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Cardinal-designate Gerhard Müller has insisted that remarried divorced Catholics should not receive Communion. A fellow cardinal accused him of thinking in black and white – like, he said, all German theology professors. Here, an academic in the field examines the charge
When Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga was asked his views on divorce and remarriage and – no doubt humorously – accused Cardinal-designate Gerhard Müller of talking about the matter like “a German … and, above all … a German theology professor”, did he intend his words to apply (as, taken literally, they do) not only to the current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith but also to his predecessor but one, our Pope Emeritus?
After all, of both – and to both – it might be said, as the cardinal put it, “in his mentality there is only truth and falsehood. But I say, my brother, the world isn’t like this, and you should be a little flexible when you hear other voices. That means not just listening and then saying ‘no’.” Perhaps the cardinal intended his (German) audience to reflect on the direction in which, over the last decades, German theology professors have guided the whole Church.
National stereotyping is hardly a serious form of argument and it tends to obscure the real and specific factors at work in whatever it caricatures. For instance, in telling its eurozone partners that rules are there to be kept and debts are there to be paid, Germany is speaking with the voice not of some archetypal Swabian housewife but of the actual, current European bureaucracy. The friction between Europe’s largest economy and other EU members is a consequence not of national character but of the design of the European Union itself – and of particular decisions taken at historical turning points, notably at Maastricht in 1991.
Similarly, it is not to Germanness, nor even to the professional deformation of German academic theologians in general, that Cardinal Rodríguez should have attributed the inflexibility for which he was gently chiding Gerhard Müller, but to the specific historical position of Catholic professors of theology in Germany.
The charge of seeing the world in black-and-white terms of truth and falsehood could hardly be levelled at Protestant German professors of theology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That was precisely the reason why fellow theologian Karl Barth criticised them so severely. From Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) to Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and beyond, they had, in his view, substituted for faith a self-regarding and self-congratulatory modernity, and had modulated the distinction between truth and falsehood into a distinction between rational humanism and benighted superstition.
Barth was free to make this charge because, though to an English-speaking public he might seem the German Protestant theologian par excellence, he was, in fact, a Swiss outsider who never completed the normal training for the German professorate. In charging liberal Protestant theology with insufficient respect for the truth of God’s Word, he was marking himself off intellectually from a tradition from which socially and institutionally he was already detached. From the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to the mid twentieth century, Catholic theologians in Germany found themselves in a similar position.
Uniquely among European nations, the German-speaking world had, and still has, roughly equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants, and the competition between the two parties has never been far from the surface of public consciousness and debate. (Where, as in the Latin countries or pre-nineteenth-century England, one party has been overwhelmingly the majority, its public adversary has tended to be simple unbelief.)
But, in modern times, German Catholicism has been seriously disadvantaged in the competition for the attention of the educated classes. In northern Germany in the nineteenth century, established Lutheranism, protected by the state, entered into a close alliance with literary and philosophical culture, giving itself a rational form that could seem acceptably modern to an increasingly urban and industrial society. By the time Prussia achieved political mastery in the 1860s and 1870s, Protestantism had become synonymous with the Kultur of the newly unified German state. Catholicism was the creed of history’s losers.
Deprived of cultural and political prestige, unable to engage with modern ideas without appearing to go over to the Protestant enemy, German Catholics could only console themselves with the thought of being right. They might not have Goethe or Kant, Schleiermacher or Strauss on their side, but they did have God. Rather than imitate the syncretism by which state-protected Lutheranism accommodated itself to the realities of secular modernity, they rejected it altogether and cast themselves in the role of a political awkward squad.
Gifted Catholic poet-thinkers, such as Friedrich Schlegel and the later Romantic figures Görres and Eichendorff, not only criticised the literary developments of their time but also took up political positions (both of left and right) contrary to the prevailing consensus among intellectuals, and when Bismarck launched his Kulturkampf in the 1870s, his target was the political power of the Catholic Church.
The Kulturkampf started as a battle for Prussian “culture” but it ended as a stalemate in which the existence and equality of two “cultures” were acknowledged, the Prussian and the Catholic. This reinforcement of the Catholic sense of distinctness, and of the clear dividing line between truth within the fold and falsehood outside it, contributed to the severity of the reaction to Modernism in the next generation. It was said at the time that the word in Rome was that “anything that comes from Germany … is Protestant (that is, Modernist)” and that German writers had to be told, “You obey the Pope either in everything, or in nothing.”
So effective was the repression of dissent within the Catholic ranks by St Pius X’s witch-hunt that German Modernism produced no figures of the stature of Alfred Loisy in France, George Tyrrell and Friedrich von Hügel in England, or the innocent progenitor of “Americanism”, Isaac Hecker, in the United States. Germany had, however, produced in Joseph Kleutgen (1811-83) the hugely influential “father of neo-scholasticism” and fierce opponent of all liberalism, who assisted in the formulation of the doctrine of papal infallibility, and – it has recently been revealed – was involved in extensive sexual abuse of nuns, in abortions, and in attempted murder.
We may be sure that Cardinal Rodríguez did not have Joseph Kleutgen in mind when he was characterising the typical German professor of theology. But the neo-scholastics who looked up to Kleutgen, whom at first personally, and then through his writings, he helped to form – and who shared his ultramontanism – remained dominant in the German Catholic Church long after his death, and they were no more interested than Kleutgen in listening to other voices. “Everything Protestant is un-Christian,” wrote one critic. “Anything Christian in Protestantism is not Protestant but essentially and specifically Catholic.”
Neo-scholasticism was born out of the opposition to “subjectivism”, and in the context of the Kulturkampf and the Modernist crisis “subjectivism” had in Germany a very specific meaning; it meant Kant – then enjoying a revival after the eclipse of Hegel – and Kant was understood as the guiding spirit of liberal Protestantism, the incarnation of error. Even in 1955, the future Benedict XVI saw his dissertation for the higher doctorate initially rejected by one of his professors on the grounds that his account of revelation was potentially “subjectivist” – that is, Kantian, that is, Protestant. It was guilty, one might say, of listening to other voices.
It was perhaps unfortunate that the identity crisis of German Catholicism caused by the foundation of Bismarck’s empire coincided with a low point in the reputation of Hegel. It might have been more difficult for the Church to succumb to a picture of the world in black and white – Catholic truth and Protestant falsehood – if Hegel had been a more prominent figure in late-nineteenth-century German philosophy. For Hegel is supremely the philosopher of listening to the other, for whom it is a fundamental principle that a statement and its opposite may both be true.
His own belief that Protestantism represented modernity, and Catholicism a dead past, may have had a certain truth in his own day and at the time of the Kulturkampf, but it has been controverted by the changes of the twentieth century. Who can doubt that, after the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has as much in it of the Modernism, and even perhaps of the liberal Protestantism, that it once condemned, as of the past in which it once saw its identity? And perhaps a truly Hegelian analysis would even invert Hegel’s own assessment of the Reformation as the founding moment of the modern world.
Rather, we might say, modernity will only begin when the Reformation is overcome – when it appears to us all as an unnecessary schism, a pointless family quarrel, and the distinction between Catholic truth and Protestant falsehood (or vice versa) has been emptied of meaning because both equally represent what we believe. After all, if prefect Gerhard Müller were to listen to Cardinal Rodríguez in the matter of divorce and remarriage, the position of the Catholic Church might be such that Henry VIII would not have found it necessary to have a Reformation at all.
* Nicholas Boyle is Emeritus Schröder Professor in the department of German and Dutch at Magdalene College, Cambridge.