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.
But this focus on morality not only fails to capture the special character of the religious dimension but also that of the political sphere. We might call this the trap of the ethics of conviction. Those who intervene in political debates solely with moral arguments come across as either helpless or arrogant. To appear helpless is the fate of those who express a view without considering the complexity of the problem or the predictable effects of a policy supported on moral grounds. To appear arrogant is the fate of those who sweepingly lay claim to moral superiority for their own political position while failing to acknowledge that others have come to quite different political conclusions for equally moral reasons. Here Protestant theologian Friedrich Wilhelm Graf’s polemical critique of the church has its strongest point. In his list of the seven vices of the churches in Germany he includes a tendency towards moralism. He assails the “cheap, trivial morality” of Christmas sermons and the (supposed) “paternalism” of those who express ethical concerns about allowing human beings to determine how to end their lives. He also attacks the (supposed) claim that only pacifism—anchored in an ethics of conviction—as evoked by the Lutheran bishop Margot Käßmann in her New Year’s sermon on the German army’s deployment in Afghanistan, is a Christian attitude.
While I share Graf’s dislike for a pure ethics of conviction and view it as a trap for the churches, by no means do I necessarily agree with his specific conclusions. Let’s leave the issue of the quality of Christmas sermons to one side. One can argue against assisted suicide or the German army’s deployment in Afghanistan without being committed to an ethics of conviction. Max Weber, the author of the common distinction between an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility, had himself already made polemical use of this suggestive conceptual distinction—which foregrounds the extent to which people incorporate the likely consequences of actions into their moral thinking. His aim was to denigrate opponents of the First World War. A century after what George Kennan called the “great seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century,” it no longer seems quite so clear who was the ethicist of conviction and who failed to think through the consequences of his engagement. Meanwhile Graf, informed by his understanding of liberalism and bourgeois culture, also has a remarkable proclivity to denigrate, excoriating those who defend the welfare state or advocate a conception of the churches that includes an awareness of the downsides of the “modern, enlightened idea of subjectivity and autonomy.” He goes so far as to criticize German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s doctoral thesis on the sociology of the church for its “tendency towards a totalitarian concept of the social.”
A broad spectrum of legitimate political judgments is possible among Christians. This is fundamentally uncontroversial and can easily be illustrated with reference to attitudes towards social inequality, war and peace and immigration policies. While I am personally in favor of the preferential option for the poor, an exponent of nonviolent conflict resolution and an advocate of human rights, I am aware that this does not mean that all social inequality, every military deployment and all border controls and restrictions on immigration are un-Christian. Nonetheless, when Christians engage in political debate there is always a danger of denying the Christianity of one’s antagonist. The response to a controversial essay by former German finance minister and Protestant Wolfgang Schäuble helps illuminate the problems that ensue if the churches engage in politics on a moral basis.
In reality Schäuble’s text merely rehashes old arguments that have often been put forward in opposition to the “excessive politicization” of the (Protestant) church. The only plausible reason why this text made such a public splash and triggered a debate among Protestants, it seems to me, is the church’s unambiguous and vigorous response to the migration crisis. Members of the German government presumably have no major concerns if church representatives express public support for the government’s line. Those within the church critical of politicization, who took up the cudgels against it with reference to Schäuble’s contribution, would not, presumably, have done so if they themselves did not find the government’s policy problematic. I believe contemporary Protestant theologian and ethicist Ulrich Körtner is right to emphasize that the state is “not an individual like the Samaritan in Jesus’s parable”: “Nor can [the state] consider only the fate of the individual. It has a duty to uphold the common good, the well-being of all. By no means does Luke 10 lend support to demands for unlimited immigration, let alone refugees’ right to go to the country of their choice.” He criticizes the air of moral superiority typical of advocates of a liberal migration policy in Germany while also excoriating Germany as a whole for its holier-than-thou attitude toward other E.U. member states. He believes this attitude is rooted in a failure to sufficiently embrace an ethics of responsibility. Johannes Fischer goes further still, airing the suspicion that representatives of the Protestant church are seeking to “compensate” for its “spiritual depletion” and resulting loss of importance by making their “presence [felt] in political and ethical debates.” Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, president of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), showing no real understanding of his critics’ arguments, dismissed their objections as groundless. In his critical response to Schäuble, meanwhile, Christian Albrecht readily concedes that “overly direct forms of biblical argumentation, rash conclusions and unworldly demands delivered in a preachy, moralistic tone” have frequently undermined German Protestantism’s forays into politics.
I would have preferred not to involve myself in this internal Protestant debate, but I feel compelled to because it grapples with a question of tremendous and fundamental importance. In the Catholic Church and outside Germany the battle lines are of course often drawn quite differently. During President Obama’s term in office, for example, American Catholic bishops were at times harshly critical, warning of the looming danger of a “secularist tyranny” or declaring philosophical secularism the “greatest danger to democratic freedom.” The key issues in this context were the fight against abortion and against equality for homosexual couples. We hear very little of this kind from German Protestantism these days. The American Catholic bishops’ tone is also highly moral, though their political message runs counter to that of German Protestantism. But contemporary debates not only confront us with traditional questions about the legitimacy of such vigorous moral intervention by the churches in democratic societies’ decision-making processes. Also at stake is the correct understanding of the moral universalism of Christianity. If churches see themselves as the moral agencies of society or, while rejecting such a definition, de facto behave as such, then any attempt to assess their role will depend crucially on their understanding of what Christian morality is.
“Look at the individual. There is no refugee crisis, no mass or flood of refugees, but only ever Aishe and Ahmed.” These are the words of Irmgard Schwaetzer, praeses of the EKD synod, in a speech before the Central Committee of German Catholics, which she intended as an interconfessional appeal to all Christians “always to take a stand in the public sphere against hard-heartedness and selfishness.” Here, with a rare lack of ambiguity, a moral injunction that individuals act charitably is pushed to such an extreme that there no longer seems to be any political problem—or that any reference to such a problem must inevitably seem to diminish one’s willingness to engage in moral action. The astonishing thing is that this statement comes from a person who has devoted the greater part of her adult life to high political office. Radical individualism is the common ground between this rhetoric and the political program of her party, the Free Democratic Party. But otherwise many will probably struggle to recognize the radical ethos of the Gospel in the politics of this “party of higher earners.” I say this not because I demand that political parties, even those that explicitly refer to themselves as Christian, fully embody this ethos. My aim is to draw attention to the selectivity with which this ethos is mobilized to political ends. Would a genuine belief that there are only ever individuals, only “Aishe and Ahmed,” not require rejection of all organized military action? Is it even possible to organize a church if this is our yardstick? The question that arises here is whether the universalism of the Christian precept of love really compels us to embrace such unpolitical conclusions. I am quite sure it does not.
One of the most significant texts on the tension between the Christian ethos and specific social orders—and on possible ways of dealing with this tension in one’s own life and in the collective life of the community—is Christ and Culture by the American Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr. In this book he points out that while it is true that for the Christian faith every individual has the same dignity and the same value before God, people live in relationships, they are “relational” beings, so they are self-evidently of varying value to other people. “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female; but in relation to other men a multitude of relative value considerations arise.” He draws among other things on Luther’s argument that an individual can certainly forgo resistance to perpetrators of violence, but not if he is the guardian of others. In this case the greater sin would be to shirk one’s responsibility to these others because of one’s individual desire for holiness. This undoubtedly throws up complex moral issues which I can say no more about here. The point I want to bring out is simply that a relational or even community-based—that is, communitarian—conception of the individual may have different moral consequences than a purely individualistic one that disregards human social relations, community ties and institutions.
If we conceive of human beings as necessarily embedded in specific relations and communities, it follows that moral obligations accrue to them in light of this embeddedness that exist alongside the obligations they have towards all human beings, including those distant from them. For example, there are good reasons for our special sense of obligation to our children. It would not be morally better to cast off this sense of obligation and—like Mrs. Jellyby in Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House, the embodiment of “telescopic philanthropy”—neglect our own children because we are too busy helping children in Africa. Moral universalists also live with highly particular obligations that are of no lesser moral quality than those that flow directly from moral universalism. There is and can be no formula for calculating or ranking these obligations. Particular and universalist obligations exist alongside one another and are incommensurable. A balance must be struck between them—both when it comes to our individual decisions on how to live our lives and collective democratic decision-making.
In his 1983 book Spheres of Justice, American political philosopher Michael Walzer uses the case of immigration policy to bring out the dilemmas we need to resolve when thinking through specific issues and making decisions about them. He is in no doubt that it is right for collectives (through rules of membership) and thus also states (through citizenship rights) to decide who they accept as new members. But this by no means implies that when making these decisions or laying down criteria for admittance or quantitative regulations they are entirely free of normative guidelines arising from both a universalist morality and particular obligations. Universalist morality may give rise to an obligation to take in people in particular need of protection. Particular obligations may engender regulations to the benefit of members of a particular ethnic group (such as the Russlanddeutsche, ethnic Germans living in Russia) or representatives of “kindred” values (persecuted Christians or democratic activists).
Walzer’s book kicked off an intense debate on other normative obligations of this type. Summing up the results of this debate, in his proposed theory of “constitutive justice” (which seeks to clarify what justice means within the constitution of collectives), Catholic ethicist William Barbieri lists ten such obligations. These include a state’s international commitments and pledges of mutual support. Again, what is at issue here is not the normative detail, only the fundamentals. These consist in the fact that if, despite its fundamentally unpolitical character, we want to make the great universalist ethos of love inherent in the Gospel the yardstick of political action, this in no way compels us to deny specific, particularist obligations.
To conceptualize the Christian precept of love as invalidating the demands of justice and political prudence is to misunderstand it. Even in the Gospel the principle of love does not replace the principle of justice. As is well known, in the Gospel according to Luke (Luke 6:20-49), Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain places the golden rule alongside the commandment to love one’s enemies. The new message undoubtedly goes beyond the golden rule as the moral expression of the principle of reciprocity. But we should not construe this new aspect of the precept of love simply as an alternative moral principle. If we do, then we become embroiled in the difficulties and paradoxes first raised by Kant concerning how love could possibly be demanded in the first place. The way out is to ascribe to love a supramoral dimension. From this perspective, Christians are not subject to an unrealizable commandment that requires obedience and feelings of love they do not have but must talk themselves into, against their spontaneous tendencies. Instead Christians are people whose attitude towards life is pervaded by the experience that God loves human beings and his entire creation, that Jesus Christ embodies this divine love in human form and that his example invites us to follow him, emulating him as best we can within the frame of our human possibilities. But since love exists in a supramoral dimension, it can never replace the principles underlying the organization of social life, such as the principle of justice, when it comes to designing—or constituting—a polity. It can only interpret the rules of morality in new ways, enable us to act morally, fortify our commitment to morality, facilitate mercy, generosity and humility, and prevent any reduction to mere calculatory reciprocity. Only on its sect-like fringes did Christianity ever embody what Max Weber, in his comparative studies of the world religions’ economic ethics, called the “acosmism of love,” a radical, “unworldly” devotion to the ethos of brotherliness without regard for the internal dynamics of political and economic life. The churches never operated in this way. When it comes to specific issues that are highly controversial within both the national and international spheres, it does nothing for the churches’ credibility if they suddenly act as though no doubt whatever is possible, as though the view they are expounding is self-evidently correct both for them and for individual Christians.
Art credit: Kris Kuksi, “Church Tanks”