Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A case of the Munsters? Part I

While I have seen a number of people allude to the recent statement of German-speaking theologians on the kinds of reforms needed by the Church, I have yet to see anything other than a broad-brush account of their views. So, with my non-existant German and Google Translate, I have just been trying to make sense of what these theology professors actually said, as reported in www.sueddeutsche.de nearly a week ago.

I'm not sure it was worth all the trouble but the memorandum is at the very least illustrative of the capacity certain groups have for opportunism, cheek and mindless repetition of exhausted, bankrupt ideology. Still, I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's take it bit by bit. I provide you with a precis rather than the garbled Google version. I am making allowances for the problems of the text as I have read it. Here is Part I, and you'll get Part II tomorrow.

The document opens with a preamble observing that one year ago the scandal broke of a high-profile abuse case at the Jesuit Canisius College in Berlin. This crisis, the theologians claim, has thrown the German church into crisis because of revelations concerning the abuse of victims and attempts to hush it up. And this, they conclude, has proven to many the need for reforms.

Well, I'll say. Let us start with a moral theology that has some backbone instead of the various theories that avant-garde theologians have been hawking around seminaries and university campuses these last few decades. Let us start also with an acknowledgement that abuses were not only the result of erstwhile clericalism but also of the let-it-all-hang-out praxis of the 1960s and 1970s, and indeed, the result of a residual clericalism after Vatican II that hid itself under the guise of sandals and rainbow stoles. I'm with them so far, aren't you?

This has raised hopes but also fears for a dialogue about Church structures and the responsiblity of churchmen and laymen with regard to morality and sexuality. Will the chance to escape from paralysis be lost? A free and frank discussion is not easy, especially given the imminent papal visit. So this abuse crisis gives us an opportunity to talk about such things. It is our duty as theology professors to make 2011 a year of upheaval. Many have left the Church or privatized their faith because of these recent events. The Church must understand these people and escape from ossification to regain credibility.

They lost me there. Surely Pope Benedict is preeminently a pope of reasonable discussion. He just believes that the point of discussions is generally to come to a conclusion and stick with it; not perpetuate the discussions until those who whinge loudest get their own way. We must share the theologians' concerns over the lapsed, but why have these people gone? Have some theologians not often sold them ridiculous expectations of the extent to which the Church must and can change? And is it not, therefore, the builders of these expectations rather than the Church who are responsible for these losses? I agree that credibilty is something the Church must regain, but there is all the difference in the world between credibility and acceptability (which, I suspect, is what the code word 'credibility' means).

The Church must not be afraid of outside criticism in this reform process. And the public must be involved if the Church is to win back credibility. The Church is not an end in itself but it there to preach the Gospel. This involves recognising all as God's creatures, their freedom of conscience, rights, and a commitment to law and solidarity with the poor. Thus love of God and neighbour are concrete.

Well, I understand how those things relate to love of neighbour, but there is not much about love of God there. These theolgians might reply that love of God is utterly implicit in love of neighbour but that is insufficient for us to explain the necessity of the theological virtues whose proper object is God, not creatures. I'm not separating the two; I simply find them dangerously conflated in what these German theologians are saying.

Vatican II was ahead of the game in recognising people's maturity, responsibilty and freedom. Moreover, society needs this Gospel-based critique, especially where the dignity of man is not respected. Thus this message of freedom must now shape the actions of the Church and invites dialogue about a number of areas.

Well, this sounds like a spin on the Council rather than the Council itself. If we are looking at what should happen in the Church we must refer to Lumen Gentium. This document, however, at a quick glance - and using its English translation - contains the word 'duty' twenty-two times but the word 'freedom' only nine times. Is it possible that in setting up 'gospel freedom' as a guide to Church reform these theologians have missed something crucial? I merely ask the question.

Are you dying to know what they actually think ought to happen? Well, I admit the press have taken most interest in that bit of the document, and it will hardly come as a suprise. I aim to cover it in a post tomorrow.

But just before I sign off I have to reflect on the staggering not to say brazen arrogance of the affair. They believe dialogue will not happen with the papal visit on its way. What they mean is they won't be able to have the kind of dialogue they want. And that is why they are shouting about all this right now.

I can claim no expertise in German ecclesiastical affairs, but this statement, signed by a large number of theologians, is surely significant: a significant threat and a significant opportunity. To my untutored eye this looks like a roll of the dice by a desperate intellectual class (and given the number of signatories, this document can surely lay claim to a certain representativity). The problem, however is this: how many bishops might back it? Indeed, how many secretely or not so secretely actually adhere to the fundamental lines of this screwed-up agenda? Therein lie the long-term dangers for the German church.

On the other hand, it is an opportunity too for the pope as much as for the cause of true reform in Germany. If nothing else these theologians are unveiling the very paucity of their thought and, in the same moment, the very baseness of their opportunism. This document is not so much a call for reform as a signal that they are short of answers beyond the mess of liberal potage you can read in any of the centre-left newspapers read across Europe. The theology of the preamble is short on faith and big on ethics, in ways that will surely not have escaped the Vatican.

Now, it is one thing to let the enemy set one's agenda, but it is quite another to find one's enemy revealing their weaknesses before you go to visit them. The pope must be rubbing his hands with glee. There is nothing this pope does better, or likes more, than instructing the ignorant. We must pray he finds German minds open.

And so to those reform proposals ... tomorrow.



German theologians gather to write their memo.

1 comment:

Genty said...

Germany has long-standing form on dissent and iconoclasm vis. The Reformation, the Frankfurt Marxists and soi-disant Catholic theologians.