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Franz Nuscheler {*}

Ethical Persuasiveness and Political Ineffectiveness of Catholic Social Teachings


From: , 4/2010, P. 8-10
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Preliminary remark

I had urgently asked the organizer of this symposium to invite a professional social ethicist or theologian who is familiar with all the subtleties of Catholic social teaching and is also able to cope with the arguments of a archbishop who is versed in social ethics. I am neither a theologian nor a social ethicist, but a political scientist specialized in the theory of development. I therefore cannot and do not want to get involved in a theological discussion but do what was demanded of me: as an amateur in socio-ethical issues I will comment from outside the socio-ethical discourse within the church upon development problem.

As is well known, this discourse was about three encyclicals - Populorum Progressio (PP) of 1967, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS) of 1987 and Caritas in Veritate (CIV) of 2009, with the latter two at twenty-year intervals explicitly referring to Populorum Progressio - the milestone on the path to a global social teaching. They brought out each some new main points but lost in clarity and persuasiveness, which had made PP such a milestone.

In a Social Institute of the Jesuits (Heinrich Pesch Haus in Mannheim that was later relocated to Munich Kaulbachstraße) I have picked up the social and ethical ideas of Oswald von Nell-Breuning and was then, by the exciting message of Populorum Progressio, curious to learn what the Church had to say about the great problems of mankind, about which the Vatican Council previously had already said something. PP was published when Third World solidarity groups began to organize and sought an ethical guide to their actions.


From Justice back to Charity?

I must first still make another restriction. I had proposed an eye-catching title for my contribution and presumed to be able to assess the "moral persuasiveness" of Catholic social teaching. The selective reading of the socio-ethical discourse warned me to be careful about judging what is ethically or even theologically convincing. I had always assumed that the concern for social justice was in the center of the Church's social teachings, and that they therefore were basically ethics of structures and institutions. Now I had to learn from comments on "Caritas in Veritate" that Pope Benedict XVI distanced himself from this mainstream of social ethicists and - theologically justified - declared love to be the main road of social teaching, and interpreted the two central socio-ethical postulates and criteria for orientation - justice and public welfare - as requirements of love.

As a theologically interested layman, I do not understand this line of thought, which is probably due to the deeper mysteries of theology. This was obviously a rather encoded abandonment of the clear core statements of Populorum Progressio and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. The development theorist, who participated wholeheartedly in the Misereor Lent Actions, is above all troubled by the recourse to the concept of charity, after PP and also still SRS and in their wake the Catholic aid agencies had put the postulate "Justice for the Poor" or the "Option for the Poor" in the centre of their publicity campaigns.

My irritation, which also shook my belief in the moral persuasiveness of the social doctrine, even increased when I read Benedict XVI's first encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" and there read that the parable of the Good Samaritan remained the ethical compass and that charity, understood here as compassion, commanded the loving devotion to the needy. This position may mobilize donations, because people rather respond to appeals for charity than to demands to commit themselves to justice, but it falls back behind the ethics of structures, which had at least since the Second Vatican Council won acceptance in social ethics. The doyen of the Christian social ethics, Oswald von Nell-Breuning, criticized repeatedly the charitable approach as regards development aid. The Good Samaritan cannot rescue "Africa driven into poverty by its rulers", said the former German Ambassador Volker Seitz (2009), because he is powerless against repressive and corrupt elites.

Also a retreat behind "Pacem in Terris" and "Mater et Magistra" takes place here, so I maintain. When I read the first comments on "Caritas in Veritate", I was at first surprised at the partly fierce criticism from the pen of experienced social ethicists. The Jesuit Friedhelm Hengsbach criticized it even as "scrap paper". I know that he is not regarded as a modest court preacher and often provokes through his biting comments. Can it surprise that I, too, am no longer entirely convinced by the persuasiveness of Catholic social teaching, when its professional interpreters do not hold back harsh criticism?


From Awakening in Development-ethics to Ecclesio-political Retreat

The result of those theological reflection, which at best only theologians are able to understand was that - unlike 40 years ago with the publication of PP, when not only the Wall Street Journal but the whole business-press almost fumed with anger - "Caritas in Veritate" scarcely annoyed the media critics, and even the Herder-Korrespondenz wistfully reminded of the clear language and almost revolutionary components of PP. Here the theologian Ratzinger gave care and thought to his theological profession, but he neglected "all men of good will" to whom PP had appealed. After the introductory passage that refers to PP, the socio-ethical layman who is quite willing to listen to the messages from Rome lost soon the good will to pursue the more or less encoded reflections on love and truth.

I took again PP and my own commentary on SRS from the bookshelf and assured myself of why these encyclicals, especially PP, were milestones in the development of the social doctrine, whereas you need have no qualms about leaving "Caritas in veritate" to academic discussion circles in theological faculties. PP startled me, and inspired my commitment to development policy, whereas "Caritas in Veritate" bored but also annoyed me, because justice, not mercy is the ethical guideline for my commitment to development policy, and because justice is the structural condition for development and peace, and not mercy. Justitia et Pax are mutually dependent.

In those days, the core message of PP startled development and peace politicians, "The new name for peace is development". That's more or less what the Brandt Report of 1980 had a little later formulated. I maintain that no other encyclical has ever been read and discussed so much in unchurched circles. A really enthusiastic agreement came from the DGB (see Zemlin 1967). "People of good will" do not only exist in the church.


Five Theses on the Ineffectiveness of the Catholic Ethics on Development Policy - after Populorum Progressio

After these preliminary remarks, which already include some perhaps controversial theses, some further theses are to justify why I concede the Catholic social teaching in general and the three "encyclicals on development" in particular only very limited effect on the internal church commitment to development problems, and even less political effectiveness.


1st Thesis

A not unimportant reason for the small impact of Catholic social teaching, also among Catholics and even among clerics, is already its language, which makes it an academic Arcanum of professionals in Christian social ethics. A moral language that wants to reach its addressees must at least speak the language of "people of good will." I maintain, and I have learned this from discussions with church officials, that also clerics gave up in the face of "Caritas in Veritate", unless they knew the encyclical by understandable summaries in church newspapers.

Another reason for the fact that the church lost the power over the consciences of people is that she wraps her message in a language that is too abstract and has little to say particularly to young people. A comment on SRS wrote, the church should take good note of the fact that "an appropriate language regarding moral issues would promote a culture of conflict and resistance, and abstain from a harmony-seeking social romanticism ... In the discourse on justice and solidarity Christian ethics do not participate as a world arbiter but as a lawyer" (Lesch 1988: 100 et sequ.). In view of this criticism I think particularly of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which says more than complicated theological tracts, and with pious words ousts the postulate of justice. Love fits into a "social romanticism looking for harmony" but not in the real existing world of power struggles, social conflicts, oppression and exploitation.


2nd Thesis

The ineffectiveness of the papal encyclical lies also in the fact that they were hardly able to improve something even within the church. After the publication of SRS, the Jesuit Johannes Müller complained of the fact that this encyclical would suffer the fate of PP and would soon be forgotten, especially since "even many representatives of the official church hardly know the Christian social ethics. This is not even surprising when you know of what little importance the dealing with these issues is to the theological education." This applies probably until today.

To illustrate and confirm this: on behalf of the Unterkommission für wissenschaftliche Aufgaben im weltkirchlichen Bereich of the German Bishops Conference I have at that time together with the social ethicist Karl Gabriel carried out a broad inquiry into the Christian Third World groups and also inquired after how these groups ethically justify their commitment. They knew only very rarely Rome's statements and if so, in the translation by churchly relief agencies, which long since demanded "Justice for the Poor", and not charity. More clearly and unambiguously than all pious instructions from Rome, Bishop Franz Kamphaus has put in a nutshell the core message of PP and also of SRS: "It is not enough to dress the wounds of those who have fallen into the hands of robbers. The option for the poor obliges us to uncover the structures of robbery, to change them, and if possible to prevent them." Charity will not help here, but only the commitment to justice, a commitment that is as loud and active as possible!



3rd Thesis

It is lamentable that Pope Paul VI as the author of PP did not follow its guidelines in public, even though he was close friends with the Brazilian "Bishop of the Poor" Dom Helder Camara and gave the tiara, this with gold and precious stones abundantly loaded symbol of papal power, into a fund for the poor; rather, he was criticized as the author of "Humanae Vitae", and sometimes ridiculed as "pills-Pope". Given the deadly threat of AIDS particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, it is not only lamentable but also difficult ethically to justify the Church's ban on condoms, half a century later confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI on his trip to Africa. This caused everywhere uncomprehending shaking of heads, even among many Catholics! Meanwhile in Africa each year millions are infected and millions have already died miserably from the consequences of the infection, leaving behind many orphans and burdens for the socio-economic development. AIDS is a human tragedy and a catastrophe for development policy. It cannot be combated by exhortations to sexual abstinence.

From the perspective of a researcher on questions of development, the fundamental right to life here clearly prevails over the Catholic sexual morals that have been devised by celibate clerics. It is also lamentable that in the reporting on this trip to Africa these unrealistic instructions found far more attention than the good statements about the dimensions and causes of African misery. Here a large credibility gap opens, which is a big problem for many dedicated development workers who are confronted daily with the devastating consequences of AIDS, and who are then not willing to listen to Rome. The church, which at the world population conferences made deals with Islamic fundamentalists, must be very careful not to forfeit completely her reputation as a moral authority. It is really lamentable that the statements on sexual ethics found far more attention than the statements on social ethics.


4th Thesis

This credibility gap also opens in the political implications of the central statements of the encyclicals. PP caused also for this reason such a great stir, because the encyclical legitimated also the violent resistance against state power and structural injustice, if - and only then - all peaceful options to change the structures of violence were exhausted - as it is, by the way, also enshrined in the German Basic Law.

The theology of liberation could here take its startingpoint, and did so in different radicality. In this often misunderstood point, SRS then made a climb-down, because the anxious repulsion of emancipatory movements always dictated the policy of the church hierarchy. Also SRS admittedly complained about the 'structures of sin' which are cause of the intra-societal and international injustices, but it shrinked from drawing the conclusion that was drawn by PP and had supplied the liberation theologians with argumentation aid. From my point of view and my knowledge of the situation in those days, they drew conclusions which were theologically justifiable in the Latin American military dictatorships, when SRS already dared to speak - in a theologically controversial way - of "structures of sin". Their German interpreter and partisan Baptist Metz, the Münster professor of fundamental theology was not a theological lightweight.

I know that I with this defense of liberation theology get on to tricky ground before this forum, and I also know that there are some good objections. But I think it is nevertheless deeply regrettable and even annoying, how the liberation theologians, who were declared to be heretics, were treated by Rome. With his condemnation, Cardinal Ratzinger, the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, played into the hands of the Latin American military dictatorships and demoralized many socially engaged bishops, priests and social movements that could rightly base their actions on PP and the statement by the Latin American Episcopal Conference in Medellín.

Many admire the courage of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who paid for his commitment to the poor with his life, but he himself had complained about the lack of support from Rome, because the Polish Pope saw everywhere only communists at work, even among the liberation theologians, who were quite openly reprimanded by him during his visit to Nicaragua. As a reminder: Archbishop Romero was not a theoretical liberation theologian, but due to the brutality of a military dictatorship he became the courageous human rights defender and extremely endangered accuser of the "structures of sin". The sad part of this story was that he was supported neither by Rome nor by his episcopal colleagues, because the Cold War confused the consciences.

In those days I was often in Latin America and met some liberation theologians, bishops and above all activists in social movements, whose commitment was expressly praised by SRS. But this attention was half-hearted and was always dependent on the side on which the local bishop was. These activists for change were deeply frustrated and defiantly told me that Rome is far away from our everyday problems, so we care little about Rome's announcements. The official church lost massively in reputation, as the blossoming of the Pentecostal churches demonstrated. As the Graz social ethicist and Vice-President of Pax Christi Kurt Remele cuttingly said, the liberation theologians who had fallen victim to the ban on speaking and to resignation could enter the "Ratzinger-Vatican" only through the door of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The orthodoxy has won, but lost a lot: namely, the credibility of the "option for the poor," which now keeps busy all sciences.

Incidentally, Rome's fear of Communists was also passed on to the charities' practice of development funding. A pugnacious bishop of Fulda prevented Misereor from vigorously pursuing a agricultural reform in Brazil, the Pastoral da Terra, which was exemplary in the opinion of many experts. And Adveniat, then under the aegis of Cardinal Franz Hengsbach, used its pastoral assistance especially for the dispute over liberation theology, and therefore particularly supported conservative bishops. Where do I know this from? I have at that time evaluated projects of Adveniat, but I was not allowed to publish my report.

One could excellently argue about the liberation theology, what also happened. Cardinal Ratzinger delivered the arguments, without getting involved in the reality that SRS characterized as "structures of sin". Under the pressure of the predominantly conservative episcopate, Rome has probably got afraid of its own courage, a courage in which PP excels - and therefore lost much of its credibility. In a comment on SRS in Public Forum (March 11, 1988), the social ethicists Friedhelm Hengsbach and Matthias Möhring-Hesse asked to bear in mind - what I'd like to ask the Roman church leaders to bear in mind, because they admittedly use powerful words in encyclicals but they timidly shrink back when a few brave people suit the action to their strong words: the "structures of sin" cannot be fought by moral appeals and the anyway missing change of heart of the rulers and profiteers of structural violence but by the resistance of the exploited and victims of violence. Otherwise, the strong words sound like an alibi, which is to keep the protest potential in the bosom of the church.

Rome's dealing with the liberation theology has so lastingly disturbed my initial and PP-fed appreciation of the church's ethics on development that I was for some time no longer interested in Rome's announcements to this or that question. What the civil-societal network Social Watch discussed in Porto Alegre was much more exciting. Here, the liberation theologians' voices found a sympathetic ear.


5th Thesis

The powerful in politics and economy care little about popes who read the Riot Act to them. Handelsblatt, FAZ or the Wall Street Journal shield themselves from Rome's annoying appeals. In the days when SRS railed against the "structures of sin", the neo-liberal radical market forces, which also attacked SRS, experienced a boom. The IMF, which was incidentally headed by the committed Catholic Michel Camdessus, enforced in the debtor countries its hard macro-economic structural reforms, which hit in particular the poor.



In the official "Grundlinien der Entwicklungspolitik" of March 1986 in Germany a Christian-social development minister criticized the "politics of bad conscience", for which he blamed above all the churches. Do the "structures of sin" not necessarily create a guilty conscience?

The crisis of the speculative "casino capitalism", in which the greed for quick profits raged, shows quite plainly that the criticism of the idolatry of the market, repeated in all papal encyclicals, went unheeded - particularly in the "Christian West". Many, even notorious sinners from the executive suites admittedly joined in the cheap criticism of the vice of greed, but you cannot overcome this vice through love and moral appeals to bankers and managers to show responsibility. The papal admonitions, which convert nobody, have here the same effect as sermons in empty churches.

The church scarcely contributed to the demand for business ethics, as it was presented by the theologian Hans Küng (outcasted by Rome) in his "Projekt Weltethos" (1997) or as it, more recently, was put up for discussion by the manifesto Global Economic Ethic, which was propagated by some experts in business ethics and by business companies (such as the Novartis Foundation), and - once again - by Hans Küng. This manifesto was based, inter alia, on the Global Compact of the United Nations and the philosophical Golden Rule, but not on the Catholic social principles. Neither here nor at the Davos World Economic Forum, where in January 2010 the chorus of the powerful from politics and business discussed about ways to a better world, the Vatican - as a global player - was present.

It could be argued, as Peter Molt did it in a book of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (2009), that the social principles of the Church were not specifically Catholic ones; they were rather "universally valid and - in the light of reason - communicable". But then I wonder why the Vatican campaigns so little for the implementation of the universal Millennium Development Goals, which attempt - in an huge international effort - to realize the "option for the poor", but until now with limited success. Here, the relief organizations are admittedly very active in word and deed and have time and again a serious talk with idle politicians, but the Vatican dissipates its energies in "Caritas in Veritate" and calls quixotically for a powerful world authority, as if such a world state was a desirable or even realistic option. The church hierarchy obviously places its hope in an earthly hierarchy, although the changes in world society are rather initiated from below. "Bottom-up", not "top down" is the hope - in the church, too.



I tried to justify why the Catholic social doctrine preoccupies above all the profession of theologians and social ethicists but hardly reached the church-goers, and why it also achieved no political effectiveness even with parties that refer to the Christian social ethics in their programs. What went down well with the church-goers were not the encyclicals on development but the campaigns of the aid agencies. They are committed to a trustworthy ethics, and do not follow the theologically veiled retreat from justice to mercy. Thank God!

When humanization and ecologisation of globalization are at stake, I do not read what the Pope says about them in "Caritas in Veritate", I rather listen to and focus on actions and programs of an increasingly globally interlinked civil society, which goes down to work with the Attac slogan "Another world is possible". Here I get not only moral teachings, but also proposals how this goal can be achieved. The social and ecological sins of globalization cannot be cured through charity.

Why should I rack my brain for papal encyclicals, which require a degree in theology, so that you can understand them with the art of hermeneutics? And even if I have understood the skillful theological reasoning, they hardly provide me with guidance for my commitment to development policy. I have found such a guide in PP, but not in "Caritas in Veritate".

The addressees of the Roman homilies, who conduct risky transactions in global capitalism and get rich in the "casino capitalism" in case politics does not control them by regulations, ignore or even mock the papal attempts to convert them. They can do so without remorse, because also politicians who are called Christians or even Catholics listen to other advisers and ideologies that idolize the market. The inconvenient provocateur Heiner Geißler, who has inhaled the Catholic social teaching and uses it like a breviary, joined in holy anger Attac, the vanguard of globalization critics. He proclaimed in many talk shows, sometimes seconded by Friedhelm Hengsbach, what - in the light of social ethics - is rotten in capitalism and globalization. In the German episcopate there is only Munich's archbishop, who received the 'major orders' in social ethics.

In a pluralistic world the church's claim to provide ethical guidance is very limited. But the political ineffectiveness of her social ethics, which I asserted already in the heading, is also the result of the deficits which I tried to justify in my theses. The social teaching of PP is confronted with new challenges by the ecological threat to Creation and the social cruelties of globalization. These threats were made the subject of discussion already in the conciliar process, a discussion that was brought up to date at the highest scientific level by Misereor's cooperation with the environmental and climate institutes in Wuppertal and Potsdam, and in the report of the Enquete Commission of the German Parliament "Globalization of the World Economy" (2002).

But justice and peace, supplemented by the postulate of global solidarity, which is backed by the School of Philosophy in the Kaulbachstraße with an ambitious series of publications, provide the answers which point the way ahead also for the socio-ethical challenges of globalization, and for a development policy that understands itself as a global structural policy. My conclusion is: A return to charity would increase the political ineffectiveness of the Catholic social ethics, and reduce its ethical persuasiveness.


    {*} Professor em. Dr. Franz Nuscheler, Professor em. of International and Comparative Politics and former director of the Institute for Development and Peace at the University of Duisburg-Essen


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'