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Thomas Steinforth

Orientation for Today's Caritas

Tasks of the Caritas Association
according to Lorenz Werthmann


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 10/2008, P. 658-668
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    THOMAS STEINFORTH who belongs to the staff of the Caritas Association of the archdiocese of Munich and Freising (inc.) outlines the tasks of the association Caritas. In doing so he refers to a speech of its founder Lorenz Werthmann (1858-1921) from the year 1899 and unfolds it in its importance for the Caritas of the 21st century.


The in 1897 founded German Caritas Association is under pressure for change. The socio-cultural change of society, economic challenges, aggravating social issues and changes in the welfare-state arrangements from the municipal up to the European level raise for Caritas fundamental questions about its future identity, orientation and structure {1}. Against that background the 150th birthday of Lorenz Werthmann, the on 1 October 1858-born founder of the Association is a good opportunity for the question, what can be derived from the origin of the association Caritas for shaping its future, what can be learnt from its founder figure Lorenz Werthmann for its future orientation.

In the following it is therefore not about a biographical and historical assessment of Werthmann's founding and building performance {2} but about the question in what way his founding intentions are relevant and inspiring for today's Caritas. In the founding appeal of the association those intentions are found in particularly concise form {3}, but also in a speech delivered by Werthmann in 1899 at the General Assembly of Catholics in Neiße, two years after the founding of the German Caritas Association, which was only in 1916 fully recognized by the church {4}. To put it simply, Werthmann names in that speech four tasks of the association Caritas - he even speaks quite soberly of functions - and then also of three main activities ("publish, study, organize") which were needed to fulfil those tasks.

To what extent those tasks and activities, outlined at the end of the 19th century, can give guidance for the Caritas of the 21st century, is then primarily to be clarified with the help of a selected individual issue: Is it compatible with the self-understanding of today's Caritas to participate in the distribution of food by "tables" and in comparable offers - and if so in what form? In the discussions on topics and structures of the future association Caritas, from the federal over the diocesan to the municipal level, there are certainly much "greater" and more important issues. And yet, the question of food distribution, which is concrete and rich in implications as well, is well-suited to test the power of "orientation" of Lorenz Werthmann's founding intentions.



Caritas as "Steam in the Social Machine"

In the aforementioned speech of 1899 Werthmann names as the first task of the association Caritas to be "steam in the social machine" (W 27). Social legislation and social policy are understood as state "locomotive" which is without social forces lacking, as it were, the social-human "steam".

How Werthmann exactly determines the relationship between state, public and private activities remains here somewhat vague in terms of concepts. He basically affirms the need for a state that is also socially active; and today's fundamental scepticism about a welfare state, which can be found also in church circles {5}, would probably have surprised him. At the same time Werthmann also demands against the state's claim to be responsible for everything [Allzuständigkeitsansprüche] an essential role for social and in particular for church forces (just as "steam"). Until today his assessment is valid that in the relationship between state and societal forces it is not about an either-or, in which the activities of one party are necessarily at the expense of the other one:

"Even when the social legislation has done its humanly possible, when it has been achieved that every worker has daily his chicken in the pot and under the pot a stove of his own and above the stove a house of his own and around the house a garden of his own: even then the work of the Charitas is still necessary" (W 26).

To be "steam in the social engine" should - his remarks can be interpreted in this way - mean two things: firstly, to induce the state by political commitment ("advocacy") to guarantee the fulfilment of rights to the necessary conditions to live decently; secondly, even in a functioning welfare state particularly to care for those needs which cannot (fully) be dealt with by a legal social security and supply.

That twofold task can be put in concrete terms with the help of the selected example of food distribution: The "chicken in the pot" mentioned in Werthmann's speech as symbol of an adequate nutrition for Werthmann apparently belongs to those things to which people have a fundamental right. But what is Caritas to do when that right is no longer reliably fulfilled for all people? In Germany, meanwhile, up to one million people are regularly provided for by "tables" and other servings of food, because they primarily for financial reasons cannot secure enough food for themselves or for their family. Does it make sense that also the church and its Charitas for some years to an increased extent have been active in that field? Do they as a result not rather encourage the state in its retreat from the social sphere [Selbstentpflichtung]? In my opinion Caritas can in that point only cope with the claim to be "steam in the social engine" when it pursues a recognizable "double strategy":



On the one hand it must react to the needs and make its contribution to sufficient nutrition. If the state does no longer sufficiently succeed in guaranteeing enough food for everybody by forming a just economic system with sufficient income and by transfer incomes preventing poverty, then also Caritas must "step in" and help out and engage in supplying food, and that in a particularly loving and respectful manner. Werthmann connects also that "inter-personal" element with the image of steam, for "the wide view and the warm heart" (W 27) was all too often lacking in a purely legal state system of social security.

At the same time Caritas must politically do what it can that this type of assistance is no longer needed. It must - to continue the metaphor - politically "make steam", so that the causes of the nutrition problem and in general the increasing poverty are eliminated. And even if it achieved that goal some day and the last "table" could be closed for lack of demand, for Caritas more than enough would remain to be done.


Caritas as "Palliative Oil" and "Bearer of Social Reconciliation"

According to Werthmann a second task of Caritas is to be, by its participation in today's so-called "welfare-state arrangement", also a "palliative oil" which is to smooth down "the troubled waves of social discontent" (W 27). That is Werthmann was on no account apolitical but a " social reformer with conservative, deliberately stabilizing the system orientation" {6}. Against the by the Catholic social movement feared "social coup attempts", he placed his hopes on the "social regeneration" (W 25) of the society, in which Caritas as "bearer of social reconciliation" (W 27) was to participate.

Werthmann's explanation of that "reconciliation" reveals a tendency to a corporative social order that may be understandable out of his time but does no longer fit in a modern conception of professional social work. In Werthmann's opinion Caritas brings about reconciliation "by inspiring the wealthy, the educated, and the propertied estates to go down to the poor" (ibid.). Today's Caritas stresses against such ideas of a "descending" and "alleviating" charity the fair and solidary assistance on the basis of a dignity to which all people are equally entitled, and which moreover tries also politically to tackle the causes of neediness instead of even strengthening them by mere "palliative" measures. And Caritas will even to an increased extent have to hold that understanding of social-charitable action against alarming trends of a "Charity Society" in which help is again seen rather as free charity than as the realization of fundamental titles to justice.



But despite Werthmann's problematic understanding of "relief" and "social reconciliation" his suggestion remains important: to think also about a "reconciliation mission" of Caritas - especially in an era in which a growing number of socially disadvantaged people are upset by the feeling of "being superfluous" and thus by a painful lack of self-esteem, and in that sense are "not reconciled" with society. Though admittedly for Caritas it must not be about a bad reconciliation, in which responsibility is veiled and social injustice strengthened.

"Reconciliation" through charitable work means, first, to make - beyond the mere provision of basic goods - also a contribution to the empowerment and inclusion of the people concerned, and secondly, to connect the energetic assistance with the political advocacy of the rights and concerns of those affected and with a pointed criticism of injustices in society and economy. "Reconciliation" with society then for the people concerned means that they in all the experienced and not veiled injustice and neediness can nevertheless experience themselves also as people who are not "superfluous", "left behind" and mere objects of assistance but who are respectfully supported.

For the selected example of food distribution that reconciliation task means that one does by no means confine oneself to the material support and even arranging it in a patronizing manner. Werthmann too explicitly warns "The pastor must not think he was allowed to limit his charitable activities to ... giving a piece of bread or a plate of soup from his kitchen" (W 28). The providing of food does only then make a contribution to "reconciliation" when it firstly respectfully arranges the material aid and in no way in a patronizing manner, and when it secondly systematically and recognizably combines the material aid with enabling and integrating offers and with a political advocating the rights of the people concerned. Many good practical examples from the church area and its Caritas show that a well-integrated food supply combined with other offers can contribute to the "reconciliation" called for by Werthmann, by convincingly communicating to those affected that they are not only objects of assistance but people with self-help potential, bearers of fundamental rights and full members of society.


Caritas as "Preschool for Social Activities"

In a third role Caritas is to be a "Preschool for social activities" in order to introduce people "into the elements of social activity" (W 27). With it it is for Werthmann not only about skills but also about motivation.



To the question to people in social professions, "Where did you first intend to work on people's welfare?" (ibid.) the answer should as often as possible read: In Caritas! Even if Werthmann's explanation is only historically interesting that after the "preschool" Caritas the "Volksverein" {7} was then the subsequent "university", the role of the "Preschool for Social Activity" is also important for today's Caritas and that in three respects:

The German Caritas Association and many of its subdivisions name as an important task the so-called "creating solidarity", that is to activate, coordinate, communicate and support the citizens' solidary commitment in all its facets from the classic honorary post to modern forms of volunteer work. In that "creating solidarity" it is also about making people who have little experience of their own with social problems more sensitive for social issues by concrete work. In that sense Caritas with its possibilities of solidary action represents a "preschool for social activity" that can be just as informative for young people as for managers of an enterprise. He who visits that "preschool" is more inclined and able in his personal, professional and social environment to work for a socially just society.

To be "Preschool for Social Activity" (does) also means to win through positive experiences young people to be trained for and to work in a social profession. The demographic change increases the demand for social and nursing activity and at the same time reduces the number of potential employees. It is therefore all the more important to arrange periods of practical training, community service, honorary post and volunteer services for young people in such a way that they can "acquire the taste for it" and can make a well-founded decision for a social profession. Particularly important are those training activities of Caritas which were already at the heart of the Association's founder and also school founder Werthmann. In particular the unfortunately only poorly refinanced vocational schools for social and nursing professions are quite literally "preschools for social activity".

Particularly challenging is the role of the "preschool for social activity" if it wants to address also those people who are first affected by that "social activity". But if one, in a welcoming and non-oppressive manner, succeeds in winning those affected to co-operate in arranging the "social activity", that making possible participation is an effective way to communicate to people self-esteem and new perspectives. The good experiences in supporting self-help or in making it possible to "lend a hand" - for instance also in the distributions of food mentioned as an example! - should encourage Caritas further to pursue and to intensify those approaches.



Caritas as "Pathfinder"

A fourth task for Werthmann is to be "pathfinder" (W 27), that is to be innovative. With the help of his speech two directions of innovation can be distinguished: On the one hand Caritas is to promote the development of social legislation and social policy. It is to be "pathfinder... for state and legislative measures" (ibid.). The daily experience in social work holds a potential of innovation which the employees of Caritas are to make fruitful for politics:

"They penetrate into areas of misery where the state legislation cannot penetrate yet, draw the attention to moral and material crises, create the material for an effective fight against them; in that way they level the paths and ways for new legislative measures" (W 28).

As a modern example of the transfer of empirical knowledge out of one's own services and institutions into the development of laws the collaboration of the German Caritas Association on the legal foundations of a "social labour market" can be regarded, which makes possible a publicly funded, possibly lasting employment for those unemployed for whom it is particularly difficult to find a job, . Though admittedly the example also shows how quickly that "pathfinder function" comes up against limiting factors, for from the perspective of Caritas the new law is in principle to be welcomed but has nevertheless a number of design faults.

Despite the inevitable splits between public-political criticism and a "participation" in the welfare-state arrangement that possibly seems affirmative, it is a worthwhile task actively and professionally to practise and consolidate the advisory and participation role of Caritas at all political levels. Especially at the municipal level sometimes the political innovation potential of Caritas is unfortunately noticed rather as an irksome disruptive factor or is misunderstood as influencing control of self-interested bodies which must be checked.

But the "pathfinder" role of Caritas demanded by Werthmann of course also relates to its own development as regards contents and specialization. In another passage of the speech Werthmann calls upon Caritas to be the "bearer of new charitable ideas" and the "herald and promoter of such new charitable ideas", for with the progresses of time "new needs, new demands make themselves felt also on the field of Caritas" (W 34). Those demands on Caritas are today at least as important as at the end of the 19th century, for the social issues and needs becoming more and more differentiated demand of Caritas the constant development of its technical concepts, methods, ways of offers and control models. By way of example the requirements for a professional help and care of old people be mentioned, which not only quantitatively increase but become also qualitatively more demanding.



Another example is the still growing need of people with a disability for an as much as possible independent life, which is accompanied by new forms of control as e.g. the "personal budget". In those and other fields new ways and ideas are indeed always in demand, and the Caritas association and its subdivisions must self-critically admit that they do not always make their tradition an engine of innovation.

Also in arranging the distribution of food mentioned in an exemplary fashion the "pathfinder function" should be realized in the two respects mentioned: Only by the distribution of food many a local politician was forced to recognize that there is also in his community a poverty problem which demands solutions. And out of the practical work with those affected by the food distribution many an innovative concrete idea for poverty prevention resulted, which was then taken up in the charitable work itself or also by local politics. A small but illustrative example is the so-called "Social Card", which was conceived by Caritas and Diakonie in the Upper Bavarian district Bad Tölz-Wolfratshausen against the background of their table-work and was then realized in coordination with other charitable organizations, churches and local politics: With the Social Card those entitled get, beyond the mere food supply, numerous advantages for leisure and cultural offers and thus easier access to the social and cultural life otherwise often closed to them.

In order to be able to fulfil the four tasks mentioned Caritas must according to Werthmann primarily focus on three activities: "Our Caritas must be more published, studied and more organized" (W 28). Those three activities are also today of importance for an effective Caritas, but they must be put in concrete terms again.


"Publishing" - Communication and Political Participation

According to the quoted speech "publishing" serves: firstly the internal association "instruction", i.e. the exchange of knowledge and experience among those charitably working; secondly the overview that gives information on the diverse offers of Caritas, and thirdly "the interests of our holy church" by a public presentation of its charitable work (W 28f.). The first two objectives of publishing are of lasting relevance, whereas the third point is to be understood from the historical situation in which the Catholic Church tried to get its position in a difficult political environment.

A large and complex organization such as the German Caritas Association is particularly dependent on successful internal communication. Already on the level of diocesan Caritas organizations or larger bodies it is as difficult as it is necessary to make known and accessible knowledge and skills in the sense of a "knowledge managements" for all employees.



Also the second aim, the overview over the many and diverse offers of Caritas is today more important than ever. Particularly at the local and regional levels from the clients' view communicating "clearing functions" become more and more important, in order to give people who are seeking help as soon as possible and without any problems the individually suitable offer.

In the speech not mentioned but probably corresponding to Werthmann's fundamental concern is a publishing in the sense of (socially-) political involvement. On this point many things have clearly developed, as for instance through campaigns about annual themes at the federal level or also through professional media work at the diocesan and local level. Nevertheless, the lasting public effect of the German Caritas Association and its subdivisions might not by a long way correspond to the greatness, skill and experience of the association Caritas and also not be comparable with the effectiveness of public relations work and lobbying of many a business organization. Also, the distribution of food mentioned in an exemplary fashion could in many cases even more effectively be used for a public relations work that time and again makes the general public aware of the poverty problem. It is of course important for a successful, convincing and activating mass media publishing to publish not only the social shortcomings but also the proposed solutions and perspectives.


"Studying" - to Teach and Learn Caritas

For Werthmann "studying" is indispensable in the sense of a professional and effective Caritas: "Well, it is true Caritas is first a matter of the sympathetic, self-sacrificing, religious heart. But with it also reason, experience and the leader science must not be missing" (W 32). In the 100 years after that speech the social work became tremendously professional and the Bologna Process has once again seriously altered the courses of studies in social work. It must still turn out how the new qualifications for the bachelor-degree and the often specialized qualifications for the master-degree contribute to a better training and to the quality of social work. It remains of course the responsibility of Caritas as employer (further) to develop suitable profiles as regards the skills of its employees and managers and to know what exactly those people are "to be capable of".

There is particularly need for development in forming a self-confident social science; in communicating business management competence doing justice to the special "social economical" requirements; in communicating leadership and management competence; in communicating political lobbying and negotiating skills as well as not least in communicating the ability to a theologically informed ethical reflection.



It was not yet foreseeable for Werthmann to what extent today's Caritas managers must form the balance between the charitable mission and requirements of economic efficiency - that too must be studied.

A hitherto insufficiently used opportunity for a reflective development of Caritas is the exchange between Caritas practice and scientific theology. Theology's possible force of orientation for questions of assessment and decision is not yet made sufficiently fruitful within the association Caritas, and vice versa the standing of Caritas in the scientific theology does not by a long way correspond to the rank of Caritas as it is e.g. expressed in the encyclical "Deus Caritas est". When Werthmann demands greater efforts in "studying", so that Caritas is able to practise its specific role, this today also had to mean to bring, by appropriate ways of exchange and interlinking, "theology into Caritas" as well as "Caritas into theology".

To be sure Werthmann's "studying" is not just about the studying at universities - as important as an academic education is for many technical tasks and tasks of management, and as important also the free interchange between academic and non-academic education is. But especially Caritas should continue to attach great value to professional training, professional schools and advanced training. Whether they are managers, highly specialized experts, skilled workers, so-called "assistants" and not least honorary assistants, they all give form to a work that Werthmann calls "art" (W 32) and to the practising of which a competent, though differently formed skill is needed. Unfortunately the with the public authorities in the social sector increasing practice to put their projects out to tender in many cases promotes a ruinous competition on price and thus weakens the importance of quality and qualification. Werthmann's emphasis on "studying" is a reminder to oppose such tendencies of lowering the quality and the professionalism.


"Organize" - Structure and Control of Church Social Work

To the third activity named by Werthmann, to "organizing" he devoted himself all his life long: Caritas needed organization, for it could "not float in the air and live on air" (W 33). Central questions of organization during the founding phase must admittedly always be answered anew, but as questions they are quite topical:

How can you succeed in organizing the living, spontaneous, personal Caritas action in such a way that the liveliness is supported and not restricted and reduced? What structure needs the "charisma" of "Charitas" - which in the foundation phase was still written with "ch"?



How can especially the informally-committed action of volunteers, which is essential for Caritas, be organized in such a way that it not only as an additional "resource" fitted into the full-time structures but can fully develop its own competence and contribute its critical potential to moulding Caritas?

How can the necessary autonomy "on the spot", which is necessary for motivation and innovation, be reconciled with a central coordination and control structure, without which forces dissipate and without which public influence is hardly possible? So, how can the many players, "while safeguarding their independence, be connected to a whole" (W 34)?

How should the "Vinculum Unitatis, the bond of unity" (ibid.) of the association Caritas be shaped, when the actors and activities united by that bond naturally follow the logics of different functions and need different control? How can we succeed in connecting the task of creating solidarity, the task of political commitment, the socio-economic action of "Caritas enterprises" on social markets and the hardly refinanced, not "marketable" support of the poor and marginalized people in such a way that every task can be arranged professionally and that at the same time the various tasks and roles mutually strengthen each other? The structural split of those tasks or the retreat to only one role would be all too comfortable and would throw away great opportunities for Caritas.

How can we succeed in arranging the division of labour between the association Caritas and the church, which results from the creation of a relatively autonomous association structure, in such a way that it does not (further) alienate the two areas? For Werthmann was clear that a structure of its own is necessary in order to be able under modern conditions professionally, effectively and also with political effectiveness to arrange the charitable work. At the same time for him the attachment to the Church of the Caritas Association was a matter of course, for it is just to be the public "representation of Catholic Caritas" (ibid.). Against a false pressure to form Caritas as purely church moulded institution [Verkirchlichungsdruck], which would endanger the necessary relative autonomy of professional Caritas and also its "cultural achievements in embedding the Christian faith into the modern society" {8}, but also against a bad juxtaposition of "Caritas" and "church" particularly at the local and regional level of life it is essential systematically to interlink the services of the association Caritas with parishes and church organizations.

Also the distribution of food mentioned as example should be examined in that respect: Is it an isolated individual offer which "keeps away" the people affected or does the distribution aim at bringing them in in an inviting manner? There are, for example, food distributions of Caritas where invitations to the parish's summer party are issued including vouchers for food.



Of course the interlinking of Caritas and pastoral is to be arranged systematically, and that's why the future (still) better coexistence between Caritas and pastoral must be a central criterion for the in many dioceses ongoing restructuring of the pastoral!


Pragmatism and Enthusiasm

From Werthmann born 150 years ago you can not expect concrete answers to the aforementioned "organizational" questions, answers which also today are still functional and useful. But it would be helpful for those responsible in Caritas in all the pragmatic detailed work on structures and processes to let themselves infect not only by Werthmann's fondness for organizing but also by his enthusiasm and his orientation towards a great idea. Werthmann's tireless organizing and structuring was moulded by the hope, which he admittedly formulated quite pathetically but nonetheless inspiring, that "the awareness of united and blessed activity will fill the hearts of the disciples of Caritas with always new courage and confidence in God, with greater love of their neighbour, with constant joy and perseverance in the rich in sacrifices but honourable service of the Daughter of Heaven Caritas {9}.



{1} About the challenges and possible strategies of the association Caritas see K. Gabriel, Caritas u. Sozialstaat unter Veränderungsdruck. Analysen u. Perspektiven (Berlin 2007).

{2} About the historic and biographical acknowledgement see W. Liese, Lorenz Werthmann u. der Deutsche Caritasverband (Freiburg 1929); Lorenz Werthmann u. die Caritas, edited by M. Manderscheid and others (Freiburg 1989); A. Wollasch, Die Caritas war seine Lebensleistung, in: Caritas 2008 Jahrbuch des Deutschen Caritasverbands, edited by the German Caritas Association (Freiburg 2007).

{3} L. Werthmann, Aufruf zur Gründung eines Charitas-Verbandes für das katholische Deutschland, in: Charitas 2 (1897). The appeal (as "document 1") and numerous other documents are also on the CD-ROM: A. Wollasch, Deutscher Caritasverband u. Sozialstaat. Ausgewählte Denkschriften u. Stellungnahmen im Wortlaut (Freiburg 2002).

{4} L. Werthmann, Die soziale Bedeutung der Charitas u. die Ziele des Charitasverbandes, in: Charitas 4 (1899), also published (as "document 2") on the CD-ROM edited by A. Wollasch (note 3). The speech is quoted in the text from the CD-ROM-edition with the letter W.

{5} See for instance the impulse paper "Das Soziale neu denken" [To think the Social Reality anew] of the Commission VI of the German Bishops' Conference of 2003, which goes beyond the always necessary critique of the welfare state and regards the welfare state rather as a cause of the problems than as a contribution to their solution.

{6} Wollasch (note 2) 180.

{7} Meant is the "Volksverein für das Katholische Deutschland" [People's Association for the Catholic Germany] in 1890 founded among others by Franz Hitze, which devoted itself to adult education and especially to conveying the Catholic social doctrine.

{8} Gabriel (note 1) 55.

{9} Werthmann (note 3) 24.


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