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Udo Schmälzle {*}

Christ is Present in the Poor

An Often Forgotten Look at the Diaconal Services and Offices


From: Herder Korresponden Spezial, 1/2009, P. 57-60
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Most of the "church" jobs are established in the field of Caritas and Diaconia. And yet, the discussion on services and offices in the church is to a large extent focussed on the clergy. Meanwhile, the "activating welfare state" confronts the diaconal services and offices of the church with fundamental tasks.


In the past the heading 'services and offices of the church' applied above all to the classical profile of the offices of the cleric who by virtue of ordination and ministry worked in the parish and in further categorical fields of pastoral care. One gave only secondarily attention to the "secondary structure", namely to the fields of organized Caritas and other associations in which people get advice in crisis situations, migrants and prisoners are accompanied and initiatives of worldwide solidarity work are supported (see this issue, 14 et seq.) If one adds up all the people working within the churches in those fields of work, then the churches are beside the state the second largest employer in this country. Most of these jobs are found in the area of Caritas and Diaconia.

According to the latest central statistics of the German Caritas (DCV) of 31 December 2006 there are 520.186 full-time employees. Forty four per cent of them are working in the field of medical welfare services, 20 per cent care for children and young people, 20 percent for the elderly, 11 per cent for physically/mentally disabled persons, 4 per cent work in other social welfare services and one per cent in direct family welfare services. Four out of five of these jobs are filled with women.

Also the figures about the types of the institutions in which the jobs are located are interesting. Sixty five per cent are employed in in-patient institutions, 21 per cent in day care facilities, 13 per cent in services of open assistance, and one per cent in education and training facilities.

In the mid-nineties the representative Allensbach Study on the model process [Leitbildprozess] of Caritas asked: Which organizations are important in society? In 5th place (60 percent) the "Caritas" and only in 14th place (40 percent) the "churches" were mentioned. Those who deal with the diaconal services and offices in the Church are therefore first puzzled by the fact that these services are quite differently noticed and weighted within the church and in the population.

The positive image and the acceptance of the Church in the public are quite decisively determined by the men and women who are in the service of Caritas, whereas these men and women must until today experience that their loyalty to the Church and the Christian motivation for their work are time and again doubted and regarded with suspicion within the Church. It is therefore not surprising that these women's and men's conception of themselves is suffering from those ambivalences and dissonances. The vast majority of the population in the aforementioned Allensbach Study sees the work of these women and men as "closely connected with the church" (72 percent), whereas only one out of every two employees thinks that the work done and the Caritas have a good reputation in the population" (48 percent).

In politics and society one follows with great interest these inner-church dissonances and profile debates. Reimer Gronemeyer speaks of the churches' "social stomach" becoming thicker and thicker and of their "theological legs" becoming thinner and thinner. According to Niklas Luhmann diaconal services and offices do not belong to the core of the Christian religion. He defines the core business of the churches as a contribution to the "spiritual communication" helping people through the cult to get over the ultimately indeterminable things of the world. He goes even one step further. His criticism of the diaconal services culminates in the reproach that "socio-structural problems are noticed in a personalized form, i.e. in people (and that means of course in some way also: that they are not noticed as socio-structural problems)."

Those who know the Church's socio-political commitment in this country in matters of migration and poverty and at the international level the church base communities' struggle against structures of violence and injustice in Latin America, Africa, the Philippines know how Christians throughout the world take just from the cult the strength to remove structures of violence and injustice.

Such arguments nevertheless just confirm those groups in the church that continue to restrict the Church's core business to liturgy, preaching and administering the sacraments and warn against the danger that the churches with their wide diaconal services mutate to social groups of companies.



In the encyclical "Deus caritas est" (DC) Benedict XVI states his view on these basic questions. He speaks of a "necessary interplay between love of God and love of neighbour" and emphasizes, "Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me." (18). In the eschatological perspective of the Last Judgement (Matt. 25) the poor clearly mark the place where the true Church and the true Christ are to be found.

According to the testimony of the Didache in the beginnings of the Church the Eucharist was closely connected with the feeding of the poor in the following meal [Sättigungsmahl]. The congregation was the place of the concrete diaconal action, at the same time the place for learning solidarity and in addition the room of communication in which social conflicts were settled and decisions brought about. When in the Lucanian tradition Jesus makes himself "diakonos" of everybody - "But I am in the midst of you, as he that serves" (Luke 22.28) - then he makes all who on behalf of him carry out their office and services, from the Pope to the laundry woman in the hospital, discharge their duties.

The old Church's "Apostolic Constitutions" (d1.2) give a job description for the bishop, which shows how the first Christian parishes got involved in that diaconal learning process established by Jesus, above all the bishop who is responsible for the entire parish: "Exhibiting to the orphans the care of parents; to the widows the care of husbands; to those of suitable age, marriage; to the artificer, work; to the unable, commiseration; to the strangers, an house; to the hungry, food; to the thirsty, drink; to the naked, clothing; to the sick, visitation; to the prisoners, assistance. Besides these, have a greater care of the orphans, that nothing may be wanting to them; and that as to the maiden, till she arrives at the age of marriage, and ye give her in marriage to a brother: to the young man assistance, that he may learn a trade, and may be maintained by the advantage arising from it; that so, when he is dextrous in the management of it, he may thereby be enabled to buy himself the tools of his trade, that so he may no longer burden any of the brethren, or their sincere love to him, but may support himself."

The programme of a diaconal pastoral as it is developed today takes the Bible's and the early Church's view on church offices up and calls for a diaconal profile of all services and offices in the Church. This diaconal profile has to be spelled out programmatically in all fields of pastoral care and to take shape in preaching and sacramental catechesis, in the upbringing, education and advisory work, and not least in a prominent and socio-politically relevant public relations work of the church. But the issue of the conception of diaconal offices and services in associations and in other church institutions maintained by laymen and laywomen is thus intensified.

It is exciting when the encyclical gets to talking about the diverse structures and fields of specifically diaconal services and the bodies responsible for the Church's charitable action. What is here the role of those associations for which the "lay faithful" are responsible? "It is confirmed that the true subject of the various Catholic organizations that carry out a ministry of charity is the Church herself — at all levels, from the parishes, through the particular Churches, to the universal Church" (DC 32).

We can therefore assume that these "Catholic organizations" include also all associations and organisations in which the laity has the responsibility on behalf of the church. The Pope has a serious talk with these lay employees. After the clear biblical options one would have expected that these lay people, who are on a full-time, second job or honorary basis in the employ of dioceses and associations are encouraged to go to those people who are addressed in the court scene at the end of St Matthew's Gospel. Instead, the encyclical deals with their motivation and possible wrong intentions, "they must not be inspired by ideologies aimed at improving the world, but should rather be guided by the faith which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6). Consequently, more than anything, they must be persons moved by Christ's love, persons whose hearts Christ has conquered with his love, awakening within them a love of neighbour." (DC 33).

The Christian profile of diaconal offices and services is certainly decisively moulded by the intentions which the full-time workers are bringing along by their faith. However, this profile proves to be most evident by the fact that the actions of those men and women have something to do with the fields of action and the people who are entitled by the Bible to get help by the Church's services and offices. In the biblical court scenario you are not asked about intentions but about deeds, about feeding, clothing and visiting.

This testimony by deeds gives the diaconal services and offices a deeply ecumenical and interreligious character, which the Pope directly mentioned in the general audience of 18 January 2006, "The issue is not directly ecumenical but the context and background are ecumenical, because God and our love are the condition of the Christians' unity. They are also the conditions of peace in the world." Indeed, the declaration of one's belief in the spirit who is effective in love enables at the level of action entirely new activities with other denominations, religions and people of good will.



When people from various denominational and religious camps open their eyes for the poor and suffering, the traditionally denominational controversies of a consensus-ecumenism first recede into the background. There is no need of consensus discussions, expert panels and ecumenical church congresses to clarify Christ's presence in the poor and suffering. What it needs is a conversion of root and branch to the "option for the poor". It speaks for itself and is in the truest sense of the word "obvious" that Christians who see Christ's image in the poor and suffering are walking in the footsteps "of their master".

If Christians, more radically, if people of goodwill side with the hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick and prisoners, Christ is present and the kingdom of God begins. Both denominations have to deal with this radical theology of the kingdom of God. Diaconal action has thus a fundamental ecumenical, perhaps even interreligious dimension and becomes the organizing principle of a convivence ecumenism that is oriented towards ortho-practice. On the spot in the parishes this convivence ecumenism is not in a particularly good way. This became evident in our current examination of 22 lebensraum projects (see Udo Schmälzle in Zusammenarbeit mit Stefan Schürmeyer, Torsten Gunnemann, Markus Therre, Ana Honnacker, Menschen, die sich halten - Netze, die sie tragen. Analysen zu Projekten der Caritas im lokalen Lebensraum, Münster 2008 [2nd edition in preparation]).

There are good reasons that we are, throughout the various denominations, in the middle of such a search and conversion process back to the origins of the Gospel, in which the diaconal services and offices will get a quite new importance by developing networks and by opening fields of action. This Christian "testimony by deeds" does already today ferment many "forms of cooperation between state and church authorities", which - thanks be God - are expressly welcomed and directly mentioned by the encyclical (see DC 30 b).


Christ is Present When People of Goodwill Side with the Poor

A look at the balance of the welfare rolls opens our eyes to the tasks which have to be tackled in the future by the diaconal services and offices in all the fields of action, widely unfolded in the volumes of commentaries on "Deus caritas est" (Giancarlo Collet and others [editors], Liebe ist möglich, und wir können sie tun., Münster 2008; Peter Klasvogt und Heinrich Pompey [editors] ‚Liebe bewegt ... und verändert die Welt. Programmansage für eine Kirche, die liebt, Paderborn 2008.)

When he was still head of the EU Commission Romano Prodi described the EU's balance of expenses for social welfare in this way, "The cost of disease, crime and other side effects of poverty and unemployment are not only morally unacceptable. They are also alarmingly high. The EU assesses their price at about 2 trillion Euro or annually 10-20 percent of the European gross domestic product" (Die Zeit No. 12/2000).

In 2001 Friedhelm Buckert transferred these figures for the Protestant Association of Education to the Federal Republic of Germany, which annually spends about 13 billion Euros on fighting the side-effects of poverty and unemployment in the area of educational assistance. "The use of these resources is oriented towards symptoms; an improvement of life is normally not possible. This critical statement can be illustrated by the fact that the payment in the Land Baden-Württemberg is so structured that about 90-100 per cent of the cost are planned for care and supervision, one to ten per cent for the so-called conceptional payments and (1 + x) per cent for individual additional payments." (Was spricht für Sozialraum-Orientierung? "Stuttgarter Beiträge" zu Hilfen zur Erziehung im Sozialraum. in: Evangelischer Erziehungsverband [Editor], Werkstattheft Sozialraumorientierung. Eine Arbeitshilfe, Hannover 2001).


The Future of diaconal Services and Offices in an Activating Welfare State Model

When the state reaches its financial limits regarding the social welfare expenditures, then associations and sociologists call for a revision and a new conception of the framework for the allocation of resources and try against this background financially to make safe new forms of preventive social work. They call e.g. for a re-building of the educational assistance according to criteria of social areas, which are to guarantee that the limitations of a symptom-oriented treatment of individual cases are overcome by an improvement of the living conditions.

Here too attention is given to work in social areas, which tries to form manageable social areas "as places worth living in for children/adolescents and families. The most diverse institutions and groups of a so-called civic society [Bürgergesellschaft] are to participate in forming these lebensraums. Regarding the field of education assistance we read in the 10th Children and Youth Report about the interlinking of facilities for children and youth assistance: "From the perspective of the parents it is important that in the neighbourhood emergency services deal with the life problems of children and young people and help to overcome social isolation. These wishes comply with the facilities of children and youth assistance oriented towards social areas and community. More than until now these institutions should be interlinked in a network of day-care facilities, schools, leisure facilities, informal meetings and other facilities. Parents do primarily not want a place of highly specialized assistance."



What here is demanded for the area of child and youth assistance applies in the same way to other fields of social action. However, regarding the distribution of funds we are still miles away from drawing the obvious conclusions from those considerations. One reason is certainly that we know too little about the effect and efficiency of the appropriate activities in limited social areas.

The objectives in social policy are clearly defined by the concept of the "activating welfare state". Visions of a free civic society actively participating in an activating welfare state degenerate to a politically highly effective sedative when they, in the given financial bottle-necks and de-solidarization processes of society, induce to close one's eyes to the social developments and emergencies, which are caused by the fact that state, politics and economy withdraw from their social responsibility in the hope that volunteers and honorary helpers can be won over to become active in the respective lebensraums.


For Christian Institutions the Credibility Problems are Increasing

This new model of the welfare state confronts the diaconal services and offices of the church with fundamental tasks. The advocacy is no longer fulfilled corporately in the back room of politics but has only a chance when it on the public scene [Bühne der Öffentlichkeit] expounds convincing alternatives in competition with alternative socio-political concepts, values and conceptions of man. Associations are to show their profile and take up a position on these issues. They are forced to position themselves. Associations are on the lookout for strategies of a new advocacy that on the one hand is mercilessly drawing the attention to the mechanisms of social exclusion and insisting on structural socio-political solutions, without at the same time losing sight of the small local projects in which people are enabled to take over more responsibility for themselves.

Associations are to show the way in which this can be done especially when other assistance fails to materialize. Only against this background it is understandable when at the level of associations one is discussing anew the question of a credibility that is related to the institutions and is based on a value structure that cannot be ignored by an association.

Within the association the task therefore arises to make the profile secure, to disclose one's values and to prove the seriousness of one's demands by relating them to concrete projects. These tasks provoke a regionalization at the level of the association while the federal, diocesan and local level is simultaneously restructured; they demand a division of responsibilities between local institutions and the diocesan association and require new forms of cooperation between the Institution Church and the association. This postulate also formed the background of the lebensraum project started by the German Caritas Association and the German Bishops' Conference (Schmälzle 2009).

This new feature of the social welfare state leads in reality to a mix of options, to a new mix of state provisions, the mobilization of personal resources, and the promotion of civic commitment. The further development will crucially depend on how the major charities - especially those of the churches - will succeed in positioning themselves in this mix of socio-political functions and developments, and in proving - in a positive sense - themselves as agencies which even in a plural society manage to realize corporative professionalism and civic commitment fermented by Christianity in central lebensraums and social areas.

Diaconal services and offices which are until now strongly shaped by the "come-structure" of in-one-place-services are much more to orient towards the principles of a "go-structure". This process can only be coped with if also mentalities and professional self-conceptions change.

With their social services and offices associations are to move in this process at three main levels of interaction and to master three very different logics of communication: They are to organize their relationship to the state and to the system of political institutions and to act at this level according to the principles of the "logic of corporative influence"; they are to organize their relationship to their base, i.e. their members. From it the so-called "logic of membership" results, a process that in the DCV [Deutscher Caritas Verband / German Caritas Association] has decisively shaped the development of models.

By an increasingly deteriorating market situation and the resulting marginalization of vulnerable and marginalized groups falling through the social net just for Christian institutions the problems of credibility increase. At the level of the logic of influence they can only credibly act if they are present at the base, develop models and update them by relating them to the respective projects.

This third level can be called "logic of credibility". In the future the social relevance and socio-political power of Caritas and Diaconia and not least the corresponding jobs will depend on the success of connecting and making these three levels of communication and decision consistent to each other.


    {*} The Franciscan Udo Schmälzle (born in 1943) was since he has been an emeritus professor in 2008 director of the Department of Pastoral Theology and Religious Education at the University of Münster. He is Chairman of the Conference of German-speaking pastoral theologians.


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