64-79, 73.
    4 Seyla Benhabib: Cosmopolitanism without illusions. Human rights in troubled times. Berlin 2016, 33.
    5 Theresia Degener: The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as a driver of inclusion, in: RdJB 2/2009, 200-219, 200.
    6 Donatella Di Cesare: Carola Rackete. An Antigone of our time, in: ZEIT 28/2019 (04.07.) and at: ‘https://www.zeit.de/2019/28/carola-rackete-sea-watch-kapitaenin-menschenrechte-heldin’.
    7 The reference to the pull effect is also firstly subordinate and secondly untenable: after the so-called pull factors had largely lost importance in the migration discourse before 2015, the old arguments regarding sea rescue are experiencing a renaissance in the sense of “the more we save, the more will come”. A classic pull effect is suggested. However, studies on the subject show that the pull effect cannot be empirically proven. Cf. Elias Steinhilper and Rob Gruijters: Border Deaths in the Mediterranean: What We Can Learn from the Latest Data (08.03.2017), at: ‘https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/03/institutional’.
    8 The following is added: “When committed against minors, such acts are even more serious because they violate their physical and moral integrity.” Stephan Goertz sees this as a reaction to abuse in the church. Stephan Goertz: Sexual abuse and church sexual morality. Alleged connections, in: Magnus Striet and Rita Werden (eds.): Unheilige Theologie. Analyses in the face of sexual violence against minors by priests. Freiburg 2019, 106-139, 119. The Catechism itself differentiates somewhat more, but remains rooted in the classical model of argumentation (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2351-2359).
    9 Martin Lintner: Do we need a new sexual morality?, in: Lebendige Seelsorge 3/2019, 202-205, 204.
    10 Cf. Doris Reisinger: On the burden of being a victim, in: Lebendige Seelsorge 3/2019, 162-166, 163 f.

    Michelle Becka is Professor of Christian Social Ethics in Würzburg.

Celibacy and priesthood

Klaus Mertes SJ, member of the editorial board of this magazine and director of the Jesuit College of St. Blasien, develops a differentiated picture of celibacy. Does celibacy merely mean renunciation? What is its theological meaning? How do priestly and non-priestly celibacy belong together, and how do they differ?
By Klaus Mertes
[This article posted in 2019 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/144-2019/11-2019/zoelibat-und-priestertum/.]

Christoph Eschenbach, pianist and conductor, was recently asked in an interview: “The cellist Desmond Hoebig once said that music is everything to you, more than one hundred percent. But that was only possible because you didn’t have a family on top of everything else.” Eschenbach: “The word additional is correct. I love children, and I would also love to have a family, but it would limit me, both in my expression and in my concentration. It is a life through music and with music that I have dedicated myself to. “1

Is that celibacy? No, if celibacy is understood to mean specifically religiously based renunciation of marriage and family (I am not yet distinguishing between the celibacy of diocesan priests and the vows of religious). Nevertheless, the answer gives some indications that are also helpful for understanding celibacy. Firstly, we are talking about “familylessness”, not just “celibacy” or “sexual abstinence”. As a rule, celibacy is initially associated with sexual abstinence. This is also what celibacy is about, especially as sexuality and fertility are connected. But the fixation on sexual abstinence obscures the broader, more comprehensive renunciation of family. Secondly, family renunciation is the reverse of positively motivated devotion to something fulfilling. The same applies to celibacy: the vision of the kingdom of heaven and the commitment to it are something as moving and fulfilling as music – renouncing family is about living for the kingdom of heaven. This does not devalue family, marriage or sexuality, especially since one takes the responsibility for family seriously if one does not understand and live it merely as something “additional”. Thirdly, there are excellent pianists and conductors who are married and have children. No general demands on pianists and conductors can be derived from the personal decision to be family-free. The same applies to a celibate life. This will have to be considered in more detail with regard to mandatory priestly celibacy. In any case, married men and women are in no way denied the right to place themselves entirely at the service of the kingdom of heaven.2

The theological sign

Much can be sublimated, but not everything. The kingdom of heaven or the “kingdom of God “3 is not a substitute for a good that has been renounced. The void that arises from renunciation, despite all fulfillment, still makes itself heard again and again. It hurts. It would be too easy to see the pain as merely the price of fulfillment. Rather, the painful void has a theological meaning. God is not only present, he is also absent. He is also not something in the world that can and should fill the void. Rather, the glory of God is revealed in the simultaneity of presence and withdrawal (cf. Ex 33:23; Lk 24:31). In his presence, God gives the joy of fulfillment and at the same time the pain of withdrawal. Celibate life must fail if it is expected that the pain will eventually disappear and only fulfillment will remain.

Everyone who seeks God knows this “theological pain”. God is also transcendent for married couples and communicates himself to them in the simultaneity of presence and withdrawal. The theological void is not filled by the spouse or the children. The only difference to celibate life is that the theological void is more visible through celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. In this respect, renunciation itself is also a sign – not only for the appreciation of the kingdom of heaven, but also for its reference to transcendence. Renunciation marks “alterity” (Eckhard Nordhofen), because “between the Creator and the creature … there is no similarity so great that there is no even greater dissimilarity between them. “4 Renunciation is more than just a price to be paid in order to be able to concentrate fully on the kingdom of heaven. It is itself a theological sign, an existential representation of the paradoxical nature of God’s presence in the world.

Singleness and marriage/family complement each other – especially as marriage is also a sacramental sign of God’s presence in the world. Both refer to the “Father in heaven”, his presence and his distance. The orientation towards God does not escape the paradoxical presence between fulfillment and withdrawal – otherwise it would be oriented towards something other than God.

Celibacy in the Gospel

There is only one passage in the Old Testament that I know of in which God explicitly demands that a man renounce his family: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘You shall not take a wife, nor have sons or daughters in this place’” (Jer 16:2). The prophet lives in the midst of a time of destruction. Jerusalem and the remaining southern part of Israel are about to be finally conquered and destroyed by the troops of the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar. In this situation, starting a family is pointless: “For thus says the Lord about the sons and daughters who are born in this place, about the mothers who bear them and about their fathers who father them in this land: They will die a painful death; they will not be mourned or buried; they will become manure in the field. They will perish by sword and famine; their corpses will be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the field” (Jer 16:3 ff.). To make matters worse, the prophet is threatened with hostility from his own people, including his own clan, for his provocative message. In his Jeremiah novel “Hear the Voice”, Franz Werfel described the prophet’s renunciation of his family in a valid literary way.

Where there is no future, it is not worth starting a family. So the reverse conclusion is that family stands for the future. God actually gives a better future. In the biblical tradition, the blessing of children is also seen as a blessing from heaven.5 It is therefore all the more remarkable that Jesus praises the renunciation of fertility: “Some have made themselves unfit for marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12). The Jeremianic motif of the time of doom may resonate with Jesus.6 But the word “kingdom of heaven” actually expresses a positive promise. However, its fulfillment does not depend on fruitfulness for the (extended) family. Rather, Jesus founds another family: “Those who do the will of God are brother, sister and mother to me” (Mk 3:35). This new extended family is made up of countless people, especially the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 10:6); this expression refers to the “poor and sinners”, who are also marginalized on a massive scale because they fall out of the context of clan membership and clan care. Their time of need is over with the arrival of the kingdom of heaven.7 The family from Nazareth experiences this as a provocation and splits over it.

The celibacy of the Gospel is therefore initially a critical sign. In a clan society, no authority is allowed to make higher demands on its members than the clan, the family. This leads to a conflict in the Gospel, because it preaches and practices a greater love for one’s neighbour that goes beyond the boundaries of love for one’s own people. Family-lessness thus becomes a bone of contention, but on the other hand it also frees us to deal with this very conflict.

Becoming free for the conflict – that is the combative aspect of celibacy. The clan’s claims to identity politics are rejected. At the same time, the kingdom of heaven is open to marriages in which clan boundaries and other boundaries are overcome. In the kingdom of heaven, or also “in Christ” (Gal 3:28), there is therefore no hierarchy between the celibate and the married – especially as a marriage across clan boundaries can also trigger the same conflicts as a marriage without a family.

The outwardly visible sign of a family-less life corresponds to an inner attitude, a mystical (inner) side. This is not meant to be exclusive, because every relationship with God has such an inner side. The kingdom of God is a matter of the heart for everyone. With the pain of renouncing family, however, the theological void is opened up explicitly, existentially. The void not only directs the inner being towards emptiness, but also towards fullness, towards warmth in the encounter with God in prayer and silence, in thanksgiving and love. This intimacy is the counterpart to cordiality in the encounter with our fellow human beings, as Jesus lives it. It is an essential part of the critical and militant sense of celibacy; without it, criticism becomes ideology and struggle becomes arrogance. It is only in the interior of the heart that the incomprehensible becomes tangible, which motivates the decision for the celibacy of the Gospel. “He who can grasp it, let him grasp it” (Mt 19:12).

Priestly celibacy today

Compulsory priestly celibacy is a sign that has not only been contested since today. Its introduction in 1139 in the Latin Church8 did not fall from the sky, but had a conflict-ridden history that began soon after the apostolic era. The fiercest opposition at the time of its introduction came from the dynasties, which were accustomed to passing on ecclesiastical offices and benefices through the succession of legitimate children. Priestly celibacy, on the other hand, stood for the independence of church leadership offices from the power of clans and dynasties. The slogan was: “Freedom of the church.”

At the same time, priestly celibacy was based on an understanding of cultic purity, about which the Second Vatican Council was silent centuries later for good reasons, when it simultaneously attempted to re-establish priestly celibacy in its pastoral sense: on the one hand, celibacy and continence were “not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood”, as practice in the Eastern Churches in particular showed; on the other hand, the Church had “always held perfect and constant continence in high esteem for the sake of the kingdom of heaven … especially with regard to the priestly life”, since it was “a sign and at the same time an impulse of pastoral love. “9

Much has since changed in the secularization thrusts of modernity: The social power of clans and extended families has been broken in the European-influenced West by the separation of sexual activity and fertility on the one hand and by comprehensive individualization processes on the other; clans and extended families no longer exist as holders of decisive social power, or at most as a result of migration from other cultures. The model of modernity is the nuclear family of two generations, parents and children.

And: for the modern age, the distinction between sacred and profane spheres is more difficult to comprehend. What a priest is, is usually only stated in the mode of criticism. The situation is different for the Church: As a world church, it not only lives in modern, secular cultures; it is not a foregone conclusion either for it or for non-modern cultures whether it wants to participate in the modernization processes of the West or develop differently. As the priestly people of God, as it understands itself, it cannot dispense with the distinction between the profane and sacred spheres without abolishing itself.

So how can priesthood and celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven be communicated in a secular society in such a way that it is possible to understand what is meant? The crux of the matter is that the obligatory nature of the connection between priesthood and celibacy today tends to promote misunderstandings and thus makes it more difficult to clarify these questions. There are several reasons for this. On the one hand, it has even been recognized by the magisterium that there is no necessary connection between priesthood and celibacy, neither for historical nor dogmatic reasons. However, the more the secular public sees and discusses celibacy in terms of the priesthood, because priestly celibacy continues to exist, the less its critical, militant and mystical meaning becomes apparent.

The idea that sexual activity contaminates the cult can also be considered to have been overcome. Perhaps it still resonates in Catholic (and other) mentalities today, but it no longer appears either in theology or in doctrinal statements after the Second Vatican Council. Nevertheless, priestly celibacy still stands. Priesthood is therefore still associated with sexual abstinence. The issue of celibacy is thus superimposed on the perception of priestly activities: Pastoral care, sacramental acts, service of remembrance, envisioning and substitution. Why do all priests have to be sexually abstinent for all these meaningful things? – This is the understandable question to which there is no longer a truly plausible answer.

The abuse scandal is just the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. The relationship between the clergy and sexuality now also appears in the gloomy light of practical failure – not only because of the sexualized violence of clerical perpetrators, but even more because of a clerical milieu that was and is not in a position to adequately assess the acts and offer protection to those affected. This in turn increases the plausibility of demands to open up priestly celibacy. An almost thousand-year-old tradition is no longer strong enough to withstand such pressure for change, especially as the pressure is combined with good arguments on the matter.

Diocesan clergy and religious

There are many religious who are also priests. And there are even more religious who are not priests – many women religious and also the religious “brothers”. It is significant that they fall outside the public perception of the celibacy debate. Or perhaps not? Religious who are not priests make the world’s view of the kingdom of heaven particularly clear, precisely because they are not also priests (or priestesses) in the context of mandatory priestly celibacy. That is why the debate about celibacy does not affect them. This, in turn, is part of the price that priests, whether diocesan or in a religious order, have to pay for mandatory priestly celibacy: Their witness does not shine as clearly, and not at all because they are less serious about living the celibate life, but because their witness cannot shine undisguised under the conditions of priestly celibacy.

Occasionally, religious men who are priests are referred to as “voluntary” celibates in order to distinguish them from the supposedly “involuntary” celibacy of the diocesan clergy. This seems inappropriate to me. It is true: Strictly speaking, the argument is about the celibacy of diocesan clergy; if priestly celibacy were abolished, the vow of celibacy of religious would remain unaffected. I remember a conversation with a theology student friend of mine in the 1970s who advised me not to join a religious order but a diocesan seminary: “Then you can get married when celibacy is abolished soon.”

But to deny diocesan priests the voluntary nature of their decision is to deny the dignity of their life choice. Incidentally, diocesan and religious priests both share the same challenges posed by the celibate way of life; it would not only be presumptuous, but simply wrong to claim that religious priests would cope better with these difficulties because they have “voluntarily” made their promise of celibacy. And finally: in both cases, the decision to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven was often made on the condition of compulsory priestly celibacy.

Motives are not causes. They can clarify, change and deepen. Of course, a life of priestly celibacy can succeed. There are many good examples of this. One condition, however, is to grasp more deeply the distinction between priestly life and celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, in order to understand both as intrinsic values and not as prices to be paid in each case. It is precisely the non-priestly religious who give a helpful testimony to the independent dignity of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. On the other hand, living a celibate life simply in order to become a priest – without any sense of the intrinsic value of a celibate existence – or even becoming a priest in order to be able to live a celibate life, leads to a dead end. The tragedy and pathology of such a functional understanding of priesthood and celibacy becomes visible in the failure of such life decisions, failure not only to the detriment of those who have failed, but also to the detriment of those who are entrusted to the failed priests.

Marking alterity

Finally, back to the question of the relationship between sexual abstinence and cult: there is probably a consensus that the metaphor of purity and impurity is inappropriate. What is less clear, however, is whether modernity really no longer has any sense of the distinction between a sacred and a profane sphere, and therefore no sense of the priesthood either. Max Weber’s thesis of the demystification of the world is not currently proving true. New sacralization and cult phenomena are springing up. They are floating freely through the space and time of the present; it will be interesting to see what new large-scale structures they will continue to merge into.
For centuries, priestly celibacy linked the priest’s profession with the existential decision to remain celibate. The necessary things have been said about the pathological side of this connection.

But the visible renunciation simultaneously emphasized and continues to emphasize the connection with the theological void that has already been mentioned. Thus, a priestly-celibate life fits in perfectly with the assignment to the sphere of the sacred, as long as it is not associated with a pejorative understanding of sexuality. Even if there are other pathologies of the oversacralization of priests, even if they are married, the appropriate reaction to this is not to completely reject the assignment of priesthood and sacred spaces and actions. If it is not to be the existential representation of the theological void by renouncing marriage, then other forms of marking alterity would have to be found. For this much is also clear: it would be wrong to downgrade the priest to a mere cult servant without this service also extending to his existential self-understanding. Sacred and profane spheres are not only to be distinguished, but also communicate with each other. Anyone who receives the sacrament of God’s love and at the same time does not love their neighbor in everyday life is belittling the sacrament. This applies all the more to the minister of the sacrament. A debate on how the marking of alterity could be shaped in a non-celibate priesthood is still pending.

    1 ZEIT magazine 35/2019 (21.8.2019), also at: ‘www.zeit.de/zeit-magazin/2019/35/christoph-eschenbach-dirigent-rettung’.
    2 There is a difficulty here in the term “undivided heart” (CIC 277§1). It assumes competitions that do not exist before the “raison du coeur” (Blaise Pascal)
    3 “Kingdom of heaven” in Mt is the counterpart to “kingdom of God” in Mk and Lk.
    4 IV. Lateran Council (1215), DS 806.
    5 The Bible is full of stories about saving fertility after suffering barrenness. Abraham and Sarah are promised “numerous offspring” – they are the epitome of divine blessing. With Isaac and Rebecca, the promise is temporarily jeopardized; with Jacob, Rachel and Leah, it is fulfilled.
    6 Paul also likes to refer to Jeremiah (cf. Gal 1:15), so that his reference to his own celibacy can be understood in this prophetic tradition: “It is good because of the coming trouble” (1 Cor 7:26).
    7 In the marriage of the kingdom of heaven, the power asymmetry between man and woman is also overcome, which is why the disciples, still caught up in patriarchal thinking, are frightened and think that if a man is not allowed to give a woman a letter of divorce, it is better not to marry at all (cf. Mt 19:10). The economic basis comes from generosity in dealing with one’s own possessions, which therefore no longer primarily benefit one’s own clan – and therefore calls him to the scene: “He is out of his mind” (Mk 3:21), “a glutton and a drunkard” (Mt 11:19). How dangerous a disobedient son or daughter is in a clan society if they step out of line can be read in Deut 20:19 f.: “Our son here is stubborn and rebellious, he is a spendthrift and a drunkard … Then all the men of the city shall stone him and he shall die.”
    8 Hubert Wolf: Celibacy. 16 theses. Munich 2019, writes that the law was not implemented in (tolerated) practice or only much later, in many places not until the 19th century, and in some parts of the world still not today.
    9 Cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis no. 16.

    Klaus Mertes

    Superior of the Ignatius House in Berlin, editor of the cultural magazine STIMMEN DER ZEIT, studied classical philology and Slavic studies in Bonn and, after joining the Jesuit order, philosophy in Munich and theology in Frankfurt. He has worked as a teacher since 1990, first in Hamburg from 1990-1993 and then at Canisius College in Berlin from 1994-2011, where he was rector from 2000. From 2011 to 2020, he was Director of the International Jesuit College in Sankt Blasien.

Fundamentalists are always the others: Reflections on Catholic, Protestant and Muslim milieu constrictions

Based on Samuel Huntington’s concept of the “clash of civilizations”, which stands for a right-wing conservative justification of culturally induced conflicts, Joachim Valentin presents a different model that focuses primarily on social factors of coexistence in a globalized and multicultural world. Valentin is an associate professor of Christian religious and cultural theory in Frankfurt am Main and director of the “Haus am Dom” in the same city.
By Joachim Valentin
[This article posted in 2019 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/144-2019/11-2019/fundamentalisten-sind-immer-die-anderen-ueberlegungen-zu-katholischen-evangelischen-und-muslimischen-milieuverengungen/.]

Whether we are talking about radicalism and extremism, Salafism or jihadism, or simply reactionary or conservative religion – we are always talking about forms of religion that, for good or bad reasons, are not acceptable to the majority in the current discourse of Western societies or are perceived as a problem. For me, however, this is not really a theological issue in the strict sense – in constitutional societies, the law regulates what is and is not acceptable in religionibus. We have been engaged in this debate since 09/11, whether it’s homeschooling, abortion, headscarves or Scheitl, whether it’s slaughter or circumcision: What is covered by positive religious freedom and what curtails other rights and threatens the freedom of others, whether a mosque may or may not be built, who is recognized as a religious community in our country and who is allowed to give religious instruction as a partner of the state, is decided by state processes and afterwards everyone has to abide by them. For strategic reasons alone, it seems to me that the task of theology and church representatives is first and foremost to defend positive religious freedom against an increasingly aggressive secular society.

However, I will leave all these questions aside here and attempt a defensible version of the originally inner-Protestant battle term “fundamentalism” and its apparent counterpart “enlightenment”. The necessary tools for this were already laid out at the turn of the last millennium. To this day, there are two opposing positions, the first of which is characterized by a polar and the second by an internal and global-plural model of religions and cultural spaces.

The first position, most succinctly and first formulated by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations (New York 1996), thinks of “religions” or “cultures” primarily in terms of a hostile opposition and is the mastermind of the hawks or right-wing conservative thinkers around George W. Bush, who otherwise rely on the two thinkers Leo Strauss and Carl Schmidt, who came from the German nationalist environment of the Weimar Republic. In 1996, Huntington wrote that after the end of the East-West conflict, world politics had become multipolar and multicultural. It was no longer ideologies but cultures that determined the world order. In order to avoid new global conflicts, the West must therefore also observe other cultural values. It is a mistake to equate modernization with Western culture or Westernization. The values of the West are not recognized as universal values in other cultures. The book literally states:

“The West conquered the world not through the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other cultures converted), but rather through its superiority in the use of organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never forget it. “1

With this rejection of dialogue and focus on the armed conflict between cultures, the “clash of civilizations”, and his refusal to take a differentiated view of what he calls “non-Westerners”, Huntington has not only had a massive influence on US foreign policy. The consequences that it had in the Middle East for the situation there, which is now completely out of control, are obvious, but to this day, influential multipliers can also be found in Western Europe across a wide ideological spectrum, Thilo Sarrazin and Alice Schwarzer are two people here, interestingly from the left-wing spectrum, who believe that they can also identify clearly definable cultural areas in European societies and stage their confrontation. Current election results in Germany and Europe should also be understood in this context. The subliminal threat and even combat situation invoked here often makes people forget the validity of human rights and international law for “non-Western” “enemies”.

The return of religions

An early counter-position to this Manichaeism, which is still difficult to overtake today, can be found in Martin Riesebrodt’s 2001 book The Return of Religions,2 which I will use as a basis for an initial look at the scene. The Chicago sociologist introduces the terms “class cultures” and “cultural milieus” in the wake of Ulrich Beck and in differentiation from both neo-conservative (Huntington) and neo-Marxist models of thought that are narrowly focused on class antagonisms and criticism of capitalism. In doing so, he does far more justice to the empirical diversity, complexity and diverse logic of “fundamentalist” group formations: the battle line, the clash, does not lie between different cultures, i.e. between inside and outside, but within all cultures between classes and milieus. In this pluralistic view, Huntington’s irreconcilable cultural Manichaeism can itself be understood as fundamentalism.

Riesebrodt does not deny that non-Western groups that are often vaguely described as “fundamentalist” exhibit a higher degree of social and ideological homogeneity than they should actually have after the dissolution of classes and milieus in late modernity. He writes:

“It is precisely insecure groups that form milieus, […] and there are a large number of these in the Western industrialized countries, whether they are Turks [Moroccans, Syrians, Croats, Eritreans] in Germany, Pakistanis, Indians and Jamaicans in England or North and West Africans in France. They have by no means all disappeared in the melting pot of individualism. “3

Riesebrodt is also describing milieus that still concern us today in our religious-political situation, albeit more as conservative imported religious communities that we also have to deal with within Christianity. We just haven’t noticed it yet: in Germany, for example, the large number of Catholics with a conservative Catholic migration background, such as Croats, Eritreans, Poles and Italians, is one of the most invisible and at the same time greatest challenges for pastoral and religious education work.

Riesebrodt generally identifies a “fundamentalism of the marginalized middle” (78) and describes ideological characteristics: “the ‘good old days’ of one’s own childhood or an idealized past [such as the Islamic Salafia or the early Christian community or the Catholic 19th century]” (79) represents an ideal that replaces missed or distant aspirations. Belonging to an ideological elite and its triumph over real elites in the near future compensates for denied social acceptance or for various reasons impossible formation of a strong ego or group identity.

This first, for our purposes necessarily brief, sociologically influenced sketch of what can rightly be called “fundamentalism” and can be found in both Western and non-Western cultures should not obscure the fact that Riesebrodt makes a further sociological distinction and differentiates between poor, middle class and intellectual fundamentalism, for example, but also speaks of at least three aggregate states of fundamentalism in terms of worldview. Namely charismatic fundamentalism, which, as in the Pentecostal churches or mystical Islam, lives from the direct reception of higher truths in ecstatic rituals and is considered to be particularly women-friendly, political fundamentalism, i.e. aimed at social implementation, and legalistic-literalist fundamentalism, which tends to operate at the level of patriarchal dogma or theory (Riesebrodt 97 ff.).

Incidentally, all Protestant and Muslim fundamentalisms are almost purely lay movements. This insight not only helps with what I consider to be the fundamental distinction between Protestant and Islamic fundamentalism on the one hand and Catholic traditionalism on the other. It also shows how old our seemingly current problems (including those within the Catholic Church) are. Almost a hundred years ago, the sociologist of religion Max Weber was able to sum them up in a way that is still illuminating for us today: “But the three forces at work among the laity with which the priesthood has to contend are 1. prophecy, 2. lay traditionalism, 3. lay intellectualism. “4 Riesebrodt writes about the clear strategic advantages of evangelical fundamentalism in Latin America (and Africa) over the Catholic Church today:

“Particularly in this competitive situation, the participation opportunities for women in charismatic Protestantism prove to be a great strategic advantage, especially compared to more intellectualized Catholic grassroots communities. The direct, unmediated experience of grace that cannot be acquired, regardless of status, income, education or gender, explains the attractiveness of charismatic religion, especially for groups of people who are otherwise excluded from obtaining religious qualifications. “5

Riesebrodt’s definition of the opponents who choose fundamentalist groups is still valid today: 1. the new political class, product of university education 2. members of the new upper and upper-middle classes 3. intellectuals 4. minorities such as Catholics or Christians in general, Jews, Sikhs, Ahhmadija, Hindus, where they appear to be in the minority, i.e. disruptive and vulnerable. Riesebrodt summarizes the definition of such opponents in general terms as political agents of change, practitioners of secularization policies and winners of these restructuring processes. It is worth noting here that, in addition to the well-known religious fundamentalism, a political fundamentalism has emerged in Europe in recent years, which also dresses itself up in religious terms as the “defender of the Christian West”, but otherwise shares all the characteristics of its declared opponents.6

Fundamentalism’s response to various – primarily economic and social – experiences of marginalization therefore lies in a “radical rejection of modernist value relativism, individualistic self-realization and utopias of progress, as well as modern tendencies towards bureaucratization and objectification. “7

At this point, we can only touch on the fact that these basic right-wing populist patterns can easily be applied to pietist or other evangelical groups as well as – as Ahmad Mansour has shown in his book Generation Allah8 – to young people at risk of Salafism, who are not always autochthonous Muslims. Here, however, there is often a real experience of exclusion due to the particularly widespread anti-Muslim racism in our society and the crisis of a central male leader figure in these cultures due to the absence or economic weakness of their own father, but also due to the equal rights of women, which are experienced as dishonorable.

In addition to the roughly outlined sociological understanding of the widespread phenomenon of “fundamentalism”, which is by no means limited to Islam – as is well known, the term is derived from an American evangelical magazine – we must now point out the internal complexity of all high or world religions and warn against universalizing and normatively exaggerating the religion of one’s own milieu, which in our case is likely to be the milieu of academically educated and generally wealthy sections of the population. Particularly after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Western European Catholicism has at times lost its sense of those numerically significant strata whose religious practice is characterized by the rosary, May devotions, pilgrimages and the veneration of saints. The narrowing of the Catholic community milieu9 , rightly lamented by Michael N. Ebertz, is in part also the result of a widespread eradication of pious practices perceived as pre-modern and the loss of those clientele whose affiliation was primarily defined precisely by this.

Virtuoso, intellectual and mass religiosity

It would also be interesting to understand the obvious conflict between European and Islamic cultures not as a cultural conflict, but as a conflict between mass and intellectual religiosity. For just as European Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has lost its mass religious milieus, Islam has lost its intellectual-religious milieus in the course of almost a thousand years of events.

It is essential for an appropriate presentation of the situation in our subject area, or even for formulating an alternative course of action, to use a sociologically adequate concept of what is meant by “religion”. I propose to understand religion as a social entity with Max Weber as an organic whole of complex autopoietic fields of communitization and self-conception, which for the theological perspective currently means: as a network of both theoretical and practical, or better: both reflexive and performative religious practices. Both dimensions should not be played off against each other, but should be thought of as complementary; they require each other – performance per se, however, is rather unreasonable, reflection per se rather bodiless.

Max Weber characterizes the three basic types of basic religious phenomena – mass, virtuoso and intellectual religiosity – in dichotomous, even conflicting10 terms. The field in which he operates is the different expectations of salvation in the three milieus. First of all, mass religiosity, which Weber initially defines as the religiosity of the underprivileged:

“Every need for redemption is the expression of a ‘need’, and social or economic oppression is therefore by no means the exclusive source of its emergence, but it is naturally a very effective one. The specific need [of the negatively privileged] is redemption from suffering. They do not always feel this need for redemption in a religious form – not, for example, the modern proletariat. Above all, [their need for redemption] can be coupled in very different ways with the need for just ‘retribution’. Retribution for one’s own good works and retribution for the injustice of others. Next to magic and connected with it, a mostly quite ‘calculating’ expectation of retribution and hope of retribution is therefore the most widespread form of mass belief on the whole earth. “11

For Weber, however, the term ‘mass’ does not primarily refer to the quantity of believers, but rather to a certain mode of their religiosity, so that it applies both to (quantitatively decreasing) popular religious currents in the mainstream Christian churches and to the large but closely linked to the other Christian denominations, churches or Islam in the sense of a simple religiosity that requires little education and is reflected above all in visible orthopraxy (pilgrimages, religious and ethical observance, etc.). ). For Weber, the term also initially refers to a lay population to be catered for, which does not muster enough energy to share the lifestyle of the religious elites and their special ethics.12

Weber characterizes as religious heroes or virtuosos those charismatics13 or the religiously “supremely gifted” whose “claims […] are supreme, but not decisive for everyday ethics. “14 Specifically, Weber mentions the “ancient Christian ‘ascetics’ expressly recognized as a special status in the community, the Pauline and even more so the Gnostic pneumatics, the pietistic ‘ecclesiola’, all actual sects, i.e. sociologically: associations that only accept the religiously qualified into themselves, finally all monastic communities”.15

The incompatibility that still essentially determines the situation of Christian churches and denominations in the West and North, both within Christianity and above all between the Christian hemisphere on the one hand and the Islamic hemisphere on the other, could therefore well – and this is my main suggestion here – be summarized as that between mass religion and intellectual religion. Weber identifies the birth of the religious intellectual with the bearers of the ‘Jewish Enlightenment’, i.e. the prophets.16 This concept of redemption is also a class-specific one and, in Weber’s eyes, ultimately catalyzed by socio-economic factors:

“Always the redemption that the intellectual seeks is a redemption from ‘inner distress’ and therefore, on the one hand, of a character more alien to life, and on the other, more principled and systematically grasped, than the redemption from outer distress that is proper to the non-privileged classes. The intellectual seeks to give his way of life a continuous ‘meaning’, i.e. ‘unity’ with himself, with man, with the cosmos, in ways whose casuistry goes to infinity. It is he who carries out the conception of the ‘world’ as a problem of ‘meaning’. The more the intellectual pushes back the belief in magic, and thus the processes of the world are disenchanted […] the more urgent grows the demand on the world and the ‘conduct of life’ as a whole that they be ordered in a meaningful and ‘sensible’ way. “17

Up to this point, it has become clear that Weber’s distinction between mass and intellectual religion is a fundamental one, which should always be taken into account as the result of specific socio-cultural stratification or milieu formation, especially when looking at otherworldly ideas of salvation – i.e. those of the monotheistic religions, above all Christianity and Islam. Only the two together, possibly supplemented by a third narrow layer of clergy and / or religious virtuosos in the orders, result in a high religion. Each milieu on its own, on the other hand, is hardly capable of surviving, as we are currently experiencing in reverse under the conditions of reflexive modernity in both Christianity and Islam. Only the regulated coexistence of all the religious subsystems described by Weber is quite biblical, especially according to the Pauline corporate understanding of the church as the “body of Christ”, existential and at the same time capable of surviving in the accelerated modern age, but at the same time obviously particularly threatened because of its differentiating and thus centripetal forces.

Religion and enlightenment

Like many other terms, the term “enlightenment” has unfortunately lost its innocence and purity. The noble sapere aude from Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” has – in a strong reception of the French Enlightenment paradigm à la Voltaire, i.e. hostile to religion and the church – become a weapon against those who “still believe and do not yet think “18 . We notice this more when the Voltairean paradigm is directed against us Christians, but unfortunately less so when it is directed against Muslims – as is currently the case.

However, it has probably already become clear that thinking in terms of the alternative of an unenlightened (Muslim) religion on the one hand and a (Christian) European enlightenment, even in the sense of two completely separable “cultures” in Huntington’s sense, does not work. Both religions and also the non-religious parts of currently valid worldviews are affected by a comprehensive dialectic of enlightenment, but Islam in a completely different way.

Even unruly critics of Islam, perhaps even “enemies” such as the Freiburg scholar Abdel-Hamid Ourgi,19 concede that Islam has historically been close to traditions of rational or philosophical criticism, especially in its formative, i.e. theology-forming epoch in the power centers of Baghdad, Cairo, Fez or Cordoba between the 8th and 12th centuries. Here, Islam was far ahead of the Christian northwest of Eurasia in every respect, including theology and philosophy. There can therefore be no question of Islam being essentially incapable of reflection. The conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols and the takeover of power in liberal Cordoba by orthodox Berbers, as well as the Christian Reconquista and the emergence of the Ottoman Empire – events in world history, not the history of ideas – brought this blessed epoch to an end. The gate of Iqtihad, i.e. free theological reflection on the normative sources of Islam, was closed once and for all and four schools of law and the conservative Qaritchite school of theologians Al Gahzali took over the leadership. Together with the political power gained by Saudi Wahabism, the North African Muslim Brotherhood and Erdoğan’s Turkish AKP in the last century, a time bomb developed that has not stopped exploding since 9/11.

What is needed on the Islamic side is a “reopening” of the “gate of igtihãd”, which was closed in the 12th century, and not only at German or North American universities. This would restore the old tradition of controversial theological discourse at Islamic universities to its rightful place. At the same time, however, Muslims all over the world (as commanded in nostra aetate) would have to be approached with respect for their personal dignity and their ancient intellectual and cultural heritage as well as their colonial history of suffering and discussed with them on an equal footing. This is a task that seems almost impossible to solve today in view of the growing mistrust on all sides due to the threat of terrorism.

In order to open such a dialog on a broad basis, without depriving the Islamic religion of its modern-critical sting or even consigning it to its dissolution in the acid bath of secularism, economic and political relaxation and an end to the unjust dictatorships that only convey a perverted image of human rights and democracy would first have to occur in the regions mentioned. For only on the basis of orderly conditions and a certain degree of prosperity can theology be pursued in peace. This is the only way to make the unemployed masses of North Africa and the Middle East unreceptive to fundamentalist preachers of hate, who only ever know one culprit for their complex situation: the corrupt and godless West, which has always spoken with a forked tongue.

But Western intellectuals will also have to rethink if they no longer want to stand idly by in the face of under-complex arguments and sometimes hopeless political action, but instead offer alternative – and above all complex and dialog-oriented – approaches to an inescapable source of conflict. Whether they will succeed in at least partially abandoning the anti-religious concept of rationality of the French Enlightenment remains to be seen. However, the first signs of such a rethink are clearly perceptible among previously secular-oriented thinkers, such as Jürgen Habermas,20 where they have begun to affirmatively incorporate the phenomenon of religion back into their thinking.

A self-criticism of the Christian history of violence exists, but should be recalled from time to time. A self-criticism of European colonialism is still outstanding and urgently needed. In addition, further self-critical questions need to be asked: How old are our modernization efforts? Where does the Catholic Church in particular still lag behind? What does Christianity have to offer in terms of its own norms that does not also have to be called thoroughly unfashionable? Does simple modernization help? How consistently do we “moderns” always uncritically accept the shoals of modernity such as sexism, totalitarianism, consumerism, economism and post-colonialism?

Those who see themselves as part of a complex religious system will perhaps see the other more clearly because they can now see the “fundamentalist” or “intellectual” or “modernist” believer more as a neighboring part of the whole of their own religion. He or she will not intellectually underestimate the inescapability of origin and social placement and will treat it more respectfully when encountering it in others. Perhaps the intellectual will even discover his or her own longings for unquestionable certainties in their own heart or in their own religious practice.

Such a complementary model á la Max Weber can perhaps awaken interest in the “stubborn southern European Catholic” in exploring his or her own rational parts. For years, I have seen young Muslims studying Islamic theology as being extremely hungry for advancement and therefore knowledge – once again, sociological and theological motives intertwine. The same applies to us in the “Haus am Dom” in Frankfurt am Main with a group of free-church young adults who, in their search for a theological penetration of their faith, have turned to us Catholics of all people with our great friendliness to reason and not to the brothers and sisters of the Protestant regional church.

And finally, the appealing mantra of those experienced in dialog in this country should not be missing: Dismantle the structures of fear, exclusion and class society, let Muslims and other migrants into the vaults and power centers of our society, let them feel the taste of freedom without forcing them into secularism. Those who only see duties and do not grant rights, who deny their own colonial history and current contexts of oppression, need not be surprised at the hatred of the victims and their seductiveness by clever and demagogic pied pipers.

    1 Samuel Phillips Huntington: Clash of Civilizations. The reshaping of world politics in the 21st century. Munich 51998, 68.
    2 Martin Riesebrodt: The return of religions. Munich 2001.
    3 Ibid. 75, further page references at a similar point in the text.
    4 Max Weber: Economy and Society. (ca. 1914-1924) Tübingen 51972, 278.
    5 Riesebrodt 101.
    6 Riesebrodt, 85 ff.
    7 Riesebrodt, 93.
    8 Ahmad Mansour: Generation Allah. Why we need to rethink the fight against religious extremism. Frankfurt am Main 2017.
    9 Cf. inter alia: Michael N. Ebertz: For a milieu-sensitive communication strategy. In: Communicatio Socialis 39 (3/2006), 253-261.
    10 Kalberg’s helpful reflections also show that Weber “was an important ‘conflict theorist’”. Ibid. 47.
    11 Weber (note 4), 299 f.
    12 Ibid. 310.
    13 Weber defines charisma as the “extra-ordinary […] quality of a personality […] for the sake of which it is regarded as […] god-sent or exemplary and therefore as a leader.” Ibid. 140 With the universalization, charismatic rule leads to the forms of patrimonial, corporative or bureaucratic rule (ibid. 146). The pattern of institutionalized charisma can be found in popes and bishops as well as (derived from them) kings and emperors. Anti-authoritarian reinterpretations, for example in the sense of the freely elected or bureaucratically determined leader, are possible (ibid. 156).
    14 Ibid. 310.
    15 Max Weber: Collected Essays on the Sociology of Religion I. Tübingen 1963, 259.
    16 Here, however, the typical weaknesses of Weber’s overly strong typification become visible: by no means all prophets of the OT can simply be characterized as intellectuals. Not to mention the fact that the term “intellectual” can only be understood from the sociological situation of the first half of the 20th century, in which Weber lived, and reveals the central intention of Weber’s work, which was not first and foremost a historical one, but consisted of “to come to grips with the fate of the individual in modernity”. Cf. Tomas Ekstrand: Max Weber in a Theological Perspective. Leuven 2000, 5.
    17 Weber (note 4), 307.
    18 As a representative of the aggressively secular Giordano Bruno Foundation, the philosopher Schmidt-Salomon underpins the false contradiction between faith and thought in the history of religion with ever new sham arguments, but is always seemingly confirmed by non-reflexive forms of religion. See, for example, his perfidious children’s book: Wo bitte geht’s zu Gott, fragte das kleine Ferkel. A book for all those who can’t be fooled. Aschaffenburg 2007; or: Keine Macht den Doofen! A polemic. Munich 2012.
    19 Cf. in addition to many journalistic statements in more detail: Abdel-Hakim Ourgi: Reform des Islam. 40 theses. Munich 2017.
    20 Jürgen Habermas: Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie: Band 1: Die okzidentale Konstellation von Glauben und Wissen; Band 2: Vernünftige Freiheit. Traces of the Discourse on Belief and Knowledge. Berlin 2019.

    Joachim Valentin, born 1965, Dr. theol., Director of the Catholic Center “Haus am Dom”, Frankfurt a.M. and Adjunct Professor of Theory of Religion and Culture at Goethe University Frankfurt a.M.

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