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This is an excerpt from Hans Joas’s book, Kirche als Moralagentur? (Church as a Moral Agent?), published by Kösel Verlag in Germany. After discussing the sources for doctrinal and organizational renewal for the Catholic Church, examining the implications for faith in the secularized “world of options,” and the social organization of the church, Joas turns to discuss what, if any, moral role the church could play in the contemporary world.

The church I am attempting to describe is a missionary church, enthused by the faith that lives within it, globally oriented, devoid of any tendency to sacralize its own structures, capable of compromise because its faith provides it with a compass, a church that learns from other Christians, other religious traditions and secular universalists.

Such a church cannot define itself as moral agency because its message is not a primarily moral one and because it offers itself to no one as agency. Morality is a poor basis for missionary work. Mission must be sustained by enthusiasm and inspire the same enthusiasm in others. Morality, at least as I use the term, is restrictive. It restricts our opportunities for action, prohibiting certain ends and means. Religion, conversely, is attractive, “enabling,” something that expands the range of options open to us by opening up paths and experiences that were not always accessible to us. While the morally guided person—to draw freely on William James—inevitably comes across as a top athlete with a focus on her or his willpower, the religious person—or anyone guided by ideals—is driven by passion. Of course, such passion may motivate the individual to joyfully fulfill moral obligations. But this does not make religious passion itself morality. And the term “agency,” after all, points to a willingness to take on tasks and take action for another because this is what the other wants. Whose agent could the churches be if they viewed themselves as moral agencies? It would seem obvious to speak of agents of the state. But since the Third Reich, both of the main churches in Germany, however dependent on the state they may be, did not wish to be suspected of excessive proximity to it. As a result they refer to “society” or, like Wolfgang Huber in his important book Kirche in der Zeitenwende (Church in the Turn of Eras) to “civil society.” Yet my suspicion is that every time the churches define themselves as the guardians of society’s moral cohesion they are really trying to justify both their existence and state subsidies. I believe it is only Germany’s specific circumstances and its distinctive state-churches arrangement that inspire this justificatory strategy in the first place. Neither in the case of a sharp, laïcist separation of church and state (as in France) nor that of multifaceted and “genuine” religious pluralism (as in the United States) would this strategy make sense. Inherent in it is the idea of a deal—one in which the churches gain institutional recognition in exchange for restricting themselves to the sphere of morality.

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