Voices of the Times – 2022

The dark side of God
By Klaus Mertes
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, Die dunkle Seite Gottes | Stimmen der Zeit.]

Not only is evil returning, as Stefan Kiechle noted in the editorial of our May issue, but also talk of the “dark side of God”. There are plenty of reasons for this, as the production of articles and books in recent times of change makes clear. Where is God right now? Does God have a dark side? And what could this mean?

First of all, the dark side of God probably simply means the side of God that remains dark to our perception. The Church’s magisterium classically expressed the fact that it belongs to God as follows: “There is no similarity between the Creator and the creature so great that there is no greater dissimilarity between them” (IV Lateran Council, 1215). This means that the dark side of God is greater than the light side of God. “If you have understood God, it is not God” (Augustine). This is not an invitation to lazy thinking, but rather to respect, even reverence for the “object”. Frivolous talk about God is inappropriate in every respect: theologically, pastorally, spiritually.

Talking about the dark side of God also has its place in therapeutic, pastoral-psychological and historical-critical contexts. This is more about images of God than about God, about dark, “demonic images of God” (Karl Frielingsdorf) that make people ill, and in some cases also about a critical look at the images of God in the biblical tradition and the church’s proclamation. In any case, “God” as an “image of God” becomes the subject of critical, enlightening discourse. Psychology scrutinizes these images and evaluates their healing or harmful effects on the human psyche. Literary scholars write a “biography” of God (Jack Miles) and uncover fascinating insights into the development of images of God in the Book of Books. Specialist exegesis places images of God that are perceived as problematic for good reasons in their historical context – which, incidentally, is also one of the best immunizations against fundamentalist readings of the Bible and the misuse of biblical texts to legitimize violence.

Finally, there are also important references to the metaphor of darkness in the mystical tradition: in Carmelite mysticism, the “dark night of the soul” (John of the Cross) does not refer to the “dark side of God” itself. It is about the processual character of the dialog between the human soul and God. The “dark night of the soul” is part of the process of Transformación en Dios: God withdraws from the soul in order to draw it even closer to Himself. Ignatian mysticism is also familiar with this experience of God withdrawing in order to draw the soul even closer to Himself. The difficulty with this idea is that the meaning of withdrawal can only be recognized in retrospect. In the phase of withdrawal itself, the meaning of withdrawal is also hidden. The “dark night of the soul” is really dark.

So far, so good. However, there is a limit to the talk of the dark side of God. It concerns ethics. The following applies here: “God is light, and there is no darkness in him” (1 John 5). There is indeed darkness that is split off as “evil” in the individual or collective psyche and can be reintegrated. In the current reform agenda, such deep-seated divisions are critically addressed in the form of derogatory images of women, homophobic doctrinal content or indiscriminate rejection of the zeitgeist. But sin is more than just a split-off shadow, and judgment is not a remnant of a dark image of God. To speak existentially of God, or rather to God, to listen to him, to entrust oneself to him in life and death, is only possible if it is really true that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). But God is only love if there is no darkness of sin in him.

“God is love”, in other words: God is communication, personal, more than just a person. More precisely: God is successful communication between you and I, united around a table to form a we. The whole of creation is invited to join in. The unity of personal love is the creative foundation of all being. This “hidden divinity” (Thomas Aquinas) is immune to the darkness of evil. In the incarnation of the Son, it exposes itself to the contagious potentials of violence – and resists infection through abusive proximity, “in everything like us except sin” (cf. Heb 4:15). This resistance is not a simple matter if one really descends into violent relationships. If the Son were to extend even a little finger to the “cunning” (Gen 3:1) logic of violence, the entire Godhead would be infected. It would then no longer be “love”. But it is precisely this love, in which there is no darkness, that is the foundation of the Christian faith and the hope of the entire universe.

    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.


The end of empires
By Stefan Kiechle
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/11-2022/vom-ende-der-imperien/.]

“Empire” – from Celtic -rig (power); Latin imperium – refers to a system of rule and a territory. In the Holy Roman Empire, the term “emperor and empire” was used to refer to the ruler and the peoples who depended on him. An empire – in the positive sense – is governed by authority and law, and it exercises power in two senses: through state authority and through physical coercion where this is necessary to maintain order. As a rule, an empire promises to enforce peace against chaos.

However, if you look at history, empires have always failed; a few examples will suffice: The Roman empire expanded over centuries by force, it dominated foreign peoples and subjugated them – Palestine at the time of Jesus is just one example among many; the empire of Rome failed due to internal decay, and foreign peoples invaded the power vacuum and attempted to establish new empires. Or: Charlemagne tried to establish a new Roman empire by force – just think of the “Saxon Mission” – but it collapsed with his death. Or: Charles V, again with the dream of the Imperium Romanum, tried to hold his huge empire together as a Catholic one with many wars, against the heresies of the time and against the fragmentation of Europe; he failed before his death. In colonialism, too, European powers wanted to expand their empires with non-European territories and thus rise to become world powers, with a great deal of military and cultural, even religious violence; the gruesome consequences are still visible today and are urging us to come to terms with them. The 20th century surpassed all previous ones in terms of imperial horror: National Socialism promised a “thousand-year Reich” and collapsed after twelve years in the inferno of the Shoah and the World War. Soviet-style communism murdered millions more people and collapsed after a few decades.

Empires have a penchant for the ideology of the master race, for internal violence against any opposition and for constant expansion. They take over their people and the peoples subject to them. They want to achieve hegemony because they feel threatened by neighbors over whom they have no control; that is why they have a tendency to dominate the world. They claim an ideology of superior morality or culture or religion – or even race – of their own people, with which they “rightly” want to conquer and dominate neighboring peoples. They construct their historical narrative in order to justify expansion and oppression. Russia is currently demonstrating that imperial thinking regularly returns. You don’t have to be a prophet to say that it will fail like all empires before it.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth alluded to the Roman Empire: “You know that rulers oppress their people, and the powerful abuse their authority over men. But it shall not be so with you…” (Mt 20:25 f.). All too often in history, however, it was exactly “like this”: the churches conformed to the idea of empire. They placed themselves at the disposal of empires, including the Roman Empire under Constantine, the empires of Charlemagne and Charles V, and similarly in colonialism and communism. Some Christians even supported the Nazis. Currently, the top of Russian Orthodoxy is serving Putin. Court theologians are not embarrassed to present the appropriate religious ideology and justify the empire theocratically. Church leaders are not ashamed to adulate empires and bask in their wealth and splendor. Do Christians learn nothing from history?

Why can’t peoples, ethnic groups and religions live together in peace? After the horrors of the Second World War, the international community defined the right of peoples to self-determination as fundamental. On the one hand, Christianity is not an empire of this world; it keeps its distance from state power, even when the latter respects and implements human rights and international law. On the other hand, it condemns injustice and exploitation, violence and war all the more. It rejects empires that are arrogant and mendacious, religiously intolerant and hegemonic, authoritarian and expansionist. Christians are waiting for God’s kingdom, which will overcome all earthly kingdoms and create justice and peace.

The counter-model to the empire would be the union of peoples, such as the European Union: peoples form states freely and of their own free will – literally democratically; several peoples or ethnic groups can also form a state together. Then several states join together freely in order to support each other and present a united front to the outside world. New states can join the union and, conversely, members can also leave. No state in the union of states dominates the others. Power is shared in each state as well as in the union of states, limited and controlled by the rule of law. Empires may pass away. Communities of states stand for a vision whose meaning is open to 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.

Reappraisal: More commitment, more speed and finally consequences

At the conference of the Independent Commission on the Reappraisal of Child Sexual Abuse on the topic of “Reappraisal, files, archives – on dealing with sensitive documents” in Berlin-Tempelhof, Lars Castellucci MdB, Commissioner for Churches and Religious Communities of the SPD parliamentary group and Professor of Sustainable Management at the Mannheim School of Management, gave a speech on June 30, 2022 entitled “More commitment, more speed and finally consequences: A new start for the reappraisal.” We document this speech below.
By Lars Castellucci
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/11-2022/aufarbeitung-mehr-verbindlichkeit-mehr-tempo-und-endlich-konsequenzen/.]

It was a good decision to set up the Independent Commission in 2016. Those affected had long campaigned for it. Reappraisal cannot be left solely to the organizations in which the crimes took place. These organizations must also be active themselves, because otherwise there can be no learning and therefore no effective prevention. But there is a societal and therefore state co-responsibility. Shared responsibility for misjudgements, for not looking and listening, for staff shortages, and in general: shared responsibility on behalf of us all. Because sexualized violence is an issue for society as a whole, not just where children and young people are affected.

Public prosecutors and courts play their part in this. It is valuable and it is limited – limited by reporting behavior, by the law, and certainly also by a lack of capacity. Last but not least, it is not completely independent of how a society as a whole views an issue or not. Therefore, there is a need for an institution whose mission is exactly what can be read on the homepage of the Reappraisal Commission: “The Commission is to investigate the extent, nature, causes and consequences of sexual abuse in the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR, e.g. in institutions, in the family and in the social environment, by external perpetrators and in an organized/ritual context. It should identify structures and conditions that enabled abuse in the past and prevented it from being dealt with.” In short: it should come to terms with the past.

And now I would like to pay the greatest possible respect to the work that has been done, which was pioneering work in many respects, for conferences such as this one, which are dedicated to relevant issues and at the same time take the topic out of the taboo zone, for each individual story that those affected were encouraged to tell, for fundamental work on how coming to terms with the past can succeed. I don’t even claim to see all the work that has been done.

But I have come here to say that it is not enough, that we cannot simply carry on as before. Especially as, in my opinion, the Commission is also subject to certain signs of disintegration. We need more commitment, more speed and visible consequences. Consequences not only in the form of forward-looking efforts to prevent future acts – this, of course, should also be evaluated, because who can actually tell us that the prevention work that has been expanded in recent years is effective or what could be improved – no, I am concerned about consequences for what has happened.

The Church – especially the Catholic Church – is at the center of public interest. This is understandable, given everything that has happened, and it is also unfair when you know that other areas of society are just as affected – sport, voluntary work, homes, educational institutions – and that most acts simply happen in the family environment. The only way forward is to finally tackle the issue head-on and comprehensively. It is still possible to create a good example of coming to terms with the past, which other areas of society can follow. This also includes mistakes that no longer need to be repeated by others. After all, it is a relief to say that coming to terms with the past cannot be achieved just like that. We are talking about great suffering and you can’t just get rid of it.

We now urgently need to take the next steps. Urgently, because in the course of the Commission’s work, those affected have only gradually plucked up the courage to tell their stories. Often the events happened a long time ago. We are running out of time. The good news is that the coalition agreement between the SPD, Greens and FDP is a good basis for a new start, which was also worked towards in the last legislative period. Rarely has child protection been as important as it is in this document. And intensive work is already underway to implement it. I would cite the Center for Save Sport as an example.

I would like to outline my thoughts on further work in ten brief points.

1. our conference immediately raises the crucial question for which I have not yet found a conclusive answer, namely that of the files. If public prosecutors no longer touch cases that are time-barred, doesn’t reappraisal require a right to inspect files? Frankly, I can’t imagine that there are any more files labeled “Brothers in the fog”. But I couldn’t imagine this one folder either.

2. obviously unsuccessful reappraisal processes undermine the work of this commission and destroy confidence that we as a society can deal appropriately with such difficult issues. As part of the process of coming to terms with the past within the churches, one expert opinion follows the next, none is really comparable with the other, no one knows how to proceed and what they should actually say about the publications. This can no longer be allowed to continue. The Reappraisal Commission must be put in a position to provide a binding framework for reappraisal processes – among other things spatially: for the whole of Germany; in terms of time: with a clear end date – and to evaluate this framework on an ongoing basis. To this end, the Reappraisal Commission must be strengthened.

3. To this end, the Commission, like the Independent Commissioner, needs a legal basis that describes its mandate, objectives and competencies. Organizations in which sexualized violence against children and young people has occurred must become accountable to the Commission.

4. without the former Independent Commissioner, there would be no Commission, but the structure of the Independent Commission of the Independent Commissioner is unfortunately weak. Sexualized violence is an issue for society as a whole. It affects different areas, it demands different areas. The issue belongs either in the Chancellery or in Parliament.

5. the Independent Commission, like the Independent Commissioner, has not yet been sufficiently recognized in the political arena. In future, it must write a regular report to the German Bundestag, which will be debated and worked on in the committees or the Children’s Commission. We must create political responsibility for dealing with this issue and no longer delegate it to institutions.

6. the Commission should investigate all forms of child sexual abuse in Germany since 1949. This cannot be done on a voluntary basis. At the same time, expertise from different perspectives is valuable, which is hardly available for full-time positions. The solution lies in consolidating the existing commission as a steering body for the processes of coming to terms with all forms and areas of sexualized violence against children and adolescents and providing it with direct personnel resources or, better still, budgets to carry out the work of coming to terms, probably consecutively, area by area. It must be possible to recruit the best experts for this.

7) The Commission’s work is currently limited until 2023. It should be made permanent. It must continue to exist until it has fulfilled its task.

8) As a basis for this work, we finally need a dark field study and, subsequently, regular representative surveys in order to be able to measure the extent of past injustice, the effectiveness of counter-strategies and new developments.

9) The processing of individual cases also needs a binding framework, insofar as this is desired by those affected. The process must not drag on indefinitely. No one’s concerns should be relegated to the organization in which the acts took place. At the very least, there needs to be an independent clearing house that can be called upon when things get tangled up.

10 Finally, responsibility must be left where it lies. Those affected must be involved, but they have no responsibility for what has happened. So they should not be given responsibility for coming to terms with what happened, especially not under the direction of the organizations in which the crimes took place. I think this is a misconception. The problems that have already arisen in this context should come as no surprise to anyone. It is not just down to human error, the system is not right.

I am happy for people to continue thinking about my proposals, just not for too long. We are in the midst of a crisis situation that is made up of very different developments: Russia’s war against Ukraine, the economic and social consequences of this war, climate change with its challenge of a major restructuring of our way of living and doing business, the ongoing pandemic.

At the same time, the balance of power in the world is changing. This affects populations, economic power, but also systems: By the end of the century, Africa could have replaced Asia as the most populous continent, China has been the world’s largest economy (in terms of purchasing power) for a few years now, and democracies have been in retreat for years.

We need to make our societies strong and resilient in the face of these and other challenges. This also means that we have to heal the wounds that have remained open. The stronger the social cohesion, the greater the resilience. And social cohesion first requires the individual members of a society to be in a secure position. Powerlessness, the feeling of being at the mercy of others, of having no one to stand by your side – this is not just an individual fate that must not leave us cold. It is also poison for cohesion.

The antidote is trust. Cohesion requires trust in our fellow human beings, that they care about me, that my fate, my life counts, just like that of all other members of society. That is the task. And it requires trust in the development of the world. Perhaps despite everything. Positive images of the future help. Images of the future that motivate us to work together on what still stands in the way of these images of the future.

I don’t imagine that we will succeed in banishing sexualized violence from our existence; I don’t imagine that we will be able to do justice to each and every individual who has experienced something bad; resilience requires realistic scenarios. I imagine that we will manage to make peace with the past as a society. Peace that is possible because we have made the maximum effort to see the past, to assess it, to understand what contributed to it. That we also express this as a society by acknowledging what happened and enabling collective remembrance. And that, on this basis, we find the strength to do what it takes to prevent future acts.

    Lars Castellucci was born in 1974 and is the Commissioner for Churches and Religious Communities of the SPD parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, of which he has been a member since 2013. He studied political science, history and public law in Heidelberg and San Francisco and was awarded his doctorate in Darmstadt in 2008. From 2001 to 2013, he was project manager for municipal and regional development and citizen participation; since April 2013, he has been Professor of Sustainable Management at the Mannheim School of Management (HdWM).

By Klaus Mertes
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/10-2022/bergen-belsen/.]

On November 21, 1961, Bishop Heinrich Maria Janssen of Hildesheim consecrated the Church of Atonement “of the Precious Blood” in Bergen. It was built at the request of the local Catholic population “in memory of the dead from all nations and denominations of the former concentration camp BERGEN BELSEN”. Federal President Heinrich Lübke donated a statue of “Christ in captivity” by the sculptor Joseph Krautwald. Its sight characterizes the rear room behind the altar. Pope John XXIII donated a chalice to the parish, which is still treasured today. Believers from all over the diocese of Hildesheim regularly make pilgrimages to the church.

The duly large distance between the church in the town of Belsen and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp a few kilometers away prevented any impression that the concentration camp had been appropriated. Thus, invisible bonds of remembrance and dialog developed quietly between the church and Bergen-Belsen. Over the years, visitors to the concentration camp, especially relatives of the murdered and survivors, have shown a spiritual interest. They also wished for an opportunity to meditate on the site itself after walking through the cemetery. On April 16, 2000, a “House of Silence” was inaugurated, a non-denominational building made of stainless steel, glass and granite with an open view. It stands at the edge of the grounds, slightly concealed by the branches of the trees, so that the view of the flat terrain with the slight elevations of the mass graves, the Jewish memorial stone, the Polish wooden cross and the inscription wall with the obelisk is not obstructed.

November 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the consecration of the Church of Atonement. The commemorative publication shows how parish life, ecumenical contacts and commemoration have developed in the vicinity of Bergen-Belsen over the last few decades. However, developments are also emerging that are not surprising given the situation of the church as a whole: The congregations are weakening, ageing and declining in numbers. Churches that have grown are being merged into pastoral care units. In the increasingly secularized local public, there is less and less spiritual understanding for an “atonement church” near Bergen-Belsen, as the concept and process of “atonement” itself is barely understood. The word is waiting for a new translation.

This creates a dilemma. It exemplifies the fragility of the future of church commemoration of the Shoah in Germany. Places like the Church of Atonement in Bergen cannot simply be abandoned for the sake of the victims. Nor would such a retreat be understood internationally in Israel, Poland, France or the Netherlands (there is a memorial stone to Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen). On the other hand, the local communities no longer have the strength to leave their mark on the place or, as in the case of Bergen, to maintain a long-term spiritual bond with the “House of Silence” and the site with the mass graves. The experiences from Dachau, from the Maria Regina Martyrum memorial church in Berlin and from other comparable places show that such a church requires a community that understands the nearby camp as a place that “calls”: an “other place” (Sr. Mirjam Fuchs), a “heterotopia”, a place that is “drawn into the institution of society, a counter-placement or abutment, so to speak”. There, “the real places within culture are simultaneously represented, contested and turned” (Michel Foucault).

The Bishop of Hildesheim, Heiner Wilmer, recently invited a group of people who are involved in one way or another with Bergen, Bergen-Belsen and the subject of remembrance. Together we visited the site of the former concentration camp; our guide called it the “final station of the final solution”. The flat terrain, without barracks, with its mass graves lying quietly under the slightly raised hills, seems very different from Auschwitz and yet is deeply connected to it. The words I heard there were: Death and remembrance of the dead. In combination with the Church of Atonement in Bergen, this raises a question not only for the congregation in Bergen, but for the whole church in Germany. It will certainly also be about money and investment in personnel. But at its core, it is about more. The place is calling – into a form of existence that consciously confronts death out of full life.

    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.

Church as an organization of perpetrators?
By Klaus Mertes
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/9-2022/taeterorganisation-kirche/.]

In November 2021, the auxiliary bishop of Cologne and temporary apostolic administrator of the Cologne archdiocese, Rolf Steinhäuser, confessed to the failure of the Church during the penitential service in Cologne Cathedral: “A large number of crimes of sexualized violence against those under our protection have been committed by priests and other church employees of our diocese.” As the current head of the archdiocese, he is the “head of the perpetrator organization Archdiocese of Cologne”. Steinhäuser thus picked up on a formulation that can be heard more and more often, including in the church press, without clarification or differentiation.

It may be pointless to argue about the term for too long. In the context of a legal language game, this choice of words may make sense if an organization or institution is under indictment because it can be systemically assigned to the “perpetrator side” by covering up the actions of the perpetrators. However, a “perpetrator organization” is generally understood to be an organization that is founded for the purpose of committing crimes, for example the mafia. This does not apply to the church, on the contrary: the worst thing about abuse in the church is precisely that it happens in an institution whose purpose is explicitly not crime, but to provide protection and security in the love of God. One could even say that speaking of the church as an “organization of perpetrators” trivializes the absurdity of abuse in the church. The increasingly unquestioning use of the term therefore rather stands for the confusion caused by abuse. It does not stop at the relationship between victim and perpetrator, but reaches the entire relationship environment, the personal and institutional self-relationships and thus also the processes of coming to terms with the abuse. Anyone who uses the term “perpetrator organization” suggests that they have a clarity that does not do justice to the complexity of the abuse and the different levels of cover-up.

In any case, how can you actually talk about yourself as a “perpetrator organization” from the inside, from a sense of belonging, and really mean what you say? I get rather suspicious about that. If you belong to the church and realize that it is a “perpetrator organization”, it is not enough to leave it. You then have to fight it. And what actually happens when church leaders and the church media use this language without differentiation? What does it say about their self-image? What do pastors, bishops and theologians want to say to their congregations? One can only share the indignation about crimes against children and wards by “shepherds” from the bottom of one’s heart. Perhaps even those who formulate it in this way have now fortunately realized that one – not only popes and bishops, but also representatives of church associations and reform groups of all kinds – cannot side with the victims out of understandable indignation and then join them in being outraged at the perpetrators and cover-ups. This has happened too often in recent years, but the reversal does not make it any better.

After all, using indignant language about oneself does not help anyone either, not those affected, and certainly not those who are now looking for something in the church that was withheld or even taken away from them in their childhood; nor the confused systems in families, communities, schools and associations. Linguistic self-flagellation is more like a kind of institutional and spiritual self-execution. This is another way of evading those affected, as well as the pastoral task of caring for those in need of protection here and now. A “perpetrator organization” should ideally no longer accept trust from those in need of protection.

And finally: What does it mean to plead guilty on the basis of membership in a “perpetrator organization”, as is often heard in this context? Mere membership, especially if you were born into it from childhood, does not make you guilty. However, if it then turns out that the church is not only holy but also sinful, then it is a weak reason to leave simply in order to remain innocent or to regain innocence. With this justification, I am again only concerned with myself and not with the concerns of coming to terms with the past. Then it’s primarily about me again, about not becoming guilty myself. If nothing else, there are better reasons to leave.

In any case, the reappraisal is not about me. Rather, the fear for “me”, for my good reputation, for my own innocence is itself one of the deepest reasons for the hermetic nature of all spirals of silence and cover-up dynamics, even outside the church. Leaving for this reason does not mean that you have escaped your own susceptibility to silence, turning a blind eye and covering up. The toxic nature of abuse continues to spread its poison beyond the boundaries of the institution.

    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.

The Last Generation: The role of the church in the fight against the climate crisis

For climate activist Lea Bonasera, politics is caught up in discussions about feasibility – instead of discussions about necessity. The need to act as a result of the ongoing climate catastrophe is motivating young people in particular to protest, including civil resistance. Lea Bonasera gives a personal insight into her activism and shows three ways in which the church could help in the fight against climate change. She is doing a doctorate in civil disobedience. She became known in particular through the hunger strike of the “Last Generation” group in summer 2021. We document a lecture she gave at the Jesuit Provincial Assembly in April.
By Lea Bonasera
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/9-2022/die-letzte-generation-zur-rolle-der-kirche-im-kampf-gegen-die-klimakrise/.]

My name is Lea Bonasera. I am 24 years old and co-founder of the group “Last Generation”, with which I am engaged in civil resistance to campaign for climate justice. The role of the Catholic Church in civil resistance against the destructive climate policy of our federal government has long been a matter close to my heart. I see the Jesuits’ commitment to a systemic change of climate, environment and economy. At the same time, however, we climate activists want and expect more support and backing from the entire Catholic Church in our fight to preserve our livelihoods. The Church has the power, but also the responsibility, to lend moral legitimacy to our efforts. As a pillar of society, it should also actively participate in our civil resistance. Only with broad support from all parts of civil society will we be able to build up enough pressure on our federal government to bring about the necessary change. I would like to go into more detail below about the role the church can play in our fight for climate justice and the specific ways in which it can support us. But first, a quick word about me.

My reputation as a radical climate activist sometimes precedes me. Yet I could never have imagined myself becoming the person I am today. I come from a small town near Bielefeld. After graduating from high school, I went to Amsterdam University College to study Liberal Arts and Sciences. During my time there, I realized that I wanted to do my own research in this field and make the Liberal Arts and Sciences concept much better known in Germany. It was during my Masters in International Relations at Oxford that I first came into contact with the topic of civil resistance. At the time, Extinction Rebellion was very large and active in the UK, one of the first groups of people trying to use civil resistance to draw attention to the climate crisis. I wrote my Master’s thesis on this because I realized that we know very little about civil resistance and what it can achieve. I am currently continuing my research on this topic in my doctoral thesis. My scientific interest accompanies me in everything I do. I would like to continue my research on civil resistance and one day work and teach at a college myself. If it weren’t for the climate crisis.

I first really came into contact with the climate crisis in 2015. I had just arrived at college in Amsterdam when we took buses to the climate conference in Paris and demonstrated. I spent the night there in a tent with hundreds of people who all wanted to stop flying and were eating a vegan diet. That made me think a lot about my previous life. Back at university, I joined an environmental committee, went to Fridays for Future demonstrations and started writing a blog about vegan food. But over the last year and a half, I’ve realized that this isn’t enough and that, above all, it’s not bringing about the change we need now fast enough. For example, I often took to the streets with signs calling for the 1.5 degree target to be met. But at some point, it just felt wrong to hold up this 1.5-degree target and at the same time know what all climate scientists already knew at the 2015 climate conference in Paris. We will exceed the 1.5-degree target.

A key moment for me was the forest fires in Australia, where animals and plants fell victim to the devastating flames. I have always been particularly touched by the suffering of animals. They are the creatures that are least responsible and at the same time suffer the most from the fact that we humans are destroying the basis of our existence. I could no longer stand by and so last September I went on hunger strike and later also on thirst strike. From January of this year, I also joined my fellow members of the Last Generation in peacefully blocking highways in Berlin for six weeks. The scale of the climate crisis and the suffering associated with it motivated me to take to the streets every day. From the beginning of April, over one hundred people from the Last Generation blocked roads again, this time in Frankfurt am Main, and then again in June and July with 250 people in Berlin. Many are putting their freedom and their future at risk. What drives us to give up our professions or abandon our education and engage in civil resistance?

Science tells us that we only have a few years left before our climate threatens to cross irreversible tipping points. We are in a climate emergency, the climate and ecological crisis threatens nothing less than the continued existence of our human civilization. We know that fossil fuels are killing us, even today. We are in the current crisis because of our dependence on oil, coal and gas. We know that fossil fuels are destroying our future.

Our government continues to fund this destruction. It is investing billions in new liquefied natural gas terminals and planning new oil wells in the North Sea. We can no longer stand idly by. That is why we are peacefully blocking roads and turning off pipelines.

If politicians want to stop us, they have to lock us up. And that is what they are doing. They are arresting peaceful people in civil resistance instead of finally fulfilling their constitutional duty to stop destroying our livelihoods.

Theory of change

The two worlds in which my life currently takes place, the academic world, but also my social and political commitment, show me again and again that the church plays a central role in civil resistance. But how can we change society, and how can we not? What role can the churches play? The basis of my theory of change is that our party political system is incapable of bringing about the political and social change needed in the face of the climate crisis. Reasons for this include, for example, the pursuit of short-term goals based on four-year election periods, where people are more focused on winning majorities and their own re-election than on the long-term good of the people. There is also a huge lobbying apparatus that repeatedly thwarts climate policy measures. In recent months, I have had so many conversations with politicians such as Scholz, Habeck, Künast, Göring-Eckhart etc. and I keep realizing that we are trapped in discussions about feasibility rather than necessity. Even if individual people really want to change something, the entire political system is not in a position to deliver the necessary solutions quickly. Change will not – or if it does, then too slowly – come from the parliaments. It will not come through better arguments, stronger petitions, mail campaigns or larger demonstrations. And while symbolic protest is important, it is simply not enough at this point. In my theory of change, we need more citizens to come together and engage in civil resistance.

Civil resistance is precisely our best chance for change. It is underestimated as a tool for social and political change. I see again and again in interview questions or in the accusations that are made against us because of our forms of protest how little appreciation our society has for this means of change. Diane Nash, a well-known US civil rights activist, once said that civil resistance was the “best innovation of the 20th century” because it allows you to achieve social change without bloodshed. I share her statement for moral, strategic and historical reasons. It is extremely important to me to emphasize that not only is it morally right not to want to harm anyone, but it is also a very strategic and disciplined decision to act peacefully in extreme situations. Both academic literature and history show us time and again how successful peaceful civil resistance can be. Without it, there would be no women’s suffrage, civil rights or Indian independence. And I see the success not only in academic studies and in our history, but also here and now in practice. With our protests on the streets, we are constantly creating dilemma situations in which the government must either opt for social and political progress or confront us with disproportionate repression, which only causes more protest in our society. This means that we cannot be ignored with our demands and that those politically responsible can no longer delay the necessary changes. The decisive factor is whether we manage to remain non-violent at all times. Because we only have a chance of success if we are peaceful.

Church in civil resistance

Studies on civil resistance show that it is not just about the people on the streets, but that other actors are also crucial, so-called pillars of support on which our society is based. These are the police, companies, the media, scientists, but also the churches. If these groups begin to withdraw their support from the state in cases of injustice and support people in civil resistance, then this legitimizes the protest and makes it more successful. There are many examples of this in history. To name one: the contribution of many Catholics and Protestants in the civil rights movement to the fall of communism in 1989. Probably best known are the church prayers for peace, later known as Monday prayers, which became a nucleus of the public non-violent Monday protests in the GDR in the fall. People like Pastor Christian Führer and Christoph Wonneberger held prayers for peace in the Nikolai Church in Leipzig from 1982 onwards, at which critical words were spoken that were rarely heard elsewhere. They offered safe spaces for exchange and remembrance and continued to take place despite criticism from the church council that the content was too provocative and politicized. Word got around and the Monday prayers were attended by more and more participants. New political events and developments, as well as the state’s attempts to exert regulatory influence on the course and organization of the peace prayers, led to an increasing number of actions taking place outside the church following the prayers. The church also produced protagonists who took the initiative and courageously tackled these issues. Friedrich Schorlemmer is one of them. He was responsible for the symbolic forging of a sword into a plowshare in the presence of Richard von Weizsäcker at the 1983 church congress in Wittenberg. At the time, the GDR authorities had declared the public use of the slogan “Swords to plowshares” illegal. Schorlemmer became internationally known through this expression of rebellion, and “Swords to Plowshares” became the most important symbol of the church’s peace work in the 1980s in the former GDR. And it was not only during the peaceful revolution that many churches made a contribution. Even after the fall of the Wall, many of them took on key roles in the democratization of the GDR, in the newly founded parties and at round tables.

Of course, there are many other famous examples around the world: Desmond Tutu, who was a great support for Mandela in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. The US civil rights movement was also massively influenced by the Christian faith and by Martin Luther King, who drew many of his motivations from your faith. Or the important role that the church played in the peaceful protests against the dictator Marcos in the Philippines. There are also examples in Germany today: Jörg Alt SJ decided last December to rescue edible food that had been thrown away by supermarkets. He was subsequently investigated for a “particularly serious case of theft”. His civil resistance had a positive impact on our protests. Alt’s protest action drew a lot of attention to the issue of food waste, which we would not have achieved with our protests. He was able to persuade many new people to become active as well and gave our protests a lot of legitimacy. What all these examples have in common is that at different times, in different places and in different contexts, the church has had a positive influence on civil resistance.

The role of the church is crucial. What can the church offer that is so essential to civil resistance? Three things are crucial: moral legitimacy, international independent networks and resources.

The most important is moral legitimacy, which is the “currency of civil resistance” – and that is exactly what the Church can give best. Let’s look at Catholic Social Teaching: Even if there are different interpretations, Catholic Social Teaching serves as a framework of values and a normative compass that should give us an orienting force in our society to make our lives more socially just and ecologically sustainable. The Catholic Church provides many values and ideologies that are important for campaigns of civil resistance: the dignity and rights of every individual as well as the common good, commitment to justice, solidarity and community, for democratic and participatory structures. For example, members of the church often act as protectors of the poor, who are often the first and most affected by the climate crisis. These are all values that the Catholic Church embodies. If it supports citizens in civil resistance, it becomes more difficult for the state to discredit the protesters and portray them as troublemakers, thus delegitimizing them.

Fears of the church

I would also like to express my disappointment with the church in this context. Regardless of the general criticism that can be leveled at the Catholic Church, whether it’s about the investigation of sexual abuse or the lack of transparency in church finances, I am very disappointed about how little the church is involved in the ongoing debate about values. Of course, there are always exceptions, people who take great individual risks. But as a person in civil resistance, I realize how difficult it is to protest without the church behind me. I am mocked and ridiculed by the media as a “child of the apocalypse”, insulted by people on the street and discredited by the Federal Chancellor as a “megalomaniac fanatic”. When I’m sitting alone in a police cell or being carried away with painful grips, I start to have doubts. Even when I was on hunger strike, we wrote to all sorts of people, including from the church, and hardly got any feedback. It’s not a nice feeling to have to stand alone in front of the cameras to talk about how bad the climate crisis is. I feel abandoned at times like this and wish for the solidarity that the Catholic Church preaches in its social teachings.

I can understand where the fear and hesitation to take a stand comes from, because you risk a lot by doing so. I am also worried about my role as a researcher at my university. I want to continue to be perceived as objective in my work and am afraid of losing credibility or even being dismissed. I see this fear in many people, and it is very real. There are reasons why many journalists who tell the truth don’t get assignments and academics who speak out drastically have already retired or are no longer consulted by the federal government. You expose yourself to repression if you rebel against our destructive economic and social system. But that must not stop us from standing up for what is right. Every day anew, the Catholic Church is given a chance to once again stand up for moral legitimacy in our society. As described earlier, the Catholic Church is the largest and oldest actor that has always dealt with values in the past and can provide precisely the moral legitimacy that is so important for citizens in civil resistance.

The second thing that the Catholic Church can provide for civil resistance is that it has a huge international network and connections all over the world that can show solidarity and support each other. It unites people from all countries and forms a global community that can quickly exchange ideas and strengthen each other. There are a total of 1.3 billion Catholics in almost every country in the world. If all these people answered the call to engage in civil resistance for change, we would have incredible strength. Moreover, in every country there are many independent networks in the form of parishes, church groups, businesses, cooperatives and associations that can free themselves from ruling structures and thus remove their legitimacy and even exemplify the vision of social and ecological transformation. This international aspect was particularly evident during our protests in January, when some Jesuits from the Global South backed our protests with expressions of solidarity, taking the issue to a whole new level. Charlie Chilufya SJ, for example, said: “You are creating the disruption that is already everyday life in the South.” That really touched me, because this support came from the people who are already most affected by the climate crisis and for whom I am also taking to the streets. It would not have been possible to connect with them without the Jesuit community.

Thirdly, the Church has great material and financial resources. Protest movements need a lot of money or monetary support. With 10,000 euros we were able to organize 50 meetings to mobilize people in civil resistance, with 50,000 it was 200 meetings, 200,000 euros are now needed to reach 1000 meetings in civil resistance. We consider this to be a number of people where the government really needs to address our demand for no new oil drilling in the North Sea and a halt to the expansion of new fossil fuel infrastructure. What we also need are free and large spaces where we can train, discuss and organize our protests. Spaces where we can feel safe and where we can regain hope in order to confront the climate crisis. That’s what we need most if we are to survive the long, tough road ahead.

I would like to mention two more things. One is that many church institutions in Germany are still investing in coal, oil and fossil gas. Through these investments, they are indirectly participating in and profiting from the ongoing exploitation of our planet. This must be stopped immediately. Secondly, we know from the literature factors that influence whether religious institutions support civil disobedience or not. They show that churches are most likely to support protesters when they do not receive financial or political benefits or other forms of support from the government that bind them to loyalty to those in power. This is because when they do not have to fear losing benefits and privileges, religious leaders are more willing to voice criticism precisely because the government has less power over them and there is no relationship of dependency. It is important that we all ask ourselves whether we are in such relationships of dependency that prevent us from doing what is necessary and right now.

As an influential actor with a lot of voice and power, the church can make our protest more successful by supporting us with moral legitimacy, its international networks and financial and material resources.

Church as a moral compass

Our main problem is not that the science is not clear, but that we do not let its warnings about the climate crisis get close enough to us emotionally; that we have a government that does not tell the population the truth and can intervene in world climate reports; that we have too many media that do not report that it will soon be too hot to grow food in many parts of the world, but talk about beautiful summer days instead of food shortages; that scientists do not report on the suffering of billions of people: report on the suffering of billions of people as if it were a completely neutral study and do not choose the drastic words that are actually needed; that we get lost in discussions and do not take action; that the Catholic Church does not adequately fulfill its responsibility as a moral compass; that it thinks it can achieve the most if it uses its connections to the government, for example. For example, it thinks it can achieve the most by using its connections to the government to influence politics instead of consistently defending moral values and human rights, even in the face of social tensions.

The church should remind the state and our society of our fundamental tasks and basic values and revive them. I hope that the Catholic Church will publicly stand by our side and use its highly respected role to draw attention to the injustice and suffering caused by the climate crisis. Over Easter, around thirty people were imprisoned in Frankfurt am Main for five days because they were peacefully campaigning for our survival. As soon as they were released, they were back on the streets and were arrested and locked up again. And they, just like me, will rejoin the civil resistance and sit in a cell again, where we don’t know for how long. And I am afraid of how they will treat me, but at the same time I can no longer stand to see how we are turning our backs on our beloved earth.

I think it’s important to take a stand when so much injustice is happening. It is the moral duty of all of us, but especially of the Church, to act. To say nothing and not act is also part of the crime. Or as Desmond Tutu put it: “When you face injustice and remain neutral, you choose the side of the oppressor.” The church must raise its finger in admonition and point accusingly at those responsible, even if that means pointing three fingers back at itself. Only a few people are needed for decisive change, but they are crucial, as our history has shown time and again. And for me, there is no clearer message than when Catholic believers dare to join us in civil resistance. The three steps of social teaching explain it best: See – Judge – Act. In this sense, the Catholic Church has been shirking its responsibility for far too long and will hopefully finally take action again in this crucial hour.

    Lea Bonasera is co-founder of the climate activist group “The Last Generation”. She studied in Amsterdam, Oxford and Berlin and is working on her doctoral thesis on civil disobedience.

The one and divided church
By Stefan Kiechle
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/8-2022/die-eine-und-gespaltene-kirche/.]

Through one baptism, believers in Christ belong to the one Church of Jesus Christ. In faith in Christ, all are one. And yet there are numerous divisions in Christianity. Where do we stand on the path to unity? The impression is that there are divisions on three levels:

First, divisions in doctrine: many of these are old and have been causes of schisms. It is an intellectual task to struggle for theological agreement. Mutual condemnations in history can often be resolved primarily as a result of cultural differences or misunderstandings. Sometimes a new openness to a certain degree of plurality in doctrine is also needed. The differences have grown historically and can therefore also develop historically. Many of these divisions are considered to have been overcome in theological consensus documents, others are regarded as permanent obstacles, and still others are considered irrelevant today – in the face of completely different theological challenges. Will new ones be added? In his stance on war, Patriarch Cyril I deviates so much from the consensus of not only Western Christian peace ethics that new divisions are emerging.

Then there are divisions that could be called “structural”: Offices with their respective powers are not recognized by others, nor are jurisdictions of other denominations and the doctrinal and jurisdictional sovereignties claimed by some churches. Consequently, the sacraments are also considered invalid, at least in part. Unfortunately, this schism is also linked to the gender issue: if the Catholic Church were to ordain women, as is now practiced by other churches and urgently demanded in many places, the schism with Orthodoxy would be deepened.

Finally, divisions that are best described as “spiritual”: On the one hand, the church understanding and feeling of charismatic-evangelical Christians, and on the other, that of intellectually critical Christians; or that of Catholics who value the old mass or traditional sexual morality, and that of Christians who are committed to the rights of queer people; or that of upper middle-class Christians in Europe and that of Baptists in the slums of Bogota – are they not so fundamentally different that dialog is hardly possible anymore and we must therefore speak of “divisions”? These divisions often lie across traditional denominational boundaries. On the synodal path of the Catholic Church in Germany, people are at least talking – in other countries, such as France or the USA, communication between the “camps” has largely broken down. The church is always spiritually divided when one group claims the spirit for itself and denies it to the other.

The media, and therefore the secular public, probably primarily see the disunity of the church institutions. However, my impression is that behind this external view there is, on the one hand, much more unity than is perceived: precisely in one baptism and in living from the Scriptures, in faith in salvation through Christ and in prayer to him, in commitment to justice and peace and in dedication to the poor and displaced persons, not least in the willingness to endure persecution and martyrdom for the sake of faith. On the other hand, there is more division than is perceived: in one-sided and quasi incompatible church denominations, in the claim of some churches to define what true church is and to ascribe or deny this to other churches, in the sometimes authoritarian political options of church groups, also in the internal violence in the church and in the inability to see and combat this, finally in the unwillingness of some to communicate openly, for example on questions of which Christianity is in line with the Gospel.

The church is always both an earthly, often quite worldly institution and a heavenly, richly spiritual community. This duality is what makes it so incomprehensible and incomprehensible, so ambivalent and vulnerable, but also so mysterious and fascinating. The doubling is a transfer of the two natures of Christ: the heavenly incarnates into the earthly. Could we not continue to work here, theologically and spiritually and also “institutionally”?

Only a united church can credibly and effectively proclaim the kingdom of God in the spirit of the Gospel. This unity is not predominantly institutional – that would be the Catholic temptation – nor is it predominantly spiritual – perhaps the Protestant and also the Orthodox temptation. Unity involves – a frequently used expression – reconciled diversity. In these divided times, however, it should be added that the united church must distance itself from churches that clearly contradict the Gospel – we are currently looking towards Russia. It is predicted that there will always be divisions on the path to unity.

On the occasion of the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Karlsruhe (31.8. to 8.9.2022), this issue of “Voices of the Times” focuses on ecumenical issues.

    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.

Eucharistic hospitality: Interview with two Frankfurt city deans

Ecumenism happens above all on the ground. In Frankfurt am Main, new approaches were taken to the issue of Eucharistic hospitality on the occasion of the Ecumenical Church Congress in May 2021. In this interview, the two Frankfurt city deans Johannes zu Eltz (Catholic) and Achim Knecht (Protestant) give their views. The interview was conducted by editor-in-chief Stefan Kiechle SJ.
By Johannes zu Eltz, Achim Knecht
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/8-2022/eucharistische-gastfreundschaft-interview-mit-zwei-frankfurter-stadtdekanen/.]

Mr. Knecht, the Catholic Church is crumbling at the moment, and is even dismantling itself. How do you feel about losing your ecumenical partner?

Knecht: I am very glad that I have Johannes zu Eltz as my local partner. He is not crumbling, but is holding an impressive course in these difficult times for the Catholic Church and is dealing constructively with the justified criticisms of the Church. Some controversial issues in the Catholic Church are less relevant for us Protestants. You can talk very openly with Johannes zu Eltz.

Mr. Stadtdekan zu Eltz, the Protestant church is also shrinking. Perhaps for other reasons and in other ways, it is more the evaporation of faith and church – your ecumenical partner is also dwindling. How do you feel about that?

Zu Eltz: Together, we are exposed to the pressure of secularization in Western societies and cannot do so much right that we could effectively stand in the way of this megatrend or even turn it around. I have learned not to lament this trend as a decline, but to see it as a sign of the times and, here and there, as an exciting sign of the saturation of a secular society with the substance of the Gospel. I have a cheerfully ambivalent relationship with these processes and do not long for the times when both churches had supremacy in society and were therefore able to control people even against their will. I cannot perceive a particularly dramatic loss of resonance or relevance of the Protestant church here in the Frankfurt area. Conservative or reactionary Catholic brothers and sisters sometimes accuse us of giving up our Catholic prerogative and selling it to the Protestants, and that they are no better off than we are – I once heard our bishop say quietly in response: “But perhaps more honest”. This is another reason why you won’t see me on the side of those who look with satisfaction at the fading of Protestantism in the German church landscape.

In 2019, an ecumenical theological working group published the paper “Together at the Lord’s Table”. The next goal was not the complete unification of the churches with only one Eucharist, but rather Eucharistic hospitality between two churches that remain independent, which continue to celebrate communion and the Eucharist in their own way with their ministers and invite each other as guests. In your view, what were the arguments in favor of this approach?

Knecht: What is important for the paper and for our ecumenical understanding is the fundamental trust – individual arguments are less important in comparison. We trust that Christ is invoked in both celebrations, that he is present and inviting. What we hope for in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper is – according to this fundamental trust – also to be found in the Catholic Eucharist; that is the key to understanding this paper. Here in Frankfurt, the doors were wide open because this trust has grown over decades and is very fruitful today. Here in Frankfurt, there was a local ecumenical working group that approached us deans at the same time with the same concerns and with similar arguments: To confidently perceive that baptism is the fundamental sacrament and gives us a key for dealing with the Eucharist and the Lord’s Supper.

Mr. zu Eltz, the stronger opposition to this practice comes from the Catholic side. Cardinal Müller continues to say that there is no Eucharistic communion without full church communion. What are your arguments in favor of the practice of hospitality?

Zu Eltz: In addition to my brother’s arguments, I would say that opposites are not contradictions! Rashly declaring them to be contradictions is a serious category mistake that we have made time and again for fear of losing our marked positions or our ability to distinguish ourselves from others. In terms of individual psychology, these are the fears of dissolution of a weak, insecure personality. But if opposites can be managed wisely and be life-giving, if they make life colorful, exciting and beautiful, then this should also apply ecclesiologically. Whenever the Catholic Church has been good and strong and self-confident, it has endured such contrasts. The classic Catholic et – et has something to do with the love of opposites. Conversely, if it was weak and anemic and fear-biting, then the Catholic Church developed an intellectual and spiritual homophily – a tendency towards its own kind – that did not make it any better.

Having said this, it should be said that the Protestant Lord’s Supper and the Catholic Eucharist, each celebrated in all seriousness and with their best convictions and traditions, are obviously not the same, their forms are markedly different, but they are the same. For me, that is the heart of the matter. If they were not the same, Christ could not really be found in the other tradition and his invitation to enter there could not really be heard. This identity must be established, and I believe it contradicts Cardinal Koch, who expressly denied it. We must get away from the presumption of competence, i.e. that we measure the degree of completeness ourselves and therefore identify defects in others, from hermeneutic absolutism. We must learn to consider our own teaching to be incomplete and to admit the systemic defects in our own practice. This will not make us weaker, but stronger.

The plan for the Ecumenical Church Congress (ÖKT) in May 2021 was to live out this practice on a large scale. What has become of it?

Knecht: Eucharistic hospitality was practised at several services: in the Catholic cathedral, celebrated by the city dean zu Eltz, in the presence of the Catholic bishop and the Protestant president of the ÖKT; also in a Protestant church on Frankfurt’s Riedberg, in the presence of the Protestant church president and the Catholic president of the ÖKT. We were glad that this was possible and that everyone felt invited and could experience the other church. In this way, it was easy for me to accept the invitation – or not to be rejected – and to take communion in a row with the representatives of both denominations.

This practice has been going on in secret for a long time, in smaller places.

Knecht: Not only in secret, but also in central locations.

What was the resistance like – from Bishop Bätzing and from Rome?

Zu Eltz: The bishop and chairman of the Bishops’ Conference has a different responsibility to me. The fact that we were able to communicate conscientiously with each other on that Saturday evening was something that he fully supported and implemented. But the bishop must also bear in mind that we must not allow ourselves to be divided with Rome, even if we do not yet agree on “Together at the Lord’s Table”. Then it is wise not to offer unnecessary areas of attack, especially not in the spotlight. An old practice of ecumenism is that ministers who take part in the celebration of the other’s meal in vestments do not communicate. We have finally agreed on this. Personally, I could have imagined it differently, because my consciousness, which has become quite Protestant, would not require so much forethought and consideration.

By the way: For me, allowing the Protestant dean of the city and Protestant Christians in general who come to communion to communicate is much more than not rejecting them according to the principle that no one should be embarrassed in this situation. My “invitation” to them is the same as to Catholic Christians: “Behold the Lamb of God…” immediately before and “The Body of Christ” during communion, both with a question mark, as it were, as a question to the faith of the communicants in the present Lord. And when they affirm and confirm this with their “Amen”, then I give communion with joy to the Protestant Christian as well as the Catholic, because I believe his “Amen”, just as I would like him to believe mine.

Knecht: Bishop Bätzing was understandably in a dilemma for me. Incidentally, I had been asked to preach the sermon, and as I always do this in a gown, in this situation I gave up the sermon, listened to my esteemed colleague’s sermon instead and then went to communion. It would have been the wrong sign if I hadn’t gone to communion in the cathedral, especially after all the intensive preparation.

How did things continue after the ÖKT? Were there any reactions, developments?

Zu Eltz: There were strong and emotional reactions after the service, especially from the Protestant side. This probably had more to do with the confession of guilt at the beginning of the service, but this was part of the one service with the sermon and the Eucharist. I did not hear a single reproachful or detrimentally critical voice. Only beforehand, around the cathedral, an anonymous flyer lamented the sell-out of Catholic identity.

What came from Rome?

Zu Eltz: Nothing came to me. I don’t know what the bishop heard, but I assume that I would have heard it if he had come under a lot of pressure.

Knecht: I got a lot of positive feedback. We had coordinated well with the church leadership beforehand. The celebration itself in “reconciled diversity” – a Protestant term that fits well here – was then very well received. The practice of hospitality has been around for a long time in many parishes – in the cathedral you can assume that a third of the communicants every Sunday are not Catholic. What is new is that we are now practicing this hospitality in a public and theologically reflective way, thus taking it out of the grey area. In ecumenical friendship, we both value the presence of Christ, we acknowledge it and trust in it. We tolerate what both sides would not formulate in the other’s liturgy. Some things in “great masses” are a little resistant for us, and may remain so, when I think, for example, of the impressive Office of St. Charles, which is celebrated annually in Frankfurt Cathedral… But we trust in the essentials.

Zu Eltz: Yes, the beautiful medieval hymns of homage of the Office of Charlemagne are also strange for some Catholics, with their closeness to the state, a bit like the Moscow Patriarch at the moment… I would like to add one more thing: Opening oneself to the fact that others recognize the same, but not the same, in one’s own and feel addressed by Christ is a significant, self-critically effective reformatory impulse for one’s own liturgy. What can and must I strengthen in my liturgy so that I do not place unnecessary obstacles in the way of others? At the end of such a jointly attended Eucharistic celebration, we will probably not sing “Wunderschön prächtige” or another emphatic Marian hymn. And the Protestant celebrant, who is free to do so, will perhaps pray the epiclesis aloud after all, because he wants to accommodate the listening and faith habits of his fellow Catholics. This is more than politeness. Both liturgies will improve towards their essence – I think that’s the strongest thing.

Knecht: A convergent practice is developing here, jointly responsible. In our society, we cannot be Protestant or Catholic churches against each other, but only together – at least not in this city and in our country.

Where does ecumenism stand now? Where do you see the next steps? How can the church come together more and achieve unity in Christ?

Knecht: I’ll start with the stones, with the common house: both churches are very concerned about the building issue due to the drastic decline in membership numbers. We are on the threshold of a new form of church, and the presence of buildings is now questionable. It’s wonderful when the Protestant congregation moves into a Catholic space and shares it – and vice versa. We know this from offices and residential buildings: Sharing buildings goes a long way towards mutual understanding. Celebrating the Eucharist and Holy Communion in the same room promotes togetherness and ecumenism.

Zu Eltz: At all interfaces where there are common ecclesiastical interests, but which are not only accessible on the basis of the faith of the respective church, we must work together particularly intensively, because this is where social interest in the church’s offerings is increasingly awakened. Aesthetically and spiritually, for example, music is such an interface. For a good ten years now, there has been a major church music project in Frankfurt that breathes with two lungs, the “Frankfurt Youth Church Music”. This singing and wind school, which offers hundreds of children free choir work, instrumental lessons and voice training, will soon be moving into a shared building. In this area, which is at least as dear to Protestants as it is to us Catholics, we want to “swap treasures”, whereby other social players are also very interested in what we are doing together. The other example – which has always been strong here in Frankfurt – is the social and socio-political work of Diakonie and Caritas. The two large organizations are characterized differently, so there are sometimes rumbles, but always with appreciation and with the desire that the other is doing well. The field is as broad as the poverty and needs in the city, and we can certainly deepen our cooperation even further.

Knecht: When we spoke about the church’s loss of relevance at the beginning of the conversation, Johannes zu Eltz mentioned the “gospel-saturated” society. This part of the church’s reality is closely linked to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper: The sharing of bread with the poor, were it to fail, would counteract the Lord’s Supper. Here, both churches have a great social impact and enjoy the trust of the city and other donors – they thus put the Gospel into practice. This only happens if the churches do not compete, but work together with each other and with other people of good will. Because of the crises – especially, but not only, in the Catholic Church – there are many questions from political leaders about the credibility of the church, but the fundamental trust that we work for the people of the city is not questioned. Ecumenism must not only be conceived in terms of the constitutional church, but also in terms of its effectiveness in society.

What expectations and hopes do you have for the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Karlsruhe? Could the Catholic Church finally join as a full member?

Zu Eltz: If, as I described at the beginning, it were to make progress in self-critical reflection on the power of definition – from which point of view is being a church actually defined? -then that should be possible! I used to defend with relish that the Catholic Church could not possibly be a member of the WCC or the Council of Religions, but one is not immune to becoming smarter. It would be a good challenge to engage with and debate with others in the WCC and to assert the weight of one’s own statements of faith by argument and not simply by imposition. Every council requires discourse, coordination, give and take. I could well imagine full membership. Now I see my brother in office swaying his head in concern and would love to know what he thinks.

Knecht: Is the WCC just a council? A fraternal consultation certainly creates its own reality. I hope that talking about the gospel and the challenges facing Christians in the world will change the people we talk to and create a new reality. This does not always succeed, as can be seen from the sometimes questionable role of the Orthodox churches in the WCC. I hope that the Assembly will be able to take place at all and that – especially after the pandemic – it will take a new look at global ecumenism and the conditions of Christianity in other regions of the world. From the sometimes provincial perspective of the German Protestant Church in particular – that the German theological discourse is the only authoritative one – I hope for a broadening of the horizon.

Do ecumenical concerns arise from the current world situation?

Zu Eltz: I am moved by the rift that the war in Ukraine is tearing into the West-East church community. United in tense love, we are finding a common Western path here in Frankfurt and elsewhere so that our common home does not fall apart. But what is now being done in Moscow is so alien to me, and for me it so clearly misses the Gospel, that I would have to fundamentally relearn what moves the church there and whether this can be considered a legitimate form of being church. I would like to get to know and understand Orthodoxy, especially Russian Orthodoxy, anew in reconciled diversity.

Knecht: The war is a kind of shibboleth for understanding Christianity – similar to apartheid in South Africa in the past, when we Protestant Christians had to discuss quite abstruse ideas about what was Christian or unchristian. I am somewhat confident in that the options of Orthodoxy in Russia are hardly adopted by Orthodox Christians in this country and ecumenical understanding therefore seems easier to achieve. We are looking for ways of peace through discussion and prayer.

    Johannes zu Eltz is dean of the Catholic Church in Frankfurt am Main.

Being a Christian at the turn of an era
By Fabian Moos
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/7-2022/christsein-in-der-zeitenwende/.]

Pope Francis keeps saying that we are living in the midst of a “turning point”. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. The Earth has moved from the Holocene, in which a relatively high degree of stability enabled the development of human civilizations, to the Anthropocene, the age of man. Collective human action is now the key geological factor that has set in motion profound upheavals in the Earth’s biological, chemical and physical systems. As a result, human societies must adapt to radically changed conditions. The central political challenge facing democratic societies in the 21st century is to do this without losing democracy, human rights and the rule of law, which is a real possibility in view of the increasing potential for conflict, but rather to shape change as its essential further development. At the same time, the question of justice must be posed anew, as the poorest are least responsible for the upheavals, but suffer the most from them. There is talk of a “socio-ecological” or “great transformation” towards a way of life and civilization that makes a good life possible for all within the planetary boundaries.

The scale of this challenge can hardly be overestimated, as structurally the course is currently still set for “business as usual”, which is driving us towards global catastrophe. Many experts consider the decade up to 2030 to be the decisive time window in which the tide can still be turned. After that, the probability of crossing tipping points in the climate system and in other areas is already so high that human intervention from this point onwards may have little influence on further developments. In view of this, many activists are asking themselves profound questions, such as: How can I live well in these complex processes of change and make a meaningful contribution to them? For me, the two key concepts of a Christian answer to this are repentance and hope.

Repentance includes a clear renunciation – for example, of the illusion that our supposedly peaceful way of life in Germany is ethically unproblematic and can go on forever; but also of hopelessness, which expresses itself in fear of change and, in extreme cases, degenerates into violence. In a broader sense, it is a rejection of the “technocratic paradigm” (Laudato Si’), which would have us believe that we are all isolated egoists who become happy through material possessions, consumption, competition and status comparison, and that technology will solve all our problems. In truth, we are relational beings and thrive when we are involved in meaningful action with others. Christian conversion is also a turning back: towards Jesus Christ, who came to heal and renew our broken relationships (with God, ourselves, others and creation); this frees us to embrace uncertainty and see it as an opportunity for growth. Towards community and towards trust and hope, because God is already saving the world and wants our cooperation. Towards the perspective of the poorest, because they are the privileged recipients and experts of the Gospel. The encyclical Laudato Si’ is a courageous and joyfully poetic appeal to enter into this relational dynamic. A great deal will change – the question is which changes we want to consciously participate in and what will help us to suffer the unwanted changes. God does not demand moral perfectionism from us, but rather a creative involvement in processes that are both radical and realistic – all solutions will be imperfect compromises for the time being anyway.

The hope to which we are called is precisely not an escape into the hereafter, but a “deeper seeing” of this world. It takes the incarnation and the Easter event radically seriously: the path of salvation that Jesus Christ shows us is the path of loving service, the path of commitment to justice alongside the poor. The Risen Christ is the proof that God makes the impossible possible and that suffering and death can be endured. Life and love have the last word. Real hope arises when we, as “resurrection detectives”, look out for God’s saving action in the world despite our fears and become resurrected people ourselves, setting out with others to join in God’s action and carrying our cross in the process. The hallmarks of resurrection are joy and freedom.

Conversion to hope: Faith gives us no guarantee that dramatic situations will not arise. But in Christ, it shows us a way to live the vocation of being human in the midst of the changing times.

    Father Fabian Moos SJ was born in 1985 in Buchen in the Odenwald. After completing his civilian service in an Ark community in France, he studied French and Spanish in Erlangen and Chile and became involved in the KHG Erlangen. He entered the novitiate in 2012. After studying philosophy, he completed a traineeship in Spanish and French in Hamburg. From 2019 to 2023, he studied theology in Paris, the last two years of which he spent as a resident and employee of the alternative university campus Campus de la transition south of Paris. Today he lives and works at the Ukama Center for Social-Ecological Transformation in Nuremberg. He is interested in the connection between transformation, pedagogy and spirituality.

Consolation of remembrance: Remembering the silent heroes

Axel Smend, son of an executed resistance fighter and long-standing Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the July 20 Foundation, gave a speech with some “Thoughts on July 20, 2021” at the Ecumenical Vespers in the Protestant Plötzensee Memorial in Berlin on July 19, 2021. It is documented here in a slightly edited form.
By Axel Smend
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/7-2022/trost-des-gedenkens-erinnerung-an-die-stillen-helden/.]

On July 20, 1944, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg attempted to bomb Hitler at the Führer’s headquarters in Wolf’s Lair. But without success: people continued to be exposed to the senseless warfare, the tyranny of National Socialist tyranny and racial madness. Nevertheless, July 20, 1944 is now an encouraging part of our recent German past. The assassination attempt of July 20 was not a military coup, but an attempt, undertaken together with civilian resistance circles, to liberate Germany from dictatorship and end the war immediately. The aim was to put an end to the atrocities and establish a constitutional state. The core content of the government declaration, which was to have been read out by the conspirators after a successful assassination attempt on July 20 in the evening, read: “The first task is to restore the perfect majesty of law”. Furthermore: “The broken freedom of spirit, faith and opinion will be restored”. Furthermore: “The persecution of the Jews, which has taken place in the most inhuman and merciless, deeply shameful forms, is to cease immediately.”

Today, July 20, 1944 is not only the day of the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, but also the day of German resistance against National Socialism par excellence. It is now the day to remember Georg Elser, the Kreisau Circle, the White Rose, the group around Helmuth Hübener, the Red Orchestra, the Silent Heroes, the military-civilian resistance, individual men and women from both churches and many others. They were all united by their rejection of Nazi rule and their will to do something against it. But the decision to resist was made by each of them on the basis of their own conscience. The motives of some resistance circles were quite different: the motive of “enlightenment” for the White Rose and Helmuth Hübener, the motive of “spiritual, political and social reorganization of Germany after the end of the war” for the Kreisau Circle, “elimination of Hitler to end war and dictatorship” for the military-civilian resistance, “elimination of Hitler to prevent greater bloodshed” for Georg Elser and the motive of “love of one’s neighbour” for the Silent Heroes.

Not all those involved in the military-civilian resistance were opponents of National Socialism from the outset, such as Beck, Dohnanyi, Goerdeler and Witzleben. The question of when resistance began correlates very strongly with the individual’s own perception of National Socialist crimes, such as Adolf Hitler’s waging of war in violation of international law or the deportation or even shooting of Jews, or the mass crimes committed against the civilian population. In my opinion, it was above all these personal observations and reports by third parties that determined his own examination of conscience. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg joined the resistance in the fall of 1941.


In the coronavirus year 2021, the July 20 Foundation commemorated the event at the Plötzensee Memorial Center in Berlin, which is connected to the Maria Regina Martyrum memorial church by a shared bell tower. At this location, the question of the task of a church – as an institution – in a criminal, totalitarian system is obvious. Should it fight the regime, even organize a coup d’état? Call the faithful to political resistance? Deplore the crimes publicly, even from the pulpit? Negotiate with the dictator to ensure a minimum level of pastoral care? Come to terms with everyday church life? Adapt? Survive or participate in order to obtain favors in diaconal work? Or only raise your voice in stages, for example when it comes to the organized mass murder of the Jews? Bonhoeffer’s answer in 1933 was: “The third possibility is not only to connect the victims under the wheel, but to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself. Such action would indirectly be political action on the part of the church, and is only possible and required when the church sees the state failing.”

In the face of the Holocaust, the two churches did not initiate such action, not even together. They did not raise their voices in this regard and must probably live with the accusation of having failed here. Nevertheless, the significance of both churches lay in their defense against the penetration of National Socialism into the Christian faith. This fact and their own faith were able to give individuals strength, comfort, direction and support. These were people who questioned the criminal system of the National Socialists out of a Christian spirit, examined their conscience and then actively resisted it, always risking their own lives in the process.

This is why women and men of the churches should be remembered here in particular: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for me a shining light in the resistance! In his confrontation with National Socialism, he became one of the most important theologians of the 20th century. It was also he who justified the murder of tyrants for this specific case and reflected on it from a theological and ethical perspective in his main work, “Ethics”. This was a great help for many believers in the resistance. With Bonhoeffer’s life path in mind, a key sentence from him is quoted here: “The last responsible question is not how I heroically pull myself out of the affair, but how a future generation should live on.”

Or the Jesuit priest Alfred Delp, who belonged to the “Kreisau Circle” and recently received a great deal of public attention after US President Joe Biden quoted him in his Christmas address on December 22, 2020. Delp wanted to make Catholic social teaching fruitful for a post-war Germany. Together with Moltke, he stood before Roland Freisler, the demon who shouted at him on the day of his trial in the People’s Court: “You wretch, you pfäffisches Würstchen – and such a thing has the audacity to want to get at our beloved Führer. A rat, you should be kicked out, stomped on… Now tell me, what made you, as a priest, leave the pulpit and interfere in German politics with a subversive like Count Moltke and a troublemaker like this Protestant Gerstenmaier?” This is how justice was done to the men and women of the resistance at the time.

Or cathedral provost Bernhard Lichtenberg, who publicly prayed for persecuted Jews and protested against the murder of the sick. He was arrested in 1941 and sentenced to prison. He died seriously ill on the way to Dachau concentration camp. Or Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen, who denounced the murder of people with mental disabilities from the pulpit in Münster. Or Maria Terwiel, who copied hundreds of copies of Bishop von Galen’s sermons on her typewriter in which he protested against euthanasia, and who was later executed for it.

Did those standing before Freisler in the face of their death actually put up a fight? The Gospel of Matthew says: “When they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall say: for it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall say.” And this is what happened in some of the negotiations with Freisler. In response to Freisler’s shouting at Delp, he calmly replied: “As long as people have to live inhumanely and inhumanely, the average person will succumb to circumstances and neither pray nor think. He needs a thorough change in the conditions of life…”. Freisler responded: “Are you saying that the state should be changed so that you can begin to change the conditions that keep the people out of the churches?” Delp: “Yes, that’s what I’m saying”.

What gave the defendants the courage to stand up to the terrible blood judge? I think it was also the power and the spirit of God. The 21-year-old Sophie Scholl was the last to tell Freisler: “After all, someone had to start.” Even if there is a great deal of loneliness in this call, it is still an invitation to everyone today to take the initiative at an early stage, to act and also to take responsibility when – in whatever area – “dark clouds” gather.

Ecumenism of the martyrs

For me, the execution shed in Plötzensee is the most terrible place in the world. For the widows, daughters and sons, Plötzensee remains a “wound of life”, a wound, however, that is healed a little every year in a wonderful way: namely in the ecumenical prayer of the public service in the execution shed of Plötzensee, in the morning on July 20 every year, held so far by the clergymen Eberhard Bethge, Odilo Braun, Hanns Lilje, Martin Kruse, Karl Meyer, Carsten Bolz, Klaus Mertes, among others.

Healing the wound of life, through what? Through the sermons of the clergymen, who gave comfort and guidance, as well as through the Carmelite nuns who took part in the service, their voices, their singing, their presence. Just like both clergymen, they are also firmly integrated in my heart during this hour on July 20 in the morning. They were the ones who comforted our mothers through conversation and prayer at the beginning of the services in Berlin on July 20 and also corresponded with them later. Our sincere thanks go to them and to all the clergy at all times!

For some years now, the relatives have come even closer together spiritually in the ecumenical service on July 20, because since 2015, a meal service has been held annually alternately under Protestant or Catholic leadership, to which the relatives of the other denomination are expressly invited. The service is celebrated at the place of death, the place of ecumenism, as Catholics and Protestants had to end their lives there side by side on the rope.

Three Kreisau friends, the Jesuit Alfred Delp and the Protestants Eugen Gerstenmaier and Helmut James von Moltke, whose cells were next to each other in Tegel prison, were able to agree on a daily Bible reading in spiritual communion. The three even found a way of celebrating mass together through the walls. The resistance overcame denominational boundaries. This “small ecumenism” lived out in prison between Delp, Gerstenmaier and Moltke – certainly reaching the limits of what was physically and spiritually bearable – also drives the churches to keep encouraging further decisions on the path to church communion with vigor, because, according to Antje Vollmer and Klaus Mertes in their joint book “Ökumene in Zeiten des Terrors” (Ecumenism in Times of Terror, Freiburg 2016): “The longing for ecumenism is the longing for the possible state of peace in the world.”

In the Berlin Carmel, which is located next to the Plötzensee Memorial Center, there are grave inscriptions for the Catholics Delp, Klausener, Lichtenberg and the Protestant Moltke. The ecumenism so quietly and successfully practiced here in both places builds on the ecumenism of the martyrs of Plötzensee. “Remembrance can become vigilant responsibility”, said Sister Mirjam on the 50th anniversary of the consecration of the Carmel Maria Regina Martyrum.

Taking responsibility

Two years ago, Antje Vollmer and Philipp von Schulthess also commemorated July 20, 1944 as the “day of self-liberation”, the inner liberation from “fear, national blindness and obedience to dictatorship and terror”. This self-liberation was always preceded by a struggle between acting at the risk of one’s own life or continuing to devote oneself to blindness. Ultimately, it was one’s own conscience that set the course and no longer the National Socialist regime or SS supervisors. It is a very comforting thought for relatives to be able to understand the decision-making process of their struggling fathers and mothers.

Friedrich Olbricht, who was shot together with Stauffenberg, Mertz von Quirnheim and Haeften in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock on the night of July 21, 1944, is quoted for future generations: “I know with certainty that we all acted free of any personal motives and only dared to do the last thing in an already desperate situation to save Germany from total destruction. I am convinced that our posterity will recognize and understand this one day.” And posterity has picked up on it. In the permanent exhibition at the German Resistance Memorial Center, for example, around 126,000 visitors in 2019 were able to see that there was also another Germany, from all circles and classes: Women and men from the trade unions, entrepreneurs, workers, civil servants, employees, professors, students, soldiers of various ranks as well as women and men from the churches.

In his famous speech on May 8, 1985, Richard von Weizsäcker said: “The young people are not responsible for what happened back then. But they are responsible for what will become of it in history.” This responsibility is the responsibility of all of us, both within the family and outside it. As a consequence, it means strengthening the rule of law by participating in debates and discussions in good time when it comes to standing up against anti-Semitism, racism and right-wing extremism today, and also acting with courage, because, as Klaus von Dohnanyi says: “Resistance always comes too late.”

The desperate women in particular, who were confronted overnight with the death of their husband and suddenly became the widows of a “traitor”, soon sought contact with the two prison chaplains at the time, Peter Buchholz and Harald Poelchau, after the war. They were the ones who gave those sentenced to death emotional and spiritual support and accompanied them on their final journey.

I often think of Poelchau. I still remember him: an extremely modest, disciplined, discreet and humanly likeable man, for me one of the most important personalities in the German resistance: as a Kreisau man, he was able to identify with the motives of the prisoners and therefore not only support them spiritually, but also discuss their individual situation and plight with them. As a prison pastor, he repeatedly broke the rules of the institution and very often risked his own life as a result.

I also remember the content of his sermon on July 20, 1954 in the Jesus Christ Church in Dahlem. I was 10 years old at the time and certainly didn’t understand much of the sermon, but I still remember the “many blacks” in the church and can still hear Poelchau’s quietly insistent voice. He said there: “Even if God was not for them, they were for God! For they went about their hard work with clean hands and with a pure heart; there was nothing of ambition, nothing of striving for power, but there was really a sense of being moved by the fact that things must not go on like this, because God’s order has been violated, because we no longer live in a credible world, and that action must be taken now.”

    Axel Smend is a lawyer in Berlin and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the “July 20, 1944 Foundation”, which commemorates the resistance against National Socialism.

The return of evil
By Stefan Kiechle
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/6-2022/wiederkehr-des-boesen/.]

Somehow we all believed that evil had been overcome, that there was no power of evil. Every human being is essentially good. God is merciful, he heals wounds and forgives guilt – insofar as anyone can be guilty at all. In catechesis or religious education, even in preaching, it was frowned upon to “moralize”, i.e. to name reprehensible behaviour, to publicly condemn it or even to call for a change in behaviour. The topics of sin, guilt and forgiveness were basically no longer needed; they largely disappeared from teaching and the liturgy, as well as from theological doctrine. The practice of confession was forgotten and today tends towards zero in many Christian circles. Themes such as suffering on the cross and atonement, punishment and judgment, the devil and purgatory and hell disappeared all the more. People preferred to look in solidarity with suffering people as victims of unjust circumstances or evil forces. Victims are hurt and need healing – Jesus was seen above all as a healer, a therapist or a critic of social conditions. All not wrong. However, hardly any attention was paid to the personally responsible perpetrators of evil or to Jesus as their redeemer, at least not in theological or spiritual interpretations.

Evil is now returning with a vengeance: it starts with the climate catastrophe, which is “natural” on the one hand, but also man-made: In a unique act of greed for life and consumption, humanity is currently destroying – collectively and individually – the basis of its existence. It continues with the coronavirus pandemic: this is also “natural”, but perhaps with significant human involvement? Sexualized violence is being discovered in the global church: this is certainly not only pathologically caused, but it shows the face of evil, both in individual perpetrators and indirectly in systemic failure. Finally, the war in Ukraine, which not only reveals the malice of a hegemonic claim, but also its toxic social and political environment, not only a fundamentalist national-religious ideology, but also a huge military machine of violence and cruelty.

Evil is back. Are we now talking about the power of evil again, about evil, even about the demon or the devil? Is there such a thing as being possessed by evil or the demon? Individually in a dictator and in the numerous war criminals or also collectively in the warlike administration and in the often intoxicating orgies of violence of the military? Theology and spirituality must painfully revisit an old, long avoided topic.

Evil manifests itself in violence, be it psychological or physical violence. Before and at the same time, it manifests itself in lies – throughout history and again and again. The images of Butsha or Mariupol and their different interpretations show this dynamic of evil. Incidentally, all of this is already in the Bible – we didn’t want to see it.

Profound questions arise: What is going on in soldiers who rape, pillage and murder? What in politicians who give orders to attack? What in church leaders who justify the attack morally and religiously? What in television presenters who brazenly lie? Who brought them all up to do this, poisoned their minds? And this in a cultured, Christian country? Or: How could we in the West have overlooked all this? How could we keep glossing over situations to our own sanctified advantage? Today we rightly point the finger at Russia – but in the West, too, there is naivety and stupidity, lies and greed for power, pride and racism, and even oppression and violence. Don’t we need to learn to take evil seriously again, to identify and name it, to condemn it and fight it? To moralize in this sense, both on a small scale in our own lives and on a large scale in world politics? And then to understand anew the message of the Gospel, namely how to take the path to reconciliation without trivializing evil and the seriousness of ethics?

Evil also changes our image of Jesus: Jesus preached against hypocrisy and injustice, against violence and abuse. He threatened judgment and hell. He was the therapist of the victims of evil and at the same time the accuser of the perpetrators of evil. However, because evil could not bear the one who unmasked it, Jesus killed it cruelly. And the resurrection? It is overcoming death, but also overcoming the power of evil. It is new life, but before and at the same time judgment. Jesus Christ will return as judge of the living and the dead. Without judgment, God will not enforce good. Sinners should certainly fear judgment – it remains to be seen whether this will move them to repentance. It is not unchristian to be skeptical about the possibilities of inner-historical repentance. We Christians can hope that hell will be empty by virtue of divine grace, but we do not know.

    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.

Spiritual fatherhood
By Stefan Kiechle
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/5-2022/geistliche-vaterschaft/.][

Traditionally, religious priests in German-speaking countries are addressed as “Pater”; in other European languages, all priests are addressed as “Padre”, “Père”, “Father”. For some years now, however, I have noticed a change: even professional church employees are increasingly addressing me as “Herr” – it is the secular media where journalists are most likely to ask whether “Pater” is correct for such rare birds. What is changing in the church? Certainly, a centuries-old church culture is simply being forgotten more and more. The deeper problem, however, is the church’s power structure, which is described as “patriarchal”: Many experience it as highly ambivalent, reject it and avoid its title accordingly. I can well understand this, and personally I am indifferent to the form of address – incidentally, “Lord” originally meant a privileged nobleman and is therefore no less patriarchal.

In the old, positive image, a father is kind, caring and exemplary, he protects his children and guides them, educates them, challenges them, supports them, and always with pure intentions and for good ends. The spiritual father does the same in religion and spirituality: he nourishes, protects and nurtures the spiritual life of his spiritual children. His role is seen as a weak but effective symbol of a God who is a good father to all people and who turns to them out of pure love.

The image of the spiritual father has its origins in Jesus, who called his God “Abba/Father”. In early Christianity, bishops were first called “father”, as were the “old fathers” among the hermits, i.e. wise old monks who supported young monks in their spiritual struggle. In the West, “father” was soon also the “papa” in Rome and every “abbas/abbot” of a monastery – “abbess” was even feminized to a kind of “father”, which sounds strange today. Only later were all priests called “father”: They were supposed to be benevolent spiritual fathers or, in the modern sense, pastors. The church thus adopted the family model for Christian congregations and communities quite easily.

However, some fathers abuse their children. They become “raven fathers” – even though no raven or any other animal treats its children in this way. Whether it is an abuse of power, spiritual or sexual abuse: any abuse of one’s own children has something incestuous about it; within the family, it is a crime against the weakest and therefore against those whom God particularly loves. It disavows the otherwise positive image of the father. And when spiritual fathers abuse their spiritual children, this abuse also obscures the image of God – such fathers will not proclaim God and his love, as would be their mission, but they work against him, betray him, defile his image.

People who have been abused by a spiritual father hardly ever say “father” anymore. Many get a sore throat when praying the Lord’s Prayer together and skip the first word. So have spiritual fathers become obsolete? Should they be abolished? Or should we at least abolish the Father title? In any case, it is no wonder that bishops and priests are currently being held collectively liable and are receiving a great deal of scrutiny and criticism, even rejection and hatred in the church and society. They represent the damaged image of the father.

Yes, the church could really put into practice Jesus’ words that the disciples should not allow themselves to be called “father” – and also not “rabbi/master” and not “doctor/teacher” (Mt 23:8-10) – for a time. With Jesus, who never allowed himself to be called “Father” but always appeared as the “Son”, the Church will refer to the only Father, the one in heaven. There is currently too much that is not fatherly about church “fathers”. The Church needs a time of humility and to distance itself from all patriarchalism. The renunciation of titles by its ministers would be a symbol, no more, but one that can contribute to repentance, healing and renewal.

Perhaps the Church will later rediscover spiritual fatherhood – and spiritual motherhood at the same time! Both may become valuable images and models for spiritual pedagogy: Parents shape their children in a comprehensive sense, they nurture and protect them, they teach and guide them. They trust them and thus give them self-confidence, wisdom and strength. They guide them towards personal responsibility and release them into their own lives when they have grown up. The church must reflect on its pedagogy, and it needs prevention and control so that powerful parental roles are not abused. Only in this way can real spiritual influence and guidance grow. Then spiritual children can call their spiritual parents and all those who hold spiritual ministries “Father” again with a free heart and hopefully also “Mater” in the future.

    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.

Abused religion: Ukraine as a victim of religious fundamentalism

Russian propaganda also legitimizes the war of aggression against Ukraine in religious terms. Moscow, as the “third Rome”, has a divine duty to defend its empire against evil in the West. Wolfgang Beinert, Professor Emeritus of Dogmatics at the University of Regensburg, illustrates the significance of fundamentalist Russian Orthodoxy for the Russian self-image. Patriarch Cyril I and Putin are pulling in the same direction because the unity of the empire, which is believed to be under threat, not only has nationalistic relevance, but also corresponds to the will of God.
By Wolfgang Beinert
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/5-2022/missbrauchte-religion-die-ukraine-als-opfer-des-religioesen-fundamentalismus/.]

February 24, 2022 is one of those days whose contours will never fade, like Nine-Eleven. Literally overnight, the prospects of yesterday were destroyed: “The war against Ukraine has led to an unprecedented collapse of optimism about the future in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Only 19 percent of the population are still optimistic about the next twelve months, while the majority are deeply concerned,” stated the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research one month after the outbreak of war.1 Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock put it in a nutshell on the morning of the outbreak of war: “We have woken up in a different world today. “2 In a historic speech to the Bundestag, Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of a “turning point in time. “3 The act of one individual has plunged the whole world into a new, terrible era.4 A peace order that had been in place for almost eighty years has collapsed. Ruined is a world economy whose engine, geared towards globalization, is sputtering violently. The list of priorities on the Western agenda (climate change, pandemic, energy transition) has become invalid. In a nutshell: evil is suddenly so present that yesterday – certainly not without problems – now seems like paradise lost. It must have been such constellations that gave rise to the conviction in humanity of a personal absolute evil.

In reality, the war that began on that winter’s day was the time-out of developments that had been in the offing for a long time and that had been warned of time and again. Research into the causes has now identified a number of causal factors that led to Putin’s offensive. However, it seems that one has hardly been mentioned:5 the religious connotation of the Russian leadership’s thinking, which is also widespread throughout the country. The number of Russians who identify with Orthodoxy is (as of 2020) over 60 percent of the population. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian church has been seen as the bearer of national identity: a true Russian is a true Orthodox.6 The President shares this thesis. This is shown, among other things, by his historiosophical pronouncements of recent years, which are in the great Russian tradition of thought of Berdyaev or Solzhenitsyn. He tirelessly emphasizes that the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was not the two world wars or the construction of the Berlin Wall, but the implosion of the Soviet state as the incarnation of Russia proper. He dreams of a giant empire from Poland to the Pacific – with one language, the Russian language, with one faith, the true, i.e. Orthodox faith, with one ruling people, the Slavic people. Ukraine and Belarus occupy a special place as the heartland of Rossiya.7

It is not enough to simply take note of these ideas: The involvement of religion in current events must also be seen from the perspective that a third world war may ensue unexpectedly. As will be shown, the use of religion by politics is an abuse of (Christian) religion. The disastrous consequences this can have do not need to be explained at length in these years. We all see how and that religion – actually a declared weapon in the fight against evil – itself becomes a tool of evil through and through. Clerical abuse, particularly in Western Europe, has triggered a crisis that has brought the churches – especially the Roman Catholic Church – to the brink of collapse. Religion is able to provide salvation and blessing – that would be its essence. We see this with horror: With its essence, there is obviously always an evil on the agenda that works destruction and annihilation. The intertwining of politics and religion also has this potential.

Looking at Russian history, at least three moments can be identified that cause or at least decisively determine the phenomena occurring in connection with the war in Ukraine. These are – in ascending order of importance – the Russian state-church relationship, the myth of the founding of the Russian state and the revitalization of the idea of Rome. This list does not claim to be exhaustive; it can only be used as an indication of the problem; a thorough investigation would require extensive studies.

State and church according to
Russian Orthodox understanding

Every member of a religious community, including the Christian community, is always both a member and a citizen of the state. However, each of the two institutions has different and often conflicting goals. This inevitably creates tension. The state-church relationship is therefore in debate wherever the two meet, i.e. inevitably in the members. At least two different models have emerged in Christianity, one in the West, the other in Eastern Orthodoxy. The first was based on Jesus’ motto that we should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mt 22:21). As a result, a bitter dispute raged for a millennium between the two existing supreme powers of emperor and pope, which ended in the Investiture Controversy in favor of a more (France) or less (Germany) strict separation of the two. The result was a steadily growing secularization of public life. It became increasingly independent of the church.8

Developments in the East were quite different.9 Here, symphonia was regarded as the ideal, the harmonious coexistence of (in Russia) tsar and patriarch. For both have the divine mandate to promote the eternal goal of mankind in harmony and unison. The current Russian state therefore not only supports the church with financial resources and ensures it a privileged status compared to other religious communities, but also introduced the compulsory school subject “Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture” for all children (including those who do not belong to the church) in 2002. President Putin attaches great importance to attending the Patriarch’s Easter celebration in the huge Church of Christ the Savior every year. He also celebrates the liturgy at Christmas, but now in a village church somewhere: he is then a fellow believer among fellow believers. Conversely, the patriarch emphasizes his closeness to Vladimir Putin. This is already a given due to his official position. Cyril I’s official title is “Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus”, meaning the territory claimed by the president. Both agree that it is their God-given task to push back the harmful influences of the West to the best of their ability – such as cultural pluralism, diversity of opinion, homosexuality, capitalism, consumerism, modern art and many other things besides. The scale of vices is open at the top. In any case, it can be stated: “Homophobia, xenophobia and ideas of homogeneity are essential for the orthodox-autocratic world view. “10 The attack on Ukraine and the threat to other states has thus been metaphysically exaggerated. It is not just political systems and states claiming autonomy that are pitted against each other, but rather Holy Russia, on behalf of the heavenly powers, must fight against hell, which is carrying out its evil work in the West, which now threatens to destroy Ukraine as well (“denazification” postulate). In contrast, their equally religiously based status as a “brother nation” does not carry any weight.

The saga of state formation

Russia’s state formation began with the empire of the Varangians, which began around 750.11 One of their tribes was the Rus.12 Their leader Ryurik founded a state in 862, whose capital was first Novgorod and then, from 882, Kiev. This Kievan Rus country developed an astonishing dynamic. It soon encompassed the vast area between the Baltic Sea and the White Sea, practically the living area of the Eastern Slavs. Belarus and Ukraine were just as much a part of it as Poland and the Baltic states. The name of the Rus ethnic group became a geographical and soon also a political term that referred to the entire territory of Russia. Trade with Constantinople led to attempts at missionary work by the church there, which was ultimately a great success: in 987, Grand Duke Vladimir I was baptized by Byzantine priests in Kiev. The following year, all the Rus were converted to the Orthodox faith, which, according to their own understanding, is the real and true and therefore the only form of Christianity. Since then, the Russian Empire has seen itself as the legitimate and direct continuation of this Christian state structure. This included the task of uniting all East Slavic territories in a common state within the one Church of Byzantium.13

In 1321, Patriarch Maximos took up residence in Moscow, and in 1480 it became the imperial capital. The identity of church and state is reflected in the aforementioned official title “Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus”. For both Cyril I and Putin, today’s Russian Empire is therefore the perpetuation of this state; they see themselves as its guardians and multipliers. Both therefore agree that the goal of both institutions must be to reunite Ukraine with Russia.14 Putin’s war aims also include ending the alleged persecution of Christians by the Ukrainian government. The situation has also become particularly critical for Orthodoxy since 2019.15 At that time, the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” (OKU) was founded by splitting from the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” (UOK), which was loyal to Moscow.16 It placed itself under the patronage of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I. Since then, the danger of schism has loomed. It also has an impact on state relations between Russia and Ukraine. One goal of the Russians in the war is therefore also to restore peace between the churches.17

The situation can be compared with that of the Western Church in the Middle Ages. Christians took it for granted that the “Holy Land”, where the decisive phase of salvation history had taken place, had to be under their influence. So the Muslims, who had become indigenous there in the meantime, had to be driven out by force. The tragic consequence was the Crusades. We are vividly reminded of them in view of the current conflicts. But the situation today is eerily paradoxical. On the basis of the symphonia theory, the destruction of the majority Orthodox Ukraine becomes a task for the Russian state and the Russian church that is required by the Orthodox understanding of the state.

Treti Rim

The Russian state thus unites the claim to truth of Orthodoxy with the claim to morality of the “holy state” of Rus, which has its basis in the Kiev baptismal font. This resulted in a universalist ideology. Christianity is inherently missionary: the truth of the Gospel is intended for all peoples. Even the battle of good against evil is not limited by anything, since evil is everywhere, since it is “the ultimate other” to one’s own goodness. Consequently, an institution based on both pillars must lay claim to world domination. Although only a regional war is currently on its agenda, it is not only inherently open to further claims to domination, but these can also be realized according to its own thinking. This is the reason why many people see a universal, a third world war on the horizon.

There is a narrative that directly implies this global program. This is the idea of Rome.18 This refers to the ensemble of considerations and concepts from which the general and imperishable primacy of Rome results. This ensemble was not originally Christian: Polybius († around 120 BC) was the first to ascribe to the Latin city a world-historical mission based on the will of the gods. The poet Prudentius († after 405) made the idea tangible in Christian terms. Rome becomes the epitome of the universal empire and the universal religion and thus the executor of the divine plan of salvation, which thus reaches its peak and at the same time its completion. The idea of Rome thus has both a teleological and an eschatological component. However, it is no longer necessarily tied to the metropolis on the Tiber.

When Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Imperium Romanum to the Bosporus in 324, the new center claimed to be the “second Rome” (deutéra Rome) and thus the heir to the universal claim to power.19 Byzantium was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. Since then, Moscow has claimed to be the heir and executor of the claim to Rome as the “third Rome” (tretij Rim). The marriage of Grand Prince Ivan III to Sophia Palaiologa, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, in 1472 became a key moment in the translation, on the occasion of which the Byzantine court ceremonial and the double-headed eagle of the previous empire were adopted as Russia’s coat of arms. Around 1510, the monk Filofej von Psok provided the ideological underpinning in a letter to Grand Duke Vasily III: two “Rome” had fallen, now the third stood; “and there will not be a fourth”. He does not mean this triumphalistically, but apocalyptically. The two predecessors perished because they had fallen away from the true faith and therefore had to be punished by God. The Muscovite empire is the last chance he gives the world. If Moscow also falls into unbelief, the consequences will be catastrophic, as it is widely believed that “Rome” is the fourth and therefore final empire in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan 2). Then the end comes inexorably. Moscow has thus assumed a terribly burdensome responsibility for the continued existence of our earth.

However, these gloomy elements of Filofei’s teaching hardly have any historical effect, but the idea of Rome as such does: Filofei’s thesis becomes the basis of Russian imperialism and messianism, which is ultimately founded in God and his instructions themselves. In this form, it was adopted by the Pan-Slavists of the 19th century, thinkers such as Vladimir S. Solovyov, Nikolai A. Berdyaev, Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky and Ivan Kirillov. Although critical research questions almost all components of this narrative,20 it cannot shake the global religious-ethical-political content. The narrative still underpins Russia’s claim to world domination in influential circles.21 In any case, the idea of Rome can cover all of the leadership’s aggression. Since the collapse of the Tsarist Empire and the Soviet Union threatens to undermine the basis of the Rome claim, it must be their urgent endeavor to restore it. Ukraine is the beginning.

The evil of religion

It is actually surprising that religious components play such a role in state ideology. Stalinism was not so long ago, when the church was bloodily persecuted. However, the hardship of the “Great Patriotic War” unleashed the emergency potential of religion in its late phase. Since then, at any rate, Orthodoxy has been part of the raison d’état.22 But how did the unrestrained cruelty of Putin’s imperialism, which had already manifested itself in Syria and Chechnya, come about? The Christian religion proclaims comprehensive peace in the world. There is not a single instance of violence and coercion against any “others” in the New Testament. Jesus Christ appears as the Prince of Peace of Isaiah (Isaiah 9:5). Violence by Christians is a perversion of Christianity23 through its instrumentalization:

1. the power of religion is replaced by a religion of power. Religion, by definition the canon and norm of ethical action, becomes a means of enforcing selfish interests, which are brutally put into practice in a mythical disguise. It is not about God, it is about the ruler. He divinizes himself. He behaves like God.

2) In the religious justification process, origin and age are confused. According to Christian doctrine, the absolutely sovereign God has empowered the non-divine to contingent freedom out of love. This gift of origin is transcendent of time. It comes to fruition in the time of the people of this time: freedom can only be realized here and now. Only the old, the founding myth, the philosophical foundations, however, are the fruit of time and only ever have temporal, i.e. limited, effects. There are no real priorities. Their setting – with the Roman Empire, the Empire of Rus – is an arbitrary act. The category of historicity is ignored. There can be nothing new; change is only ever regressive, conservative – and aggressive. History is the history of what has been. This is based on a thoughtless and unthinking fundamentalism.

3 This results in a further confusion: proclamation becomes fanaticism. According to Christian understanding, true faith is based on true freedom. One can decide for it or not. Fundamentalism, however, postulates coercion and violence as legitimate means of propaganda for the sake of the absolute truth it claims. Its propagators see themselves as representatives of the God who radically destroys evil. They only help this a little. In doing so, however, they sink into the primal temptation to be like God themselves (cf. Gen 3:5). They do not trust him to carry out his will in his own way and in his own time.

In a word, anyone who claims to be a Christian accepts the validity of the angels’ message to the shepherds of Bethlehem, the least among the little people, the people in its purest form. But then one can say: those who destroy peace cannot count on God’s pleasure. His Gloria, whoever he sings it with, is cacophony.

    1 Renate Köcher: Shaken confidence in the future. In: FAZ (24.3.2022), 10.
    2 Annalena Baerbock: Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the emergency special session of the UN General Assembly on Ukraine (24.2.2022), at: <https://germania.diplo.de/ru-de/aktuelles/-/2514960>.
    3 Government statement by Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz on February 27, 2022, at: <https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/aktuelles/regierungserklaerung-von-bundeskanzler-olaf-scholz-am-27-februar-2022-2008356>.
    4 Very instructive on the whole: Gerd Koenen: Helplessly at the mercy of autocratic rulers. In: FAZ (21.3.2022), 14.
    5 Cf. for example Klaus Mertes in this issue: Kult um den Autokraten. In: StdZ 147 (5/2022), 323-334; Stefan Kube: Discourses of threat. The Moscow Patriarchate and the war in Ukraine. In: HK 76 (4/2022), 18-20.
    6 Detlef Pollack: The Russian Orthodox Church – beacon of hope for a nation that feels humiliated? (22.3.2022). At: <https://Blogvielfaltleben.de/Blogger/prof-dr-detlef-pollack>.
    7 Lutz Götze: Putin and Munich 1938 (24.2.2022). In: GlobKult magazine, <https://www.globkult.de/politik/europa/2169-putin-und-muenchen-1938>.
    8 Thus the saying Cuius regio, eius religio of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 no longer applies. Today, nationality no longer has anything to do with religion.
    9 Thomas Bremer: Cross and Kremlin. A Brief History of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Freiburg 2007; J. Joachim Losehand: Symphony of Powers. Church and State in Russia (1689-1917). Herne 2002.
    10 Pollack (note 6).
    11 Erich Donnert: Kievan Russia. Culture and intellectual life from the 9th to the beginning of the 13th century. Leipzig 1983; Jürgen Hartmann: Russia. Introduction to the political system and comparison with the post-Soviet states. Wiesbaden 2013; Andreas Kappeler: A brief history of Ukraine. Munich ²2000.
    12 According to the Nestor Chronicle; other sources consider the Rus to be a Slavic tribe.
    13 However, such an ethnically unified state never actually existed. Even in the state of Kievan Rus, Finno-Ugric, Baltic and other tribes lived together in harmony.
    14 Kyrillos I is therefore by no means the president’s devoted follower, as is often insinuated, but rather, in his own understanding, this is precisely how he fulfills his patriarchal responsibility.
    15 The confused situation is clearly analyzed by Regina Elsner: Sich nicht vereinnahmen lassen. In: CiG 14/2022, 3.
    16 There is also a “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church”, which was not recognized by anyone for a long time.
    17 Interestingly, however, both churches have unanimously spoken out against the Russian aggression of 2022.
    18 Hildegard Schaeder: Moscow, the Third Rome. Studies on the history of political theories in the Slavic world. Hamburg 1929 (new edition Darmstadt 1957); Wilhelm Lettenbauer: Moskau, das dritte Rom. On the history of a political idea. Munich 1961; Illya Kozyrev: Moscow – the third Rome. A political theory with its impact on the identity of Russians and Russian politics. Göttingen 2011 – G. Schmalzbauer, P. Nitsche and H. Möhring: Art. Romidee. In: Lexikon des Mittelalters VII (1994), 1007-1011.
    19 In the Russian version, the apostasy of the Western Christians (the Pope’s claim) from the true faith is usually held responsible for the translation.
    20 Summarized in Art. Rome idea, ibid. 1010.
    21 The Rome idea was the subject of a conference in the Moscow “Manege” in 2014. The nationalist theorist Alexander Dugin explicitly opposed the resulting idea of the state to the model of liberal democracy.
    22 We strictly ignore the question of the actors’ personal Christian faith: Only God alone can judge it. It is also absolutely irrelevant to the question of state-religion relations: what counts is the public presentation and propagation of the state doctrine by the representatives.
    23 Lat. pervertere: to pervert, reverse, destroy.

    Wolfgang Beinert

    Dr. theol., Professor of Dogmatics and History of Dogma, Regensburg.

Religious freedom is a human right: Controversies surrounding a fundamental right to freedom

If religious freedom is appropriated, reinterpreted and misused for ideological purposes, there is a risk that it will be seen as a threat to democracy, occupied by conservatives and the right, and consequently in competition with other human rights. Katja Voges develops strategies on how Christians can stand up for a human rights-based view of religious freedom. The author is a consultant for human rights and religious freedom at the international Catholic mission organization missio in Aachen.
By Katja Voges
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/5-2022/religionsfreiheit-ist-menschenrecht-kontroversen-um-ein-grundlegendes-freiheitsrecht/.]

Violations of religious freedom are increasing worldwide. And awareness of this human right is also growing. This can be seen not only in media coverage, but also in German and international politics: in April 2018, CDU MP Markus Grübel became the first Federal Commissioner for Global Religious Freedom. And after the elections in fall 2021, the decision has been made: The office will continue and SPD MP Frank Schwabe will succeed Grübel. There are also special representatives and rapporteurs at European and international level, as well as various inter-party working groups dedicated to the topic of freedom of religion or belief.

Civil society actors and religious communities in Germany and around the world are also committed to the human right to freedom of religion or belief. Even if these actors sometimes focus on a particular religious community in their work, the basic conviction should always be clear that religious freedom is a universal right of freedom that applies equally to all people, to members of all religious communities and to non-religious people. However, it is precisely this understanding of religious freedom that is in danger. In Germany and internationally, there are numerous attempts in the political-religious sphere to appropriate and reinterpret the issue of religious freedom.

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of 1976 is the binding norm for the human right to freedom of religion under international law. When it refers to the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, this means that everyone is free to form, profess and change their religious or philosophical convictions and to express them in community or alone, privately or publicly. The so-called General Comment No. 22 contributes to the interpretation of the article and points to a broad understanding of the beliefs covered by the right to freedom of religion: “Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs and the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ must be interpreted in a broad sense. “1 State restrictions on freedom of religion are subject to strict criteria.2 The inner personal sphere of protection of the individual as the place where beliefs are formed is referred to as forum internum in the discourse on fundamental rights and is considered to be absolutely protected.

Religious freedom is firmly anchored in the canon of human rights, which are based on the three principles of inalienability, universality and indivisibility. Human rights are inalienable, i.e. they accrue to every human being from birth without preconditions and cannot be revoked. They apply universally, i.e. everywhere and to all people, without distinction on the basis of gender, religion, origin, political or other orientation or other characteristics. Human rights are indivisible, i.e. they form a context of meaning and can only be realized in their entirety.

Ideological appropriation
and de-liberalization

Religious freedom is subject to various misunderstandings, misinterpretations and instrumentalizations that call into question or even undermine its human rights character. These include attempts at appropriation by right-wing populist movements that use the issue of religious freedom ideologically and deliberately reinterpret it for their political agenda. The AfD parliamentary group has shown in numerous debates in the Bundestag on the topic of religious freedom that it is pursuing this strategy. It interprets the right to religious freedom selectively and focuses exclusively on the situation of Christians. Religious freedom is often narrowed down to the term “persecution of Christians”. In addition, right-wing populist actors such as the AfD mix legitimate points of criticism with narratives and resentments from the spectrum of right-wing ideologies. For example, they repeatedly mix calls for greater action against violence, which is explicitly directed against Christians in certain regions, with theses about an alleged “repopulation” or “Islamization of Europe” or a “threat to the Judeo-Christian West” and its values. At the same time, other parties are accused of not naming existing problems clearly enough for reasons of supposedly exaggerated “political correctness”.3

Similar examples can be found in an international context. In 2021, for example, the Hungarian government published the Budapest Report on Christian Persecution for the fourth year in a row. In the foreword, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán links the legitimate call for action for persecuted Christians worldwide with typical populist motives and paints a threatening scenario of one and a half billion refugees in Europe. Orbán accuses the Western world of inaction and complicity in the fate of persecuted Christians. Talking about violence against Christians has become a “taboo “4 . At the same time, politicians and church people who do not bow down to the “rainbow ideology” propagated by liberal forces become victims of political attacks. Hungary, on the other hand, is stylized as the “shield of Christianity”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also presents himself as a defender of Christian values, citing his own understanding of religious freedom. He sees it as his duty to protect the religious feelings of believers – be it against criticism of religion or against developments that contradict his homophobic agenda. However, the human right to freedom of religion is not in good shape in Russia, as demonstrated not least by the massive repression of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country.5

There have been and continue to be attempts to misjudge the liberal core of religious freedom. From a human rights perspective, these must be decisively rejected. Religious freedom does not defend certain religious communities, institutions, practices or prescribed morals, but rather applies to people as subjects whose dignity is protected.

Against the perception as a special right

Positions that misjudge the liberal character of religious freedom are also dangerous because they promote the perception of religious freedom as a kind of special right: “Paradoxically, the instrumentalization of an ideologically distorted ‘religious freedom’ […] finds some resonance in milieus critical of religion, where there has long been a suspicion that religious freedom is a kind of back door through which the ‘clerical restoration’ is forcing its way back into the political public sphere. Even among those committed to human rights, there is occasionally a certain uncertainty as to what freedom of religion is actually about. “6 This fails to recognize that freedom of religion and belief is relevant for everyone; it is fundamental to people being able to freely form and defend their convictions, to make decisions free from external coercion and to act accordingly. It is not for nothing that freedom of conscience is explicitly part of this human right.

Freedom of religion should not be confused with freedom from religion, for example with the right to be exempt from confrontation with religions or world views. In a liberal, pluralistic society, freedom of religion rather enables religious life. At the same time, this so-called positive freedom of religion also includes its negative counterpart: no one may be forced to adopt a particular religious or ideological belief or practice.

If religious freedom is appropriated, reinterpreted and misused for ideological purposes, there is a danger that it will also be perceived by people as a threat to democracy, occupied by conservatives and right-wingers and, as a result, in competition with other human rights. At the same time, religious freedom in the sense of indivisibility is intrinsically linked to other freedom rights. When conflicts arise between different human rights claims, the substance of all rights must be preserved.

Christian recognition as a human right

When religious communities recognize religious freedom as a human right, they are not necessarily making a dogmatic statement. The human right to religious freedom is compatible with religious truth claims because it does not make a statement about the truth, but about the right of the person in the state. Thus, since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Catholic Church has recognized religious freedom in its understanding of human rights. The Council Declaration Dignitatis humanae of 1965 describes religious freedom as a civil right of freedom in the state, which is based on the dignity of every human being. At the same time, the declaration states that man is not released from his duty to seek the truth (DH 1-3); the truth recognized by the Church does not give way to indifferentism or relativism.7 In this sense, the human right to religious freedom is compatible with religious truth claims.

Thus, the first part of the declaration lists the social and political conditions that must correspond to the Gospel so that man can follow his conscience and seek the truth. The revelation theology section that follows shows freedom as a consequence of the faith and actions of Jesus and his disciples. The horizon of the theology of revelation shows that Christian truth always includes the freedom of the other and that revelation occurs as a dialog between God and man. Particularly against the background of the declaration Nostra aetate on the attitude of the Church to non-Christian religions of 1965, which also recognizes truth and holiness in other religious traditions (NA 2), Dignitatis humanae points out that the human being is taken seriously as a seeker – regardless of which religion or world view he or she belongs to – and that the search for truth necessarily takes place in dialogue (DH 3). In encounters with members of non-Christian traditions, Christians can experience God’s presence and strengthen their own faith.

Christian responsibility

From the theological justification of religious freedom can be derived the responsibility of Christians to represent a decidedly human rights approach and to decisively counteract misunderstandings and misinterpretations. What can this mean in practice?

Publicly standing up for a human rights approach: Christians are called upon to make it unmistakably clear in their commitment to religious freedom that they are defending an individual right to freedom and upholding the principles of universality, indivisibility and inalienability. At the presentation of the “Ecumenical Report on Religious Freedom for Christians Worldwide” in 2017, Archbishop Ludwig Schick emphasized: “Our commitment to Christians is exemplary, but not exclusive.” In this sense, the International Catholic Missionary Organization missio is also particularly concerned about the oppressed and persecuted Christians worldwide. This concern is not at odds with a comprehensive understanding of human rights. For in the context of our commitment to oppressed and persecuted Christians worldwide, the situation of members of other religious and ideological communities is always taken into account at the same time. Such commitment uses and strengthens opportunities for dialog in order to ultimately protect the dignity of all people in the best possible way. It is important to strengthen this position in public. Christians are called upon to raise their voices when religions are pushed against each other, enemy stereotypes are stirred up and religious freedom is reinterpreted as a kind of special right. In international cooperation and in political circles, Christian actors can also build on their reputation as reliable and credible partners and ultimately have a positive influence on political decision-makers.

Present the situation of religious freedom in a differentiated way: Part of the human rights approach to defending religious freedom worldwide is to perceive situations in a differentiated way and to communicate this perception in an unabridged manner. In order to avoid the danger of playing different religious communities off against each other, generalizing certain situations of persecution or even speaking of individual religions as being fundamentally opposed to the granting of religious freedom, it is important to understand and present the fact that it is often a complex interplay of religious, political, economic and ethnic contexts and problems. Non-religious causes of persecution, distress and discrimination must be recognized and named.

This also includes a differentiated choice of language when naming violations of religious freedom. Although no one can be denied the right to subjectively perceive their situation as persecution, the objective meaning of the term persecution is not clearly defined under international law. The only statements that can be found indicate that the term persecution describes a particular severity of human rights violation. Christians have a responsibility to name violations of religious freedom in all their severity on the one hand and to report them in a differentiated manner on the other. The voices of those affected must be heard in particular, demanding that situations of distress and persecution be communicated as carefully as possible. On the one hand, it should be clearly stated where situations cannot be tolerated. On the other hand, less existential problems can be better discussed and improved across religions if the other party is not alienated by an undifferentiated choice of language.8 Using only the term persecution and possibly resorting to a theological justification may be confusing and not very effective in public discourse.

Forming interreligious and interdenominational alliances: The commitment to religious freedom is particularly credible and sustainable when members of different religious and ideological communities work together. Interreligious cooperation can prove to be particularly challenging if not all interlocutors are equally committed to a theology that comprehensively justifies the commitment to religious freedom as a human right. For example, many members of Islamic traditions advocate pragmatic solutions on the path to religious freedom and would only conditionally agree with a human rights understanding that also includes the possibility of changing religion. However, an interreligious human rights discourse that is not based on a full consensus can also lead to important insights and stimulate developments in religious traditions.9

An intra-Christian dialog on questions of religious freedom is also tied to specific challenges – think, for example, of differing understandings of mission and dialog.10 In Muslim countries such as Morocco, the Catholic Church is often in conflict with evangelical movements when they engage in offensive proselytizing. On the one hand, the Catholic Church sees this as a threat to its pastoral scope for action. On the other hand, many Catholic believers are of the opinion that non-Christians can make a more valuable contribution to the kingdom of God within their own religious tradition and in interreligious dialog than converts, who are often cast out of society.11 Interdenominational dialog is far more complex with regard to evangelical communities in Syria and Iraq, where the Christian churches are under considerable pressure and sometimes in great competition with each other.12

There are also interdenominational differences and challenges with regard to the human rights commitment of Christian organizations in Germany and worldwide. Here, it is always necessary to open up spaces for dialog, to resolutely counter anti-Islamic propaganda and right-wing populist arguments from a basic Christian stance and to make the human rights framework the common basis for discussion.

Exposing anti-freedom religious positions: Christians should leave no doubt that their commitment to religious freedom is based on the inviolable dignity of every individual. In doing so, it is important to recognize anti-freedom religious positions – even within one’s own religious community – and to clearly name them as such.

The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, formulates its specific concept of human rights in various documents – such as the Fundamentals of the Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church on Dignity, Freedom and Human Rights from 200813 – in which it links human dignity to a moral way of life. In this understanding, human rights must not come into conflict with the morality defined by the Church. This position contradicts the understanding of human dignity as an inalienable natural right and also has a considerable influence on the concept of religious freedom. The Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) responded to this contradiction with a position paper and sought a dialog. A reaction from the Catholic Church would also have been desirable.14

The fact that Christians should publicly speak out against the appropriation and instrumentalization of religious freedom is particularly relevant with regard to political-religious alliances. In many countries, right-wing populist movements are interwoven with more or less radical Christian movements. For example, both former US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Messias Bolsonaro can count on the support of fundamentalist Christian groups.

It is to be hoped that people of different religious and ideological orientations in Germany and internationally will continue to recognize the fundamental importance of religious freedom and work to protect it. Christians are doing their part to ensure that this human right remains firmly anchored at the heart of society.

    1 General Comment 22, paragraph 2. German translation: Deutsches Institut für Menschenrechte (ed.): Die “General Comments” zu den VN-Menschenrechtsverträgen. German translation and short introductions. Baden-Baden 2005, 92-96.
    2 Cf. ICCPR, Article 18(3); General Comment 22, para. 8.
    3 Cf. Bernd Hirschberger and Katja Voges: Vereinnahmt und verzerrt. How right-wing populism instrumentalizes religious freedom. In: Forum Weltkirche 6/2021, 19-22.
    4 Cf. Budapest Report on Christian Persecution, at: <https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/10Ehnj4b46icv56G9iG7W2fsmkoXoY3ap>; from which the following quotes are taken.
    5 Cf. Regina Elsner: Religious Freedom: Russia. Ed. by the International Catholic Missionary Organization missio e.V. and Renovabis e.V. (Country Reports on Religious Freedom 55). Aachen 2022.
    6 Heiner Bielefeldt: Violations of a human right. Heiner Bielefeldt on the situation of religious freedom. In: Forum Weltkirche 6/2021, 14-18, 18.
    7 Cf. Roman A. Siebenrock: Theological Commentary on the Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis humanae. In: Peter Hünermann and Bernd Jochen Hilberath (eds.): Apostolicam actuositatem, Dignitatis humanae, Ad gentes, Presbyterorum ordinis, Gaudium et spes (HThK Vat.II 4). Freiburg 2005, 125-218, 167 f.
    8 Cf. Katja Voges: Religionsfreiheit im christlich-muslimischen Dialog. Options for a Christian-responsible and dialog-oriented engagement. Zurich 2021, 333-343.
    9 Cf. ibid. 325.
    10 Cf. The Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World – Recommendations for a Code of Conduct, 2011, published by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue / World Evangelical Alliance / World Council of Churches. At: <www.missionrespekt.de/fix/files/Christliches-Zeugnis-Original.pdf>.
    11 Cf. Voges (note 8), 332.
    12 Cf. Katja Dorothea Buck: Ecumenism is getting nervous in the Middle East. In: Worldviews 10/2021, 31-33.
    13 Cf. The Foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Teaching on Dignity, Freedom and Human Rights. Edited by Rudolf Uertz and Lars Peter Schmidt, published in German by the foreign office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Moscow. Translation from Russian by Nadja Simon. Auf: <www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_15307-1522-1-30.pdf? 110922170933>.
    14 Cf. Voges (note 8), 307-308.

    Katja Voges (née Nikles) is a consultant for human rights and religious freedom at the international Catholic mission organization misso.

Solidarity with Ukraine
By Klaus Mertes
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/4-2022/solidaritaet-mit-der-ukraine/.]

On Sunday, February 27, I took part in the big demonstration in Berlin: “Solidarity with Ukraine.” The impressive pictures of the hundreds of thousands went around the world. It was a good sign. And yet I went home at the end with a stale feeling. There was too much contradiction in the speeches and also in the different waves of applause. Being “against war” united those present, certainly also being “against Putin’s war”, i.e. against the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine. The willingness to take in refugees was palpable, as was the willingness to “freeze for Ukraine”, as was written on posters: giving up gas, coal and oil, in other words, a willingness to impose economic sanctions that cut into one’s own flesh.

But where did the stale feeling come from? Was it perhaps my skepticism as to whether the Germans are really prepared to freeze for Ukraine if the freezing lasts longer than the wave of shock and indignation that is now sweeping the country for good reason? This skepticism could also be unjustified. Was it some of the speeches that switched too quickly and too seamlessly from the topic of economic sanctions against Russia to the positive side effects of such sanctions on climate policy? More likely. Was it the relativizing subtexts in some contributions, along the lines that Ukraine is not only a victim of aggression by Russia, but also a victim of the “advance of the West” in recent decades? Yes, Russian troops are advancing into Ukraine. However, the West is not advancing eastwards, but sovereign Central and Eastern European states have applied to join NATO. NATO has accepted them. It has not advanced, and Ukraine is not “also” a victim of this alleged advance. For Ukrainians, this can only sound cynical in the current situation.

And finally, there was the speech by a young Ukrainian woman, which was less applauded. She said to those present, who were carrying posters with the text “Down with the weapons!” that the people in Ukraine could currently do little with such slogans. At the same time, the German government, supported by the CDU/CSU opposition, carried out a paradigm shift in security policy in the nearby Bundestag: rearmament of the run-down Bundeswehr, tough economic sanctions and also arms deliveries for Ukraine.

My lingering stale feeling relates to the question: Is the image of unity that I saw in Berlin true? How long will the consensus that could be seen at the demonstration last? Perhaps it will have long since broken by the time this editorial is published. When will the potential for conflict that lurks behind the collective outrage over the attack on Ukraine break out in our country? It will be about questions such as: Does solidarity with Ukraine include or exclude the military option (arms deliveries)? Should Germany be even more determined to stand up for the security of the Baltic states, Poland and the other Central Eastern European countries, including by military means (deterrence)? And: It was the Greens, coming from the peace movement, who led the debate between bellicosity and pacifism on behalf of the whole nation on the Kosovo issue in 1999. In the coming months, this debate will have to take a new and much broader social stance. The major issues from the Cold War era will return under changed conditions.

The pacifist consensus of the peace movement from the Cold War era has long since disappeared, starting with the Balkan wars after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is hardly anyone today who attributes the fall of the Wall monocausally to the work of the peace movement or to the effects of the NATO Dual-Track Decision. On the contrary, both had a polyphonic effect, as can be seen in retrospect. The churches will also have to take a stand on tough issues, as in 1983, when the US bishops made a differentiated and critical statement on the NATO strategy of deterrence – a text that should perhaps be taken up again these days. Today it would be the European Bishops’ Conference’s turn again to issue a major pastoral letter on the subject of peace. It would also have to address the question of how it sees the future of ecumenism with the Russian Orthodox Church if the latter justifies Putin’s war in terms of cultural policy. Putin does not only stand for Putin. In any case, Russia does not shy away from invading neighboring states, and the US is mentally withdrawing from Europe and turning its attention to the Pacific region, and not just under Trump. What does the Gospel message of peace have to say to Europe under these conditions? The Gospel does not offer a simple answer. It understands “peace” not only in military terms, as the silencing of weapons, but also politically, as the fruit of justice. What this means after the invasion of Ukraine must be spelled out anew.

    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.


Memories and reappraisal
By Christian M. Rutishauser
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/3-2022/erinnerungen-und-aufarbeitung/.]

Identity has become fragile. The question of the individual as to who he or she is, but also the question of the identity of a collective is acute. Metaphysical answers have lost their plausibility or have been exposed as ideologies. The biblical definition of man as the image of God has become an empty phrase for many. National identity, on the other hand, can hardly be justified spiritually any more. Its myths of origin and founding narratives have been deconstructed by critical historiography. Reliable narratives have dissolved. Modernity with its progressive thinking has made traditions obsolete. The narratives of liberalism and socialism have also been shattered by reality. Only the scientific doctrine of the Big Bang and evolution seems to hold up. But Europe cannot and must not return to the narrative of social Darwinism, which gives the right to the strongest.

Nevertheless, there is no alternative: even in the post-metaphysical age, identity can only be constructed narratively and historically. If you want to say who you are, you have to tell a story, you have to say where you come from and where you are going. Without a story, a person, and even more so a society, loses its identity. Hectic or even panic break out when the slope into the past slips from under your feet at any moment.

European culture has reacted to the deconstruction of identity-forming historiographies with remembrance work. After the Nazi crimes, Germany first had to come to terms with them. Slowly, the victims came into view. The Shoah crystallized as the gravitational center of the culture of remembrance. The historians’ dispute about the uniqueness and incomparability of the Holocaust reached a climax in the 1980s. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, people in Eastern Europe also began to come to terms with the crimes against the Jews. Remembrance work became the ticket to entry into post-Cold War society. Today, January 27 has been declared a day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust by the UN. On November 9, the Reichspogromnacht is remembered beyond Germany.

However, the cleansing of memory, which should help to create a dignified identity, is being challenged anew today. The world has changed. The centers of power have become global since the turn of the millennium. This has brought colonial crimes to the fore. The focus of remembrance work is shifting. Post-colonial studies criticize Eurocentric thinking and action, especially its racism. Reappraisal now means: restitution of cultural assets, an end to racial discrimination, global gender justice, recognition of genocides, such as that committed against the Herero by German colonial rule in Namibia between 1904 and 1907. Societies and states that want to belong to the global world community have to face up to post-colonial historical research.

In recent months, magazines and feature pages have been full of fierce and even hateful debates about the connection between colonialism and fascism. Can the different unjust regimes be compared? Does the memory of the victims of the Shoah obscure the view of earlier genocides or not? Or has the memory of the murder of the Jews sharpened our perception of other injustices? Different groups of victims fight for public recognition. Suffering is weighed up and played off against each other. In an illuminating article in the “Merkur” of August 2021, Sebastian Conrad identified the dispute between two cultures of remembrance. Due to the changing context, they are at loggerheads with each other, despite working with similar means.

Historiography, remembrance and reappraisal are essential for the identity of a collective, just as everyone must know their origins, including the darker sides. In an open society, it will no longer be possible to formulate a closed narrative. Individuals will adopt different narratives. Numerous cultural communities are a reality in today’s society, especially as people with different migration histories live together. The fact that historiography pays attention to minorities and victim groups must be recognized as a merit of the culture of coming to terms with the past. However, for identity to succeed and not be constructed at the expense of others, it cannot be formulated solely on the basis of victim status or coming to terms with injustice. It requires positive, meaningful narratives that do not suppress the recognition of injustice, but rather give it space. In view of the differentiation of society, these will be diverse. Scientific, historical and even metaphysical narrative strands can be coherently related to one another. There is no other way to answer the question of where from today.

    Christian Rutishauser, born in 1965, studied theology in Fribourg and Lyon and joined the Jesuit order in 1992. After a period as a student chaplain and ordination to the priesthood in 1998, he studied in Jerusalem and New York and completed a doctorate in Jewish Studies at the University of Lucerne. From 2001, he was Director of Education at Lassalle-Haus Bad Schönbrunn, a center for spirituality and interreligious dialogue. From 2012 to 2021 he was Provincial of the Swiss Jesuit Province; since then he has been Delegate for Universities of the Central European Province of the Jesuits.


A Dialogue on the Church: Systems Theory, Constructivism and Ignatian Spirituality

Jan-Christoph Horn combines Ignatian spirituality with concepts from systems theory and constructivism. The intention of the dialog is to develop theologically connectable ideas about a church that understands itself better. Conclusions are drawn for the ecclesiality of the church and (leadership) action within it. The author is a theologian, supervisor and organizational consultant, among others for the church in Münster.
By Jan-Christoph Horn
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/3-2022/ein-dialog-ueber-die-kirche-systemtheorie-konstruktivismus-und-ignatianische-spiritualitaet/.]

On a hike, it can happen that you meet other hikers walking in the same direction. Even if the starting point is different and the destination is different, you share the same route and time and talk to each other. And when it is time to part at the end, you may be amazed at the encounter that has not left you untouched. You may have noticed something new on your own path because the other person said: “Look, there!”

Such a walk is a dialogue between Christian spirituality in the Ignatian tradition and systemic-constructivist concepts, such as those used in supervision, coaching and organizational consulting, including in church consulting services. Such a migration has to do both with the similarity with which, for example, cognitive processes are conducted in systemic-constructivist concepts and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius, as well as with the difference between a deontological theory of control and cognition on the one hand and the attitude of faith that senses the mystery of God on the other.

While the difference helps to clarify the fact that systemic-constructivist concepts of counseling and Ignatian-influenced ways of spiritual accompaniment and retreat work can neither be confused nor interwoven into a common identity, the similarity in the way reality is viewed and explored does provide an interesting indication for the contemporary church: systems thinking and cybernetic cognitive processes are intrinsically suited to the church in Ignatian terms, or to put it more cautiously: such counseling concepts are not in open contradiction to theology. If this is the case, they have something to contribute conceptually to the “churchliness of the church”. Justifiably cautious resistance to appropriation is an element of dialog as a regulator of tension and thus energy flow.
Systems theory and constructivism

Neither systems theory nor constructivism are self-contained theoretical structures. If they were, their conceptual claims would be refuted. Both systems theory and constructivism stand for themselves and are concerned with different things: systems theory is a theory of thinking in complex wholes, while constructivism is a theory of knowledge. One origin lies in the control technology of complex apparatus. Niklas Luhmann’s sociological systems theory has become well known and has been criticized for not being a political theory because it observes, but does not say what the observation means.

This is because systemic thinking is thinking in systems, which has only a limited connection with everyday thinking about systems. Anyone who calls the order of a library or the play of a soccer team a system is dissolving the systemic nature of the system, reducing a complex functional context to something “merely complicated”. A complex whole of many variables then “really” exists. But has anyone ever heard a low-pressure system say of itself: “I am a low pressure system”? No, a system is only created in the eye of an observer who distinguishes certain contexts from others. Systems do not consist of things, but of communications. For example, a series of heavy rainfall events only becomes a consequence of climate change for those who decide to see certain connections – meaning and significance emerge. If, in psychological diagnostics, a fidgety child becomes a child with hyper-intelligence, it is probably not the child that has changed, but the view of the child.

Even if everyone agreed that something is the way it is, this being does not exist automatically. Otherwise there would be real monsters under the cupboard in many children’s rooms. Conversely, there are things in the landscape that are not marked on the map. Says a hiker standing in front of a lighthouse with his hiking map: “There is no lighthouse here”. Everything that is said is said by an observer. From his perspective, what he sees is true because what it means is effective. This is a frugal concept of truth, in which ultimate validity is not decided. Hypotheses are therefore the maximum kind of assumptions that can be accepted. To test them is not to know the cause of a “thing”, but to observe its effects. And – to do justice to the complexity: The observer should observe himself in his observation.

Systems theory is a cybernetic theory. The Greek cybernos is the helmsman who wants to steer his boat from A to B by communicating with the wind and waves. He is not on the right-hand lane of a highway with a navigation system, but part of a whole of which he is unaware, which is why he must observe. He cannot control the communication between himself, the steering wheel, rudder, sails and wind, but he can use the connection with the elements to reach his destination. A system is not a whole, but a differentiated whole – the difference between “everything that is possible” and “that which is acted upon”. A system is the unit of differentiation from an environment. For example, a coffee machine as a system distinguishes that it prepares a coffee after receiving a pressure impulse on a certain button. The button is a relevant environment. If you press a different button and are surprised that nothing happens, you might think that the machine is broken. However, a difference that is not produced in the system cannot have any effect.

Truth is not a state, but a distinction.

The guiding principle of a system is not a certain value, but the viability (operability) of its processes. Whether a Catholic priest or a free funeral preacher is allowed to organize the funeral only makes a difference for those who see a difference between priest and preacher. Conversely, the system as such can do nothing other than reproduce the difference once it has been made: The repetition of what is true (for the system) produces what is true. Systems constantly confirm themselves. Accordingly, only influencing that which influences leads to a change in the system: change the relevant environments of a system and you challenge “the system” to validate its system boundaries. No matter how many F’s a teacher gives out – the students will only accept the role of the teacher and the significance of grades that endanger transfer if they recognize the teacher and the grade as relevant environments and adjust their system (e.g. of learning) accordingly. Change cannot be injected from the outside, the system can only be pertubated. Parents who want their child’s room to be tidier will not achieve this with better arguments, but only with arguments that can be connected.

Systemic thinking is not thinking in causalities, from which evidence emerges at some point. Systems are self-contained wholes in which the truth can be traced back to itself. For those who have only experienced men who cook badly, men cannot cook. But is it objectively true that this is the case? Systemic thinking refrains from using this term because it is unnecessarily abbreviated. Nevertheless, it does not renounce the content of what one builds one’s own reality of life on, for example. That is something genuine. Systems theory would be abbreviated if one were to say: Because there is no truth, there is no truth. This does not correspond to observation: there are things that a person perceives as “true”. Be it the love of a partner or the presence of God. What is wrong with that? Truth is not a state, but a distinction. In both cases it is: meaning.

A constructivist epistemology is thus derived from systems theory. It is important for the dialog to be conducted here that we encounter systemic constructivism. Constructivism also recognizes other sources. However, a systemic construction of reality is not derived from chance, egalitarianism or the legendary number 42 as the answer to all questions of the universe (as in Douglas Adam’s science fiction classic “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), but from a self-contained, self-sustaining control loop that cannot be ontologically asserted, but is real because it works, and which, because it works, must be responsible. Systemic-constructivist concepts do not deny reality. It is not about denying the reality of a wall, a cancer, a flower meadow or the coronavirus. It is about contexts of meaning.

A systemically influenced constructivist like Heinz von Foerster therefore criticizes the concept of an ontological truth, as a truth that leads out of itself in its justification, because the blind spot of observation – the observer – is not taken into account. But as an observer, you can say for yourself and to others what is true (in the sense of valid, important, relevant). From a systemic-constructivist perspective, the only thing that is said is that it could always be completely different, because the observation does not refer to a substance, but to a distinction. Thus the Eucharistic bread is not holy, but becomes so in the attribution of meaning by a believer (= an observer). But the creed is no less “true” just because it is a decisive distinction.

A systemic-constructivist perspective slows down the process of attributing meaning because it does not immediately deduce B from A on the basis of “blind” assumptions, but includes the observer of this setting. And every observer is responsible for the truths they create for themselves (and others). Consequently, human freedom and autonomy are not lost in systemic constructivism. Although the concept of person and identity is removed from any form of transcendental justification, it is not dissolved because constructed meaning is also meaning. This is a necessary condition for the ability to engage in dialog with Christian theology.

Ignatian re-reading

Systemic and constructivist ideas can already be found in Greek philosophy. However, as humanistic currents, they always became en vogue when mankind was confronted with comprehensive upheavals. This is because they are able to deal conceptually with uncertainties. Ignatius of Loyola also lived during such a turning point. In the 15th and 16th centuries, people in Central Europe experienced a series of upheavals to views of the world that had previously been considered certain. The standardizing orders of earlier days were no longer useful. Many things had to be redeveloped, redesigned and reorganized. Ignatius of Loyola was also, biographically motivated, someone who reformulated the relationship between God, the individual and the world and, together with his companions, trained people on their path.

Ignatius was not on the move with “system thoughts”. He was a man of popular piety, deeply rooted in the divine view through deeply felt sensory impressions. But an experiential concept of knowledge, the relevance of self-referential, observer-related knowledge, the process character of life paths, decision-making through discernment, the pursuit of sensations that promote growth – in this he is close to the new departures in thought of the modern era, in which systems theory and constructivism also have a breeding ground. What Ignatius describes as meaning in the “Principle and Foundation” of his Spiritual Exercises, namely the “structural coupling” of the more-of-God through the more-of-man, how he guides the practitioner circularly through the four weeks of the Spiritual Exercises, how he shapes communication as a religious superior – all this has (it must often be emphasized) no source in systems theory and constructivism, nor have they ever shown any interest in a “Brother Ignatius”, as the environmental movement has in a “Brother Francis”. But the impression arises that two wanderers are drawing water from the same well.

Ignatius understands faith as a fully formed experience. He does not lay down a formal canon of faith, but injects growth in faith. He guides people to construct meaning from the perception(!) of what they sense in themselves. Ignatian spirituality is based on a concept of knowledge that goes beyond the understanding of generally known and supposedly objective knowledge. Rather, Ignatius instructs us to focus on the difference between one and another moment of perception of the same object. The systemic-constructivist environmental difference proceeds in the same way: Reality emerges from the reflection of a relationship. This process never ends for Ignatius either. The “magis” is not a “finis”. What is provisional, but can be done, is enough.

You could say that Ignatian spirituality is a spirituality of observation, a cybernetic spirituality. It understands neither God nor human beings as objects, but in relation to themselves, to each other and to all things. It recognizes the fallacy that an observation can fall for its own conclusions and therefore practices indifference. She has been repeatedly criticized theologically for this approach, to the point of being accused of Pelagianism. Understanding the will of God not as an ordered hierarchy and the relationship of man to God not causally, but as a certainty that can only be discovered individually to the point of relative certainty, has caused and continues to cause bewilderment and fascination. Ignatian-influenced people are often chosen as spiritual guides, but (so far) rarely as pope.

Ignatius experienced in his own life what can happen when a person thinks they know what is right and pursues it in enthusiastic exploration or self-mortification: desolation and the absence of (inner) love. He therefore leads the path of spiritual searching in strict sobriety and closely bound to the way of Jesus, in his discipleship, which is not a simple copying of Jesus’ actions, but an imitation, a discernment of what comes from the spirit of Jesus for one’s own actions and what does not. And he confesses a first distinction: God exists. All seeking is directed towards him, for his greater glory. His eternity is the source of all grace, all comfort and all instruction. But: the idea that man is not thrown back on himself arises from an experience, not from an ontology. Neither the “subject man” nor the “object God” are preconceived like punched figures.

Theological questions

Every enlightened theology does not claim God, but seeks, describes and confesses him on the basis of observations, which are then described as “revelation” and can lead to faith. And yet the understanding of God is the crux of the dialog on our journey. There will be no understanding. A theoretical epistemology and a believing spirituality cannot be communicated to each other. But there is an interesting parallelism in the form of ultimate knowledge that keeps us capable of dialog.

Neither the “human subject” nor the “object God” are preconceived like punched figures.

Systems theory is also subject to the suspicion that it is entirely coherent in itself because it chooses its presuppositions, i.e. takes them from somewhere. In George Spencer Brown’s form theory, however, mathematical-logical operators can be used to demonstrate that the causality of an either-or can be traced back to a distinction that contains all possibilities: In the beginning was not the distinction, but the possibility of difference. The appeal of this intellectual subtlety only carries one risk: everything could have turned out completely differently. We can live with this risk – also spiritually, also theologically. To quote Karl Rahner: “Man as a hearer of the Word is invited to recognize God, but it is also possible not to do so. The rejection of God as an act of faith, out of a decision of conscience, is virtually necessary, because only a free decision for God can be a believing decision.

For Ignatius, God was real. But due to man’s bondage to his senses, an encounter with God can only take place through the unfolding of reality: Seeking and finding God in all things (= in all observations). Ignatius therefore does not define a God who comes from an indiscriminate eternity and in the face of whom man only becomes free in powerlessness. For powerlessness does not save. In the Ignatian reading, God as the point of reference for human longing for salvation and the salvation of the soul is not the difference, but the distinction. God is not an environmental variable, God is the form that holds together the unity of the difference between system and environment and therefore contains all possibilities. And so belief in God is never decided, but always the differentiation of effects: Spirit and but-spirit, consolation and non-consolation, fruit and non-fruit. But does this God exist then? Yes, he is absolutely real. Like the love that two lovers feel – but only love.

No one can think of God without thinking of themselves (= an observer) – that is a theological provocation. But to assert “God is the Eternal” as an eternal truth is not epistemologically plausible. But to say it as a decisive truth is a testimony. A testimony that needs a witness. It is a truth that lacks absolute certainty so that it can be a decision. It is not a proof of God, but a proof of God that is not arbitrary, because it decides on options and locates God in one’s own life. This is only questionable for those who are looking for security outside. But isn’t the human experience of life and faith one of groping and striding, of continual recognition and confession?

The importance of dialog
for the ecclesiality of the church

The walk through theory was a long one. But it was necessary in order to secure the ideas arising from the dialog well enough. The point at which the conversation between Ignatian spirituality and systemic-constructivist concepts proves to be open to dialog is that decisive responsibility – the confession of a God who exists – does not exclude the fact that indecision preceded the decision. Ignatius interpreted the fragility of his life as a “space of possibility” and described the decisions that had a positive effect on him as God’s grace, because he attached importance to Jesus’ proclamation of this God. Not the linear-causal, but thinking in terms of possibilities and making decisions through discernment helped him to understand his life in all its twists and turns before God. In this way, the spiritual exercises train us to think (more) systemically. This is not a contradiction to faith, because the encounter with God in the Ignatian sense is not a decisive interpretation, but the practice of discernment. “God” is more my responsibility than his.

Ignatian spirituality is supported by the Church for personal and synodal spiritual paths. However, the systemically reinforced Ignatian spirituality as an ecclesiological guiding principle and as an organizational culture in the church has consequences beyond this: The organization of church is challenged that the structure and content of its operationally closed system must remain energetically open. “Everything could always be completely different” is not a paradox in an Ignatian-influenced dogmatics of church organization, as can be observed with Pope Francis, the Jesuit.

The consequence of this is relevant because church actors are thus reminded that their system of faith and order is not the result of a predetermined decision, but of a decisive distinction. In the beginning there was chaos, not the magisterium. The chaos was followed by a word – a distinction. This formulates a leadership and management responsibility in the church that is not based on the effect of power, but reflects on powerful effects, understands the evaluation of measures as a learning event and takes responsibility for what it sets. Ignatian spirituality and systemic-constructivist epistemology are therefore very different troublemakers for the organization of the church for the same conceptual reasons. They are an inspiration for a theologically responsible theory of organization.

What more would be gained if an Ignatian-mediated, more systemic attitude were a cultural characteristic of the church? We can now understand, for example, that a right-wing conservative and a left-wing progressive Christian are both right in their understanding of the church because they describe different things. Their discourse on the future shape of the church therefore makes no difference; it runs in a stable reciprocity of their own distinctions. It only becomes enlightening when both talk about the distinctions they have made, i.e. their respective relevant environments (= second-order observation) and examine these with and against each other in order to jointly identify new differences. To do this, they must interrupt the reproduction of the same observations and be free enough internally to recognize that the end result may not be one or the other, but something completely different. Just as synodal processes, for spiritual reasons, should not be understood as a church parliament with a majority principle, but rather as listening, discerning, making indifferent in order to then interpret slowly enough, systemic reasons similarly point to the fact that we must first look “behind” the discernment in order to make a different difference: What patterns, mental models, epistemes actually trigger what one and the other equally call “truth”?

What is theologically significant about dialog is the finding that Christian confessional interpretation of the world remains possible within post-structuralist concepts. It is possible to take responsibility for ecclesial, or more precisely sacramental, action because it is not necessary to defend a content of truth, but the construction of meaning can be understood as an event of truth. What, for example, is the acclamation of the congregation after the priest’s call “Mystery of faith!” other than a request to observers to point out a difference?

Systemic concepts in supervision, coaching and organizational consulting in the church no longer have to be legitimized via the detour of humanistic psychology due to the ability to engage in dialogue, but instead find a foothold in the brand essence of churchliness: honouring God through the process-oriented accompaniment and consulting of emancipatory development processes in people, groups and institutions. The results of which are not predictable, which require agility in thinking and acting, which must be free enough to observe and distinguish the “other”. Systemic interventions in church contexts are not just a tool, but an expression of the church’s ecclesiality. The fact that systemic consultants are usually spiritually alive people should be added as a phenomenon.

Two wanderers who give each other impulses: More was not to be expected. More is also not possible. No more? No less! But in the end, epistemology remains epistemology and spirituality remains spirituality. Where the systemicist draws an angle (as an indication of the undecided form) in the distinction of form, the Christian worships God. Systemic constructivism does not see itself as dependent on grace. At the same time, it lacks it as a promise.


    Dirk Baecker: Why systems? Berlin 2002.
    Anthony de Mello: Seeking God in all things. The spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola. Freiburg 2013.
    Vitus Seibel (ed.): Who is your God? 77 Jesuits give a personal answer (Ignatian Impulse). Würzburg 2018.
    Fritz B. Simon: Forms. On the coupling of organism, psyche and social systems. Heidelberg 2018.
    Dominik Terstriep: Indifference. On the coolness and passion of indifference. St. Ottilien 2009.
    Heinz von Foerster and Bernhard Pörksen: Truth is the invention of a liar. Conversations for skeptics. Heidelberg 2008.

    Jan-Christoph Horn

    The author is a theologian, supervisor and organizational consultant, among others for the church in Münster.

Divided States of America
By Godehard Brüntrup
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/2-2022/gespaltene-staaten-von-amerika/.]

Corona has made the Atlantic wider and deeper. It was a strange feeling to set foot on American soil again after a long period of self-imposed isolation. For me, the moment when the plane makes contact with the ground in the New World is always associated with a feeling of liberation. You breathe more freely, think more generously and more boldly on the other side of the Atlantic. But optimism about the future has also become more cautious, even timid, in the USA. Threats are brewing, fear is in the air. We are entering a torn country that remembers the dark sides of its history. This is palpable, everywhere and omnipresent.

The USA has inflicted the greatest wounds on itself. The Civil War, sparked by the inhumanity of slavery, cost the country more victims than any other war. The aftermath of this conflict is still powerful. Anyone who knows the United States beneath the surface senses that two hearts are still beating in its chest today. Trump’s incendiary last year brought the simmering conflicts to the surface. On the one hand, it was no longer the Gandhi-inspired strategies of non-violent resistance familiar from the days of Martin Luther King: Inner cities became lawless zones for weeks on end, fires flickered out of government buildings and the stores of complete bystanders. On the other side, right-wing militias armed to the teeth did not even stop at the center of democracy, the Capitol.

Nothing is sacred anymore. At the universities, we hear from well-protected young people from middle-class families that this country has been so corrupted by injustice, discrimination and racism that a new, better state can only be built by force of arms. The other side, however, the defenders of the America of the founding fathers, do not want to tear down the monuments of the glorious past. They believe they need to arm themselves even more to protect their “way of life”. Forty million firearms sold made 2020 a record year, and the trend continued unabated in 2021. The country is becoming a powder keg.

The Catholic Church reflects this conflict. There is also a camp of culture warriors within it who want to create places of survival for a long-gone social order, a traditional ideal of family and an unrealistic idea of lived sexual identity. They see the church as a city on a hill, as distant from the world as a lighthouse is from a ship in a troubled sea. This group is stronger and more powerful than in Germany. To this day, they see Benedict XVI as their spiritual leader. On the other hand, there are those who want to see the Church as an inspiring force for building a new, fairer social order that radically leaves systemic racism behind. Their image of the church is that of the leaven: it is absorbed into the world and at the same time permeates it. In this process, the adaptation of classical moral positions to social sensibilities is affirmed and even demanded. This group is guided by Pope Francis. The rift is not only evident in the Bishops’ Conference, but the whole Church is split into two camps. Each of them allies itself with one of the two major state-supporting political parties. Conversation is hardly desired any more. You have the right parish, the right priest, the right friends, the right TV station and the right bubble in the social media. We live in different worlds.

The speech given by the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, to the last fall meeting of the American Bishops’ Conference should be read against this background. He spoke of the need for a phase of attentive listening in the Church, and particularly in the Bishops’ Conference, if the division is to be overcome. And he did not mean planning further meetings, because “conferences upon conferences” were taking place in the lower circles of Dante’s hell. Is this a sublime warning that we should not imitate the Germans, who achieved nothing in their synodal process apart from talking a lot? But what is the alternative? The schism? We have to talk.

The American church has a tradition of national synods. The plenary council met no fewer than thirteen times in Baltimore between 1829 and 1884. The resulting “Baltimore Catechism” left its mark on generations of believers. With this synodal process, the American church expressed its national self-image in the 19th century. The United States was and is an unprecedented experiment in democracy in many respects. The US church was also more synodal than many others. We must now build on this tradition – with the generosity and daring that we value in our North American friends.

    SJ, Godehard Brüntrup is Professor of Metaphysics, Philosophy of Language and Mind at the Munich School of Philosophy.


A future free of religion: the religious politics of evolutionary humanism

Is God just an imaginary alpha male in the eternal struggle for resources and reproductive opportunities? Followers of “evolutionary humanism” believe so: religious systems and ideas merely serve to increase their own power and thus secure a survival advantage. Evolutionary humanists want to make policy to ban religious traditions from public life. The authors of this article critically examine the “manifesto” of this movement: Markus Globisch is doing his doctorate at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Erfurt. Jonas Maria Hoff is a research assistant at the Fundamental Theological Seminary at the University of Bonn.
By Markus Globisch, Jonas Maria Hoff
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/2-2022/religionsfreie-zukunft-religionspolitik-des-evolutionaeren-humanismus/.]

Teaching religion, ethics and philosophy would be unthinkable without them: the great critics of religion such as Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. However, another model of criticism of religion seems to be more influential today than the sophisticated drafts of these four. For the last fifteen years or so, more recent concepts have been registered under the catchphrase “new atheism”. One of these approaches, so-called “evolutionary humanism”, is proving to be particularly active in German-speaking countries. As Saskia Wendel has pointed out,1 this position does not argue on the same philosophical level as the aforementioned intellectual giants around Nietzsche and Freud. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a closer look at it. Their relevance is not primarily due to the quality of their arguments, but above all to their reach. This, in turn, is linked to a well-organized network that makes religious-political demands on the basis of “evolutionary humanism”. Reason enough to take a closer look at this approach and its network.

Evolutionary humanism is a secular worldview that is based in particular on the eponymous theory of evolution and on methods of gaining (natural) scientific knowledge. Its humanistic view of the world and humanity is characterized by an optimistic assessment of the development potential of the individual and the community, freed from ideological world views and religious traditions. Concepts of God are rejected because they are based on unprovable assumptions. The best-known German-language work on evolutionary humanism is a book published by Michael Schmidt-Salomon in 2005 on behalf of the Giordano Bruno Foundation (GBS) entitled “Manifesto of Evolutionary Humanism”.2 It reflects the mission statement of this foundation, which was established in 2004, and its network. It also has an impact on social discourse as a whole – not least because of its popular scientific style and provocative rhetoric.

The concept of evolutionary humanism is based on a specific interpretation of the theory of evolution. One core assumption is particularly in focus: self-interest. This guiding principle permeates the entire evolutionary process and directly or indirectly motivates the behavior of living beings: “All organisms […] owe their existence to the self-interested striving of their ancestors for advantages in the struggle for resources and genetic reproductive success” (17). The emergence of religion can also be traced back to this principle. The belief in a god or several gods was therefore a cultural-ideological transformation of self-interest that could favor survival: “In terms of evolutionary biology, ‘God’ can be described as an ‘imaginary alpha male’ […] Those who know how to create the impression of having a particularly ‘good connection’ to the ‘silverback beyond’ can improve their position within the human mammal hierarchy through this alone” (61-62).

According to this understanding, God can be better explained as a selection advantage than with the help of religious attempts at interpretation. According to Schmidt-Salomon, the fact that belief in God has survived to the present day shows how powerful this selection advantage still is. With the help of religion, people in the past and present have been able to establish and stabilize “structures of domination and power creep” (62). In this way, religions logically safeguarded oppression and the abuse of power. To this end, they drew on explanations of the world that can no longer claim any validity in the present day, as “natural phenomena can be explained in a far more elegant way” (ibid.) – for example with the help of the natural sciences. The perspective of evolutionary humanism on scientific research is characterized by a positivistic-naturalistic understanding of science, according to which only those results are useful that can be empirically proven. Anything that cannot be proven in this sense cannot contribute to explaining the world – with the exception of “philosophical thinking”, as this “shows great similarities to scientific thinking” (43). Religiosity and religious faith, which have a different epistemological approach to the world, are thus discredited from the outset.

Such a reference to science, which is constitutive of evolutionary humanism, also raises the question of its own ideological standpoint. For the manifesto is neither a scientific study, nor is it a summary of the current state of research on evolutionary theory and humanism. The very terms “manifesto” and “humanism” indicate that ideal-typical ideas of social coexistence are addressed here. Evolutionary humanism attempts to reconcile these ideas with a narrow understanding of science and philosophy – which is not always successful. One example of this is the statement that “evolutionary humanism knows no absolute categories”.3 However, this obviously does not apply to the topic of religion when Schmidt-Salomon writes that it is “of absolute urgency to work towards a process of worldwide religious disarmament” (49). Schmidt-Salomon also accepts theoretical inconsistencies, i.e. scientific and argumentative inaccuracies, for the sake of evolutionary-humanist goals.

This inconsistent pattern of argumentation can also be found in other places: statistical surveys on the decline in church attendance, falling membership figures and low approval ratings for statements of faith are cited as evidence that a majority of the population has long supported the concerns of evolutionary humanism.4 However, the fact that the non-denominational people, who are grouped together in a residual category, are stylized as a homogeneous group is not conclusive from an argumentative point of view. It seems as if scientific data is deliberately interpreted through a presuppositional ideological lens. However, the glasses themselves are not made visible.

The manifesto contains sufficient starting points for locating evolutionary humanism as a worldview. For example, it is based on a “fundamentally revised view of humanity and the world”. (14) In this, “the” philosophy – Schmidt-Salomon does not differentiate between philosophical currents – is explicitly conceived as an alternative concept to the creation of religious meaning. This essentially marks the characteristics of a secular worldview. Texts such as the “ten propositions of evolutionary humanism” are intended – as is ultimately the case with the entire “Manifesto” – to help put this worldview into practice.

In the sequel to the “Manifesto of Evolutionary Humanism”, the book “Hoffnung Mensch”,5 Schmidt-Salomon explicitly addresses the ideological dimension of evolutionary humanism, specifically in the context of the category of faith. For him, faith is also a constitutive element of evolutionary-humanist hope: “As far removed from faith as it [evolutionary humanism, MG/JMH] may otherwise be, there is also a faith at its center, namely faith in man’s ability to develop. “6 Faith in the sense of evolutionary humanism therefore means: trusting in the effectiveness of the theory of evolution and hoping for a better life. There is no specific mention of how this belief can end social or economic injustice, for example.

A network critical of religion

The positions of evolutionary humanism that have been briefly presented so far form the identity-forming basis of a growing network that successfully addresses different social discourses. The “Manifesto” already lays the foundation for complete enlightenment as a key objective. Enlightenment activists, as the evolutionary humanists call themselves, must “work on sharpening the independent profile of a consistent, enlightened humanism and working out its advantages over competing religious organizations. “7 A differentiated network of different actors dedicated themselves to this overall mission, bringing their arguments and demands into different contexts: in publications, science, politics, the promotion of young talent and art and protest actions.

First of all, their journalistic successes come into view. Both the Humanist Press Service (hpd) and the Alibri publishing house, where the aforementioned “Manifesto” was published, contribute to this. For some years now, non-fiction books critical of religion have also been published in the “Religionskritik & Humanismus” section of the Tectum publishing house, whose founder is a long-standing member of the Giordano Bruno Foundation’s advisory board. Nomos-Verlag has been publishing an academic series since 2019, which is edited by the Institut für Weltanschauungsrecht. The latter consists mainly of members of the Giordano Bruno Foundation. The volumes published to date address questions of ideological neutrality of the state and criticize supposedly one-sided legal frameworks that favor religions.8

In addition to this institute, the research group “Weltanschauungen in Deutschland” (fowid) also belongs to this network, which evaluates national and international study data on religion and ideology. Another science-oriented institution is the Hans-Albert-Institut, named after the well-known philosopher and advisory board member of the foundation. It deals with political and scientific issues and thus has an impact on numerous areas of social coexistence. The Central Council of Ex-Muslims (ZdE) and the Humanist Party (party abbreviation: Die Humanisten) are also dedicated to the latter.

For some years now, there has been increased support for young people, for example through regional and university groups. Founded in 2021, the Bertha-von-Suttner-Studienwerk awards non-state-funded humanist study scholarships. It is primarily young people who take on positions of responsibility at the aforementioned Hans Albert Institute and within the Humanist Party.

At religious events of media significance (Kirchentag, Katholikentag, etc.), politicized demands are articulated through art and protest actions, such as a ban on cooperation between the state and churches. The fact that such demands are also perceived politically is shown by the city of Münster’s decision to only support the 2018 Katholikentag with contributions in kind.9 Arguments from groups critical of religion contributed significantly to this decision.

All of these and other areas and formats in and with which evolutionary humanism makes a public appearance are characterized by demands for the containment of religious traditions and ways of thinking in the decision-making processes of society as a whole. How these are reflected in political measures is exemplified by the election program of the Die Humanisten party for the 2021 Bundestag elections.

Since 2014, Die Humanisten has been a party that claims to translate evolutionary humanism into concrete political demands. It is important to note in advance that political demands are already set out in the “Manifesto”. Schmidt-Salomon not only suggests a change in the way the state deals with religious communities, but also addresses completely different topics. For example, the “Manifesto” also contains concrete considerations on questions of economic organization or animal welfare. These demands should also always be read against the background of evolutionary humanism as a whole. When Schmidt-Salomon calls for factory farming to be banned, for example, this is directly linked to the criticism of a religiously based special status for humans.10 The political concepts of the Humanist Party are also linked to their ideological justification in this way.

With their election program11 for the 2021 Bundestag election, in which Die Humanisten received 0.1 percent of the nationwide second votes (47,838 votes), they make it clear that they are by no means a monothematic party. They cover the entire spectrum of political issues, from climate to foreign policy. The way in which the fundamentals of evolutionary humanism are spelled out politically here can be seen, for example, in the section on social policy: “Humanist social policy focuses on helping people to help themselves, equal opportunities and support in times of need. For us, the focus is on the self-determination of the individual” (12). The link to the principle of self-interest remains clearly recognizable, as the focus is on the individual. However, help in times of need also remains logically tied to the standard of self-interest, as a renewed look at Schmidt-Salomon’s “Manifesto” shows. Based on study results, the impression is created here that a comparatively narrow social gap between rich and poor has a positive effect on average life expectancy.12 If “support in need” were to be interpreted as a mission to combat poverty, then this too would not be understood as an ethical end in itself, but instrumentally in terms of self-interest: Increasing life expectancy in society ultimately also has a positive effect on the individual. Solidarity is conceived here in terms of um-to constructs, all of which are oriented towards self-interest.

This aspect is in turn linked to the self-image of the humanists. They see their politics as being derived from a stable scientific basis. Science and rationality, as they understand them, have absolute primacy. Attributes such as “rational” or “scientific” are therefore repeatedly used to justify their demands. They suggest an unambiguousness that can be easily translated into concrete policy. For example, they call for “evidence-based medicine” or the “expansion, further development and responsible use of space technologies”. Ultimately, these demands also remain linked to the critique of religion via the argumentative pattern. The scientific understanding of evolutionary humanism is outlined in the difference to religious convictions. In the humanists’ election manifesto, this is indicated semantically by the labeling of “dogmatic” positions. positions. These prevent “opportunities for development and advancement” and should therefore be removed from education, for example. Specifically, for example, denominational religious education should be replaced by neutral ethics education. In addition, sex work must oppose “conservative prejudices”, animals must be protected from “religious rites” and “religious, cultural and historical boundaries” should be overcome so that a peaceful global community can emerge.

One design detail in the party program is particularly revealing: it is riddled with symbolic images. Where mobility and infrastructure are concerned, a subway train is depicted, while the glass dome of the Reichstag is shown for the topic of transparency. The symbolic images support the political demands and lighten up the program aesthetically. Image and text are harmoniously combined. However, this procedure is broken at one point. The double page on education policy contains a picture showing three people engrossed in books, reading and writing. What appears harmonious at first glance causes irritation on closer inspection. The high resolution of the image makes it possible to identify one of the texts. It is the book “Prayer “13 by the Protestant theologian Timothy Keller. While the humanists call in their text for the abolition of denominational religious education, the image shows a theological educational process – presumably a creative inattention in the creation of the election program. However, the detail reveals an important point: on closer inspection, the principle of unambiguity breaks down. The high standards of evolutionary humanism with its strong focus on science are tripped up by a theological text of all things. This is remarkable in two ways. On the one hand, the penchant for scientific and methodological precision is performatively counteracted, and on the other, the blind spot in the evolutionary-humanist perspective on religion becomes apparent.

The fact that the disruption in the program comes from a theological text of all things leads to a brief critique of the evolutionary-humanist worldview.

A brief response

The threatening nature of religion is recognized in evolutionary humanism in that it can justify and legitimize power and oppression. Religions “easily manage to push their followers to the limit of their willingness to perform”.14 According to Schmidt-Salomon, it is constitutive that religious people “know [something] that will still be valid tomorrow, although it is usually already refuted today”.15 Religion is described here as a transformation mechanism that translates uncertainty into certainty. The inexplicability of natural phenomena leads to the invention of a world ruler standing behind the world. An uncertain basis is transformed into an absolute claim to certainty.

The example of the irritating symbolic image from the Humanists’ election program shows that religion can have a completely different effect. It draws attention to a different understanding of religion. Religion does not simply serve to secure convictions, it also always points to the limits of possible theological certainties. This mechanism becomes particularly tangible in the prohibition of images in the three monotheistic world religions. Concepts of God are made aware of the unavailability of their point of reference and are thus ultimately reminded of their own limitations. Monotheistic images of God are not trivial in this way. They do not aim for unambiguity, but carry a potential for irritation. In Christianity, this potential leads to decisive beliefs being formulated as paradoxes. From the incarnation (“true God and true man”) to the idea of a virgin birth and the resurrection, thought patterns are presented that defy unambiguous resolution. The distorted understanding of religion of evolutionary humanism does not do justice to these irritations. It has to clarify or hide this potential for irritation in order to be able to present the abusive instrumentalization of religion, as in the case of religious fundamentalism, as authentic, as the norm.

From a theoretical point of view, further critical aspects could be discussed here. However, they would presumably only distract from the fact that the theological debate with evolutionary humanism is primarily relevant because it carries its anti-theological positions, demands and ultimately also its world view into the most diverse areas of society in a professionally networked manner. By building up a distorted image of religion, he undercuts levels in order to generate greater political and social attention than would probably be possible with a differentiated debate.

              1 Cf. Saskia Wendel: The ’embarrassing incident’ of religion. Positions of the ‘New Atheism’, in: Ökumenische Rundschau 59 (2010), 468-479, 479.
              2 Michael Schmidt-Salomon: Manifesto of evolutionary humanism. A plea for a contemporary guiding culture. Aschaffenburg 22006, cited below. Emphasis taken from the original.
              3 Ibid. 35.
              4 Cf. ibid. 141 f.
              5 Schmidt-Salomon: Human hope. A better world is possible. Munich 22016.
              6 Ibid. 93, emphasis in original.
              7 Schmidt-Salomon: Manifesto (note 2), 165.
              8 Cf. Jacqueline Neumann, Gerhard Czermak, Reinhard Merkel and Holm Putzke (eds.): Aktuelle Entwicklungen im Weltanschauungsrecht (Schriften zum Weltanschauungsrecht 1). Baden-Baden 2019; Gerhard Czermak: Seventy years of the Federal Constitutional Court in Weltanschaulicher Schieflage. Cases, structures, possibilities for correction (Schriften zum Weltanschauungsrecht 2). Baden-Baden 2021.
              9 Cf. Andreas Fincke: Finished with God? Non-denominationalism, atheism and secular humanism in Germany. Aschaffenburg 2017, 95.
              10 Cf. Schmidt-Salomon: Manifesto (note 2), 120-130.
              11 Cf. Humanist Party: Our heart burns for facts. Election program for the 2021 Bundestag elections, adopted at the 4th extraordinary federal party conference at Haus Leipzig in Leipzig on 5-6 June 2021, at: diehumanisten.de.
              12 Schmidt-Salomon: Manifesto (note 2), 27-28.
              13 Timothy Keller: Prayer. Experiencing awe and intimacy with god. London 2016.
              14 Schmidt-Salomon: Manifesto (note 2), 63.
         15 Ibid. 38.

    Markus Globisch is doing his doctorate at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Erfurt

    Hoff, Jonas Maria
    Jonas Maria Hoff

    Jonas Maria Hoff, born 1995, Dr. theol., studied Catholic theology, German and educational sciences in Bonn and Salzburg, 2021 doctorate in Bonn, from 2019 to 2020 consultant for higher education issues at the Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, since 2020 research assistant at the Fundamental Theological Seminary of the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn.


Apocalypse now?
By Stefan Kiechle
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/1-2022/apokalypse-now/.]

The fourth wave of the pandemic is rolling – those in the know knew it, but no one took countermeasures in time. New variants are even more insidious. Some, in fear of death, are calling for even stricter measures, others are refusing the protective vaccination for fear of side effects – a confidence problem on both sides. Then there is the increasingly urgent climate catastrophe: young people fear doom, demand tougher climate policies and go on hunger strike; older people and those who consider themselves wiser warn that we must not damage the economy too much, as that would be the other downfall. Then there are the seemingly sinister superpowers that threaten our European way of life: China and, once again, Russia are successfully asserting their geopolitical interests, and in the case of the USA, there are doubts as to whether this superpower is not sinking into internal division and tirades of hatred. Finally, autocratic rulers such as Lukashenko or Erdoğan, Trump or Putin: they rule ruthlessly for the benefit of their power, brutally marginalize members of the opposition and stir up fears among the people in order to profit from them. And the churches: they are crumbling in this country, and internally they are rubbing themselves up the wrong way in a culture clash. What remains? Divisions and violence everywhere, dark powers and doomsday scenarios, and everything dominated by fear? Is the apocalypse approaching?

Several articles on apocalyptic topics have been included in this magazine in recent months: Jan Juhani Steinmann shows that the apocalypse is not first and foremost catastrophic doom, but, from a Christian perspective, the unveiling of truth and ultimately – yes! – the deification of man (issue 11/2021). Margareta Gruber ofm describes how, according to the Revelation of John, the new world of God will not restore the lost paradise, but will form a new urban space, a redeemed culture (12/2021). Marianne Heimbach-Steins and Georg Steins read the biblical creation narrative (Genesis 1) as being guided by a central political and ethical background metaphor that has global ethical consequences for the shaping of the near future (12/2021). Philipp Adolphs talks about the fourth part of the Matrix trilogy currently showing in cinemas, in which an apocalypse full of religious symbolism is told (12/2021). Klaus Mertes SJ interprets Stephen King’s apocalyptic novel The Stand theologically (forthcoming). Are we currently being overrun by apocalyptic fantasies and – in serious circles – by corresponding interpretations of the world? Is the end near?

Critically, there have always been crises and catastrophes and the corresponding fears in the history of recent centuries – but why is the apocalyptic mood breaking out so strongly right now? Are the threats now even more global? And therefore also more final – could climate change really mean the end of human life on this planet? We can also ask whether people are becoming more selfish in their fears of doom and, in their end-time greed for life, are only trying to save their skins. One thing is clear: they like to stay in their communicative bubble and only perceive the world in often simple, sometimes irrational and immovable plausibilities. It is also worth asking why people in Europe are so afraid for themselves, usually at a high standard of living – in poor countries the situation is much more threatening. Fear would be better justified there, yet the mood is often better…

The New Testament recognizes both present and future apocalypticism. Present tense means: here and now, time is turning into the end times, old things are passing away and new things are beginning, God is working salvation through all crises and falls; salvation is already here, perhaps only in fragments, but effective and visible. Futuristic means that this time of the world still remains, that we have to shape it and prove ourselves in it, and that the end will only come in the distant future and after great upheavals. Apocalypse is both paradoxical and mysterious. In any case, apocalypse does not take place in a continuing world history, but is the coming of God to interrupt it. It is the final battle between the forces of good and those of evil; this battle can only be lived in the hope that good will prevail in the end – according to the Christian promise and the Christian faith.

In the New Testament, Jesus says of the apocalyptic upheavals: “When all these things begin, then stand up and lift up your heads, for your redemption is near… Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:28, 33). In the Old Testament, Isaiah proclaims God’s word: “Already I am creating new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17). At the end of the Bible, the apocalyptic seer of Patmos quotes this prophetic vision as being fulfilled (Rev 21:1). Perhaps the end really is near. But would that really be a bad thing? Things will only get better afterwards.

    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.

Rutilio Grande: Martyr of rural pastoral work in El Salvador

On January 22, Rutilio Grande SJ and his companions Manuel Solorzano and Nelson Lemus were beatified together with the Franciscan Cosme Spessotto OFM in San Salvador. Grande died in 1977 in the hail of bullets from an organization of the large landowners of Aguilares because he had campaigned politically for the poor and agricultural workers. Rutilio Grande’s biographer Rodolfo Cardenal SJ traces the work of the martyr and emphasizes the importance of his commitment for Óscar Romero’s later work in the context of the emerging liberation theology and the “option for the poor”. Translated from the Spanish by Martin Maier SJ.
By Rodolfo Cardenal
[This article posted in 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.herder.de/stz/hefte/archiv/147-2022/1-2022/rutilio-grande-maertyrer-der-landpastoral-in-el-salvador/.]

I would like to begin with a personal anecdote. When I was compiling a documentary on Rutilio Grande in the Roman archives of the Society of Jesus in October 2015, the Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, invited me, together with a delegation from El Salvador, to thank Pope Francis for the beatification of Archbishop Óscar Romero. During the audience, I sat in the front row and had the opportunity to greet the Pope. When I stood before him, I introduced myself as the author of two biographies about Rutilio Grande – one short, the other long – and as the chairman of the commission of periti of his canonization process. He said that he knew the first one. Then he looked at me and asked if there was already a miracle. I answered no. Then he said with a broad smile that there was already a miracle: “The great miracle of Rutilio Grande is Monsignor Romero.”

Msgr. Romero cannot be understood without Rutilio Grande. Rutilio’s ministry as a priest came to a violent end in March 1977, shortly after Mons. Romero had begun his ministry as archbishop in February 1977. Apart from their martyrdom, they share a surprising number of biographical similarities: Both came from poor families in the rural area of El Salvador. Both were born in small villages. Mons. Romero was born in the east of the country in 1917, while Rutilio was born into a broken family in a small village in the center of the country called El Paisnal in 1928. Both entered the minor seminary at a very young age: Rutilio entered that of San Salvador and Mons. Romero to that of the diocese of San Miguel. Unlike Mons. Romero, Rutilio did not continue his path in the diocesan clergy after graduating from the minor seminary, but joined the Society of Jesus in 1945.

Msgr. Romero and Rutilio Grande had intense experiences of human weakness, but for different reasons. Rutilio suffered two severe nervous breakdowns, probably related to a traumatic experience he had suffered in his childhood. The consequences of these breakdowns worsened with diabetes in the last years of his life. After the first and more serious breakdown, his health was weakened from 1950 onwards, which limited his ability to study and carry out his apostolate. Another consequence was his perfectionism and his efforts to be on good terms with everyone. As a result of this endeavor, he easily changed his mind, had a mania for accuracy, placed exaggerated value on appearance and was afraid of making a fool of himself. These tendencies led to insecurity and anxiety. In times of crisis, it was all or nothing. In these phases, Rutilio isolated himself from his surroundings, remained silent, became indifferent, serious and tired. He often went through darkness and ignorance; he suffered from it, and this led him to make an intense request: to accept himself as he was, “with his limitations and everything. “1 He repeatedly questioned his vocation to the priesthood, which he loved so much. According to his own confession, he placed himself in the hands of God in times of crisis.

Both Mons. Romero and Rutilio studied abroad, but in different places. Mons. Romero in Rome and Rutilio in Venezuela, Ecuador, Spain, France and Belgium. Despite their travels, their studies and their status as clerics, they were aware of and proud of their simple roots. Rutilio always wanted to return to the village from which he had entered the seminary. When he was finally able to return to El Paisnal as a priest, he had to convince the old women, who treated him with respect and reverence, that he was the same as ever. Mons. Romero never strayed from his simple roots. As parish priest of the Cathedral of San Miguel, he showed unusual compassion for the poor, the alcoholics and the sick who roamed around the church. Later, as a bishop, he placed himself at the service of these people who had been beaten by poverty and the oppression of the military dictatorship.

Priestly formation in the spirit
of the Second Vatican Council

From 1951, Rutilio was active in the training of Salvadoran clergy in the national seminary. Like him, the majority of the seminarians came from humble backgrounds. His superiors sent him to the seminary because they found him to be a hard-working and responsible Jesuit who had good judgment and great pedagogical skills. Until 1971, he was the “Father Prefect of the Seminary”, a job he hated because he was responsible for discipline. But he knew how to combine strictness with understanding. He did not want submissive seminarians, but responsible and mature ones. He reprimanded them severely, but he also protected them from the arbitrariness of the bishops and the rector. Later, many priests sought advice from him. This created a close, strong and trusting relationship with the diocesan clergy. At the end of his life, he had doubts as to whether he had been called to the diocesan clergy. Rutilio was also a professor of catechesis and pastoral theology. But what he enjoyed most was the civics course, which allowed him to explain the civil rights of the Salvadoran people to the seminarians.

Rutilio’s concern was to train priests who were at the service of the people and not clerical chieftains. He therefore fought for the seminary to be opened up to Salvadoran reality. The seminarians had to leave the seminary and reality had to find its way into its lecture halls and corridors. During the vacations, he organized popular missions with the older seminarians. They should not only preach, but also discover the people from whom they came and to whose service they were called. With their help, Rutilio himself devoted himself pastorally at weekends to El Paisnal, whose inhabitants, in his own words, he “took away the rosary and replaced it with the reading of biblical passages with commentaries “2.

He also tried to introduce the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and its Latin American transmission in the Bishops’ Assembly of Medellín in 1968. He was one of the priests most committed to ensuring that the Salvadoran Church received both texts of the Magisterium. The reception led to a serious ecclesiastical crisis that frightened many. The majority of the bishops accepted neither the Council nor Medellín, as they considered both to be radical and extreme. Rutilio, on the other hand, interpreted the crisis as an opportunity, “because it was high time to wake up to the painful reality” of exploitation, oppression and secularization. The time had come to “break down the wall of lamentation” and “set out to live the drama of faith as a story of liberation”. It was no shame for the clergy to feel cornered, because “for the wicked, the crisis is the fear of sin” and “for the good, the crisis is the liberating fear of the cross “3.

Loyalty to the magisterium of the Council and the Latin American bishops came at a high cost for Rutilio. It prevented his planned reform of studies and life in the seminary and also his appointment as rector, which was proposed by the Society of Jesus in 1970. As he no longer enjoyed the trust of the bishops, Rutilio decided to leave the seminary. After a short stay in a traditional Jesuit college and an intensive pastoral experience in Ecuador in the fall of 1972, he ended up in
parish of Aguilares, which included his birthplace. There he dedicated the last four years of his life to preaching the Gospel and the justice of the Kingdom of God among the peasants.

Structural injustice and violence

Rutilio and Mons. Romero proclaimed the kingdom of God and set effective signs of its presence in a reality characterized by economic exploitation, social oppression and state repression. They therefore denounced the injustice that oppressed the Salvadoran people and proclaimed their liberation. Rutilio did this from a rural parish, Mons. Romero from the bishop’s chair. Both had the gift of prophetic preaching. Rutilio’s language was more popular than that of Mons. Romero. He used expressions from the world of the peasants and the common people and was a master of figurative language. With the image of the rocket used in fireworks, which rises into the clouds, explodes with much noise and then falls to the ground again, he explained the need to live the Gospel in a sustainable way. In a nutshell, his message was: “God is not lying in a hammock in the clouds, God is acting and wants you to build the kingdom here on earth. “4 The language of Mons. Romero was more elaborate, but no less popular for that. Both are exemplary communicators.

Both called those responsible for injustice and violence to conversion. They never advocated violence as a solution; on the contrary, they tried to avoid it. They fought against the repressive violence that kills quickly in order to silence the demand for justice, and against the structural violence that kills little by little through unemployment, hunger and disease. Rutilio denounced the existence of “greedy people who do not fear God … who get up in the morning and cross themselves in the name of coffee, in the name of coffee, in the name of coffee. In the name of sugar cane, in the name of sugar cane, and in the name of sugar cane, I’ve said it many times, but it can’t be said often enough.”

These are the kaines, freaks in God’s plan, who claim “I bought half of El Salvador with my money, and therefore I am right…. It is a bought right… It is a denial of God! … There is no right that is against the majority of the population! The material world is for everyone and is unlimited. “5

The styles were different, but the words of Rutilio and Mons. Romero were sharp and to the point. The poor received them openly and cheerfully, as they gave them hope. But the powerful insulted them as communists and eventually murdered them to silence their voices. Both were murdered at the instigation of the oligarchy. Death squads controlled by the army carried out the murders. The murderers had nothing to counter the truth of their words and the power of their credibility.

Church from below

Rutilio and Mons. Romero worked in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the Bishops’ Assembly of Medellín and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii nuntiandi to build a Church that was truly the people of God according to the definition of the Council. The first step was to bring the people together, because without a people there is no people of God. The Salvadoran people were not a people. Oppression had subjugated them and selfishness kept them divided and scattered. As a result, neither of them stayed away from the historical struggles for justice and freedom. The church had to be built from the bottom up. Therefore, the work of both consisted of bringing the people together, calling them to conversion, turning them to God and showing them the way to become the people of God.      

In Aguilares, Rutilio and his missionary team began to build a church made up of living congregations. The starting point of his team’s work was the parish reality, with which they were in constant dialog. This allowed them to be questioned, put under pressure and called to conversion. Rutilio himself felt the call to “convert myself daily to the people and to show them my effective love in deeds and not just in words, if I really want to be what I claim to be: Servant of all. “6 The pastoral plan for the parish consisted of three stages: the missions to lay the foundations of the parish, the promotion and formation of lay people as pastoral leaders, the incarnation of the values of the Gospel in reality through the mediations. Rutilio had no illusions about the effectiveness of his work. Until the end of his life, he was aware that the majority of the inhabitants of the parish continued to adhere to magical rituals that were far removed from historical reality.

The first task of the missionary team was to evangelize popular piety. The missionaries set out to replace the magical pastoral care of the sacraments with the dynamic power of the Word of God and to proclaim the Gospel as the liberation of people and the cosmos. The gospel had to be brought down to earth in order to create a community according to God’s plan without oppressors and oppressed. Therefore, the proclamation also included prophetic accusation. In line with Jesus, Rutilio accused the oppressors and made the oppressed aware of their dignity and rights. He called on some to convert and gave others back the language that had been denied them for so long. In this way, the peasants discovered that they had something to say and also something important to do. Rutilio invited them to assume their Christian responsibility in the transformation of society. In the course of this process of personal and communal change, new men and women would emerge.

In this way, Rutilio and his team founded dynamic, prophetic and autonomous Christian communities, from which pastoral leaders emerged. Within a short period of time, these leaders and especially the women determined the dynamics of the activities in the parish. The parish of Aguilares emphasized the proclamation of the Gospel and conversion, rather than the administration of the sacraments, which had previously predominated in the parish. Rutilio dreamed of a parish where the priest concentrated on his ordained ministries and the laity took on the other parish tasks.

Faith and politics

The prophetic dimension of preaching raised the question of politics. Rutilio was confronted with it in his rural parish of Aguilares, and Mons. Romero in his archdiocese and given his influence throughout the country. Rutilio was confronted with the relationship between faith and politics when the peasants discovered the effectiveness of political organizations to demand their labor rights and their social and political rights, and when the best leaders of the communities, from their Christian commitment, became not only members of political organizations, but their leaders. The transformation of pastoral leaders into political leaders worried him greatly. He had also planned a political commitment, but only in the medium term in the third stage of parish planning. The crisis caught him unawares. The discovery of God as Father and general fraternity led him to condemn inequality and to demand equality and, more specifically, fair working conditions and wages. The difficult conditions in the parish meant that the political crisis arose almost simultaneously with the Christian community.

Rutilio tried to preserve the difference between the parish and the peasants’ organization, without ruling out possible cooperation. But the organization intended to subordinate parish work to political strategies. In opposition to this intention, Rutilio argued that “we cannot associate ourselves with political groups of any kind”. This difference of opinion led to a confrontation between him and the leaders of the parishes and the organization, among whom were the best and most valued people in the parish. Another cause of tension was the caution and moderation that Rutilio repeatedly demanded from an organization that was enthusiastic about its initial successes, fearing a bloodbath. That this was not unfounded was demonstrated a few weeks after his assassination, when the army occupied the parish. Despite the internal tensions and being labeled an insurgent by the military regime, Rutilio always defended the peasants, because “we cannot remain indifferent to the politics of the common good of the great majority of the population … we must never stay away from it. “7 This is why he was perceived from the outside as the leader of a social movement that threatened to overthrow the decades-old oligarchic order.

A few months after taking over the parish, Rutilio experienced a painful inner rift between his pastoral plans and the harsh reality. In his own words, the crux of the matter was the figure of the priest, “of whom some demanded that he keep out of questions of the common good in a kind of unhistorical abstraction; others wanted to see him as a rebel. Neither the one nor the other is true. In the community, the priest stands up for both eternal and historical values. “8

The ambivalence and entanglements in the parish work as well as the growing attacks raised the question of whether he should continue. In 1976, he offered his resignation several times, but it was not accepted. Each new incident presented him with the unsolvable dilemma of being a priest. The priest had to defend the Christian option, and this included organizing the peasants for justice, even if this was interpreted in a political sense. His repeated declarations against military violence had little effect.

Despite the criticism and denunciations, Mons. Romero expressly approved of Rutilio’s preaching and pastoral work. In the archbishop’s view, his preaching was characterized by the fact that “he looked to God, and from God to his neighbour as brother and sister”. He thus invited people to “orient their lives towards the heart of God”, and this had to “translate into a concrete commitment and, above all, motivate them to love, to fraternal love”, since a Christian cannot look away from the misery that surrounds him.9 He cannot do this because the Word of God must incarnate itself into reality in order to redeem it from within. But in the incarnation into human history, the Word of God gains an unavoidable social dimension. Accordingly, redemption includes political liberation, but goes beyond it, because it awaits the coming of the kingdom of God, which is already present in transforming action.

The option for the poor and for their liberation from all kinds of oppression that Rutilio and Mons. Romero aroused the anger of the oligarchy. The oligarchic order expected the priest to help keep the people silent, passive and resigned to their fate, since their suffering would be generously rewarded in the other life. In this sense, according to Rutilio, he was to “proclaim a mute Christ without a mouth and lead him through the streets. A Christ with a muzzle. A Christ molded to our liking and our sordid interests. “10 Neither he nor Mons. Romero allowed this traditional role to be imposed on them, because the Gospel does not accept oppression. Neither of them mixed faith and politics, but both were aware that proclaiming the kingdom of God in such unjust conditions as in El Salvador had political consequences. They were not afraid of this. On the contrary, they remained faithful to the Salvadoran people and Jesus of Nazareth to the point of giving their lives.

If Rutilio and Mons. Romero can be held accountable for anything, it is for their proclamation that creation is meant for everyone according to God’s will. No one has the right to seize what belongs to everyone. Accumulating is contrary to God’s will and therefore sinful. And not only a personal sin, but also a social sin, because the selfishness of the individual has negative and deadly consequences for all those who are excluded from enjoying the goods of creation.

In his commentary on the Magnificat in one of his great sermons, the will of God was clear to Rutilio: “the heartless and godless rich who want the corn porridge only for themselves and not for all, who want to share the giant pot only for themselves and not with the brothers and sisters in this fraternal Eucharist … these are the rich whom God lets go away empty-handed because they are cruel caines “11. This is why both he and Mons. Romero encouraged the people to speak out to claim their rights to the goods of creation, and they reached out to lift them up and showed them the way of true justice and freedom.

Being a Christian becomes dangerous

The conformism preached by the traditional church is incompatible with the call to take away the sin of the world and build the kingdom of God. Every Christian is invited to build a solidary and fraternal humanity that respects creation and where there is no difference between “mine” and “yours”. Everything belongs to us, we belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God. In one of his sermons, Rutilio expressed this in the beautiful image of a “common table with a long tablecloth for everyone, just like this Eucharist. Everyone has a seat. And the table, the tablecloth and the food are enough for everyone. “12

In a paradoxical way, this call made being a Christian very dangerous. “It is dangerous to be a Christian here today. Being a Christian is practically illegal…!”, Rutilio exclaimed in his last sermon, “because the world that surrounds us is deeply rooted in an entrenched disorder, against which the mere proclamation of the Gospel is subversive”. Nevertheless, he concluded: “As Christians, we must be ready to lay down our lives in the service of a just order for others and for the values of the Gospel. “13

Rutilio and Mons. Romero cultivated a close friendship, but it was not free of painful disagreements. It seems that the friendship developed when both were going through a difficult time. Mons. Romero entered the seminary in San Salvador after being rejected by the clergy of his diocese. At the seminary, he met Rutilio, who was also not doing well. The responsibility weighed on him and he was in poor health. Somehow the two found each other and became friends. Rutilio took over the organization of the episcopal ordination of Mons. Romero and served as master of ceremonies. They both remembered this fondly. However, Mons. Romero disagreed with Rutilio on the training of seminarians and his vision of the Church. That is why he did not support his candidacy for rector. This distanced them from each other, but not for long, because Rutilio approached him to re-establish communication. They met again when Mons. Romero returned to San Salvador as archbishop.

The “miracle” of Rutilio

Shortly after the assassination of Rutilio, the people and the Church of El Salvador were insistent, to the point of becoming a local tradition, that Mons. Romero had converted as a result of Rutilio’s murder. Conversion did not mean giving up a life of sin by turning to God, but rather turning to the oppressed people, whose cause he began to defend with extraordinary strength and clarity. Other voices, albeit few, said that Mons. Romero was a miracle of Rutilio, but this interpretation was not shared at the time. Pope Francis took it up when he said that Mons. Romero was “the great miracle” of Rutilio.

The miracle of Rutilio became quite obvious after his martyrdom. Mons. Romero took over the Archdiocese of San Salvador on February 22, 1977, barely three weeks before Rutilio’s assassination in a depressed mood of disappointed and angry clergy who interpreted his appointment as an attempt to return to traditional pastoralism. Some even reacted with hostility. Rutilio then used his influence among the clergy and asked that the new archbishop be given a chance.

By the end of March, the clergy had overcome their reservations and rallied around Mons. Romero. The unity of the Church, almost unthinkable three weeks ago, had become a reality. In the requiem for Rutilio in the cathedral and in two other masses – one in the cathedral on Sunday, March 20, and the other in Aguilares on June 19 – Mons. Romero “publicly thanked the archdiocese for the unity that today unites all these beloved priests around the Gospel “14.

Furthermore, the Church of San Salvador and its shepherd, under the impression of Rutilio’s martyrdom, committed themselves to continuing his mission and keeping his memory alive, because “he gives hope to our people “15. Mons. Romero expressed it this way: “Aguilares has a very special meaning since Father Grande and his two companions were struck down by bullets … It is undoubtedly a sign of the Lord’s special love. “16 From that moment on, the Archdiocese of San Salvador followed Mons. Romero, their shepherd. Thus, in an unexpected and surprising way, what had been unthinkable just a few weeks earlier became a reality.

Now the influence of Rutilio, who had paved the way for Mons. Romero had followed during his three years as archbishop. In fact, Rutilio had trained several generations of priests, disseminated and defended the magisterial texts of the Second Vatican Council, Medellín and the encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, and put their teachings into practice. One week after his martyrdom, Mons. Romero reaffirmed his ministry: “You can be sure, my brothers and sisters, that the line of the archdiocese committed to the Gospel is authentic, and all those who collaborate with the beloved priests, religious and laity are on the safe side as long as they are in communion with the bishop. “17 On his first anniversary, he called Rutilio “an example that we must follow “18.

Rutilio lived faithfulness to Jesus and to the people of God with admirable consistency. Mons. Romero said: “That is why we find Rutilio at the height of his human development again in El Paisnal … after having studied at universities and with books, he returns with the love that has grown in his human heart. His intelligence, his vocation have led him to realize that true greatness is not to become rich in another country, but to return to his people and love his own to help them become more human. That is true greatness. “19

For Mons. Romero, he returned to his village of El Paisnal to witness “where Christ suffers in his flesh, … where Christ is present with his cross on his shoulders, not in the meditation of the Stations of the Cross in a chapel, but alive among the people; it is Christ with his cross on the way to Calvary. This Christ became flesh in this religious and Jesuit who followed Jesus. “20 This is where his murderers found him. They killed him together with Manuel Solorzano, an old man, his inseparable companion, and Nelson Rutilio Lemus, a young man who represented the Salvadoran people. Despite the danger to his life, Rutilio refused to leave the parish because he did not want to leave his people. His last words were: “God’s will be done!”21

Rutilio Grande was a priest and a Jesuit of unsuspected human and religious depth. In his weakness he found his strength. Most of his life was spent in silence. He was not an outstanding student, and he was not a leading figure among the Jesuits. At times he was even held in low esteem by some of his superiors and confreres. Those who came into close contact with him found him to be an approachable, kind and service-minded person. The seminarians and the clergy discovered in him an instructor, a counselor and an understanding and kind companion who could also be strict and serious. For the campesinos, the farmers, he was an approachable, selfless and tender priest. In short, Rutilio lived his vocation as a Jesuit and priest “in the service of faith, to which the promotion of justice necessarily belongs, because it aims at the reconciliation of people among themselves, which in turn is required by the reconciliation of people with God “22. This is why Mons. Romero confessed: “We know that the spirit of the Lord is alive in him. “23

For Mons. Romero’s life: “A priest with his peasants, on his way to his people to make himself one with them and to live with them not revolutionary inspirations, but the inspiration of love. “24

    1 Rutilio Grande: Notes from the retreat in November 1966. Archive of the Central American Province [ZAP].
    2 He: Booklet with the record of the activities in El Paisnal. ZAP.
    3 Lecture by Father Rutilio Grande SJ at the monthly meeting of the diocesan clergy on November 3, 1970. ZAP.
    4 Grande: Notes without date. ZAP.
    5 He: Sermon on the occasion of the expulsion of Fr. Mario Bernal. ZAP.
    6 Ders: The First Independence. Reflections on independence, probably from September or August 1971. ZAP.
    7 Ders: Peasant Christmas. Aguilares, December 21, 1975. ZAP.
    8 Ders: Blessing of a new building in the school of El Paisnal. Aguilares, August 26, 1975. ZAP.
    9 Óscar Romero: Sermon on March 14, 1977, I, 31 (Romero is quoted from the seven-volume critical edition: Homilías, Cartas Pastorales, Discursos y otros Escritos. San Salvador 2005-2017 (the Roman numerals indicate the volume, the Arabic numerals the page numbers).
    10 Grande (note 5).
    11 Ders: Sermon at the Corn Festival 1976, Aguilare, August 16, 1976. ZAP.
    12 Ders. (note 5).
    13 Ibid.
    14 Romero: Homily on March 20, 1977, I, 40.
    15 Romero: Homily in El Paisnal on March 5, 1978, II, p. 326.
    16 Ders: Sermon in Aguilares on June 19, 1977, I, p. 151.
    17 Ders.: Sermon on March 20, 1977, I, p. 40.
    18 Ders. (note 15), 322.
    19 Ibid. 320.
    20 Ibid. 323.
    21 Positio, Summarium Testium, Testigo II, § 25.
    22 Cf. 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Decree 4,2.
    23 Romero (note 15), 326.
    24 Romero (note 9), 35.

    Rodolfo Cardenal SJ is a professor of theology at the Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador and director of the Centro Monseñor Romero.

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