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The chutzpa of the German theologians

In “The Joys of Yiddish,” Leo Rosten defined chutzpa as “…Presumption-plus-arrogance such as no other word, and no other language, can do justice to” and then offered classic examples of chutzpa in action: “Chutzpa is that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. A chutzpanik may be defined as the man who shouts ‘Help! Help! while beating you up.”

Leo Rosten should have lived to experience German Catholic theologians of the early 21st century.

In anticipation of Pope Benedict XVI’s forthcoming visit to his homeland, more than 200 German theologians—men and women who have earned doctoral degrees in theology and teach in German universities—have issued a manifesto, “The Church in 2011: A Necessary Departure.” The manifesto itself does not identify the destination for which the Church is to depart, but the terminus ad quem (“limit to which”) seems reasonably clear from a careful reading of the document: Catholicism is to transform itself into another liberal Protestant sect by conceding virtually every point at issue between classic Christianity and the ambient culture of the post-modern West.

It is, perhaps, no surprise to find German Catholic theologians publicly supporting the ordination of married men and women to the ministerial priesthood (overtly), same-sex “marriage” (slyly), and full communion within the Church for those in irregular marriages (subtly but unmistakably). These causes have been espoused for years. German theologians dissented en masse from the 1993 teaching of Veritatis Splendor on the nature of moral acts and from the 1994 teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on the Church’s inability to admit women to holy orders. What was particularly striking about this new manifesto was its attempt to address serious problems with tried-and-failed solutions. That bespeaks a remarkable lack of intellectual creativity and historical sense.

Thus we are told that the German sexual abuse cases that came to light in 2010 have “plunged the Catholic Church in Germany into an unequaled crisis.” Really? I understand, and in many respects sympathize with, German complaints about the ubiquity of references to the National Socialist period whenever anything German is discussed. But was 2010 really a crisis greater than that in which German Catholicism found itself between Hitler’s 1933 accession to power and Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945? (Do today’s Catholics face crises of conscience greater than those faced by Count Claus von Stauffenberg or Sophie Scholl?) Moreover, what about the crisis of faith that emptied German churches over the past two generations, such that weekly Mass attendance in urban areas hovers around 5-10 percent?

The manifesto is also notable for its failure to examine academic consciences, an exercise that might have led to more measured assessments of responsibility for the current situation. Do these theologians imagine that they and their teachers bear no responsibility for the “paralysis and resignation” they deplore in German Catholicism? Does German theology’s tendency to treat the Bible as a specimen to be dissected rather than a gift to be studied with a full array of interpretive tools (including the eyes of faith) had nothing to do with today’s crisis of faith in a land whose very language was formed by Luther’s biblical translation? Has the theologians’ bizarre notion that “freedom of conscience” means abject surrender to the sexual revolution in all its demands had nothing to do with the Church’s failures to convert a hedonistic culture? Few of these academics have any serious or sustained connection to the liturgical or pastoral life of the Church; yet they assume they occupy a privileged position from which to understand what has happened to German Catholicism and how its genuine problems can best be addressed. Why?

Seeking a rousing conclusion to their call to the ecclesiastical barricades, the German theologians advise their fellow Catholics that they should “look to the future with courage and walk on water, like Peter as Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you have fear? Is your faith so weak?’” A question to the professors: Would each of you who believes that Peter walked on water please raise your hand?

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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